November 14, 2018 § 2 Comments
The First World War has a complicated legacy in Canada. When the war broke out in 1914, Canada was by and large still a colony of the United Kingdom, despite Confederation in 1867. The young Dominion’s foreign policy was still controlled in London (as was the case for all of the Dominions: South Africa, New Zealand, and Australia in addition to Canada). Thus, the UK went to war, so, too, did Canada. As our historians tell us, by the time the war ended on 11 November 1918, Canada had arrived on the global stage.
The Canadian Expeditionary Force of the First World War had performed more than admirably. The tenacity and valour of Canadian troops became legendary. For example, despite the lack of complete and formal training, the CEF quickly established itself as a forward-leading trench invading force. The performance of the CEF was made all the more impressive, I argue, given the fact that they were not all that well-equipped (this seems to be a constant for the Canadian military). For example, they were saddled with the underperforming and quick-to-jam Ross rifle (due to graft and corruption in Ottawa, of course), and malfunctioning machine guns. And then there was the Canadian knock-off of British webbing that tended to breakdown and disintegrate in trench warfare.
The combination of the performance of the CEF, along with the the diplomacy and leadership of Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden, the international community, and most importantly, the British, realized that the small country across the Atlantic had arrived (South Africa was similarly spoken of). This, ultimately, led to the passage of the Statute of Westminster in 1931 which finally gave control over their foreign affairs to the Dominions, an important step on the road to independence on Canada’s part.
But. The other side of this argument, and one that seems to be in retreat finally, is that the First World War was the glue that brought Canada together. Canada was comprised initially of four colonies at Confederation in 1867, Canada (modern-day Québec and Ontario), New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. At the outset, the Nova Scotians wanted out. Three of those four were Anglo-Protestant colonies/provinces. The fourth was French Catholic. And then the impact of immigration brought people from all around Europe and Asia as the country spread across the Prairies and British Columbia, an old British colony, joined up in 1871. Prince Edward Island finally joined in 1873. And the Prairie Provinces were brought in in 1905. But, this was not a united nation. No, it was a regional one, with local concerns mattering more than national ones.
This is part of what made then-Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald’s National Policy so important, as it re-oriented the economies of the new provinces from a north-south axis to an east-west one. This was also the importance of the Canadian Pacific Railway, completed in 1886, from Montréal to Vancouver. Another, older line connected Montréal with Halifax, but it’s worth noting that a few decades before Confederation, Montreal merchants built a railway to connect them to Portland, ME, for a year-round port, rather than Halifax. But even still, old habits were hard to break and Canadians tended to remain local, rather than national.
Hence the narrative that the First World War brought us together. The problem is, of course, that this story is either only a partial truth or a complete untruth, depending on how you look at it.
The partially true version is that the war did unite Anglo Canada, that the concerted war effort across Anglo Canada did work to foster a sort of unity and common cause from Halifax to Vancouver (Newfoundland did not join Canada until 1949). This includes, to a large degree, the Anglo population of Montréal because, of course, the Canadian economy was run from there a century ago.
But, if we flip the view, this narrative is a myth (but, to be fair, countries do need myths, and Canada is a fine example is what happens when there aren’t any, or at least not many). The reason this is a myth is because of Québec.
As noted, Québec is a charter member of Canada and it is the oldest European colony in what became Canada. Québec was and remains a predominately French-speaking culture, heavily influenced by Catholicism historically. And this put it at odds with Anglo-Protestant Canada.
The First World War was perhaps the first time that the rest of the country even noticed something looking like French Canadian nationalism. The editor of the influential Montréal newspaper, Le Devoir, Henri Bourassa, dismissed the First World War as a European and British problem. He spoke for many, both French- and English- speaking Quebecers at the time.
When the 199th Battalion of the Irish-Canadian Rangers began to recruit in the spring of 1916, the commanders found it a tough slog. The Irish of Montréal, both Protestant and Catholic, were becoming increasingly reluctant to sign up (you can read all about this in my book, Griffintown, of course).
But it’s when conscription was enacted in Canada that public anger in Québec boiled over. As Bourassa had continually argued since the onset of war in 1914, French Canadians had no loyalties to either the British or the French (the UK’s ally in WWI, of course). No, he argued, their sole loyalty was to Canada. And this war was a war of imperialism that had nothing to do with Québec.
Nonetheless, through a combination of a crooked election and the political will of Borden, conscription came to Canada and was enacted on 1 January 1918. Of 404,000 men who were considered to be eligible for military service, 385,000 sought exemptions. And in Québec, tensions boiled over.
In Montréal, anti-conscription sentiment was very real. And whilst the traditional narrative tells us that it was French Canadians who were opposed to conscription, that’s only part of the story, as a large number of Irish in Montréal were also opposed. This boiled over in a massive anti-conscription parade and rally on 17 May 1918 in Montréal.
Anti-Conscription Rally, Montréal, May 1917
From 28 March to 1 April 1918, rioting occurred in Québec City, sparked by the arrest of a French Canadian man for failing to present his draft-exemption papers (he was quickly released). The rioting ultimately led to the Canadian military being called in from Ontario, along with the invocation of the War Measures Act. On the final day of rioting, when the protesters allegedly opened fire on the 1200-strong military force, the soldiers returned fire, which caused the crowds to disperse and ending the riots. In the end, over 150 people were hurt and over $300,000 in 1918 money was caused in damage.
And, in the aftermath, it became increasingly clear to the rest of Canada that perhaps French-speaking, Catholic Québec may have different views on issues than the wider nation.
Having said that, the dead-set opposition to Conscription in Québec was a precursor to the rest of Canada. Given the number of exemptions and the on-going problems at getting men in uniform, Borden’s government changed the rules of conscription in the spring of 1918 to end exemptions. Not surprisingly, the rest of the country came to oppose conscription.
Conscription, though, more or less killed the Conservative Party in Québec. In the fifty years after 1918, conservatives were virtually shut out at the federal level in Québec. And in the fifty years from then, conservatives have continued to have difficulty in Québec; only Brian Mulroney and, to a lesser extent, Stephen Harper, have been able to win support in Québec as conservative leaders.
November 11, 2018 § 2 Comments
Across Canada, the cenotaph is a central component of the central square of villages, towns, and cities. Erected in the wake of the First World War, these cenotaphs faithfully record those who gave their lives in the first global conflict. The First World War was the ‘war to end all wars.’ While not nearly as massive or bloody as the Second World War, it is the First World War that is remembered as The Great War.
These cenotaphs recording the war dead are deeply embedded on the landscape. And, unlike so many memorials, they are not invisible. Growing up, I was always aware of them and what they meant. They were solemn and dignified, almost always identical, obelisk shapes. I remember reading the names of the dead on them, and not just on Remembrance Day.
The dead of the First World War seemed so faraway from me, growing up in the 1980s, beyond living memory for me. My grandparents served in the Second World War. And whilst my grandfather’s service as a tailgunner in the Royal Canadian Air Force held a certain romance, it was nothing compared to the First World War.
As a boy in Canada, I didn’t know a lot about the conditions of the War. I learned these in university and the romance of the war dropped away quickly. And I learned more and more about the status of Canada during this period. Even still, the First World War has maintained a certain mystique. Part of this is driven by the poem ‘In Flanders Fields’ by the Canadian soldier (and victim of the war) John McCrae:
In Flanders fields the poppies blowBetween the crosses, row on row,That mark our place; and in the skyThe larks, still bravely singing, flyScarce heard amid the guns below.We are the Dead. Short days agoWe lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,Loved and were loved, and now we lie,In Flanders fields.Take up our quarrel with the foe:To you from failing hands we throwThe torch; be yours to hold it high.If ye break faith with us who dieWe shall not sleep, though poppies growIn Flanders fields.
And so the First World War maintained this mystique. Even if the veterans handing out the poppies in return for a donation to the Royal Canadian Legion were from the Second World War when I was younger, it was a symbol of the First World War they pinned to my lapel.
Last month, I was in Ottawa and visited the National War Memorial located at the intersection of Elgin and Wellington streets, kitty corner to Parliament. The Monument, somewhat ironically, was dedicated in May 1939 to honour the war dead of Canada. Ironic, of course, because the Second World War broke out in Europe barely three-and-a-half months later.
It was whilst staring at this monument that something really struck me about our cenotaphs and war memorials: they tend to date from the First World War. In this case the artillery is that of the First World War, down to the cavalry on horses. These monuments may include the names of Canadian soldiers who served in conflagrations before that one, of course, such as the Boer War. But it is the First World War dead who appear in great number. And the war dead of later wars, including the Second World War were added to the original monument. They were not the original soldiers, and whilst their sacrifices are the obvious equivalent, these memorials date not from their war(s), but the Great War.
And so these original soldiers, those who fought and died in the First World War were the baseline for the Canadian military and, even if this wasn’t the first time that war was made real for Canadians, it was the first time it was made real on a national scale. And even if the First World War left a complicated legacy on Canada, it remains that it was perhaps the first great crisis the country faced. And it gave rise to a series of stories, some true, some mythical, about the import of the war on the still young Dominion at the time.
November 6, 2017 § 2 Comments
Last week, Canadian Governor General Julie Payette gave a speech at what the Canadian Broadcast Corporation calls ‘a science conference‘ in Ottawa. There, she expressed incredulity in creationism and climate change denial, and called for a greater acceptance of scientific fact in Canada. Payette is a former astronaut, holds an MSc in computer engineering, and has worked in the field of Artificial Intelligence. In other words, when she speaks on this matter, we should listen.
Her comments ignited a storm of controversy in Canada. Some people are upset at her comments. Some people are upset the Governor General has an opinion on something. With respect to the first, Payette spoke to scientific fact. Full stop. Not opinion. Fact. With respect to the second, Governors General and opinions, I will point out that our former Governor General, David Johnston, also freely expressed his opinions. But, oddly, this did not lead to massive controversy. What is the difference between Payette and Johnston? I’ll let one of my tweeps, author Shireen Jeejeebhoy answer:
But then I found a particularly interesting tweet. The tweet claimed that for the very reason that Canada has the monarchy, the country cannot have democratic elections.
Um, what? There is no logic to this tweet. I asked the author of the tweet what he meant. In between a series of insults, he said that he thinks the Governor General, which he mistakenly called an ‘important position,’ should be an elected post. That gives some clarity to his original post, but he’s still wrong.
Canada is a democracy, full stop. Elections in Canada are democratic, full stop.
Canada is a constitutional monarchy. Queen Elizabeth II is the Head of State. The Governor General is her representative in Canada (each province also has a Lieutenant-Governor, the Queen’s representatives in the provincial capitals). The Queen does appoint the GG (and Lt-Govs), but she does so after the prime minister (or provincial premiers) tell her who is going to be appointed. In other words, Payette has her position because Prime Minister Justin Trudeau selected her.
Canada, unlike the United States, did not gain ‘independence’ in one fell swoop. In 1848, Queen Victoria granted the United Province of Canada, then a colony, responsible government. This gave it (present-day Ontario and Québec) control over its internal affairs. All legislation passed by the colonial assembly would gain royal assent via the Governor General. Following Confederation in 1867, the new Dominion of Canada enjoyed responsible government (which the other colonies that became Canada also had). But Canada did not control its external affairs, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and (Northern) Ireland did. In 1931, the British Parliament passed the Statute of Westminster, which granted control over foreign affairs to the Dominions (Canada, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand). In 1947, Canadian citizenship was created. Prior to that, Canadians were subjects of the monarchy. In 1949, the Supreme Court of Canada became the highest court in the land. Prior to that, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London was. In 1982, the Canadian Constitution, which had been an act of the London Parliament (the British North America Act, 1867) was patriated and became an act of the Parliament in Ottawa. So, choosing when Canada became independent is dicey. You can pick anyone of 1848, 1931, 1947, 1949, or 1982 and be correct, at least in part. We tend to celebrate 1867, our national holiday, July 1, marks the day the BNA Act came into affect. That is the day Canada became a nation, but it is not the date of independence.
Either way, Canada is an independent nation. Lamarche’s claim that, because we are a constitutional monarchy, we do not have free elections is ridiculous. The role of the monarchy in Canada is entirely symbolic. The Queen (or the Governor General or Lieutenants Governors) have absolutely no policy input. They have no role in Canadian government beyond the symbolic. None.
I’m not even sure how someone could come to this conclusion other than through sheer ignorance.
October 10, 2017 § 7 Comments
In 2015, then-new Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau justified appointing women to half of his cabinet posts with ‘It’s 2015.’ And we all applauded. He was elected largely because he wasn’t the incumbent Prime Minister, Stephen Harper. But he also won based on election promises of gender equality, LGBTQ equality, as well as a ‘new deal’ for the indigenous population.
But here we are two years on, and the plight of the indigenous population of Canada remains the same as it ever was. Trudeau has not exactly lived up to his campaign pledges to re-set the relationship between First Nations and the Canadian state. This is not all Trudeau’s fault in the sense that he reflects a deeply racist Canadian society. I have written about this numerous times (here, here, here, and here, for example).
Last week in my Twitter feed, I was gobsmacked to come across this:
This couldn’t be real, could it? It had to be another bit of Twitter and untruths. But, no, it’s real:
Even Global News picked it the story today. So, let’s think about the history presented in this Grade 3 workbook. According to it, the indigenous population of Canada agreed to simply pick up stakes and move to allow nice European colonists to settle the land. Nevermind the centuries of occupation, and all of those things. Nope, the very nice Indians agreed to move.
I wish I could say I was shocked by this. I’m not. This is pretty much part and parcel of how Euro-Canadian culture thinks about the indigenous population, if it thinks about the indigenous population at all. Or, when Euro-Canadians think about the indigenous population, it’s in entirely negative ways; I don’t think I need to get into the stereotypes here.
I tried to do some research on this workbook and the company that published it, Popular Book Company. My web sleuthing turned up next to nothing. If I Google the book itself, all I get are links to Amazon.com, Amazon.ca, and Indigo.ca (Indigo is Canada’s largest bookseller). Finally, I discovered that this series is popular amongst homeschoolers in Canada, and, as of 2015, over 2 million copies were in circulation. My attempts to find anything out about Popular Book Company came to nothing; all I could find out is that it’s a subsidiary of a Singapore-based company, PopularWorld.
I suppose the actual damage done by this outright stupidity is limited. Nonetheless, it exists. But how this stupidity occurred is another thing. From what I learned on the interwebs, this edition of the Grade 3 curriculum was published in 2015, the previous edition in 2007. I can’t tell if this stupidity was in the 2007 version, but it is certainly in the 2015 edition.
I have experience working in textbook publication. I have written copy for textbooks, I have edited textbook copy. And I have reviewed textbooks before publication. And this is for textbooks at the primary, secondary, and post-secondary education. To get to publication, textbooks go through rounds of edits and expert review. My guess is this didn’t happen here. I have also worked with provincial boards in Canada to revise curriculum, including textbooks. Deep thought and careful consideration goes into this process. And I have friends who work with homeschoolers, at least in Québec, to ensure that the textbooks and curriculum homeschoolers use and follow is appropriate. And they take their job seriously.
So how did this happen? Who wrote this stupidity? Who allowed it to go to publication? And why did it take two years for anything to happen? Initially, Popular said it would revise future editions of the workbook. Eventually, however, it agreed to recall already extant versions and make sure that this is edited when the book is re-printed.
Great. But how did this happen in the first place?
July 31, 2017 § Leave a comment
Over the weekend on Twitter, I was caught up in a discussion with an Albertan who didn’t believe that the province, along with British Columbia, is forecast to lead Canada in economic growth.
She argued that the province is still hurting, that big American gas companies had pulled out, and that people were leaving Alberta. Indeed, in June, Alberta’s unemployment rate was 7.4%, but even then, that was an improvement of 0.4% from May. But, economic growth does not mean that one can necessarily see the signs of a booming economy. Alberta’s economy, however, shows signs of recovery, and this 2.9% economic growth, as well as a decline in unemployment rates, shows that.
She also expressed a pretty common bitterness from Albertans about Equalization payments in Canada. These payments might be the most mis-understood aspect of Canadian federalism. The common belief in Alberta, which is usually a ‘have’ province (meaning it doesn’t receive equalization payments), is that its money, from oil and gas and everything else, is taken from it and given to the ‘have-not’ provinces (those who receive equalization payments). This is made all the more galling to Albertans because Quebec is the greatest recipient of equalization payments.
This argument, though, is based on a fundamental mis-understanding of how equalization payments work in Canada. Equalization payments date back to Canadian Confederation in 1867, as most taxation powers accrued to the federal government. The formal system of equalization payments dates from 1957, largely to help the Atlantic provinces. At that time, the two wealthiest provinces, Ontario and British Columbia, were the only two ‘have’ provinces. And this formal system was enshrined in the Constitution in 1982. Section 36, subsection (2) of the Constitution Act reads:
Parliament and the government of Canada are committed to the principle of making equalization payments to ensure that provincial governments have sufficient revenues to provide reasonably comparable levels of public services at reasonably comparable levels of taxation.
The general idea behind equalization payments is, of course, that there are economic disparities across the nation. There is any number of reasons for these disparities, which are calculated on a provincial level. These can include the geographic size of a province, population, the physical geography, or economic activity.
Quebec is a traditional ‘have not’, which seems incongruous with the size and economy of the province. Montreal, after a generation-long economic decline from the late 1960s to the mid 1990s, has more or less recovered. If Quebec were a nation of its own (as separatists desire), it would be the 44th largest economy in the world, just behind Norway. It contributes 19.65% of Canada’s GDP. But Quebec’s economy is marked by massive inequalities. This is true in terms of Montreal versus much of the rest of the province. But it is also true within Montreal itself. Montreal is home to both the richest neighbourhood in the nation, as well as two of the poorest. Westmount has a median family income of $220,578. But Downtown Montreal ($32,841) and Parc Ex ($34,211) are the fourth and fifth poorest, respectively, in Canada.
The formula by which equalization payments are made is based on averages across the country. Here, we’re talking about taxation rates and revenue-generation, based on the national averages of Canada. Provinces that fall below these averages are ‘have not’ provinces. Those who fall above it are ‘have’ provinces. The three wealthiest provinces are usually Ontario, British Columbia, and Alberta. But all three of these provinces have fallen into ‘have not’ status at various points. In 2017-18, in order of amounts received, the have-nots are: Quebec, Manitoba, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Ontario, and Prince Edward Island. Quebec, it should be noted, will receive more than the other ‘have-nots’ combined. The ‘have’ provinces this year are Alberta, British Columbia, Newfoundland & Labrador, and Saskatchewan.
The equalization payments, though, are not a case of taking money from Alberta to pay for Quebec’s social programs. The funds are not based on how much one province pays for its health care system, or for a universal child care system, or cheap tuition at the province’s universities (Quebec has both universal child care and cheap tuition for in-province students). Rather, the funds come out of the same general revenue stream that Ottawa has to fund ALL of its programmes and services. And, each and every Canadian contributes to this revenue stream. Thus, the fine people of Westmount contribute more to equalization payments (and general revenue) than the middle-class residents of suburban Calgary, or a person in a lower income bracket in Saskatchewan. And, because there are more Quebecers than there are Albertans, Quebec actually contributes more to the equalization payment scheme.
It is not just angry Albertans who believe they are getting hosed by the federal government. Many Quebecers will rail against their province’s funding priorities and point to the province’s status as a ‘have not’ as to why it should not have these programmes. Both positions are factually wrong, and based on a fundamental misunderstanding of Canada’s equalization payments.
December 14, 2016 § 4 Comments
Last week, the Canadian government announced a new face for the $10 bill. Canada’s first Prime Minister, Sir John A. MacDonald (1867-73; 1878-91), has long been featured on the $10, but Canada has sought to modernize our money and to introduce new faces to the $5 and $10 bills. A decision on the $5, which currently features our first French Canadian PM, Sir Wilfrid Laurier (1896-1911), will be made at a later date.
Viola Desmond will be the face of the $10 bill starting in 2018. Desmond is a central figure in Canadian history. On 8 November 1946, Desmond’s car broke down in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia. Desmond was a cosemetician, trained in Montréal and New York, and operated her own beauty school in Halifax. And she was quite successful. So, stuck in New Glasgow over night, she went to see a movie to kill some time. She bought her ticket and took her seat. Desmond was near-sighted, so she sat in a floor seat. Problem is, she was black. And Nova Scotia was segregated; whites only on the floor, black people had the balcony. She was arrested. The next morning, she was tried and convicted of fraud. Not only were black people prohibited from sitting in the main bowl of the theatre, they also had to pay an extra cent tax on their tickets. Desmond had attempted to pay this tax, but apparently was refused by the theatre. So, she was fined $20 and made to pay $6 in court costs.
Desmond is often referred to as the ‘Canadian Rosa Parks,’ but truth be told, Rosa Parks is the American Viola Desmond. Unlike Parks, though, Desmond wasn’t a community organizer, she didn’t train for her moment of civil disobedience. But, Nova Scotia’s sizeable African Canadian community protested on her behalf. But, not surprisingly, they were ignored. She also left Nova Scotia, first moving to Montréal, where she enrolled in business college, before settling in New York, where she died on 7 February 1965 of a gastrointestinal hemorrhage at the age of 50.
I am on a listserv of a collection of Canadian academics and policy wonks. I have been for a long time, since the late 1990s. A discussion has broken out, not surprisingly, about Desmond being chosen as the new face of the $10. The government initially intended to put a woman on the bill. A collection of white, middle-aged men on this listserv are not pleased. They have erupted in typical white, middle-aged male rage.
One complains that the Trudeau government commits new outrages daily and he is upset that “they are going to remove John A. Macdonald from the ten dollar bill to replace him with some obscure woman from Nova Scotia whom hardly anyone has ever heard of.” He also charges that Trudeau’s government would never do this to Laurier (another Liberal), whereas Sir John A. was a Conservative. On that he’s dead wrong.
Another complains that:
Relative to John A., Viola Desmond is no doubt a morally superior human being. If we are to avoid generating our own version of Trumpism, we must be careful not to tear down symbols of our shared history by applying current, progressive criteria to determine who figures on the currency.
Imagine with what relish Trump would tear into his opponents if the US eliminated George Washington and Thomas Jefferson from their currency. Both were slave owners – presumably far worse crimes in present terms than John A’s alcoholism or casual attitude to bribery.
Seriously. All I can say to this is “Oh, brother.” But it gets worse. A third states that:
I have to agree with —–’s sentiment here. We have to stop doing nice, progressive things just because we can. There is a culture war, and we need to be careful about arming the other side.But I would say that having such things enacted by a government elected by a minority of Canadians doesn’t help. (Likely, the NDP and the Greens and even some Conservatives would have supported such a resolution, but) it does contribute to a sense of government acting illegitimately. It contributes to cynicism and outrage to have Trump as president-in-waiting with fewer votes than Clinton, for example.
December 6, 2016 § 2 Comments
Today is the 27th anniversary of the École Polytechnique Massacre, also known as the Montreal Massacre. On this morning, 6 December, in 1989, an armed gunman walked into the École Polytechnique, separated the men from the women, and shot 28 people, executing 14 female students. Why? Because they were women and he felt that feminists had ruined his life. As per usual, I refuse to name him. He should be forgotten, he does not deserve infamy (he killed himself at the scene). His suicide letter contained the names of 19 other Quebec feminists he wished to kill.
For Canadians of my generation, the Massacre was and remains deeply shocking. It resonates. I remember where I was when I heard the news, I remember the shock I felt, and then the anger. I grew up in a violent household, my mother the target of my step-father during drunken outbursts. His violence appalled me. All violence against women appalls me. Deeply.
And here we are, 27 years on, and violence against women is still prevalent. For this reason, name and remember the victims of the Massacre in Montreal 27 years ago, to honour them. May they continue to rest in peace:
- Geneviève Bergeron (born 1968), civil engineering student, age 21.
- Hélène Colgan (born 1966), mechanical engineering student, age 23.
- Nathalie Croteau (born 1966), mechanical engineering student, age 23.
- Barbara Daigneault (born 1967), mechanical engineering student, age 22.
- Anne-Marie Edward (born 1968), chemical engineering student, age 21.
- Maud Haviernick (born 1960), materials engineering student, age 29.
- Maryse Laganière (born 1964), budget clerk in the École Polytechnique’s finance department, age 25.
- Maryse Leclair (born 1966), materials engineering student, age 23.
- Anne-Marie Lemay (born 1967), mechanical engineering student, age 22.
- Sonia Pelletier (born 1961), mechanical engineering student, age 28.
- Michèle Richard (born 1968), materials engineering student, age 21.
- Annie St-Arneault (born 1966), mechanical engineering student, age 23.
- Annie Turcotte (born 1969), materials engineering student age 20.
- Barbara Klucznik-Widajewicz (born 1958), nursing student, age 31.
February 2, 2015 § 151 Comments
Two weeks ago, MacLeans, Canada’s only national news magazine, published an article that caused quite the uproar. Written by a former diplomat, Scott Gilmore, and entitled, “Canada’s Racism Problem? It’s Even Worse Than America’s,” it’s not hard to see why this upset people. Even better was the sub-title, “For a country so self-satisfied with its image of progressive tolerance, how is this not a national crisis?” I wish I had written this article, it says what I’ve been saying for a long, long time.
Aboriginal peoples in Canada get screwed. Have been since the first Europeans arrived, and still do today. And that’s not going to change any time soon unless Canadians do something about it. But, in my experience, they don’t care. Last year, I wrote a post about a funny sweatshirt that an aboriginal man, Jeff Menard, in Winnipeg (which MacLeans also called out as Canada’s most racist city) created that said: “Got Land? Thank an Indian.” I wrote this post in response to a response I got to a tweet stating that if you thought this hoodie racist, you’re an idiot. This response tweet said “I’m offended because they used the word Indian. My grandfather was from India. He worked for a living.”
How to unpack that? This tweet was anti-historical and offensive on so many levels. Starting with being upset at the use of the word “Indian,” the term applied to aboriginal peoples by Euro-Canadians historically. But the real kicker is “He worked for a living.” Many of the comments on Gilmore’s article, and a lot of the vituperative, racist tweets I saw complained that aboriginal peoples in Canada survive on handouts from the government and don’t work for a living. No mention of imperialism, the taking of land, the systematic attempts by the Canadian government to steal away aboriginal languages, cultures, religions, and names, of the residential schools designed to also take the children of aboriginals away from them (to say nothing of the horrific sexual abuse therein).
Gilmore pointed just how badly aboriginal peoples get screwed in Canada, by comparing them to African-Americans in the United States, in easy table format, which I produce here (and hope that MacLeans doesn’t mind). Look at those statistics and just try not to be offended, saddened, and, if you are Canadian, embarrassed. Hell, even if you’re American, you should be embarrassed by these stats. But, Gilmore’s right. Canadians are a smug lot. My Twitter feed is usually full of all kinds of anti-American comments, the implicit meaning is “Well, the US is a mess, thank god I live in Canada.” Information such as this should end such discussions and puncture our smugness forever.
At the same time the furor over Gilmore’s article was raging, another debate was happening over the death of Makayla Sault, an 11-year old from the New Credit First Nation in Ontario. Makayla died of leukaemia. When she was first diagnosed last year, she underwent chemotherapy in Hamilton, ON. But the side-effects were too great. And so she refused further treatment, preferring instead traditional medicine. Obviously, it didn’t work.
This raises interesting questions, starting with who has the right to control the lives of children who have cancer. But. Ultimately, we have to respect her decision. Why? Because it was her life.
But, then the enfant terrible of Quebec journalism, Denise Bombardier, had to get involved. Bombardier is perhaps most famous outside of Quebec for having been fired by Radio-Canada for having participated in a debate on marriage equality, taking the position against it. At any rate, this is Bombardier’s comments on Makayla Sault (thanks to Mikayla Cartwright for the image):
For those who cannot read French, a few of the highlights: After complaining about the cost of political correctness, she states that Makayla made the choice to be treated according to traditional medicine, encouraged, perhaps, by her parents and other members of her First Nation. Then the kicker, “A white child wouldn’t have to make this choice. This is where we see the delusional ancestral rights of the aboriginals open the door to quackery. This child died because she was the sacrifical victim of a deadly, anti-scientific culture that is killing aboriginal people.”
It took me all of about 0.33 seconds to find a Euro-American child who faced this dilemma. Daniel Hauser, a 13-year old boy who was refusing treatment in 2009, for religious reasons. Daniel Hauser, I might add, is white. My Google search turned up other kids faced with this same awful dilemma (the same search also turned up other children in the same position). So, Bombardier is factually wrong.
But she is also morally, ethically wrong. Bombardier’s screed reads like far too many documents I read in the records of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, the government agency (which has had many names) in charge of carrying out the responsibility that the Government of Canada has to aboriginals, according to treaties that both pre- and ante- date Confederation in 1867, as well as Section 35 of the Canadian Constitution. In many of the documents I read during my days working in the field of aboriginal law and litigation in Ottawa, various employees of Aboriginal Affairs, from lowly agents in the field to the directors of the department in Ottawa, referred to the need to civilise the aboriginals, and how white people knew what was right for them. In academia, we call this imperialism.
Bombardier says the same thing. She dismisses aboriginal culture as “anti-scientific” and “deadly.” She refers to traditional ways of life as “quackery.” In short, Canada needs to civilise the aboriginals for their own good, just as Aboriginal Affairs agents and employees argued a century ago.
In short, Gilmore is bang-on correct. Canada’s treatment of its aboriginal population is a national disgrace and tragedy, made worse by the fact that most Canadians don’t know or don’t care, and a good number of them are part of the problem, as Bombardier shows. Gilmore writes:
We are distracted by the stories of corrupt band councils, or flooded reserves, or another missing Aboriginal woman. Some of us wring our hands, and a handful of activists protest. There are a couple of unread op-eds, and maybe a Twitter hashtag will skip around for a few days. But nothing changes. Yes, we admit there is a governance problem on the reserves. We might agree that “something” should be done about the missing and murdered women. In Ottawa a few policy wonks write fretful memos on land claims and pipelines. But collectively, we don’t say it out loud: “Canada has a race problem.”
And until we do, nothing is going to change.
December 11, 2014 § 6 Comments
My Google calendar tells me that today is the 83rd birthday of the Statute of Westminster. But, oddly, I don’t think parades are being planned across Canada, nor are there any fireworks shows scheduled. I always find the idea of Canadian independence rather interesting. We celebrate 1 July 1867 as the date of Canadian Confederation, as if it meant anything. I’ve never really been convinced that it does. On that date, the Dominion of Canada was created, that much is true. This was a confederation of the the province of Canada (today’s Ontario and Québec), with Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.
But, for the most part, aside from the new government of the (now) four united provinces, not much else changed. British North America had gained responsible government (for the most part) in 1848, meaning that the democratically elected governments of the colonies could now legislate for themselves independent of the whims of the British Parliament in Westminster, London. But, the new Dominion of Canada had no control over its foreign affairs. This was made patently clear in boundary disputes along the Alaska/British Columbia and New Brunswick/Maine borders where the British, unwilling to upset their new American allies, back the American claims to the detriment of Canada. When the First World War broke out on 28 July 1914, when the British declared war, the Canadians were automatically at war.
The First World War, or so we’re told in Canada, was the time when our country came of age. Nevermind the fact that conscription was an incredibly divisive issue, exploiting fissures in Canada that remain to this day, or that the Unionist government of Sir Robert Borden won the 1917 general election through trickery, disenfranchisement, and gerrymanders. But, fine, let’s just accept the argument that this was Canada’s coming out ball. In the aftermath of the war, Borden and the South African Prime Minister, Jan Smuts, argued that their nations had bled for the war, and deserved their own seats at the Paris Peace Conference. Canada, in particular (as the senior Dominion) continued to agitate throughout the 1920s for more control over its foreign affairs, joined for awhile by the new Irish Free State.
Thus, in 1931, the Parliament in Westminster passed the eponymous statute. Amongst other things (most notably, it established the relationship between the Commonwealth that persists to today), Canada gained complete legislative independence, including over its foreign affairs. In 1909, Canada had created its own Department of External Affairs, reluctantly, under the Liberal premiership of Sir Wilfrid Laurier. In the 1923, under the Liberal William Lyon Mackenzie King (the longest serving PM in British Empire/Commonwealth history, he was office 1921-6, 1926-30, 1935-48), signed its very first international treaty (with the United States) without the involvement of the British. So, in many ways, the Statute of Westminster confirmed the status quo.
Canada used its new legislative independence proudly. When the Second World War began on 1 September 1939, with the German invasion of Poland and the 3 September declaration of war by the British upon Germany, Canada waited a full week to declare war on Germany itself. My history prof in a class on the history of Canadian foreign policy at the University of British Columbia sniffed that this was done simply to point out that Canada could. Knowing Mackenzie King, it wouldn’t surprise me.
But this still does not mean that Canada was a fully independent and sovereign nation. On 1 January 1947, Canadian citizenship came into existence. Prior to that, Canadians were subjects of the British Crown. In 1949, the Supreme Court of Canada became the highest court in the land. But, even then, the Canadian constitution was an act of a foreign legislature, i.e.: Westminster.
In 1982, after much wrangling, and ultimately without Québec signing on, the Canadian constitution was patriated under Liberal Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau. And with that, one could conclude that Canada was finally a sovereign, independent nation. Maybe. There is still the argument that occasionally surfaces in Canada about the role of the monarchy, since the British monarch is still sovereign over Canada.
But, either way, Canada did not, like many other former colonies (like the one I now call home), spring into existence as a fully independent and sovereign nation; rather, in Canada, this was a long, drawn-out process, beginning in 1848 and ending (maybe) in 1982.