Monday, November 24, 2008

Chuck Strahl's "colour-blind" racism

Indian Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl has declared that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, intended to investigate in depth the experience of First Nations people under the residential schools system, needn't necessarily be chaired by an aboriginal person.

"The steps being taken to appoint a new chairperson to the [Commission] are based solely on finding the best person for this demanding job," he said.

Conservatives, of course, will lap this stuff up. Why should anything but qualifications matter? they will ask. Surely it's racist to hire on the basis of race or ethnicity, right? And then we'll get the inevitable out-of-context quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I listened to that speech live, incidentally, and I am fully familiar with its substance and with the context in which it was delivered. Dr. King was referring, optimistically, to a time in the future when racism would not even be a memory, a time in which all the scars of that vicious imposition had been erased.

That time is not now.

There is a difference between colour-blindness and merely keeping one's eyes shut. One doesn't have to fall into the excesses of identity politics to recognize that the effects of being racialized don't disappear overnight when overt discrimination becomes illegal. Poverty, despair, hopelessness, and major social problems including substance abuse and suicide, are all fallout from generations of ill-treatment by church and state. The playing-field isn't level, and it won't be for generations to come. It's disingenuous at best, racist at worst, to claim that it is.

Some find it convenient to blame the First Nations for the legacy of problems that Europeans left them: it's an obvious way to avoid responsibility for helping to put things right. But, on the other hand, decades of wildly shifting government policies--
from assimilation to creating dependency to "benign" neglect--have made matters worse. Clearly First Nations are not the authors of their own misfortune, but they must be the authors of their own future. And this--the creation of just such a future, not the year-after-year maintenance of a Third World present--should be assisted by humane, well-crafted policies and the necessary resources.

In other words, there is some distance to go before "character" alone will determine one's social fate. We do not live in a world of equal opportunity: some of us happened to be born well behind the starting-line, and others halfway down the track. And the degree to which these accidents of birth can be traced to policies, laws and differential treatment in the past and in the present is the degree to which we must all assume our share of social responsibility.

That means, among other things, working together to get rid of systemic barriers--structures that prevent positive change, that perpetuate past inequities and hierarchies. And one of those barriers is a concept of "qualifications" that is abstract, ahistorical and inherently biased.

When I was a union official I once debated Strahl on CFRA on the question of affirmative action in the federal public service. The government of the day had brought in the Employment Equity Act to help address the obvious lack of representation of various groups within the public service and the employee complements of private employers. Strahl's view was that "merit" alone should determine who gets a job. Did that mean, I asked, that the underrepresentation of visible minorities and Aboriginals in the federal public service was entirely due to their lack of merit? I recall that he struggled with that one.

The concepts of "merit" and "qualifications" can prove to be heavily-laden value-judgements, not merely tools to assess measurable skills. "Finding the best person," were the words that Strahl used. What qualifications should be required to fill the job of chairing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission? Technical mastery of administrative detail? Analytical ability? Of course. But what about lived knowledge? Isn't it crucially important for the head of the Commission to be intimately, intuitively aware of his or her subject-matter? Or do Europeans, once again, know best?

None of this, of course, will cut any ice with the minister. Chuck Strahl has never had much time for aboriginal people. Here is a sampling of comments he made before Harper gave him his current portfolio:

  • On gravel excavation by the Cheam Indian band: "I do not even think the land they scalped the gravel from is theirs." (The Canadian Index, May 17, 1999, Volume: Vol. 10, No. 14)
  • On Native people: "In a recent Chilliwack Progress article, Strahl compared Cheam band members to 'children.'" (Canada News-Wire, September 13, 1993)
  • On concerns that aboriginal programs for substance abuse, anger management and family violence were not being offered at a prison: "Strahl said he has little empathy for [this] position. Strahl said there is [sic] plenty of attempts to be sensitive to aboriginal culture in prison to the point at which other inmates, who are not aboriginal, are bitter about it. "If I got a letter like that, I wouldn't put it on my high-speed to do list." (Chilliwack Times, November 22, 2002)
  • On aboriginal fishing rights: "The government has an obligation to all of its citizens, not just to select groups," said B.C. Reform MP Chuck Strahl. "It cannot allow the courts to draw racial boundaries through Canada's national resources." (Windsor Star, October 16, 1999)
  • On the Nisga'a agreement: "Let us look at this Nisga'a treaty one more time. First of all it creates a state within a state, an idea which I think the Bloc Quebecois would find fairly palatable. This is sovereignty association in the heart of British Columbia." (Chuck Strahl, Hansard, May 4, 1999)

Obviously he was just the man, in Stephen Harper's eyes, to be the overseer (if I may use that term) of First Nations peoples in Canada. In office, Strahl quickly distinguished himself by vetoing a school for aboriginal kids in Attawapiskat: perhaps he believes that education is wasted on those savages.

And now the validity of the hard-won Truth and Reconciliation Commission, already in trouble before it's even underway, is under serious threat from this same government minister. The notion that such an investigation could be led by someone who has literally not walked a mile in First Nations moccasins is spurious to the point of fraud. If it's qualifications that are at issue, it is glaringly obvious that being raised as an aboriginal is a
sine qua non to carry out a job that will require the utmost in sensitivity and the keenest awareness of cultural cues, nuances and meanings.

Make no mistake: pretending that someone whose only knowledge of aboriginal life is second-hand could be the appropriate leader of this extraordinary initiative is either stupid or racist. And Chuck Strahl is not a stupid man.

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