Ignoring for the moment all the “I’m sick of my hard-earned tax dollars going to lazy/drunken/corrupt/entitled/non-taxpaying/freeloading Indians!” criticisms of the cross-cultural popular movement known by its twitter hashtag, I’d like to confront one of the criticisms that might seem a little more difficult to argue against: “There shouldn’t be different types of Canadians: we should all be equal.”
Part One: the Constitutional Historical stuff
Now, in fact, that superficially appealing suggestion is not a criticism of Idle No More. It is a criticism of decisions taken by politicians beginning in the 18th Century and continuing to today. An Act passed in 1774 by the Parliament of the United Kingdom means that a lawyer educated today in Alberta must retrain if she relocates to Quebec and wishes to practice law while the same lawyer relocating to Newfoundland will not need the same new training. And, because of that same Act, a lawyer trained in Quebec will have a steep learning curve if he relocates to English Canada. The Quebec Act of 1774, building on the “Distinct and Separate Government” clause of the Royal Proclamation of 1763, make Canada a Constitutionally unequal state: the people of Quebec are not governed by the same set of Federal laws that govern the rest of Canadians, and, as the Quebec Civil Code is Constitutionally guaranteed — and so, Federal law — those living in the other provinces are not governed by the same Federal laws as are the Quebecois. That’s right: We’ve got different laws for different people, and those laws have been upheld and sustained by centuries of parliamentary debate, First Ministers’ Meetings, Royal Commissions and Judicial decisions. If you don’t like the fact, you’re welcome to try to get a Constitutional amendment passed.
What does this have to do with Idle No More
Well, that Royal Proclamation of 1763 clearly acknowledges that the aboriginal people of British North America are “Nations” under the protection of the British Crown, just as Prime Minister Stephen Harper recognized in Parliament that Quebec is a “Nation” within Canada. Furthermore, the Treaties reinforce this recognition of the indigenous societies as having distinct and separate governments, just as the Quebec Act of 1774 did for Quebec. And centuries of parliamentary debate, First Ministers’ Meetings, Royal Commissions, Judicial decisions and the Constitution itself have upheld the fact that the First Nations, Metis and Inuit are distinct, different Nations within Canada, despite the legislative attempts for a century and a half to solve the Indian Problem through assimilation or elimination. If you don’t like it, you’re welcome to try to get a Constitutional amendment passed.
To top it all off, the Government of Stephen Harper has endorsed the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Aboriginal Peoples, which is basically a summary of everything Idle No More has been round dancing about. If you’ve got a problem with Idle No More’s demands, take it up with Prime Minister Harper. His government has already endorsed them.
Part Two: Mutterings about what “Equality” is long after I should be in bed
A fact is that Canada has institutionalized inequalities. But the more important fact is that the inequalities have been institutionalized for pragmatic reasons. The human world is not an equal place, and leaders of Canada since long before Confederation have recognized that fact. They recognized that without recognizing the fact of Quebec’s distinctness, there would be far more discord in the body politic than there has been for the last two centuries. They recognized (but quickly forgot) that the aboriginal peoples constituted a great resource of wisdom, knowledge and (they didn’t forget this bit) land rights for the new provinces.
And, more recently, they’ve realized that there are a multitude of inevitable inequalities in human society and that it is the role of Government to try to even things out a bit. That’s why my daughter gets a check from the government every month even though she’ll likely never pay any taxes or even manage to be gainfully employed. If you don’t like that you’re welcome to imagine the brutal, medieval world we’d live in if society didn’t provide help to its most vulnerable.
Now, I don’t mean to draw a link between my daughter’s disability and the indigenous people of Canada, to suggest that somehow the First Peoples are “handicapped” and we “ought to” help them out of some sort of White Morality. No. Certainly Canada has an obligation to restitution for past wrongs to individuals, such as the Chinese head tax, the Japanese internment and the Residential Schools horror. Certainly Canada has an obligation to redress past wrongs, such as the destruction of Africville, the forced sterilization of the intellectually disabled, and the systematic discrimination of the Indian Act.
“Equality” can not realistically mean “We all start at the same point, so we should all be able to get ahead if we simply apply ourselves,” which is what I fear some critics of Idle No More believe. We manifestly do not all start at the same point. Indeed, no two of us in the entire world start at the same point. I would think that societal equality truly means that every member is enabled to achieve her full potential considering her personal and wider historical and Constitutional starting point.
Idle No More, as I understand the movement, is about upholding the real Constitutional status and the true historical place of aboriginal Nations, and it is about recognizing all Canadian’s common starting point: The Treaties. In short, Idle No More is precisely about Equality.
And, more importantly, Idle No More is about the water and the air, and about every generation’s equal right to clean water and clean air.
To conclude, if you really want this “equality” you talk about, you’re going to have to ignore history, get a bunch of Constitutional amendments passed, and be prepared to live in a country scattered with physically and intellectually disabled beggars starving in the streets of polluted cities, with rivers and lakes destroyed.
Or maybe you’d really prefer the happier equality Idle No More is demanding for all of us.
Part Three: Links
You want some links to the documents? They’re all right there online. If you’re reading this, you’ve got that google right there, probably up in the right hand corner of your screen. Or you might even be able to highlight and right click or something. Make an effort, if you really are interested in learning. Google these documents. Be Idle No More.
I’m going to bed.
Royal Proclamation 1763
Quebec Act 1774
Constitution Act 1982
UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People
Canadian Government endorses UN declaration on rights of indigenous peoples