Canada taking steps forward in race discussion

Every now and then I spot a news item that makes me optimistic that my vision of Canada as a model of multiculturalism might actually come to pass. As I’ve said, I think that Canada is in a unique position to host people from all over the world without forcing them to comply to an overwhelming and jealously-guarded national identity. And things like this are maybe a step in that direction:

A shared concern to preserve their distinct languages and culture by first nations in British Columbia and minority ethnic groups in China have brought representatives from the two groups together. Following discussions between the groups, aboriginal people here feel there is a need for language protection legislation, which is already in place in China. The Chinese delegation learned new ideas on how to implement projects within smaller communities, said Tracey Herbert, the executive director of the First Peoples’ Heritage, Language and Cultural Council.

I’m a fan of Star Trek: The Next Generation. The show explores some themes that, if they hadn’t been already universal, would have been almost prophetic. One of the characters that I found particularly compelling was that of The Borg – a collectivist civilization that had completely abandoned individual autonomy in favour of a hierarchical regimented existence. It would go from place to place, swallowing up entire civilizations into their hive-mind.

The fear experienced by the crew of The Enterprise when confronting such overwhelming obliteration of individuality is certainly akin to that felt by new immigrant Canadians. In order to prevent traditions that they see as valuable from being completely swallowed up by the lure of conformity, the Chinese community has sought allies in the First Nations community. Amazingly, this was not an example of a post-industrial civilization engaging in one-sided exploitation of a minority group, but an equitable sharing and exchange of ideas.

Now I will be the first to admit that this kind of co-operation threatens me as a rich, English-speaking, privileged male Canadian. I am acutely aware of the fact that the hair on the back of my neck stands up when I see two groups with which I do not identify work together to change the status quo that puts me at the top of the heap, but that’s my own problem to deal with. I can tamp down that fear somewhat by recognizing that whether you were born somewhere else, or your parents were, or it’s been hundreds of generations since your people came to this land, we are all Canadians. As long as our focus is to make this country stronger and more just, I’m fine being knocked down a couple of pegs.

Of course, in order to take steps forward, we need to acknowledge our own history:

Saint John’s black community is appealing directly to the Queen Elizabeth for an apology for a 1785 decree that severely restricted where they could live or fish. Saint John is celebrating the 225th anniversary of the royal charter that created the southern New Brunswick city. But that same charter made white loyalists the only free citizens of the city and black loyalists, who fought for King George III in the American Revolution, with few exceptions, were denied the right to live or set up businesses within city boundaries.

This is an interesting bit of history that I wasn’t aware of. Apparently under the charter that created the city of St. John, its black inhabitants were not granted the rights of citizens. They were barred from living within the city’s walls or fishing in the outlying rivers. Even though they helped build the city, they were disallowed from reaping the fruits of their labour – not because of systematic, subtle racism, but because of an official decree.

Pop quiz time! What is the subtext of the following comments?

“Just think though , if it wasn’t for the British and American slavery practices most of the North American black population would still be living in some oppressive, 3rd world, war torn African country trying to get refugee status to live here in Canada.”

“Why would someone apologize for something they had no control over? Better call Ghosthunters to call the dead.”

“Get a life people of the St. John’s Black Community !!! What happened in 1785 happened. That’s it. And you don’t deserve an apology from someones great great great great great grand daughter for something that happened to your great great great great great grand parents.”

If you guessed “Get over it, black people!”, you’re right!

There’s a pernicious lie that you’ll see pop up in any discussion of immigration or minority civil rights – “the white man built this country, and if you don’t like it you can leave!” At least part of the reason this lie gets repeated so much is because we fail to recognize the history that underlies (and directly causes) our present-day realities. Africa isn’t war-torn because Africans are dispositionally warlike – it’s because it was financially exploited by Europeans, beginning with slavery. The apology is not to appease some ghosts, it’s to force present-day Canadians to own up to our history. We did these things – ignoring them is to lose the lessons they can teach. The white man didn’t build this country, he just wrote the history books and the laws.

If you’re not interested in improving the racial climate in Canada that’s your right. However, sitting on the sidelines and sniping at those who are actually putting in the work makes you look like an asshole at best, and a racist asshole at worst.

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