October 27, 2000 Halifax Herald

Economic exclusion leads to confrontation

Burnt Church band members have pulled their lobster traps, the crustaceans have moved to deep water, and now the wait is on until the whole thing is replayed. And replayed it will be, because governments do not want to accept and do something constructive about what causes such confrontations in the first place - racial economic exclusion. This is the case because open acknowledgment that rampant racial intolerance against First Nations Peoples is still widespread in this country is a blight on the rosy picture of a "tolerant," caring, inclusive Canadian society that has been promoted around the world by Canada's politicians.

To rebut any denial they may try to make in regards to governmental tolerance of racial exclusion, these two factors alone speak volumes: The Mi'kmaq had to go to the Supreme Court of Canada to acquire the wherewithal to fish the deep as did our ancestors, and First Nations are almost always forced to take the court route to have wrongs righted. The only negotiations governments are interested in is: We dictate, you accept.

Perhaps these words, included in a report about the conditions of the Mi'kmaq submitted by Dr. Thomas Robertson in 1936 to the Privy Council, best expresses the “why” of the exclusion: "The opinion of the man on the street is that the Indian is lazy, useless and himself responsible for his present conditions. However, a study of the record of each individual shows that the great majority of the Indians are good workers and that his present condition is due to matters over which he has little or no control.... No one will employ an Indian today; he is a ward of the government."

Things haven't changed much since 1936. Many white critics still refuse to see the fact that Native people can't work when they can't get jobs because of their racial origins and lack of empowerment. Today, with a population of 25,000 residing in the Atlantic area, not one Mi'kmaq has ever been appointed to the Senate, elected an MP or MLA, appointed a deputy minister, headed a major corporation - the list seems endless. This state of affairs is an unenviable, sick monument to the racism that the region's indigenous Peoples have been subjected to since the European invasion began.

Perhaps the next few decades will see positive change. To this end, there is some movement towards inclusion beginning in the private sector. For instance, on October 6, I attended a Nova Scotia Bar swearing-in ceremony where Candy Palmeter was admitted to the Bar. The notable thing about it is that she is the first Mi'kmaq ever made an associate of a major law firm. Perhaps the government will now follow. But shouldn't it be leading the charge in breaking down these invisible barriers?

Another thing that should be noted is the silence of the region's human rights commissions. To date, none of the five in the Atlantic area have made public protestations to a government of Quebec, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia or Newfoundland about the continued exclusion.

Is the cause of this non-involvement a lack of independence from government control? Or is it a lack of interest caused by the fact that we're a people who have virtually no empowerment and, thus, these Commissions can expect that searching questions will never be asked by their political masters about their lack of action? If these Commissions can't be more proactive when a long-term, scandalous human rights violation situation festers in front of their collective noses, why do we have them?

The federal human rights Commission doesn't fare much better. Each year, in its annual report to Parliament, it makes representations about the dismal performance of the federal government in knocking down the barriers that prevent the inclusion of First Nation Peoples. Yet after the report is made, it sets on its laurels and remains mute until it files it's next annual report.

Resulting from this lack of aggressive intervention by Human Rights Commissions, racial intolerance - fuelled by invented demonizing stereotypes - continues against First Nations Peoples unremittingly. Barely a day goes by without some uninformed garbage, reflecting white supremacist thinking, being reported in the news media. In fairness, it must be stated that intolerance for the differences of others is not just the prerogative of the right-wing. I've often heard repugnant statements of intolerance made by social-conscience liberals that are the equal of those made by the far right. No one should ever be ostracized or ridiculed by either faction just because they have a different viewpoint.

If a peaceful and productive relationship is to be established between First Nations and the rest of society, then governments must be seen ready to move in that direction. Today, this is not the case. Such is amply demonstrated on many fronts - in particular, by their refusal to engage in constructive aboriginal and treaty-rights negotiations and the lack of First Nation empowerment. The fact that the Mi'kmaq and other First Nations have had to resort to the courts to have recognition of historic rights speaks volumes about the preference of governments for legal struggles, instead of constructive dialogue.

Canadians need to know that oppressed Peoples will not wait forever to have doors that have remained firmly closed to them opened. Sooner or later, they will kick them open. Voluntary inclusion will end confrontations; exclusion will enure they continue!

Daniel N. Paul


Home   Column Index 2000   Web Site Map