Following up on our discussion this morning of the Canadian legal system and whether it has improved in its ability to represent the best interests of aboriginal people. I think that, considering where we have come from, the courts are doing a better job than they were. However, I have time and again railed against the false comfort of downward comparisons, and I do not wish to come across as trying to make the point that we have ‘fixed’ the problem. A multi-generational history of white supremacy doesn’t get canceled out by a few court cases washed down with the tears of angst-ridden liberal settlers.
The problem isn’t that judges were white supremacists, and now they’re not, so we can stop worrying. The issue undergirding all of these problems, be they about race or gender or culture or ethnicity, is one of representation. Any supremacist system is one in which a single group of people is empowered to make decisions that affect all other groups. In Re: Eskimos, we saw an overt ‘classical’ case of white supremacy, in which aboriginal people were not even notified let alone consulted before their ethnicity was made into law. In the cases this morning, it was still up to a white judicial system* to recognize the rights** of aboriginal peoples.
No, we can’t really call a system ‘fixed’ until the people who are subject to the machinations of power are able to fairly and proportionately participate in the exercise of power. And, as I mentioned this morning, we have some cause to think that may start happening:
Her approach paid off this week when she was awarded a PhD in education from UBC, becoming part of the largest group of aboriginal doctoral students to date to graduate from an education faculty at any Canadian university in one year. The group of 11 students undertook research areas such as prison education, aboriginal children in care and family violence and healing.
Forty-three aboriginal doctoral students have graduated from UBC’s faculty of education in the past 20 years.
Now, to be sure, a handful of aboriginal people with PhDs is not “the mountaintop” to borrow a King-ism. It’s perhaps a step in the right direction. Given the way in which academia tends to rest pretty heavily on its own set of white supremacist (or at least European-rooted) axioms and traditions, there are likely to be unique cultural and racial challenges that aboriginal students face as they matriculate, but these new graduates will be in a position to contribute to academia, rather than merely being subject to its outputs. As they bring their own traditions and values to bear in their work, they can begin to push the lily-white edifice of education toward one that is more representative of the cross-section of Canadian and First Nation experiences, rather than simply the perspective of the colonizers.
This decision matches other recent developments that give me some cause for optimism that we may be seeing a meaningful and enduring shift away from a society based on racially/culturally homogenous exercise of power towards one that is more representative of the diversity that makes this country so distinct. What we cannot allow ourselves to do is rest on our laurels and imagine that all of the hard work has already been done. We are only now starting to see these gains – we serve ourselves best by redoubling our efforts and refusing to shrink from our responsibility as human beings.
The first step must be to create more opportunities for people whose agency and participation has long been denied them by an unfair system. The second step is to assist in building support structures to make success more possible once those opportunities have been seized. Somewhere in there is a step called ‘get out of the way and let people build their own things’. The nth step is profit.
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*Although I feel compelled to relax this standard a little bit, given that this isn’t strictly a ‘white people’ problem. Not a lot, though.
**A HUGE pet peeve of mine is when someone reports that a court or a government ‘grants’ rights to a group. Rights are rights. Governments and courts either recognize and agree to protect them, or they don’t. Nobody grants them.