Tag Archives: Canada

Countries don’t have values – people do

In a CBC News article, Liberal Leader and PM hopeful Justin Trudeau had this to say about the Syrian refugee crisis:

Canadians get it. This is about doing the right thing, about living up to the values that we cherish as a country.

Do we, Justin? Are we being honest about how many Canadians habitually show little compassion toward immigrants, refugees, First Nations, indigenous females, people of colour, and other marginalized groups? And not just show a lack of compassion, but blame them for our own policy failures? Since we seem to need reminding, I happen to have some examples on hand. A small sample:

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The sort of people who hold the views expressed above are the same people who balk at alleviating poverty and uprooting oppression except when these problems can be used as excuses for inaction, xenophobia, cynicism, and various other forms of pigheadedness. Not surprisingly, these types also cling to the official narrative of the Dominion of Canada, which goes something like this:

(Don’t ask me what the hell a cactus is doing there – I’m guessing in 1993 they had an extremely limited clipart selection to draw from.)

Apparently, it could only have been European immigrants who made this land great because prior to their arrival it was terra nullius. Empty, unclaimed land, so the story goes. A blank slate much improved by people who had maybe a piece of fruit and a few bucks in their pockets, people fleeing conflict, pioneers who despite having very little were seen as possessing a vast store of potential and value. In a fantastic feat of amnesia, the Canadian imagination doesn’t seem to include the 17,000 Chinese men who built our national railroad system in this group. Also interesting is the fact that when you mention immigrants and refugees to the average Canuck today – especially if the groups being referred to aren’t white and Christian – suddenly the romantic narrative of people making something out of nothing no longer applies.

The fact that our immediate unified response to humanitarian crises isn’t to see these human beings as the assets that they are reveals a lot about our enduring colonial mindset. Those who view migrants and refugees as liabilities do not see these people as human beings. Each and every one of us has value. It isn’t determined by one’s education, religion or culture, or whether one owns property or capital. We have value because we exist. We’re all connected and we all have something to offer. People should never have to prove their worth. When your neighbours’ house is burning down, do you leave them on your doorstep while you measure the floor space and count your pillows?

The language of great nations, Canadian values, American values, etc. has no real meaning. There’s a subtext to it, though. When patriots say these sorts of things, there’s an element of: we’re going to help you because we’re such nice people. In addition to asserting that we value others – whether we do or not in practice – apparently, it’s also crucial that we appear as good, civilized people. But good, civilized people don’t have to build a cozy narrative around why they help people. They just do it.

What strikes me as most troubling is that it’s not just proud imperialists like George W. Bush who believe that countries like Canada and the United States are shining beacons of prosperity and freedom and that people in the West are inherently different from and morally superior to people in other parts of the world. By insinuating that we’re special because we want to help refugees (well, some of us), we become apologists for our own colonial institutions. Nationalism is incompatible with universal human rights. There’s nothing decent about leveraging crises as self-congratulatory exercises or as a means to rub our patronizing gratitude for being Canadian in people’s faces. Millions of people on Turtle Island are suffering, our indigenous peoples most of all. How dare we erase their struggles with such careless hyperbole? If we’re so morally astute, why are we centering our discourse around helping people on our identity and the pride it gives us rather than the people themselves? Only a self-serving, arrogant culture would turn a real-life horror story into an opportunity to feel good about itself. Why do we need to make everything about us?

Patriotism and nationalism are to countries what marketing and advertising are to corporations. People who think they live in the greatest country in the world don’t have a reason to question the history they’ve been taught. Nor do they have an incentive to fight against the inequality and injustice that privilege insulates them from.

Appealing to Canadian values, after all, is standard scripting for politicians. NDP leader Thomas Mulcair, who is often described as a leftist, relies on the same loaded language. Canadians are going to hear a lot of it over the next several weeks. Like this, for example:

I’m confused. What group of people is going to define themselves according to a “value” of not exporting jobs? Is there a constituency on this planet in which a critical mass of people identify nationally with the idea of committing economic suicide? It makes no sense.

There is a key difference between Mulcair and Trudeau, however. It’s hard to miss the hypocrisy in rhapsodizing about being open and compassionate while supporting a law that violates our fundamental civil rights and targets marginalized and racialized groups, with essentially no oversight or accountability. What are the Liberal Party’s real values, and whose values do they represent?

What’s lost in so much of this political discourse is the fact that we’re never going to be a country – or a world – where everyone is free and equal until we acknowledge what we have done and what we continue to do in the name of commerce, development, and growth. What do these ideas mean? What could they mean, if we had the courage to redefine them? Of course, values are everything. But countries don’t have values. People do. Assuming an ideological hegemony among 35 million people who happen to live within politically defined boundaries erases history as well as the current reality of class-based inequality. It’s likely that disenfranchised people throughout the world have more in common with each other than they do with many people who share their nationality.

This goes well beyond issues surrounding refugees and immigration. Politicians never pass up an opportunity to remind us that we’re citizens of the state first and humans second.

There it is. See that? A very nice message, but he just couldn’t resisting squeezing in that bit of propaganda at the end. What makes America great, exactly? I need reminding, Mr. President. Is it the legacy of genocide and dispossession? The guiding forces of white supremacy and patriarchy? The epidemic of police brutality? The perpetual profit-driven war? The ruling oligarchy? Or maybe it’s the undercurrent of arrogance through which America pretends it offers heaven, when for so many people both in America and abroad, it’s a living hell.

Canada is not much better. Instead of coming to terms with our failures, we double down on language that everybody speaks but nobody understands.

Nationalism of one kind or another was the cause of most of the genocide of the twentieth century. Flags are bits of colored cloth that governments use first to shrink-wrap people’s minds and then as ceremonial shrouds to bury the dead.
― Arundhati Roy

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What do Stephen Harper and Hitler have in common?

In so-called Western democracies like Canada, people often complain about corrupt and self-serving politicians but there doesn’t seem to be much fear that an individual could come along and change the very foundations of this country. A fascist government? In Canada? Never! We look at politically unstable countries and assume that we’re immune to the problems they face. But we’re not. All it takes is one person. It’s happened countless times in many different countries around the world. Some of these leaders seize power through a coup or some other violent or underhanded method. Sometimes, they’re elected.

People seem content to rest on the assumption that if a head of state ever did want to transform our nation, we would know. Somehow, we would see it coming. And granted, Harper did warn us that we wouldn’t recognize Canada once he was through with it. How far along does one suppose we’ve gotten at this point? When the Fair Elections Act was introduced, I read that only 23% of those polled indicated that they were aware of the proposed legislation. Something as important as a plan to make substantial changes to our electoral system – and one that was actually being discussed in the media – escaped the notice of so many people. Clearly we don’t even pay attention to the big things.

We’re all very busy and these announcements often occur on Fridays when we’re least likely to notice. And to be fair, so many alterations have been made that it’s almost impossible to keep up. It’s hard to know which ones are worth really worrying about. But that’s the point, isn’t it?

The next time someone suggests we’re overreacting when a new law is passed, another “action plan” is advertized, more scientists are muzzled, or additional research programs or departments are crippled or shuttered altogether, feel free to quote Adolf Hitler:

 

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While we’re talking about Harper and Hitler, I would submit that the topic of genocide is relevant here too. Every iteration of the Canadian colonial government from its inception has either exacerbated or failed to challenge the racist nature of its policies with regard to First Nations and Métis peoples. Not a single major political party has called our government out for what it is: a tool for racist oppression. Even leaders who talk about cooperation and reconciliation are rationalizing the foundations of what is still a paternalistic relationship. The only answer is to decolonize, and that would require the government to relinquish its control over indigenous peoples in this country and thus much of the land and natural resources. Recognizing indigenous rights means abandoning a centralized economic policy that would see the extraction of natural resources as perpetual fuel for a capitalist fire. And every party wants to stoke that fire – but that does not mean that they are interchangeable. Stephen Harper is the ringleader for those who wish to do more than maintain the status quo; he seeks to address the “Indian problem” with far more malice and surgical precision via his First Nations Termination Plan [PDF].  As Russ Diabo details in this presentation, the Harper government is expanding on an aggressive program whose goal is to eliminate First Nations title, status, and rights altogether. How else can we describe this but as genocide in a neocolonial context?

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Whose economy? How privilege shapes economic discourse

A man who might become Canada’s next Prime Minister was mocked last week for his reaction when confronted with the claim that the middle class is doing quite well, contrary to his assertions.

There’s no point in arguing about whether Justin Trudeau is competent when all he could squeeze out of his brain was a regurgitation of campaign talking points: “We’re talking about people here in a way that is giving them the capacity to be part of strong and vibrant communities.”

What does that even mean?

The New York Times report in question has limited value where this issue is concerned because its findings are relative, not absolute. It doesn’t actually establish that the Canadian middle class is doing well; it just says that for the first time ever, our middle class is doing better than that of our American counterparts. Which isn’t terribly exciting considering how much of a beating they’ve taken.

There are a lot of factors to take into account when judging how well a certain income group – or any group – is doing. Are they making progressively more money to compensate for inflation? Are they getting more for the taxes they pay? Are they in a better position to secure adequate housing? Are they able to save more money, or are they taking on more debt? Has the group shrunk or expanded? Do they have equitable and sufficient access to quality healthcare, or education? Are they struggling to pay utilities? Can they afford to eat healthy food? What about exposure to toxins and pollution? Crime and incarceration rates?

Most importantly, when we talk about class it’s not a simple question of economic difference; we’re talking about human beings and all the social, cultural, and political realities they face. Class isn’t just about how much money you make. In many cases, class is the colour of your skin or the neighbourhood you live in.

What we really need to consider is whether we can base our understanding of the state of our economy on the state of the middle class. Defining the middle class is no easy task to begin with (MSN Money suggests these 9 ways to tell if you’re middle class). According to the results of this Gallup poll, it appears that Americans are most likely to self-identify as middle class (Republicans even more so), although the Pew Research Center has reported that this number has dropped sharply in recent years. Meanwhile, rich people don’t even think they’re rich.

There it is again.

Middle class, middle class, MIDDLE CLASS!

It’s true that middle class incomes have stagnated. Even Statistics Canada has confirmed it. But it’s not an accident that the experiences and interests of the middle class dominate our political and economic discourse. If we ever needed proof that Canada is a stratified society shaped by the privileged, it’s made abundantly clear by the frequent mention of the middle class, especially in the run-up to elections. And Trudeau really wants us to know that he cares about the middle class:

“Liberals in Quebec and across the country are focused on jobs, the economy, and growing the middle class.”

One question keeps popping into my mind: What’s wrong with talking about, say, the working class? What’s wrong with being working class? Believe it or not, there was a time when being a member of the proletariat was a source of pride and dignity, and still is to many Canadians – only you wouldn’t guess it by listening to the talking heads.

If we really want to know how “the economy” is doing, we have to talk about how everyone is doing. Mainstream discourse would have us believe that the middle class is the ultimate barometer of economic prosperity and stability; as long as the middle class is doing okay, apparently we have nothing to worry about.

But who’s we? And whose economy are we talking about? There can be no doubt that Canada’s income gap has been growing at an alarming rate. Wealth inequality is a serious problem here as in other so-called developed nations. It does affect the middle class, but it affects the poor and working class even more. Yet somehow, we’re not allowed to talk about this. We’re not given the license to focus our attention on the people who need it most.

There are several factors involved in this process, including disillusionment and apathy, which result in lower voter turnout and less worker organizing (is it any surprise that the Harper government targeted the perceived threat of a more motivated electorate through the Fair Elections Act?). The privileged classes, in no small part due to their control of the corporate media, have effectively brainwashed Canadians as a whole to demonize the very groups that have fought for the rights of not only working people but all Canadians. Namely, workers’ collectives, cooperatives and unions – you know, those pesky good-for-nothings who brought us better wages, higher labour standards, universal healthcare, and basically everything else that government and the private sector would never voluntarily let us have. But when it comes to the working class, the poor, and people of colour voting against their own self-interest, Ford Nation is the perfect example: this “man of the people” consistently votes against initiatives that seek to alleviate hardship experienced by children, low income earners, the homeless, the LGBT community, women, immigrants, etc.

Then of course, there’s the privileged themselves – people of means who are economically insulated from these concerns. Some seek to keep more for themselves, either consciously or subconsciously. But more than that, the simple fact is that the privileged can afford to live in blissful ignorance (or willful ignorance, depending on how you see it). That’s what it means to be privileged. Those who have the least to worry about, who shoulder the least amount of risk and impact, are narrowing the discussion so that we don’t even have to consider that perhaps we should do something about the disproportionate burden we place on the working poor, including that of taxation. We should be additionally worried that Thomas Mulcair, the leader of the only left-ish political party with opposition potential, thinks that the idea of taxing people fairly (i.e. raising tax rates on even some income brackets) is out of the question. Canada’s historically labour-aligned party, afraid to talk about progressive taxation? That’s scary.

I’m not Barack Obama’s biggest fan, but this is the kind of discourse we desperately need to encourage:

Until it becomes painfully clear that too many people are rich while too many are poor for no good reason (which I think is already the case, but obviously not enough people are willing to admit it yet), it looks like we’ll be stuck with politicians who want to keep us hooked on amorphous concepts like the economy, prosperity, and growth. Trudeau, for one, has made it clear that what he’s really worried about is the possibility that “the middle class will stop supporting a growth agenda”.  Now why, one wonders, would they do that? Maybe because they’re slowly questioning neoliberal and conservative rhetoric and opening their minds to new ideas – ideas that are transparent and meaningful?

“The few own the many because they possess the means of livelihood of all… The country is governed for the richest, for the corporations, the bankers, the land speculators, and for the exploiters of labor. The majority of mankind are working people. So long as their fair demands – the ownership and control of their livelihoods – are set at naught, we can have neither men’s rights nor women’s rights. The majority of mankind is ground down by industrial oppression in order that the small remnant may live in ease.”
― Helen Keller in Rebel Lives: Helen Keller

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Royal pain: Class worship and social justice

There is a word my legendary English teacher, Shelva Rodgers, introduced me to that I still use. I reserve it for describing those situations that I find particularly vexatious. That world is kerfuffle.

Now, this kerfuffle about the British royal family has gotten out of control again, as it always does. There seems to be a lot of disagreement over whether the event of a birth signifies more than just the physical act itself.

My first concern is that this baby did not ask for the celebrity or the scorn that will be heaped upon him. So let me say outright that I wish no harm to him or any member of his family. It is just as unfair to harbour hatred for people who by accident of birth are born into wealth and privilege as it is to judge people based on the fact that they are poor or otherwise marginalized. Although I don’t know Will or Kate personally, I have no reason to think that they are ‘bad’ people. But the content of their character, or any good they might do, is entirely irrelevant here.

I read a comment by a self-professed anti-monarchist who wrote that he was celebrating because a healthy baby was born to a lovely family and nothing else matters. Perhaps that would be true if I was not having to hear about this everywhere I went. And perhaps that would be true if the reason why thousands of people were gawking at this spectacle wasn’t precisely because of the social status of the family in question.

I know it would be radical to suggest that members of the royal family turn their backs not only the privileges they were born with but also the responsibilities that fall on their shoulders as a result. I don’t think Diana’s life was easy, that it consisted only of photo ops, dinner parties and sunny sojourns along breathtaking coasts. It seems possible that many people liked her not simply because of her status, but more so because she seemed down to earth despite it. Maybe there is something comforting and even dignifying about seeing the humanity behind the privilege.

What really shocks me is how ‘ordinary’ and even underprivileged people are so willfully addicted to this ritualistic idolatry. We canonize figures like Gandhi, Mandela and King for their epic contributions to the well-being of humankind, through their courage, wisdom and kindness. Every day we’re reminded that we are all equal and therefore must treat each other with equal respect. Most of us recognize this understanding of human relationships to be self-evident and inherently valuable, even essential.

Yet the moment the rich and famous are paraded in front of us, all of this wisdom seems to be forgotten. We ooze admiration and envy, some of us probably unaware of a deep-seated jealous resentment. By getting caught up in the media circus and living vicariously through those who symbolize the things we want, we’re distracted from a very important question: Why do we pay so much attention to certain people just because of the positions they hold in society, especially when those positions are purely accidental? Is it that we can’t get over the fact that we could have easily been born to a different family in a different part of the world? Do we secretly suspect that the gods amuse themselves by assigning our births through a cruel lottery? Has religion instilled in people a saviour complex that predisposes us to look up at people rather than inward? Whatever the reason, when we idolize the powerful and the wealthy, we’re perpetuating injustice because we’re actively participating in a system that stratifies us. We do this voluntarily to ourselves, to our own detriment, and to the detriment of others. We betray the truth that no person is more deserving of admiration or praise than any other simply by virtue of the circumstances of their birth, their social status or the wealth they possess.

The medieval era is hundreds of years behind us, but have we evolved? Canada is a constitutional monarchy. We require royal assent to sign certain laws into being. This role is more than merely symbolic, but to be fair, this makes the Queen a ceremonial head of state rather than an autocrat. While Prime Minister Stephen Harper claims that Canada has “no history of colonialism”, however, we nevertheless remain a colony by virtue of this continued relationship. Most Canadians don’t seem to mind. Whether we’re relatively satisfied with the way things are or we’re apathetic, though, it’s interesting that if you express disgust at the royal spectacle, even here in Canada, you’re likely to be branded as negative and bitter.

That people are making such a big deal out of the fact that Kate Middleton is walking around in public with a (gasp!) post-baby belly is absolutely ridiculous. Why on earth should she pretend that she’s any different from any other woman? Good on her for keeping it real knowing how much she’ll be ruthlessly scrutinized – it wouldn’t be the first time.

What troubles me most is that there is no better case to be made for the idea of an elite upper crust ruling the masses than when the masses act like they can’t even govern their own intellects. All it takes is the ubiquity and greed of the infotainment machine and a fickle, excitable throng, and voila – we’re all made to look like a bunch of brainless plebs. This show isn’t over, and someday Chris Crocker is going to lose his shit in a “LEAVE KATE ALONE!” video. You heard it here first. But really, people… be happy for them, but get over it, and for Christ’s sake, leave them alone. They’re just human beings.

There has to come a time when our actions support our highest morals, even when that means not going along with the crowd. Otherwise, what kind of example are we setting for our young people?

Can we finally be honest about the fact that the existence of a monarchy (whatever form it takes) is fundamentally incompatible with democracy and social justice? And that hatred and jealousy are also incompatible with these ideals? Let’s wish the royal family all the happiness in the world – but not because of who they are, and in a fair, reasonable way that acknowledges that they are no better or worse than the rest of us.

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Empathy: without it, we are blind

In Canada today, new Liberal leader Justin Trudeau suggested that when a tragedy like the Boston Marathon bombings occurs, society should examine the root causes of these events. His rationale was as follows:

“There is no question that this happened because there is someone who feels completely excluded. Completely at war with innocents. At war with a society. And our approach has to be, okay, where do those tensions come from?”

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, on the other hand, believes that the idea of thinking analytically about the origin of violence is somehow frivolous, prescribing this approach instead:

“You condemn it categorically, and to the extent you can deal with the perpetrators, you deal with them as harshly as possible.”

For conservatives like Harper, justice is synonymous only with punishment. People who subscribe to this mindset fail to grasp that attempting to understand something and condoning it are two very different things. One approach seeks to form a holistic view of how something has come about, whereas the other only takes into account the end result, ignoring critical elements such as motivation and process.

The key here is the distinction between empathy and sympathy, two concepts that many people seem to confuse. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines them respectively as such:

Empathy: the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience

Sympathy: an affinity, association, or relationship between persons or things wherein whatever affects one similarly affects the other

Empathy involves imagining yourself in a situation so that you can understand how someone is feeling and thinking. Sympathy implies some level of agreement or sameness of mind. Empathizing, therefore, is not equivalent to supporting, justifying or rationalizing. Rather than simply imposing one’s own judgment on a situation, one steps back and recognizes the broader reality as it relates to all those involved. MP Stella Ambler is one of those conservatives who completely misses the point when she says, “There is no root cause and no tension that justifies the killing and maiming of innocent civilians.” No one is saying there is.

No person or decision exists in isolation. Every decision we make is the result of any number of factors, some of which are influenced by others directly or indirectly. In any given situation, even one factor involved in a decision could influence how we choose to act. If we don’t acknowledge certain factors as a society (for example, the statistical relationship between poverty and crime), we can’t identify opportunities to prevent the negative conditions that may lead to harmful actions.

Having empathy means acknowledging that what happened at the Boston Marathon on Monday was horrible and shocking. It’s tragically unfair that people, including children, lost their lives and were injured. For some people the torment will never end. Emotional responses are perfectly understandable. I can imagine why a person would respond with rage and hysteria, but that doesn’t mean I will encourage those behaviours. I certainly won’t make the situation any better if I act as though what a person is feeling or has experienced – no matter how irrational or contrary to my own views – doesn’t matter. The fact is, it matters to them, and because it matters to them, depending on what they choose to do about it, it could matter to others as well.

Understanding and empathy have nothing to do with being a ‘bleeding heart’ or a coward. Quite the opposite; it takes courage to address serious problems fundamentally and directly. It involves moving beyond passion and arbitrary judgment and coming to terms with reality, no matter how complicated and scary it may be. This is how a just, conscious society deals with difficult issues.

Without empathy, we experience but do not understand action and reaction, cause and effect. If the only response we know is to become increasingly tenacious and ruthless, we will feed a vicious cycle that brings no benefit and only creates more misery. Without empathy, we are blind.

Source: Stephen Harper and Justin Trudeau exchange barbs over Boston bombing, Toronto Star

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Idle No More: An anti-colonial perspective on justice, peace and wisdom

“Have you any idea how much tyrants fear the people they oppress? All of them realize that, one day, amongst their many victims, there is sure to be one who rises against them and strikes back!”
– Albus Dumbledore in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

I grew up in Northern Ontario, Canada in a town which now has a population of about 8,000 people and whose name, Kapuskasing, means “bend in the river” in Cree. It’s located 850 km northeast of Toronto (about a nine hour drive), and if you think it’s anywhere close to the northernmost limits of the province, think again. It’s located 388 km south of Attawapiskat, a town situated on the shore of James Bay that has gotten a lot of press for the horrific living conditions of its aboriginal residents. The community stands as a prime example of the long-simmering tensions between First Nations and the Canadian government.

Kapuskasing

Kapuskasing

The only thing Kapuskasing is ‘known’ for is being the hometown of director James Cameron and a former prisoner-of-war camp, in addition to lots of great outdoorsy stuff like hunting, fishing, camping and snowmobiling. My family dragged me along on hundreds of these expeditions over the years. Kapuskasing is a predominantly French-Canadian town, with a meager 1.7% of its population consisting of visible minorities. This does not include aboriginals, who comprise 4.3% according to a 2006 census. I once had a friend who seemed ‘different’ because she had darker skin and covered her hair with a scarf, but when she explained that she was Muslim I had no clue what she meant. We had a handful of students at school who were Asian, black and Indian (East Indian), and considerably more native kids (as we referred to them) than all of them combined. In comparison to us white kids, natives didn’t stand out the most in terms of their appearance or behaviour. But Kapuskasing is where I learned just how normalized and rationalized aboriginal-focused racism in this country is.

In my Grade 9 math class, there was this quiet native boy named Emerson. The kids would ask him mockingly if he was going hunting for moose, taunting him with the word he used in his own language to describe these animals: “tatanka”. I don’t know why I remember that word of all things, but I recall feeling angry and ashamed at the way he was treated. Still, I doubt I said anything to defend him.

My mother was born in Canada to an Italian immigrant father and a French Canadian mother. Many of my family members on her side have aboriginal ancestry, though I myself do not as far as I know. I was told as a child that I was the last in our line to qualify for an Indian status card; my mom’s adoptive father was part Ojibway or Mohawk. I remember hearing stories that some of my aunts could read tea leaves or stop a nosebleed instantly. I wondered if it was some sort of indigenous folk medicine or superstitious witchery.

My father is Ukrainian. He came to Canada when he was 16 and had to learn English from scratch. He told me that he was called derogatory names at school until he stood up for himself. At that time, Eastern Europeans were being shipped up north by the government to work in forestry. Apparently the French Canadians did not take very kindly to them. There’s a tendency to think all white people of European origin are similar. Not so. Cabbage rolls, perogies and beet soup must have seemed very strange to the locals, along with the different clothing, music, religious traditions and of course, language. Even within the Eastern European communities I noticed alliances of certain nationalities, which to me all seemed to be the same. And in Kapuskasing, by these groups, I was introduced to the concept of anti-semitism. It wasn’t until years later when I moved to Toronto to attend university that I saw and met Jewish people.

I couldn’t figure out how persecuted newcomers, who told traumatizing stories of famine and genocide, could look at First Nations and not see the terrible irony inherent in their own racism towards these people. But the fact is that the prejudice wasn’t limited to them; everyone participated.

Canadian_Aboriginal_FestivalThis is the real Canada – not the peacekeeping, welcoming melting pot image we’ve been projecting to the world. That image is crumbling amid criticism of our treatment of our aboriginal peoples, which is really nothing new but has gotten obvious enough that the United Nations is questioning why First Nations are still so much worse off than the rest of the country. Our reputation isn’t only garnering negative attention for our domestic policy; the Minister of Foreign Affairs (a former police chief) characterized foreign aid as a crutch and is repackaging these initiatives as public-private partnerships. In other words, a strategy whose basic intent is to open up markets in poor countries to privatization. We now have decades’ worth of evidence to show how these neoliberal policies, fronted by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, inevitably play out. We never quite see the wealth and prosperity promised (at least not equitably distributed, and with little lasting benefit to the people most affected by these projects). If this is the sort of strategy we’re exporting as a country, we shouldn’t expect to see things being done differently here at home. In fact, it’s getting worse.

John Woods/Winnipeg Free Press

Near the end of 2012, four women in Saskatchewan, three of them aboriginal, sparked a grassroots movement called Idle No More, which was primarily designed to challenge the second omnibus budget bill passed by the Harper Conservative-dominated government of Canada. Bill C-45 included changes to the Indian Act that would make it suspiciously easier to lease or sell First Nations land, and the number of lakes and rivers protected by the formerly named Navigable Waters Protection Act was decimated to a fraction, most of those waterways still protected being in affluent Conservative ridings, interestingly enough.* Since there has been a lot of confusion about this topic, I’ve provided a detailed explanation and further suggested reading at the bottom of this post. All of this was happening amid fierce opposition to the proposed Enbridge pipeline and reports that our Prime Minister had already secretly assured the energy company that the project would go ahead while publicly asserting that it would only be approved if it was sanctioned by scientists – despite severe staff cuts. Then the government signed a ‘free’ trade Foreign Investment Protection Agreement which allowed a Chinese-state owned energy giant to take over a Canadian company and control a huge section of the tar sands (yes, tar – not oil). Harper conceded that this was indeed an exceptional deal. They dumped the news on a Friday night when no one was looking, probably because in addition to fearing ecological disaster, Canadians would not be happy that China National Offshore Oil Company will be able to secretly sue our government if we initiate any measure, be it environmental or human rights-related, that would negatively affect its bottom line.

REUTERS/Geoff Robins

Parliament Hill, Ottawa

So on the day that Bill C-45 was being voted on, a coalition of First Nations marched to Parliament Hill to realize their right to grant or withhold their full and informed consent, a right guaranteed them by the Constitution. They were shut out. Now two Alberta First Nations are suing the federal government to contest the legality of this most recent budget bill as well as the one passed before it, Bill C-38. Many similar lawsuits based on alleged violations of constitutional and treaty rights have since sprung up. Ottawa officially states that First Nations will be consulted with respect to matters that affect them, but the reality is that their voices are silenced or ignored. Furthermore, as long as First Nations aren’t part of the actual decision-making process as true partners, that relationship remains paternalistic at best.

7734659.binCanadians know shamefully little about our history particularly as it concerns First Nations. What is taught in schools is simplified, sanitized and preserved as an ancient artifact. It’s something we study, not something we live. We’re given the impression that all of the injustices have occurred in the past. History, to those who believe this lie, is no longer relevant. Canadians pacify themselves with the delusion that if First Nations are suffering from lack of basic infrastructure and societal problems, it must be their own fault. There are many ways in which this narrative is defended, as online forums and comment sections demonstrated through a torrent of shameful slurs.

slavery02The truth is that few people outside of social justice activism circles understand the nature and process of colonialism. Consider a cross-cultural study of this phenomenon: What happened after the Dutch and English enacted apartheid in South Africa? What happened after the Spanish colonized South America? The Portuguese colonized Brazil? The English colonized Jamaica and Australia? The French colonized Haiti and Senegal? In a conquest for land and resources, which was justified by an unapologetic civilizing mission ideology, again and again Europeans invaded lands already inhabited by prosperous peoples who lived in harmony with the earth, sometimes uprooting millions of people and transporting them to new lands. In these ‘New Worlds’, they murdered, enslaved and tortured indigenous peoples, stole their land and their resources, jailed them, stripped them of their languages, families and cultures and told them that they weren’t human. In Canada, this was epitomized by a campaign to “kill the Indian in the child” which forced aboriginal children into residential schools where they were forbidden to speak their mother tongues, practice their traditions or communicate with their families. The Canadian government placed these schools under the jurisdiction of several Christian denominations, whose representatives abused children en masse. Many of these people are still alive today. Anishinaabe activist Wab Kinew has bravely spoken out about how his father was raped by a nun in one of these schools.

“The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he, who in the name of charity and good will, shepherds the weak through the valley of darkness, for he is truly his brother’s keeper and the finder of lost children. And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who would attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know my name is the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon thee.” – Ezekiel 25:17

Aamjiwnaang First Nation - Chemical Valley

Aamjiwnaang First Nation – Chemical Valley

What happens to people when they’re singled out, dehumanized and exploited, not just as individuals but as a culture, as a race? Let’s reflect on this for a long moment – what that process does to a people who, generation after generation, see their communities grasping for meaning, identity and healing with nothing more than bandaid solutions and blame thrust in their face. Every single indigenous group is either at risk of becoming or already is, a victim of a festering cycle of discrimination, poverty, domestic and substance abuse and crime. They struggle to overcome poor education and representation, rampant unemployment, high rates of incarceration, lack of basic infrastructure and access to essential resources like clean water, the loss of land to governments and corporations, lack of adequate mental and physical health treatment and exposure to contamination from extractive industries and hazardous waste sites. Sure, there are lots of people in these countries who are doing very well. That was the whole point. But why is it that the people who were colonized are not those people? Ever? Is it because there’s something wrong with them? Or do all of these people have one thing in common: the incredible injustice of being born or forced into a system that is designed to either kill them bodily or spiritually – whatever is necessary – to keep the powerful people powerful?

HarperI was born into this system. I was educated in it, worshiped in it and pressured to conform by people who used their authority to try to shape me into someone I wasn’t. It never felt right, and I got into trouble many times for challenging my family and anyone else who tried to insist that things were the way they should be, because they know that once you accept that mold, it’s very difficult to penetrate or outgrow that basic intellectual framework. It’s a subconscious process. You become entrenched in the story of your country, your ethnicity, your religion, your family and your personal identity. You work hard to forge a path in a sea of people, each struggling to get ahead. You see people who can’t seem to rise above their circumstances, whose situation doesn’t seem to improve no matter what. They want to move ahead too. But this threatens you. You don’t want to give anything up – at least you fear that this is what will happen if the people who didn’t have power before suddenly find themselves in possession of it. You don’t want things to change unless it means that things get better for you.

This system has a name. It’s called colonialism and it’s the product of a worldview that human beings like you and I thought up. We may recognize its ideological characteristics as follows:

  • Patriarchal, hierarchical, top-down social organization
  • Focus on individuality over community, competition over co-operation
  • Shunning of indigenous and ‘informal’ systems of organization, thought and belief
  • Focus on quantification, control and manipulation
  • Value system based on monetary and economic measures
  • Belief that natural resources are sources of capital like any other and therefore subject to private ownership and exploitation for financial gain
  • Tendency to differentiate humans from nature (claiming dominion) and to compartmentalize ecosystems, disciplines and geographic/political boundaries
  • Surrendering trust to the knowledge and interests of the business and academic elite
  • An understanding of time and systems that is linear, not cyclical or symbiotic
  • Tendency to interpret human behaviour and experience only as consequences of individual human choices, rather than the predictable products of systems and established patterns

Aboriginal Protests 20121223All of these factors combine to create a society that has a very specific and deliberate power structure. Why is Idle No More happening? Why are so many First Nations demanding change and why are there so many Canadians joining them? Because now, the consciousness of many people is breaking out of the colonial mold. We know there is corruption, oppression and racism. We know it won’t end unless we shake up the system. Many people have been hoping for a long time that this movement would take shape. I’ve been waiting for this my whole life.

What a lot of Canadians don’t realize is that Canada is a multinational country. Treaties were originally signed not with the Canadian government, but with the Crown, and this country remains a constitutional monarchy. Yet the most important decisions affecting First Nations continue to be made unilaterally by the Canadian government at federal and provincial levels. Many First Nations did not surrender their land, nor did they agree to be governed by laws enacted by people they did not elect to represent them. Like it or not, our country is founded on the fact that when the Europeans came to this land, there were sovereign Nations already here. Tribes were plentiful and had no problem living in prosperity and harmony with the earth before their world was changed forever by the settlers. While inherent treaty rights were recognized on paper, they have scarce been respected in deed. Acknowledging this is not an exercise in blame or guilt; it is recognizing that a system that could not be stopped and which has evolved into what it is today was imposed on these peoples. There was no magical moment when that system disappeared or changed. As Anishinaabe lawyer Aaron James Mills writes, “Colonization is not a completed historical fact from which all must simply move on; it is a deliberate, daily violence continuing this moment and anyone promoting that Indigenous peoples are ignorant not to accept this violence as legitimate is at worst, racist; at best, living in a dream palace”.

As aboriginals are largely hidden away on reserves in remote reaches of the country, Canadians are seldom presented with the challenges and cultures of First Nations peoples. The fact that they experience so many problems both on and off the reserve is no justification for assimilation. No people should be asked to forfeit their culture. Ignorance and racism – expressions of colonialism – prevent Canadians from seeing past the stereotypes and myths. Canadians don’t remember their government’s treaty obligations because they were never taught about them in the first place. Chief Terry Bellegarde has explained, “Our treaties were not meant to make us poor in our own homelands. But that’s what we see”.

idm1We often hear that we support these communities with perpetual payments – unfair burdens on the taxpayer. But we don’t understand their financial burdens, or the land that is still being slowly siphoned away for resource extraction by corporations that threaten ecological integrity, human health and traditional ways of life. How many Canadians have considered that placing people in unlivable conditions out of which there is no escape was not simply an act of cruelty but a strategy to dispossess aboriginals of their land and resources, thus finally forcing them to join ‘the rest of us’? Who is supporting whom?

There is no doubt that there is corruption within some band councils and that band members are demanding more accountability. This is precisely why popular voices from the Idle No More movement have stated that it is a revolution of the people – not necessarily those who claim to represent them. As Assembly of First Nations Chief Shawn Atleo has pointed out, councils for the most part are doing their best within a system not of their own design, and one that is fundamentally flawed.

Some words on Chief Theresa Spence and Attawapiskat are in order. The reservation is in dire need. I know how cold it gets in northern Ontario. Here in Toronto, people really have no idea how terrifying the idea is of living in a tent or without heat during a winter up there, on top of inadequate sewage and water delivery systems. Before anyone gets into whose fault it is, it bears stating upfront that it’s unacceptable for government officials to shrug their shoulders at alleged aboriginal financial mismanagement and walk away. And before discussing the effectiveness of management, the Canadian public needs to understand the exceptional challenges that First Nations band councils deal with. The quality of construction and infrastructure in most cases was substandard from the very beginning and communities struggle just to keep things from falling apart. The cost of construction, maintenance and social services in remote and sub-arctic environments is prohibitive. Transportation of materials to these locations is extremely expensive, as are the hiring of contractors and lawyers to put things in motion. And while Attawapiskat has signed a contract with the nearby De Beers diamond mine, that agreement is in dispute and it is alleged that not all terms are being met. That aside, the fact is that aboriginal communities receive less funding per capita than do non-aboriginal communities, and yet their operation costs are much higher.

spenceWas there fraud on the part of the First Nations managers when it comes to managing public funds in Attawapiskat? This hasn’t been demonstrated. All we know is that there was a systemic lack of documentation to support transactions – a problem which shrunk significantly once Spence became chief in 2010. The federal government also reviews financials every year, so the Harper administration’s claim that funds have been squandered and wasted since at least 2006 begs the question of why, if that’s the case, they continued to throw money in that direction. It wasn’t until media reports of the plight of the community shocked the world that the government pointed to the band council and sought to impose third party management. This should all be considered alongside the fact that the government leaked a “damning” audit report by accounting firm Deloitte & Touche (whose credibility has been seriously questioned), conveniently while Spence was in the midst of a much-publicized hunger strike. Furthermore, a lack of public discussion about the Canadian government’s own scandals and rampant financial mismanagement sparked a wave of indignation and jokes that hatched the Twitter hashtag, #Ottawapiskat.

Attawapiskat vs G8 gazebos

Now, apparently Chief Spence owns a spiffy SUV, or gets chauffeured around in one, while her people starve and freeze. I don’t know what the deal is with her transportation situation or anything else she might indulge in. It’s quite possible that transparency and accountability issues persist. But the degree to which critics were skewering Spence because she didn’t starve enough (i.e. apparently she hadn’t lost enough weight and subsisting on herbal tea and fish broth isn’t a hunger strike) lends support to the claim that she was the subject of a smear campaign which sought to deflect attention from the original root causes of the problem.

If the campaign was somewhat successful, it was partly because Spence was made into a poster child for the movement, when in reality Attawapiskat is one First Nation out of over 600 and Spence is one chief. If you can tear Spence down and make the community out to be a casualty of aboriginal corruption, you make Idle No More look like a bunch entitled hotheads. At least that seemed to be the plan.

Canadians at some point will have no choice but to realize that Idle No More is fighting to protect future generations from certain catastrophe. Our government insists that the only way of ensuring economic survival is to squeeze out the last of the most elusive, dirtiest and corrosive fossil fuel on the planet, funnel it through poorly constructed pipelines with the ultimate goal of exporting a huge majority of it. Job creation forecasts are grossly inflated. And yet the federal government is so intent on allowing corporations to shape our economic ‘growth’ that they’re labeling people who are trying to protect the planet as terrorists. Why would the government choose to pursue what is essentially a dead end? Inconveniently enough for them, it has come to light that the government has slashed environmental protections specifically because the oil and gas industry asked them to.

We share this planet with other species who together form complex, life-supporting systems. Who says we have the right to disregard their existence, or that we actually own resources, or nature for that matter, particularly considering that we are part of it? Isn’t that a ridiculous conflict of interest? And who said it makes sense to exploit natural resources for private profit? Not Idle No More. We don’t have to go along with a system that is making a small number of people very, very rich while creating chaos, sickness and scarcity. Yes, we need livelihoods. We need goods and we will inevitably consume resources. But we will not be able to continue doing so at the rate at which we believe we’ve become entitled. It’s not simply a question of whether we use resources or how much, but of who has control over those resources. How are they managed? Who benefits? Who shoulders the costs and the impacts? What may shock Canadians is that we do not have the legal right to a healthy environment. The only group of people who have any legal grounds for halting resource exploitation is First Nations, through land treaties that are protected by the Canadian Constitution. They are our last defense. Imagine the idea that the people we have most oppressed are fighting to liberate us all.

Are First Nations justified in staging blockades? Do they have other alternatives or is the threat of economic impact the only kind of language that Stephen Harper will understand? Let’s not lose sight of the kind of person our Prime Minister is. He is unsympathetic hostile to aboriginal rights, his politics formulated within the ideological mold of his mentor Tom Flanagan, who through a plethora of racist justifications has stated that the only sensible approach to aboriginal policy is assimilation. Sylvia McAdam, one of the founders of Idle No More, along with many other prominent supporters, cautions that this tactic may cost the cause considerable public support. To a large extent, I think that the people who are opposed to Idle No More to the point of denouncing blockades are probably not the sort of people who were going to be onside anyway. Sometimes, civil disobedience is the only way. Debates have sprung up about whether blockades are a form of aggression and are therefore inconsistent with the larger vision of peace and nonviolence. Although the overwhelming majority of chiefs, spokespeople and supporters do not advocate this method, unfortunately these are the sorts of actions that will get the most media attention. So it’s very important for the movement to continue to focus on the fact that it serves the interests of all Canadians, despite the fact that some groups will create controversy. The overall goal is to strike a balance between fighting for human and environmental rights without placating the whims of the privileged, while welcoming the broader public into the movement.

idm3

Idle No More solidarity protests

Some have charged that the message of Idle No More is unproductive and vague. I don’t claim to be a spokesperson, but I think it’s pretty clear why people feel disenfranchised, even if they represent diverse opinions and there is some in-fighting and struggle for power. Did we expect anything different? Also predictably, the media has distorted these aspects by oversimplifying and failing to provide sufficient context on the issues, sometimes intentionally or negligently misrepresenting statements of key organizers. As long as we remember that what we’re really challenging is an idea, and not an invincible force, we can continue to galvanize the people whose hearts and minds are open.

“When you and I are inside of America and look at America, she looks big and bad and invincible. Oh, yes, and when we approach her in that context, we approach her as beggars, with our hat in our hands.” – Malcolm X

Idle No More is about love because it is a movement to end a destructive approach to all life. I may not be of First Nations ancestry, but the joy and pride I feel at seeing indigenous peoples rise up, celebrating their cultures and joining hands with all of humanity is something that I would have never dreamed to experience in my lifetime. The settlers, immigrants and First Nations of Canada, despite our disappointment in the illusion of our democracy and our contagious apathy, are awakening to co-create a new society. When there is so much at stake that unifies so many courageous people, a sacred fire is lit that cannot be snuffed out.

I leave you with the wisdom and power of Winona LaDuke:

* Navigable Waters Protection Act (NWPA) and other laws

Some have objected that the NWPA was never designed to be an environmental instrument and only involves navigation. Let’s set the record straight once and for all. Under the NWPA, there were four provisions which triggered automatic environmental assessments under the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act (CEAA). Now that those provisions have been stricken and the act renamed ‘Navigation Protection Act’, the removal of the word ‘water’ isn’t simply a symbolic action. The CEAA is one of several laws which both directly and indirectly impact the environment and which were severely weakened by amendments tabled in both budget bills (whose content are largely unrelated to the actual budget). Not only are these changes unprecedented, having been squished into massive omnibus bills – which by their nature don’t allow the requisite time and clarity and for this reason were once slammed by Harper as undemocratic – the original authors of these changes appear to be the fossil fuel industry. A letter sent to the Ministers of Natural Resources and the Environment on behalf of the Energy Framework Initiative (which represents oil and gas corporations) made specific suggestions about which environmental laws to amend and how. Most of these changes were realized months later through the passing of Bills C-38 and C-45.

Charges have been made that human rights activists, environmentalists and First Nations are being reactionary and/or partisan. However, many interpretations of the bills by numerous lawyers, law firms and legal organizations have characterized them as detrimental. In short, it’s incorrect to state that people who are opposed to Bills C-38 and C-45 are misinformed and unjustified simply by virtue of their opposition.

Further suggested reading:

What Bill C-38 means for the environment by Ecojustice and West Coast Environmental Law

Collection of materials about CEAA and CEAA reform by Canadian Environmental Law Association

New Canadian environmental assessments exclude stakeholders and issues by Dianne Saxe (Saxe Law Office)

Gutting the Fisheries Act and Other Federal Environmental Legislation by Juli Abouchar and Joanna Vince, Willms & Shier Environmental Lawyers LLP

How navigable waters and environmental protection flow together published by Macleans Magazine

Energy industry letter suggested environmental law changes published by CBC News

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‘Experts’ and environmental exclusion

Canadians should be paying close attention to their government now more than ever as it employs environmental rhetoric that is alarmingly arrogant and fundamentally undemocratic in nature. According to a Vancouver Sun interview, Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver stated that the Canadian government will be limiting participation to members of the public who are “directly affected by major projects” and rejecting input from environmental groups deemed not to have specific expertise. There are several serious problems with this policy approach:

  • In order to make informed decisions, governments must consult with environmental professionals who have detailed and technical knowledge. But we know that academics and scientists are not necessarily subjective and it’s particularly unlikely that a government that has recently made very strong statements regarding environmental policy will select experts who aren’t sympathetic to its goals.
  • If the government is applying a harsh set of rules as to who can have a say, how likely are intervening parties to be taken seriously even if they’re affected or have substantial credentials?
  • What level of participation will the affected public and NGOs have with respect to projects that aren’t deemed major? Naturally, we’d expect even less scrutiny in those cases.
  • How do we know who’s objective? More importantly, what makes an expert an expert, whether it’s an individual or an organization? Who should decide what constitutes sufficient expertise? How can we ensure that vital choices are based on recommendations from experts who have demonstrated neutrality and an understanding of the concerns of all stakeholders, regardless of their financial clout or level of education?
  • How do we determine who judges which parties are “directly affected”? The people who are impacted, specially selected ‘experts’, lobbyists, investors or government officials? This is a key consideration because in the case of the oil and gas sector, for example, impacts aren’t contained; they extend throughout ecosystems and jurisdictions. Airborne particulates are carried vast distances through the atmosphere and settle in the soil and water. Polluted water spreads through watersheds. Contaminants are absorbed by vegetation and organisms ingested by animals (and in turn humans), resulting in the bioaccumulation of toxins. Greenhouse gas emissions have global impacts. Some chemicals, particularly those used in the mining and petroleum industries have very long half-lives so they don’t break down or get processed for many years.
  • Any given ecosystem, while it may affect a particular group more than others, is not the property of any one group. No one has the right to give ‘permission’ to pollute or deplete resources without the consultation of others who may be impacted even decades later. Without fair and transparent environmental assessments and the participation of a diversity of stakeholders (including non-experts and those ‘less’ affected by industrial projects), the parameters that we choose to determine what’s acceptable frame the magnitude of our results – positive and negative.
  • The Canadian government has never been very good at listening to Aboriginals – particularly the PCs – so why should we trust them now? Do I not have the right obligation – not only as a Canadian citizen but as a member of this planet to stand up for those factions of humanity whose voices are silenced and ignored? The officials we elect don’t have the right to tell us what rights we have. It’s for us to tell them.
  • A final but critical point: we are the environment’s sole defenders. We can’t afford to screw this up. Once resources are gone or damaged, there’s no turning back. We need to be absolutely certain that we’re acting in the best interests of all involved, which includes present and future generations, and that we can reasonably justify, mitigate and remedy risks and impacts. Because impacts on the environment are impacts on us. There’s a growing global movement to enshrine the legal rights of our planet (e.g. check out this article). Gone are the days when we could confidently assert our dominion over the earth. Bolivia has already passed laws to this effect and other proponents are forming new discourses around this issue that remind us that we can’t give our planet rights; we can only recognize them.

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