Picture it: the year 2023. A documentary called Inside the Bathhouse has revealed the widespread abuse of crystal meth in Canada’s gay community and prompted calls for a police presence in gay bars and the closure of all bathhouses. Meanwhile, the majority Conservative government under Prime Minister Jason Kenney has voted to abolish same-sex marriage and repeal adoption rights for gays and lesbians. Both issues are before the Supreme Court, which earlier Conservative governments have stacked with sympathetic judges who are expected to side with the government. Gaybashing is on the rise, and at least 500 queer Canadians have been murdered or disappeared. Police have not made a single arrest, claiming they are understaffed. In Toronto, city council has voted to raze the Church-Wellesley Village so it can make room for a new casino complex and condo project. Gay business owners are given 30 days to vacate their properties.
It seems hard to believe, and thankfully, it will likely never happen — at least not to the gay community. Yet similar insidious and blatant attacks transpire daily for aboriginal people in this country and have for many years. The rise of the Idle No More movement is only the latest reaction to a long history of state larceny and rapacious government assaults on aboriginal rights and resources. Over the past several weeks, protesters — including the hunger-striking Chief Theresa Spence — have successfully drummed up support for this pressing cause. They are angry about more than a dozen pieces of legislation that they say will take away their treaty rights, threaten the environment and perpetuate their estrangement from Canada’s economic development. If history is any guide, they have reason to be scared.
In his important new book, The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America, Thomas King delves into the acrimonious relationship between First Nations people and the Canadian and American governments, noting, “The primary way that Ottawa and Washington deal with Native people is to ignore us. They know that the court system favours the powerful and the wealthy and the influential, and that, if we buy into the notion of an impartial justice system, tribes and bands can be forced through a long, convoluted, and expensive process designed to wear us down and bankrupt our economies.”
King’s research lays bare Canadians’ history of racism, violence and avarice when it comes to our dealings with aboriginals, dragging the carcasses of broken treaties and government promises and depositing them on the doorstep of our current leaders. Stephen Harper and Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan may have apologized for past behaviour and promised to meet with aboriginal leaders, but like the leaders of Israel or apartheid-era South Africa, they also know that justice costs money. Like in those places, Canada’s colonization of aboriginal people and theft of their land and resources has allowed the rest of us to enjoy a very nice life. Without enormous public pressure, our current leaders are likely to bury their heads in the sand and perpetuate a long tradition of waiting for natives to assimilate or die.
King skillfully points out the double standards that are rife at all levels of discourse. Yes, there are some deceitful chiefs, but this country has also been plagued with corrupt and feeble non-native leaders (let’s not forget the F-35 debacle or the sponsorship scandal. What about a glass of $16 orange juice, anyone?). White people “get to make their mistakes as individuals and not as representatives of an entire race,” King writes. What about when our leaders say it’s time for native people to stand on their own two feet and stop relying on government handouts? Why is this imperative for impoverished native people while economically ineffectual corporations like Air Canada, Bombardier and General Motors get government money, King asks.
A 2012 poll commissioned by the Association for Canadian Studies found that 68 percent of Canadians are proud of our multicultural society. Yet how can we take pride in our many cultures when one group, Canada’s first people, continue to be treated like second-class citizens? Canada’s treatment of its native people — 200 years ago and today — is a horrifying stain on our reputation. Our government needs to follow up its apologies with action; it must work hand in hand with aboriginal people and honour its treaty obligations and past promises.
Despite its flaws, the Idle No More movement presents an important opportunity for solidarity and activism toward this common cause. However, it risks fizzling like the Occupy movement unless protesters can rally around a strong leader and stick to a cohesive message. Gay people have won many rights in recent years, but we should not be complacent so long as other minority groups continue to have their rights taken away. The Sioux people have a traditional prayer: Mitakuye Oyasin. It signifies oneness and translated means “we are all related.” And we are, aren’t we?
Danny Glenwright is Xtra’s assignment editor.