Nov 30, 2018
Listen to Episode 31: Fairness for First Nations
Today’s conversation is, I think, extremely important. We’re talking about life and death situations for First Nations people in Canada, and the precarious position that many indigenous people are in because of inadequate government services. You’ve probably heard many times that Canada, a prosperous and advanced so-called first world country, features regions with third-world conditions. Almost invariably, these parts of Canada are reserves or First Nations communities.
One of the key principles that Andrea’s organization, the First Nations Child & Family Caring Society, fights for is fairness. If you live in Canada, you should get access to the same services - and the same level of service - as anyone else. The law says that this is the case. But the reality is something entirely different. And moreover, what constitutes a service? Certainly, health care and education. But what about transportation? Recently, the bus company Greyhound ceased operations in Western Canada, in part due to declining demand. But who does this affect the most? The economically disadvantaged. The disabled. The elderly. And First Nations people. Yes, we’re talking about a business decision made in a market economy. We’re talking about staggering complexities in society, culture, technological displacement, the role of government, the reduced power of government to take action, the politics of identity and spending. And we’re talking about the deeper, more fundamental issues: reconciliation, justice, land, sovereignty. And yet, as Andrea says, the principle of fairness itself? That’s simple. So what can we do about it? I think my conversation with Andrea answers this question, and opens the doors to many others.
I get a lot of emails about the show, often in reaction to the topics discussed, and with suggestions for other things we should talk about - pieces of the never-ending puzzle of what on earth is going on. One issue has come up more than most, and it’s related to what we’re talking about today. It’s the debate over what to do with historic buildings and sites, specifically those named after or that feature controversial figures. In Canada, one of these names is John A. MacDonald, a key player in the founding of Confederation and the country’s first prime minister. MacDonald was also responsible for crafting and spearheading government policy towards First Nations people. Openly in the House of Commons, MacDonald called for bringing indigenous Canadians to the brink of starvation in order to reduce expenses and get them to work harder. The policies of his government are still being felt in Canada today, despite a Truth and Reconciliation Commission and official apologies.
So what does this mean when we have statues of MacDonald in public places? Or when schools, hospitals, streets, government buildings, even pubs bear the man’s name? Some argue that it’s simple: get rid of him. Replace his name and his image with someone that represents the diversity of Canada today, or with something that is more true to Canada’s history before the arrival of Europeans. It’s actually similar to how many say we should deal with controversial speakers such as Steve Bannon or Jordan Peterson: take away the platform.
But, as usual, it’s difficult. Free speech and hate speech are hard to define and sometimes impossible to separate. Likewise, the terrible chapters in Canada’s history are what they are, regardless of what we wish it could be. Should they be given precedent over other stories? Maybe not. But some believe that if we remove MacDonald’s name, we’re also taking away the chance to confront and recognize what he did. And a people who don’t know their history… well, you know the drill.
Here’s a potential solution: instead of taking away, add context. A similar, often much more heated and even violent debate is taking place in the United States, where Confederate statues and names are abundant in the south - not to mention the Confederate flag. In some cities, such as Richmond, Virginia, there is a veritable outdoor museum dedicated to a side in a civil war that fought to keep slavery. And Charlottesville, Virginia, became ground zero for the alt-right, white supremacists and even self-proclaimed neo-Nazis in August 2017 when a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee was to be removed. How do you add context? It could be a piece of art, or plaques, or statues side by side, all representing the other narrative, and the narrative of people today who are deeply offended by symbols they see as racist and evil. Instead of replacing one story with another, tell both at the same time. Give voice to the previously voiceless, and let people figure out their own history.
How will this turn out? How should it turn out? I don’t know. It’s sensitive. The moral contours are subjective ill-defined, just like history itself. But what do you think? I’m keen to address these issues in future episodes, and you can help me by sharing your own thoughts. Get in touch on social media or by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.