(Image Credit: Flikr account Robert Couse-Baker; the image is at this link. Used without alteration under Creative Commons Licence)
When a State fails to prosecute criminal acts because they are attached to politically useful issues, it ends up undermining its own authority. Eventually, the social contract becomes vulnerable to unraveling.
FRIENDS LIKE THESE
In the wake of the discovery of unmarked graves, many of them containing the remains of children who were in Residential Schools, we are witnessing a wave of acts of violence against various church buildings, statues and monuments. It is possible to say, while remaining fully sympathetic to the First Nations people for their suffering, that this reaction is not only uncalled for but also causing further harm to the FN community. Given the sensitivity of all FN-related issues, it is impossible for a non-indigenous person to voice opinions, thoughts or questions that go against the current of what is (euphemistically) called ‘progressivism’. Therefore, it was gratifying to see several people from the First Nations community, including prominent public figures, speak out against these acts. For example, former senator Murray Sinclair who is an indigenous Canadian and served as the chairman of the Truth & Reconciliation Commission wrote on his Facebook page about the toppling of the statues of Queen Victoria & Queen Elizabeth II that:
“The people who commit these acts and those who condone them need to understand how much they set back any chance of moving the dialogue on changing the bad relationship, forward. Do you really think this is going to help? … I feel no pride in any of you who did this.”
Another First Nations Canadian Melissa Mbarki, who is an energy industry analyst, tweeted:
“Those of you who are justifying the burning of churches or (are) burning churches – stop it now! We are hearing rumors that it’s unsafe for Indigenous people to be in certain towns. Is this what you wanted? Your idiocy is putting people’s lives in danger and causing unrest/divide.”
Contrary to these calls for calm and moderation, there are many messages – usually from non-indigenous folks – with the exact opposite tone. These range from justifying the acts of arson / vandalism / hooliganism all the way to inciting more violence. One particular tweet that caught my attention was from Harsha Walia who, according to her bio, is an author and works with the B.C. Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA). The website of BCCLA contains an announcement dated January 6, 2020 that Ms. Walia was appointed as its Executive Director ‘after an extensive process’.
In her tweet, Ms Walia had quoted another tweet of June 30th by VICE World News regarding the torching of two more Catholic Churches. Ms Walia’s tweet simply said:
“Burn it all down.”
(There were loads of other quote-tweets of similar – or even identical – nature.)
My first reaction upon seeing this was that it almost certainly amounted to incitement to violence, and therefore constituted a criminal act. I also found it striking that a person who works as the executive director of an organization dedicated to civil liberties should not only have such views, but also deem it proper to voice them in public. And finally, I thought that as a Sikh (which Ms. Walia states in her bio), she would be especially sensitive to the destruction of places of worship, given what was done to the Golden Temple in 1984.
I have seen two chief arguments seeking to justify such messages. One is that vandalizing / destroying churches does not amount to violence (I think this argument has origins in the riots that erupted in the US in the wake of the killing of George Floyd by a police officer). What it does not take into account is that churches are not merely buildings or property; they are also centers for communities and, importantly, places where a good deal of socially beneficial activities go on (e.g. kitchens for the homeless and needy).
The second argument is that in millennial-speak, ‘Burn it all down’ is not to be taken literally. There is some truth to the claim; I have learned that describing something interesting as ‘sick’, or something exciting as ‘lit’ are part of the modern parlance. However, on a story regarding the burning of churches, ‘Burn it all down’ cannot be taken as anything other than its literal meaning. This is notwithstanding Ms. Walia’s feeble (in my opinion) attempt to claim that she wasn’t calling for arson, even going to the extent of calling the suggestions ‘ridiculous’. Perhaps she can explain to prominent FN entrepreneur and Indigenous relations consultant Chris Sankey, B.C. Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth and Giitwangak Band Elected Chief Sandra Larin why their assessment of her Tweet is ‘ridiculous’.
So, on one hand we have First Nations people advising restraint, while on the other hand we have non-indigenous people urging us to cast all restraint aside and inflict maximum damage. I am of the opinion that the latter group has the stance that it has because it has no interest in reconciliation. They have merely latched on to an opportunity to indulge their destructive tendencies. Today, their excuse is the trauma of the First Nations; tomorrow it will be something else. That is a disturbing enough thought – but there is a far more serious aspect of this situation.
NEWTON’S THIRD LAW
What I find especially bothersome is that, despite several people reporting Ms. Walia’s tweet to the RCMP days ago, there doesn’t seem to have been any police action taken so far (this story at Global News on July 4 about the reaction to her Tweet does not mention if any police investigation has begun – or even if one is under consideration).
This is part of a pattern. When the statues of Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth II were defaced & toppled right in front of the Manitoba legislature, where there is usually a heavy police presence, the only police action was against a man who wasn’t involved in the ‘protest’.
The official explanation given for not taking action against the agitators was that:
“(The police) did not want to further incite the crowd that had gathered”
It goes on to “commend (the) members for their professionalism… and their ability to preserve a safe environment”.
This statement throws up a few important points:
- If a crowd can demonstrate that it is capable of being ‘further incited’, it can neutralize the police,
- Defusing a volatile situation is falling out of favor,
- Allowing agitators to proceed to cause damage and destruction amounts to ‘professionalism’, and
- When agitators bent on causing damage & destruction get to have their way, we now call it a ‘safe environment’.
Without impugning the individual police officers involved in the case, it is possible to aver that the Canadian State co-operated in the commission of a crime. The question is, how did this situation develop? Normally, committing a crime invites a reaction from the State. Why has the reaction been absent in this case, and many more such cases besides, over the last little while?
This lack of reaction is in stark contrast to the case, in 2006, of a teenager who was filmed while urinating on the National War Memorial on Canada Day, and his friend (also teenaged) who did the filming. Both were spared from being charged after they agreed to apologize. Here, one crucial difference is that in that case, no permanent damage to the Monument occurred.
In another case, this one in 2015, a 22-year old man was charged with criminal mischief after he climbed on the National War Memorial and ‘fornicated’ with it. At the time, the police said that more charges were possible. Again, we must note that no permanent damage to the Monument occurred.
So we return to the question: Why has the reaction been absent in this case, and many more such cases besides, over the last little while?
My answer to this question at this point in time is that the crime is the reaction here, to the actions of the State. Both the action and the reaction are in pursuit of the same goals, viz. sowing strife & division. The State doesn’t actually want to solve the problems of the FN. Even if we leave aside the possibility of racism on the part of the government, the hard fact is that if a problem gets resolved, that fact becomes a problem to the problem-solvers; their livelihoods depend on the existence of the problem. Among the agitators, the motives can vary from the sheer glee of being able to smash things up all the way to nursing hopes of building a political career on their ‘activism’ – and various things in-between. In my view, these agitators are simply making the best use of the opportunity that is available to them. They are not the ‘prime movers’ in the situation, but rather reacting to their environment. The question is, why does the environment exist?
As someone with no direct connection with the history of Canada, I have observed that the desirable – perhaps even admirable – quality of the Canadian society to assess and acknowledge the wrongful actions in its past is now being carried to harmful extremes. Instead of the national narrative being about what makes Canada great – or at least better than most other countries – it has become about things that we should all (including newcomers with no connection to those things) be eternally ashamed of. The balance between acknowledging a shady past and remaining hopeful for a better future has been lost.
The next question is where that kind of non-stop messaging leads us.
KINGS & KING-MAKERS
My starting point is that unless forced, politicians do things that are beneficial to themselves or to their backers. Democracy is valuable in that it increases the chances of politicians being forced to do things that are in the larger public interest. The public pressure that brings about the said force is more possible when people are united. Therefore, one of the main objectives of a politician must be to keep them disunited. This can be done commonly by exploiting pre-existing fault-lines, and widening them into divides, preferably chasms. The more divides / chasms there are, the better it gets for the politician.
One way to do this is by tolerating transgressions of law by one group – even serious ones – while cracking down on another group for the most trivial or disputable infractions of law. The disparity in their respective treatment is bound to embolden the former while infuriating the latter. People who may have cooperated in pursuit of s resolution – or at least engaged in a dialogue over disputed issues – are now no longer on talking terms with each other. In popular shorthand, this is called a ‘policy of divide and rule’. People fighting against each other can be played like puppets.
Unfortunately for the string-pullers, things can get out of hand.
THE ROAD TO KANDAHAR
Let us engage in a bit of imagination as to how the situation in Canada – serious as it is – can be made significantly worse.
What if some people decide that, all the governments over the last few decades having failed to improve the lot of the FN, direct action by themselves is required? They could think of setting up roadblocks (which is not a novel idea) and collect money from all the drivers passing through, ostensibly to channelize it to the First Nations (which is a novel idea)? The State has failed to impose its writ on various fronts in an assortment of instances over the past year and half in the face of agitations. Would it be willing to bring the might of its coercive power on to these agitators? Or would the issue still be considered too sensitive / dangerous / politically detrimental to do so? In the latter case, more groups could be inspired to follow suit. It goes without saying here that there is no guarantee that the collected funds would actually reach the FN. Given human nature, in fact, the balance of probability lies in the direction of that not happening. But pointing to that possibility would be verboten in an increasingly politically correct Canada.
Afghan journalist Rahimullah Yusufzai once recounted his experience of a journey to Kandahar, after the Mujahideen had taken over southern Afghanistan. Over a distance of 22 miles, he went through exactly 44 such roadblocks. This translates to an average of one roadblock every half a mile. Comparing Canada with Afghanistan may seem ridiculously extreme, and many people may be tempted to say firmly that it can’t happen here in Canada. However, let us think of how likely we considered to be before now that a dozen churches would be set ablaze in Canada in a matter of mere days.
I sincerely hope that this kind of erosion of State authority does not happen in Canada. But we need to explore its consequences in case it does happen.
One of my favorite concepts is that of a ‘social contract’. I think we can be justifiably proud of the fine social contract that Canadian society has been able to develop over the years and decades. Its continued maintenance, however, depends on both the sides to the contract honoring its sanctity. When the State voluntarily violates that sanctity – for the personal gain of those in power – that contract comes under stress, and eventually frays. The only recourse available to the State is to use force in order to prevent any expression of dissatisfaction. In a nutshell, thus, overly selfish actions by the people in power in a democracy create conditions that lead to autocratic rule. Citizens are not disloyal because they are loyal, but rather because they are scared.
Since Prime Minister Trudeau declared Canada to be a ‘post-nation State’, I have been thinking about its meaning and ramifications. Especially, I have wondered what such a State is. From time to time, I have got different answers. In the context of this article – and perhaps beyond – I think that a post-nation State is the stage that a country is in just before it becomes a failed State. A sense of nationhood is a necessary (but not sufficient) condition for the existence of a country. Once it ceases to be a nation, it is not very long before it also ceases to be a country. It may still occupy the same territory as before, but it won’t be Canada (as we have known it). Future historians may well observe that this slide, which would take Canada from a proud country to a mere geographic expression, started when a few vandals, arsonists and those who encouraged them were not prosecuted.