The following is a version of a parable I’ve told repeatedly over the years. The conversation at the end is a paraphrase of one I had with a friend while compensation for the families of Japanese-Canadian Internees was being considered.
Once upon a time a society quietly decided to take a family business away from a certain individual simply because of the way certain genes were expressed. The business was given by the government to another member of the society whose genes were expressed differently. The dispossessed family went off to live on the other side of the tracks where they lived a very hard life, looking across the tracks, knowing that they weren’t allowed to enjoy what was right there for them to see. They grubbed through garbage cans trying to survive.
Back at the family business, the new owner walked into a going concern. He worked long hours behind the counter (which he got for free) in the building (which he got for free) and he sold the goods (which he got for free) and when those goods were gone, he used part of the revenue to pay for more goods. In time this member of society passed the business (which he got for free) on to his son (as his daughters had all married [as, of course, had his son]). The son now had a thriving business which he received for free, merely because of the expression of certain genes. He continued the tradition of his father.
The government maintained the dispossessed family on near starvation rations, provided limited funds, but a Minister had to agree to every single purchase made with those funds. The family had to submit requests to the Minister: a toy for my child at Christmas, medicine when she is sick, a funeral for Grandma, school supplies for the children. And the Minister would make the decisions on what, if anything, could be purchased
The family on the wrong side of the tracks was still looked down upon by the members of the family who had been given their business, as though it were somehow a moral failing that had caused the removal of the fruits of their labour. The members of the family who were given the business complained that the people on the other side of the tracks were getting “special rights” and “free money”, that it was “reverse discrimination”. These members did not appreciate that they had been given a gift by society at the expense of others. They refused to acknowledge the debt they owed to others for the high place they had been given in society.
The people on the other side of the tracks could not find a way to get back across. Despite what were being described as “special rights” they still found themselves going through the garbage to make a living. If any of the daughters of the family actually managed to struggle across the tracks to try to make a better life for themselves and a better society for all, too often they were chased back, or beaten, or raped and killed for their trouble. The member of society who stood behind the counter shook his head when he read of these incidents and said “act of a madman” “Those people on the other side of the tracks should be satisfied with their special rights” or “I work hard for what I’ve got; you don’t hear me bleating about inequality,” or “I’m sick of them pissing away my tax dollars.”
A paraphrase of an actual conversation
“Japanese man emigrates to Canada in 1920. Marries. Works hard. Saves money. Has a son. Buys a little store. Works hard. Saves money for son’s education. WW II starts. Government takes store and assets. Ships family to Internment camp. Auctions assets to White Guy for a pittance.
“White Guy gets married, has a kid, uses new found wealth to send son to university. Son becomes Doctor.
“Meanwhile, war ends, Japanese-Canadian family let out of internment with nothing. Work hard. Eventually son gets janitorial job at hospital.”
At this point in the story I say to my friend “this is why the Government is paying compensation to the descendants of war time internees.”
My friend says “I can see that …. but it’s not the same for the Indians!”
My friend’s grand parents had been given still-disputed land by the government when they came to Canada.
There are, of course, big differences between the crime Canada committed against its citizens in the Internment and the ongoing crime against the aboriginal peoples. Perhaps the major difference is that while most First Nations are parties to legal instruments binding on the Government (the Crown), much like, but more foundational than the Constitutional guarantees that should have protected Japanese Canadians , the First Nations’ legal instruments have been consistently violated by the Crown for several centuries leading to a general ignorance in the non-aboriginal community of what the legal situation actually is. The actual legal situation is that First Nations agreed to share their land with the Crown in exchange for certain modest but perpetual payments. For virtually the entire history of the Treaties, the Crown has reneged on its promises.
I’m sure many would like to go on about “old pieces of paper” and “it’s not practical” and “get over the past”. I say to those people: the Treaties are protected in the Carter of Rights and Freedoms – if the Crown can toss one Right out unilaterally, our Rights and Freedoms are all in danger; and, would it not be more practical to follow the Treaties to self-sufficiency than to continue the cycle of poverty?; and, please, “get over the past”? When has “Get over the past” been something to be said to victims of genocide? And, I would ask those people, how can a person so easily see the justice of compensating Japanese Canadian internees and then say (in a panicked voice) “But it’s not the same for the Indians!?”
It is time for all Canadians who care about our Constitution, about the Rule of Law, and about, dare I say it? Peace, Order and Good Government, to be Idle No More!