Canada’s Apartheid

17 Dec

Thomas Mulcair wrote a very touching tribute to Nelson Mandela in today’s Toronto Star, using Mandela’s story of struggle and eventual triumph over a deeply racist regime as a call to arms to Canadians to affect change in our own country. Like so many of the things that I’ve seen presented by the NDP lately (and by lately, I guess I mean since Jack Layton’s death), it has a nice, socialist gloss to it but, upon closer inspection, doesn’t actually live up to what I expect from my party. To give credit where credit is due, there are several things that Mulcair gets right in his piece. There are also a few things that he gets very, very wrong.

I’ve read quite a few tributes to Mandela written by prominent white folks over the past week, and Mulcair’s is, on the surface, different from many of them. What sets his piece it apart from most of the others is the fact that Mulcair makes a fairly direct comparison between South Africa’s apartheid regime and Canada’s treatment of the First Nations, Inuit and Métis people. He’s not wrong, either – in fact, the apartheid system was based on Canada’s Indian Act. Our residential schools, Indian Reserve and many other deeply racist systems inspired South Africa’s oppressive regime. I’m glad that at least one of our federal leaders has (somewhat) acknowledged this in their remarks on Mandela’s death.

What Mulcair gets so very, very wrong is in how he talks about the fall of the apartheid and Mandela’s role in it. South Africa, he says, is a “miracle.” Mandela, he said, “inspire[d] people to be more forgiving, to be more united, to be better than they ever thought possible.” There is no mention of the involvement of the Umkhonto we Sizwe, which Mandela co-founded, in violent political resistance, resistance that was key in bringing apartheid to an end. There is no mention of the fact that Mandela himself was implicated in that violence; no discussion of the fact that part of the reason Mandela was sent to prison was because he was responsible for bombing a power plant. Though we seem to like to imagine that Mandela brought change to South Africa with nothing but wise words and a kind, grandfatherly smile, the truth is very different. Mandela fought for his freedom, tooth and nail.

And yet the western world has somehow managed to whitewash all of Mandela’s actions, to the point where we no longer remember that at one point in time America considered him to be a terrorist. And the same people who are lauding Mandela are those that I see complaining about First Nations blockades and protests on a regular basis. It’s a funny sort of cognitive dissonance – if we declare ourselves in support of the fight to end the apartheid in South Africa, then shouldn’t it necessarily follow that we also support the fight to end the oppression of Canada’s First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples? If we can have this kind of unwavering love and support for a man who bombed a power plant in order to bring down a racist regime, then shouldn’t we offer some kind of aid and encouragement to the citizens of our own country who are trying to protect their lands from environmental devastation? How is it that we, as Canadians, manage to view these two situations as being entirely different?

It also seems pretty funny that what Mulcair wrote could almost be taken as an endorsement of radical and perhaps even violent tactics in order to further decolonization, considering that his response to almost any type of First Nations protest is to ask them to work with the Canadian government.

Take, for example, his official statement on the current events in Elsipogtog:

New Democrats are very concerned about the escalating situation involving the Elsipogtog First Nation in New Brunswick. We are monitoring the situation closely. We join the Assembly of First Nations in calling for calm on all sides. The safety and security of all parties is our number one concern at this time. This situation underlines the importance of peaceful and respectful dialogue between governments and Indigenous peoples.

Or else his response to Chief Theresa Spence’s hunger strike:

I would sincerely call upon Chief Spence to realize that there has been a step in the right direction, to try and see now if we can keep putting pressure on the government to follow through. The government seems to be moving so I think that the best thing to do would be to step back from that now.

It’s just the same old racist bullshit of asking the oppressed to work with their oppressors. He’s not adding anything new or helpful; he’s just reiterating what the First Nations peoples have been hearing for generation after generation. His approach is not going to solve anything. Peaceful talks with a racist and oppressive government, a government that has a vested interest in continuing to marginalize the First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples, are not going to bring about any kind of real change.

As NDP candidate Shannon Phillips said,

“Nelson Mandela didn’t do 27 years in prison for sitting in the wrong seat on the bus. He was there, in part, for his role in bombing a power station in order to make the machinery of a racist regime grind to a halt. A regime most of the world, including Canada under those Great Liberals Pearson and Trudeau, thought was completely a-ok. So can we just remember that next time we see indigenous people blockading a highway? Thanks.”

So the next time you hear about a First Nations blockade or protest or hunger strike, I want you to look at it from a different angle. I want you to consider how our government’s treatment of the Aboriginal peoples of this country compares to the South African apartheid. And most of all I want you to ask yourself: if he were here, in Canada today, what would Nelson Mandela do?

Photo credit: Ossie Michelin

Photo credit: Ossie Michelin

12 Responses to “Canada’s Apartheid”

  1. Lawrence Grodecki December 18, 2013 at 12:17 am #

    After the last federal election I watched a live ceremony of the prime minister & his cabinet…I’m pretty sure it was on CBC. It was very uninspiring to watch each of these people take the same oath, which was essentially, “I promise to protect the queen, her family, and their assets.”

    I’m assuming that when a new government is formed, this same oath is taken regardless of the party.

    If this oath truly why the government of Canada exists, then it certainly isn’t an institution that represents a great many people who live in the geographic region know as Canada. I am one of those great many.

    Also, given this oath, isn’t every Canadian deserving of an explanation of the details behind this oath, including a complete detailing of what this assets are, for starters.

    Finally, the residential schools and all related activities really are no different than the exterminations that went on in Europe before and during WWII. The control techniques, uprooting of families, cultural denigration and so on seem to have a lot of similarity – the psychology of it all – just spread over a longer time frame and without need for gassing. That’s just my opinion . . . and this all happened after the war . . . and such strong participation of priests and clergy?

    The solution/ ceremony of check-writing under the truth and reconciliation program is only a further embarrassment, only exacerbated by an increasingly aggressive program of Canadian nationalism that we’ve all been bombarded with over the last decade or so.

  2. Dadicus Grinch December 18, 2013 at 2:26 am #

    Very informative. Thank you for sharing your knowledge.

  3. December 18, 2013 at 5:11 am #

    My recent research activities on the Colonization of the Aboriginal land over the last few hundred years illustrate that the issues are not as recent as the implementation of the residential schools. I’m continuously appalled when I work on the South Western reservations by non-Aboriginal people’s attitudes and misconceptions, which continue to discount the paramount effects of the European settlers (to put it nicely) on the Aboriginal populations. At first there was peace and mutual respect on both parties, until the Europeans began to view the land as their own, something which could be taken or purchased.

    I don’t even know where to start, but for someone, anyone to say that the deep rooted poverty issues and trans-generational issues affecting Aboriginal families are not things that one can just will away. Why do children on the reservations continue to live in dire poverty even more so than white or other racialized children. According to the United Nations Human Development Index Canada ranks 13th which is pretty good but the situations on the reserves warrant a rank of 78. Children in Canadian reserves experience Third World conditions such as lack of clean water, proper housing, lack of food ( the costs of nutritious food on more remote reserves is astronomical) not to mention the health and mental wellness issues (highest rates of suicide) which affect so many. Yes, many ask ‘why don’t they just move?’ well for nations that already have been so displaced from their land and cultural connections which has had generational effects, its just not that easy.

    Jurisdictional issues between the provincial and federal governments for example, continue to spur debates where medically fragile or complex children end up in child welfare in order to receive proper care. Jordan River Anderson an Aboriginal child with complex medical needs in Manitoba was deemed as medically stable to go back to his reserve at the age of 2. For 3 years the two levels of governments were debating who will covers his care needs when he moves back home. Jordan died in a hospital at the age of 5 without ever being able to go home. I would never dispute the level of care he received in the hospital but how many of us would like to spend our life living in a hospital if we didn’t have to. Jordan’s Principal was passed in 2007, where the jurisdictional disputes would not be the barrier to a child coming home for example, and the governments would decide after the child comes home who will pay for the care rather then prior. This principal was tested by a family in Eastern Canada where the mom of a young man named Jeremy, a child with disabilities had a stroke which had prevented her from providing full care to her son. The alternative to him staying home was for him to go into a group home, despite the fact that his self-injurious behaviours escalate dramatically when way from his mom. Jeremy’s care costs were covered by his band (their full year budget allocated for exceptional cases in their community) so that he could stay home. The case went to court and just last May 2013, the Conservative government contested the decision made by the court about the care costs.

    These examples of injustice and inequalities towards our Aboriginal peoples go on and on in our nation, its time that we stop blaming and start understanding a little more, that hundreds of years of oppression towards Aboriginal peoples are embedded in the fabric of our society.

    • Lawrence Grodecki December 18, 2013 at 5:32 am #

      I didn’t mean to infer that these containment centers, call them residential schools, started after the atrocities of WWII. What is so disappointing is that after a lifetime of being taught how horrible things were in that war, similar shit was and is occurring right in our own backyards.

  4. silkpurseproductions December 18, 2013 at 2:22 pm #

    Thank you for this very insightful piece. Jack Layton’s absence is being felt more and more all the time. He was someone I would have been comfortable asking some of these questions and I would have believed his answers.
    Over the past several months my work with one of my clients has me reading a lot about what is happening with the First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples. My eyes have been opened considerably and unfortunately, for the first time in my life, my pride to be Canadian is feeling tarnished.

    • Lawrence Grodecki December 18, 2013 at 3:24 pm #

      I know that feeling – went through that years ago – spent most of my life thinking Canada was really special. Now I’m very wary of nationalism – period.

      • silkpurseproductions December 18, 2013 at 3:28 pm #

        I still think Canada is pretty special and I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. I just don’t wear those rose coloured glasses anymore and am more aware that, like most things, we have our faults as well.

      • Lawrence Grodecki December 18, 2013 at 3:40 pm #

        Agreed…though whatever is special has very little to do with politics.

  5. northendmc December 18, 2013 at 7:11 pm #

    Reblogged this on North End MC and commented:
    Nelson Mandela Was Idle No More!

  6. HJ December 19, 2013 at 7:52 pm #

    Cognitive dissonance indeed. Canadians condemn the history of Apartheid and American slavery but many become defensive when residential schools are mentioned. They drag up other tragedies like the British Home Children or even the Holocaust to trivialize what I believe was Canadian genocide. They dispute the number of deaths that occurred, whine about the cost of the TRC, and claim most of the abuse was made up. It’s racism, pure and simple.

    Mulcair could have drawn many more parallels between Apartheid and First Nations history. I was a little shocked that he glossed over it., He seemed more interested in flogging his political agenda.

  7. Gilbert December 21, 2013 at 4:57 am #

    Thank you for writing this. I’m working on a totally frivolous post about Canada’s current progressive social policies, so it’s really interesting to read about this – it’s not something I’ve ever heard about in the States.


  1. 2013 In Review: Part 2 | The Belle Jar - January 6, 2014

    […] I wrote some stuff in December, too. I talked about how I am a feelings machine, and I made a list of all the stuff that isn’t feminist, I had some stuff to say about why we obsessively document our lives, and, in the wake of Nelson Mandela’s death, I discussed Canada’s own apartheid. […]

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