A Canadian looks on his country's treatment of the First Nation (Aboriginals).
by Stuart Alcorn
Opportunity can be a funny thing. A recent opportunity to present on social justice at a conference next spring has left me in a bit of a quandary. I sat down at my computer to start putting together a few thoughts on social justice in Canada, just to get started on an abstract, and I now find myself asking the question: By the broadly accepted definitions of social justice, does it even exist?
Well, it’s a pretty heavy sounding concept to begin with, so I thought first I should get a definition that will be broadly accepted. So, what is social justice? I immediately turned to the font of information that has become the benchmark for 21st century academics, Wikipedia. Here’s the first think I found “Social justice generally refers to the idea of creating a society or institution that is based on the principles of equality and solidarity, that understands and values human rights, and that recognizes the dignity of every human being”. It sounds pretty good to me, so my guess is that it is not an original. Feel free to check Wiki’s citations for yourself.
Now that I have a definition that I, and hopefully the reader, find acceptable, I can go back to my first question. Does social justice even exist in Canada? I guess that depends on what expectations any member of Canadian society might place upon those who provide governance and services for that society. Do all Canadians have equal rights to health care, for instance. Are all Canadians guaranteed equal standing before the courts? Does every Canadian have an equal opportunity to earn a wage which will sustain them? Will every citizen’s human rights and dignity be recognized governmental agencies such as police forces? I am starting to think we’re in a lot of trouble.
I was born on the tail end of the baby boom, thus my introduction to Canadian society beyond the cocoon of the small town Manitoba neighborhood and the nuclear family consisted of learning that we had a Prime Minister who had once received the greatest prize for peace our world can offer. That, followed closely by the mad rush called Trudeaumania. Mr. Trudeau started immediately speaking to our country about a “Just Society”. Heady stuff indeed, the times they were a-changin’.
I like to tell myself that some, if not most, Canadians have a sense of what is ethically correct within the parameters of their society and that they want their society to function accordingly. I am reminded of a story told to me when I was just a child. A young farmer in Saskatchewan, not long home from the front lines of Europe, bears witness to a police officer bullying a patron in the local pub. Several of the regulars have a silent expectation that the young veteran is going to step in because he is the biggest guy in the room. Instead, he simply tosses back his drink, looks at the policeman and says “it wasn’t that long ago I was being paid fifty cents a day to shoot the likes of you.” It’s a true story. Clearly, the young man had a sense of what social justice is supposed to be about. Unfortunately, I suspect that too many of my countrymen and women will recognize that kind of injustice when it is cloaked in the brown shirts and jackboots of the 1930’s Nazis, but possibly not when it is wrapped in a Sam Brown belt. Nevertheless, it is what it is.
Here’s another anecdote that hopefully lends itself to the theme of this little missive. A fellow was working as an assistant director for an Aboriginal organization in central Manitoba; a very predominantly Caucasian community. This story is pretty far removed from the late ‘40’s of our first story, this one happened at the end of the 20th century. In the course of his duties, the young man met with two employees of the provincial income assistance department. They demanded to know if that organization had a policy of hiring only Aboriginal people. The gentleman responded that his organization’s policy, and his personal policy, was to hire based on the candidate with the best skill set for the job. If, however, he was met with the situation where a non-Aboriginal and an Aboriginal person were evenly matched, he would hire the Aboriginal person. The two employees stared at him apparently aghast. He assured them that when all of the employers up and down the main street of the town changed their hiring policies accordingly, he’d change his. They both tried to deny that racism might exist toward Aboriginal people in the community. Neither of them are Aboriginal. It’s another true story.
Here’s another interesting little sidebar from that same fellow. People in the mainstream of economics and commerce in that community want to know why, for generations, First Nations people haven’t started their own businesses and developed their own economic base in their communities. Well, his response is, try going to a bank and getting a loan based on capital or land that isn’t yours. Good luck with that. All of the federal treaties have tried for years to say that all of the land that First Nations are on belongs to the Queen.
The limit of space allotted to individual articles precludes me from presenting too many more examples. My instinct tells me that the colonizer mentality that has permeated Canada for the last 450-500 years or so will pretty much continue to prevent any serious debate on the possibility of social justice existing here. I have a suggestion, and one that I think is fairly timely. All of those illegal immigrants pouring over the southern borders of the United States need only plant a flag and claim the entire country for their sovereign government. I’m sure everyone in the U.S. will immediately acquiesce. No? Then why did Henry Hudson think it would work here when he claimed all of western Canada for the King of England? I’m guessing that someone far better versed in the political sciences than I might even advise me that planting a flag and making that claim is actually an act of war. C’est la vie.
Even as I sit at my computer typing this, I can look toward the town that I’m in and take note that in the last year: a jewellery store, a fashion boutique, a laundromat/dry cleaners, and a convenience store have all been opened on the main street. What do all those new businesses have in common that I am including them here? They are all owned and being operated by---brace yourself---immigrants! Being fairly pasty complected because of the cruelty of genetic dice rolling, I get to hear the comments that I am certain those entrepreneurs don’t. The comments are always about those people taking over. I am sure the readers can fill in whoever those people might be, I for one am fairly certain there’s no conspiracy. I am sure that the reader knows the value of new businesses being opened to a local economy. Explaining that would be a whole other article. My suggestion invariably is; if one doesn’t want those people taking over, then one should perhaps take the entrepreneurial plunge. I am generally met with blank stares at the suggestion.
Again, for the sake of brevity, I will try to encapsulate my own perspective, based largely on personal experience. We are a society which has imposed a specific set of rules and ethics on people who were oppressed by military might and have generally had the country taken away from them. We reinforce those rules and ethics by creating programming that is supposedly for the benefit of the oppressed but are designed within the framework of the oppressor’s rules and ethics. If one peruses Trudeau’s policy on Aboriginal people, we find he was as far removed from what a just society could be as anyone else. He could not imagine that anyone who pre-dated the Eurocentric notion of Canada might have a sovereign right to a different set of ethics. We now invite people from all over the world to come here and participate in this so-called cultural mosaic. Of course, the invitation is based upon the foregone conclusion that they abide by that same set of rules and ethics. Throughout history, time and again, we have found that diversity strengthens cultures. Xenophobia destroys cultures. If we look at the strides made by the first peoples of this great land within the framework forced upon them in the post-secondary worlds of law, medicine and politics, or the manner in which new people coming to these shores and First Nations people have seized their chance and done more to enhance our economy than their mainstream counterparts, we should ask ourselves an important question. How much more could be accomplished if that social justice really existed? Opportunity can be a funny thing.
Stuart Alcorn is currently the executive director of the Portage Friendship Centre, an aboriginal social services agency. Their website is www.ptgfc.org