Canada’s National Disgrace

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.

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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):

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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.

 

 

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Happy Birthday, Statute of Westminster

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.

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