(Image Credit: Account name ‘mightybutton’ on Pixabay website; the image is at this link. Used under Creative Commons Licence)
Many atrocities were inflicted on the FN by people who were convinced that they were doing beneficial work. In similar vein, today’s self-proclaimed ‘allies’ of FN only end up creating roadblocks in the path of a true reconciliation.
Late on July 16th, it was reported that Harsha Walia had resigned from her position as Executive Director of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, following the controversy that arose from her tweet in response to the burning of several churches. As expected in today’s Canada, reaction to this news was mainly divided along two extremes, with hardly any middle ground to speak of. On one side, there was a determined group of defenders of Ms. Walia’s position, still claiming adamantly that her words ‘Burn it all down’ shouldn’t be taken literally. As someone pointed out on Twitter, these defenders also form the constituency that insists, in other contexts, that “Words are violence”. This leads us to conclude that cognitive dissonance is not an obstacle for many people in today’s Canada – but perhaps this is a timeless malady afflicting the human race.
On the other side, there were people expressing satisfaction – their tone ranging from relief to delirious glee – over the fact that Ms. Walia had finally had to face consequences for her ill-advised message. In some cases, their satisfaction was tinged with the regret that her resignation had taken so long to come about.
I am sensitive to anyone’s sudden loss of a job, whether under contentious circumstances or otherwise. So my preferred way to resolve the controversy would have involved, in the immediate term, an unqualified apology from Ms. Walia for fanning the flames (almost literally) of discord over a highly sensitive issue, and later, actions that directly serve the needs of the First Nations.
Since that did not happen, my view is that the situation caused by her tweet has not been concluded in the real sense. The arguments from both sides are now in suspended animation, to be revived as and when needed. As I wrote in my earlier article ‘Structural Dysfunction’, “the arguments on both sides were frozen in time”. This incident provides us with an instance of how that process begins.
Since the matter has been terminated inconclusively rather than being settled, and because FN issues are going to be around for a while, we can expect that in the future, whenever such issues come up for debate, this incident will be dug up. I fully expect both the side to make the same argument as now, with as much vociferousness as now. The objective will be to try and shout the other side down rather than arriving at a practical measure to improve the FN’s lives or to alleviate suffering. As a result, everything that everyone does and says – now or in the future – will accrue to the detriment of the FN. This is because the motivation is solely the personal gratification of those doing or saying those things.
A MATTER OF MASS
On the same night that I saw the news about Ms. Walia’s resignation, I came upon an article titled ‘Coming to terms with a national shame’ in the magazine Maclean’s on the subject of the unmarked graves that have been in the news for nearly three weeks now. Its sub-heading caught my eye:
“The lessons from other countries that have had to confront mass graves are clear – shining a light into our darkest corers is the only way forward”.
At first, I thought that the term ‘mass graves’ was a contribution from whoever wrote the sub-heading. Reading the article, however, I saw that it was the author Adnan R. Khan’s main thrust. The article is exceedingly well-written otherwise. It weaves in various personal anecdotes from the author, narrating his experiences as a reporter on the discovery of mass graves at the infamous Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and in Afghanistan. He has also narrated his father’s experience during the Partition of British India and his German wife’s education regarding the holocaust.
My understanding of the graves on or around the premises of former Residential Schools is that these are unmarked graves, but each individual was buried separately. Therefore, calling them ‘mass graves’ is misleading, as the term evokes an imagery of a number of bodies having been dumped unceremoniously into a large hole in the ground en masse, and without the benefit of a formal burial. I feel that the author’s overarching theme of how countries can deal with shameful episodes in their past gets marred by this inapt comparison. But the issue of the FN’s maltreatment over centuries is so sensitive that offering a correction to this point opens one up to accusations of being insensitive at best, and a dyed-in-the-wool racist at worst.
More importantly, such misstatements serve to derail the main discussion about how to improve the FN’s lot in the present; the more time we spend arguing about exactly what kind of graves these are (or more generally, the exact terms used in a statement), the less time we have for devising fruitful measures for the FN.While the author may have had a genuine intention of advocating for the FN, this crucial error in his message serves the FN poorly, because it adds to the rancor.
In both Ms. Walia’s and Adnan Khan’s cases, it is safe to assume that they were trying to be helpful to the FN. On this point, they are no different from the people in the past who inflicted many atrocities on the FN. Both then and now, many Canadians acted / are acting as ‘knights in shining armor’, without pausing to consider the consequences of their actions. More specifically, they did not take into consideration what the subjects of their benevolence desired, or even what was good for them. They had their firm opinions, and the moral certitude that those opinions were the ultimate in enlightened thinking. Anybody else’s views were immaterial – including those of the FN.
This point was taught to me in my childhood.
In Hindu mythology, there are numerous stories of a person performing tapasya (a combination of meditation and penance) to appease God in order to ask for a boon. At some point in every such story, God is pleased and appears in person in front of the tapasvi (or tapasvini, in case of a woman). The first words out of God’s mouth are, “What is it that you desire?”
As a child, I was always puzzled by this. God is supposed to be omniscient, so why does He need to ask what the person desires? Doesn’t he know it already? One day, I asked my grandmother about this.
She told me that this component in the stories was meant to teach us humans that we should not assume what someone wants or needs. This is because no matter how sincere our intentions may be, and how well informed we may think we are, it is possible that our assessment of a person’s needs or wants is wrong – sometimes even damagingly wrong.
“Always confirm with the recipient”, she concluded.
NEEDS AND WANTS
When it comes to the FN, fortunately, we have a fairly clear idea of what their needs are, by virtue of a public debate that has been going on for (what seems like) an eternity: reconciliation, infrastructure and economic opportunities being at the top of the list.
For the most part, I think the fault lies in the way we seek to go about it. There are also times when ‘activism’ co-opts their issues to advance / advocate for some unrelated cause(s). Very often, these cases involve a clash between environmental concerns and economic opportunities for First Nations. The way I see it, quite a few of the First Nations issues are merely tools for ‘activists’ of assorted types to leverage for their desired ends. These incidents, in turn, provide politicians with the opportunity to either grandstand or to kick the can of policy down the road, while always claiming to have the best interests at heart for the FN. If one goes by the adage ‘the proof of the pudding is in the eating’, however, even the raw ingredients for making the pudding are not there in the kitchen.
Governments get around this deficiency by periodically announcing funding for FN needs. A pliant media does not bother to scratch below the surface on the issue of funding. The devil, as we all know, is in the details. For example, Hedy Fry, MP and the current Chairwoman of the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage, recently tweeted that the government “will provide $ 250 million directly to municipalities & Indigenous communities to support anti-gang programs”. She did not provide any clue as to why Indigenous communities are in need of anti-gang programs, or how much of the funding would go to Indigenous communities, or how the funds would be deployed (although she did take the customary / mandatory swipe at the Conservative Party in her tweet). As far as I am aware, no media outlet has asked her for such details. And this brings us to a major factor that contributes to the impasse on FN issues: a disinterested media.
Let’s take infrastructure as an example. In a recent twitter conversation, I offered my observation that, when it comes to international aid, only 10 to 25% of the funding actually reaches the target population – the rest is ‘consumed’ en route by politicians, middlemen and cronies. A First Nations individual responded to this by saying that for infrastructure projects on FN reserves, the number is even lower than that. In addition, these projects are marred by faulty design and shoddy workmanship. Which make their contribution to cost overruns and dysfunctional facilities.
Ideally, I would want to see a major media outlet – preferably the taxpayer-funded CBC – drill down on, say, a dozen projects across the nation, and produce an investigative report. If it shows proper work having been done, that’s fine with me – I am looking for information, not confirmation of a pre-held view. But I have observed that it is only when an audit report comes about on the subject that our media talks (briefly) about the inefficiencies and shortcomings of implementation of infrastructure projects in FN communities. Having given this token attention to FN issues, they go back to their regular programming. This indifference is in stark contrast to the wall-to-wall coverage (for months on end, no less) of the Mike Duffy affair or the SNC-Lavalin saga. In their world, FN and their issues exist as an afterthought. Perhaps the remoteness of these FN communities is a factor (a case of out of sight, out of mind). But one is justified in feeling disappointed when a taxpayer-funded media outlet neglects such vital matters for an important segment of the Canadian population.
MEANING WELL AIN’T ENOUGH
Exactly a decade ago, former US diplomat Peter Van Buren wrote a hilarious but tragic account of the US misadventure in Iraq, in a book titled ‘We Meant Well’. The sub-title of the book is equally instructive: ‘How I Helped Lose the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People’. He was deployed to Iraq as a member of one of the Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRT’s), and his narration of the fumbling and ill-advised actions that he oversaw (or saw) there is at once extremely humorous and enough to induce tears of sorrow in the reader’s eyes.
I think all the people who have tried to ‘help’ the FN over the course of Canadian history, including now, can collectively write a similar book – but I can guarantee that there won’t be any humor in the narration. They will all be stories of unmitigated disaster.
LEXICON It is sobering to realize that back in the day, ‘killing the Indian inside the Indian’ was considered a noble goal. This is the power of ideological zeal – it robs a person of the ability to step outside their frame of reference and consider if there could be adverse consequences of their actions. If our goal really isTRUE reconciliation between the First Nations and the rest of the Canadians (not just the government or white Canadians), then it will be mandatory for us to step outside our own frames of reference and ask THEM what should be done. Otherwise, being a self-proclaimed ‘ally’ of the FN will only exacerbate the situation and thus prolong actual resolution of their issues.