Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Collateral damage

The Globe and Mail's Christie Blatchford thinks with her gut, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. But the gut has a limited repertoire. We need more.

Once upon a time, repelled (rightly) by Canada's treatment of First Nations people, and in particular the Ontario government's collaboration with Big Mining to despoil Indian lands and jail their leaders, she preached aboriginal revolution:

Native pleas for genuine negotiation--whether in these specific cases, where they want the provincial Mining Act, which allows private companies to stake mineral rights on anyone's land without having to bother with getting permission, at least on the table for review, or in the sweeping land claims which drone on for decades--go unheard. Their letters to everyone from premiers to department heads and provincial coroners go unanswered. Their reports on poverty and suicide rates get no response.

And at the end of it all, in various courts across the country, government lawyers mouth words like "reconciliation" and "conciliation" with an ease that their collective daily conduct--they appeal every loss, fight on every technicality, argue for the harshest punishments, stall and obfuscate--utterly belies.

A national day of action? After yesterday, a national day of insurrection sounds more in order.

But now, following a lawsuit by a couple who were trapped in a no-man's-land in Caledonia, she is singing quite a different tune. The native protesters are all violent thugs and bums, the police are unnaturally compliant, and a decent family is slowly allowed to come apart at the seams by what appears to be deliberate Ontario government inaction.

Predictably, other commentators are falling into line: the Natives are restless
, and it's high time for the cavalry to put down the lawless hostiles, because the insurrection that Blatchford welcomed last year is actually happening.

My sympathies are with Dave Brown and Dana Chatwell, by the way. At this point, of course, I have no idea of the Native side of the story so far as the couple is concerned. Clearly the latter have been through a lot, and suffered much. No one in Canada should have to live in a war zone, as they have done for years. I hope that they win their case against the Ontario government.


They are two people, in the grip of forces well beyond the horizons that Blatchford draws for us. On the one hand, there is an outstanding land claim; on the other, the usual foot-dragging governmental response, jurisdictional ping-pong, and all of the other deliberate ploys that Blatchford was so on top of in her earlier article back in May, 2008.

Don't we need that missing context, not to excuse what happened to the couple, but to understand it? Doesn't a solution to the Caledonia issue require far more than a cash settlement for a couple caught in the crossfire?

People do not behave well in conflict. The First Nations protesters are angry, and anger tends to extinguish common humanity. The Ontario government, not wanting a repeat of Mike Harris' cavalry charge into Ipperwash, not to mention the SQ's cavalry charge into Oka, is stymied by indecision. Brown has been doing cocaine and swilling alcohol, which, frankly, I'd be doing too in his situation.

Something has to give. We all know that. Perhaps, at long last, it is time for the McGuinty government to stop siding with mining interests and jailing Native leaders, and for both federal and provincial levels of government to stop evading their responsibilities towards First Nations people, stop the inexcusable delays in land claims negotiations, and get to work.

A lawsuit by an ill-treated couple is unfortunately, in the grand scheme of things, a minor matter. But that doesn't make it insignificant. It is always important to realize that abstract "issues" have flesh-and-blood consequences, and sometimes that point must be driven home. Because of Blatchford's engaging account, our own passions for justice are aroused. But "observing" the Caledonia conflict from a mediated distance as most of us must, we would be better served, I think, with a far wider lens.

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