Sunday, 20 January 2013

Being Idle No More

Though I have used my blog of Victorian-Edwardian Scientific Romances, history and aesthetics as a bully pulpit for religion and science, I have deliberately attempted to steer clear of partisan politics. Though my Romanticism and my religion are intimately intertwined, I felt that politics was of a sufficiently personal and divisive nature that it was better to let it alone.

Resist as I might, the reality is that the truth is political and to speak truth has become a political act. In a more ideal world, all citizens would have a fair say in appointing representatives on the basis of whose policies offer the best solutions for organizing our societies, based in the best factual evidence and the common good. Unfortunately, the reality is that in West we have come to be casting votes for competing truth claims in systems where the vote of individual is marginalized and politicians are public relations functionaries committed to the interests of specialized lobbies. Whereas the media could once have been construed as working in the public interest (after all, exposing those dirty dogs is good for ratings) now the media is an instrument of deliberate misinformation (after all, telling people what they want to hear is good for ratings). That comes before the fact that governments are exerting ever greater controls not only over the production side of their message – what face they want to put to you – but the consumption side as well, being what information you are even able to receive.

In short, a love for nature, history, science and tradition obligates us to bring those things to bear in the public discourse. Those of us with an understanding of history and science have an obligation to inform in an age of misinformation. Those of us with a love of nature and tradition have a duty to protect them in the path of ever greater encroachments. These are values that transcend partisan politics, for these are things to which all parties should be beholden.

This is why, as a Canadian and writer of this weblog, I am coming out in support of the Idle No More movement.

As only a fraction of my audience is Canadian, allow a moment of explanation. This past October, the government of Canada began pushing through an omnibus bill with the nondescript title Bill C-45. This massive document roughly comparable in size to a Hugo, Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky novel outlines voluminous proposed alterations of Canadian law which promise to alter our society in subtle but far reaching ways. Amongst the most controversial are changes to environmental and Aboriginal policies that are clearly intended to streamline the processes of natural resource exploitation by private corporations. Specifically, it reduces the requirement for corporations to run environmental impact assessments on their operations, eliminates assessments on waterways except for a shortlist provided by the government, and allows for greater government power in dispossessing Aboriginal communities of their treaty lands in favour of corporations.

The manner in which Canada’s parliamentary system runs, Bill C-45 was processed, approved and given royal assent (for Canada is a constitutional monarchy under Queen Elizabeth II) with little debate either inside or outside the House of Commons. When a party is elected to the majority of seats in the Parliament, as is the case today, they form an effective dictatorship that is able to pass bills without opposition. Nevertheless, the First Nations community took obvious note of these changes and began a series of nationwide protests under the banner "Idle No More." Originally designed to redress injustices in Bill C-45, the movement has in turn exposed deep rifts between First Nations and the government, within First Nations communities, and in Canadian society as a whole.

Some of my reasons for supporting Idle No More are as follows…

The need for electoral reform. No political party should be able to form a government that can make policy without the consent of the people and the Parliament. Canada is one of a dwindling number of democracies utilizing the first-past-the-post electoral system, which has resulted in dynasties of false majority governments interspersed with nearly unworkable parliamentary chaos. In 1993, when I was in high school, the Liberal Party won a majority government of 177 out of 295 seats on 41.24% of the popular vote, proceeding to rule Canada for the next 13 years. In 1997, a recent right-wing economics graduate named Stephen Harper co-wrote a defense of proportional representation and political alliance called Our Benign Dictatorship:
In today’s democratic societies, organizations share power. Corporations, churches, universities, hospitals, even public sector bureaucracies make decisions through consultation, committees and consensus-building techniques. Only in politics do we still entrust power to a single faction expected to prevail every time over the opposition by sheer force of numbers. Even more anachronistically, we persist in structuring the governing team like a military regiment under a single commander with almost total power to appoint, discipline and expel subordinates.
I would agree with this Stephen Harper. However, when the opportunity presented itself in 2011, the Conservative Party led by Stephen Harper rode to a majority government of 166 of 308 seats on a popular vote of 39.6%. Since that time, Prime Minister Harper has leveraged his majority to railroad bills like C-45.

Quite simply, the political processes which allowed a far-reaching omnibus bill to pass unopposed by a government ruling without the majority consent of the citizenry never should have been allowed to begin with. Bill C-45 is a perfect example of Canada’s desperate need for electoral reform.

The need for cultural and historical understanding. Canada’s mainstream media is currently engaged in what can only be described as a deliberate smear campaign against Idle No More and the First Nations community. At every apparent opportunity, these peddlers denigrate Native persons, traditions and the race as a whole. One potent example of the cultural misunderstanding fuelling the media’s campaign is the demand by Native organizers to have the Governor General present during their talks with the government.

Though meeting with Idle No More and Native leaders in a ceremonial capacity at separate events, Governor General David Johnston has maintained that he should not be present at these talks because the Governor General is not a political policy maker. Opinion peddlers have attacked this demand by the First Nations as pithy and politically bankrupt, thus demonstrating a fundamental lack (willfully or otherwise) of understanding of First Nations traditions and Canadian history.

There are two sets of legal documents that form the foundation of First Peoples with the Canadian government. The first is the Royal Proclamation of 1763 and the second are the Numbered Treaties signed between 1871 and 1921. Cultural misunderstandings could not exist without historical misunderstandings, and one that is sometimes voiced by opponents of the First Nations is that, as a conquered people, they should not be "entitled" to any "special rights." However, the Royal Proclamation of 1763 specifically forbade the conquest of Aboriginal territories. Instead, it mandated that no Native lands should be settled by British subjects until the land was legally acquired by the Crown through agreement with the First Nations. This principle of moderation and repudiation of conquest was arguably one of the proximate causes of the American Revolution.

After the Royal Proclamation of 1763 came the Numbered Treaties. These treaties cover the vast expanse of the Canadian northwest once monopolized by the Hudson's Bay Company and were signed by chiefs of the tribes in each region to which they apply. For example, I live in Calgary, Canada, which falls under the lands of Treaty Seven, signed in 1877 by chiefs of the Blackfoot, Tsuu T'ina and Nakoda First Nations. These treaties established the reserve lands designated to each nation as well as the compensatory obligations of the government. Another historical misunderstanding, entwined with our deification of the "hardworking taxpayer" over the "responsible citizen," is that Native peoples are "getting taxpayer handouts" rather than the relatively more accurate recognition that Native peoples are getting paid rent. Germane to my point right now is that these still-binding treaties were signed between the First Nations and the Crown.

The fact that they were signed with the Crown – Queen Victoria and all her heirs and successors – is key to the legal status of the treaties. These were intended to be enduring documents, bearing the signature of the perpetual monarchy and not with any one sitting government. They are fixed in authority to our Head of State, not the Parliament. Furthermore, in First Nations societies, authority is traditionally conceived in relational terms. One is considered accountable to persons, from whom rights and responsibilities are transferred. To this day the First Nations honour these treaties as a relationship between themselves and the Crown.

Therefore it is critically important that the Governor General be present at talks between the government and the First Nations. Even if the Governor General, as the representative of the Crown in Canada, is not in a position to create policy he still represents the relationship established in the treaties. The Numbered Treaties were not signed with Stephen Harper, they were signed with the Crown. It is time for David Johnston to step forward and do his job.

That these sorts of things are not known or publicized is a deplorable level of ignorance in the very history, institutions and peoples of our society. That in itself is shameful enough.

The need for basic human compassion. More shameful yet is the state of First Nations people in Canada. Reaction to Idle No More in mainstream Canadian society has bubbled a dark undercurrent of racism to the surface... A snide parochial paternalism that looks down on the poverty and degradation of Native people as a symptom of racial degeneracy rather than the result of 150 years of cultural genocide. Epidemic poverty, physical and sexual and substance abuse, suicide, crime, and countless forms of disadvantage are not a blight on the First Nations. They are a blight on Canada.

More than that, more than racial politics or historical obligations or any such things is the simple fact that these are fellow human beings. First Peoples are people first and foremost. They are people made to live in horrible conditions both on and off reserve, living out the consequences of systemic oppression and racism. To look into the faces of these people and not be moved by such tragedy is unconscionable.

It should not be our goal, as members of the dominant society of Canada, to "fix" Native people. Such attitudes are what led to many of these tragedies to begin with. Many of us also attempt to retort that our ancestors only got off the boat 50 years ago and we didn't personally do anything to Native people so it's not our responsibility. That is not the point. The point is that there is a genuine human need that we can help to redress, using the advantages we have enjoyed to lend support to people working to help themselves.

The need to protect the landscape that has shaped who we are. Canada is not a society united by a common race, religion, or creed. We are not defined by a constitution or a revolution, and our being subjects of the Crown is a relationship that makes us no wiser as to who we are as a people. Canada is a multicultural society composed of many distinct nations occupying the second largest country in the world. Gazing into the navel of our identity has been a national pastime for generations, as our diversity prevents us from developing a unilateral cultural narrative or strong national mythology. Often the only thing that seems to unite us where we live.

That fact is the key to understanding our identity. Taking all else into consideration, I think it can be argued that what makes us Canadian is the common struggle of diverse peoples to survive together in one of the harshest and most sublime environments on earth. All those inexplicable nuances of our culture become explicable in light of this fact. Why are we able to manage a successful universal health care system that consistently evades our neighbours to the south? Because individualism is the luxury of people who aren't going to freeze to death in winter if they don't work together. Why are we so infuriatingly apologetic all the time? Because it is more important to our survival to get along than to be righteously indignant.

The story of Canada, from the First Nations who have occupied this land since there have been people in North America through our robust resource-based economy, is the story of the landscape. It is the story of three coastlines between which are stretched the vast prairies, mighty northwoods, frigid tundra, pastoral farmlands and picturesque mountains. Our hearts pulse with the seasons and water, whether we canoe on it or skate on it or simply gaze in awe of it as cascades over craggy cliffs, is our lifeblood.

I do not mean that it is our lifeblood in an existential, esoteric sort of way. As I mentioned, the strength of our economy rests in natural resources. These natural resources include lumber, pulp and paper, farming and ranching, aquaculture, mining, and tourism (the landscape itself) in addition to oil and gas. Despite the inherent wisdom of a diversified economy based in sustainable resources, the government appears committed to oil and gas extraction, which many of the Bill C-45 provisions benefit. These provisions run the risk of damaging the long-term health of our sustainable resources in the interests of the short-term gains from one non-renewable resource. Best estimates place our point of peak oil production sometime between 2005 and 2015, with about a 30 year supply left if demand increases as projected. To risk damaging Canada’s environment and therefore our sustainable resource economy in the interests of a non-renewable resource that will no longer exist by the time I reach retirement is not just idiocy. It is suicide.

Protecting the environment is an act of protecting who we are as Canadians.

The need to be authentic to ourselves. Across too many studies and surveys to bother recounting, Canada has been awarded status as one of the best countries in the world to live. According to the Economic Intelligence Unit's top-ten list, I live in the fifth most livable city in the world, preceded by two more Canadian cities. The Economist placed us ninth on their list of top countries to be born in, OECD ranked us the fifth best country in the world to live and the UN has placed us at sixth on the Human Development Index. It's been a long time since we've fit the stereotype of being insecure and envious, and perhaps we might too-well fit the new stereotype of being a bit smug.

That we rank so highly in quality of life by so many measures only sheds a stronger spotlight on the issues raised by Idle No More. We are justifiably proud of the society that we have built for ourselves, but we cannot be complacent. Our work is not done. It is not even close to done, and will not be until every Canadian enjoys the benefits of a healthy and sustainable society.

These are some of the reasons why I support Idle No More. For the small percentage of my readers who are Canadian, I would simply ask you to consider the issues if you have not already. For those beyond the Great White North, I hope this movement and this article gives you pause to consider the pressing issues of your own societies and what you can do to improve life for everything and everyone in this great adventure we all share.


gordonf said...

Excellent article! I've re- posted it to Facebook and to Twitter, where I hope it gets reposted for others to read, as it shows the hypocracy of our Prime Minister as well asthe state of Canadian democracy.

Marc Bridgham said...

Cory, even though I'm an American I want to thank you for this article and I intend to link into Idle No More. What I appreciate is the education you provided in a respectful, thoughtful, knowledge-based way, laced with a healthy dose of humanity. It is instructive for the depths to which our own political system has devolved as well. I have loved your writing and positions in regards the Romantic, and the way your faith seems to play into that. This post assures me you bring the same qualities to your political and social thinking.