In the unwritten rules of Canadian decorum, it is forbidden to assert that racism might have anything to do with the disgraceful living conditions faced by many aboriginal Canadians.
To make such an assertion in an international forum, where it might lower the world community's otherwise positive impression of Canada, constitutes an intolerable violation of the rules - in the words of Indian and Northern Affairs Minister Robert Nault, "unacceptable."
In the unwritten rules, it is axiomatic that Canadians are not racist and Canada is not a racist country. The causes of rampant poverty, unemployment, school dropout rates, disease, malnutrition, drug and alcohol abuse, imprisonment, reduced life expectancy, and youthful suicide prevailing on many reserves are complex and multifactorial. Racial attitudes are certainly not among the factors.
We know this, because whenever anyone lets inconvenient facts about the condition of Canadian Natives slip out, a cabal of white worthies arises to denounce the rule breaker and reaffirm Canada's sense of itself as broadminded, fair, compassionate, and progressive.
Canada's national newspapers enforce the unwritten rules with vigilance, denouncing the first suggestion that any of our social ills might have a racial underpinning.
Assembly of First Nations leader Matthew Coon Come broke the rules.
"Right across Canada," he told delegates to a United Nations Conference on Racism, "we have been assigned to tiny, marginal areas of land called Indian reserves - less than a few per cent of our traditional lands. The Canadian state has retained for itself the resource rights, even under our feet."
"We also recognized the racist and colonial syndrome of dispossession and discrimination that was taking place in South Africa from our own experience. My own people, the James Bay Crees, have been virtually completely dispossessed of our lands and resources," he said. "We have been deprived of our means of subsistence and our lands, and are being denied our right to benefit fully from our natural wealth and resources."
The comparison with apartheid infuriated Nault, who demanded an apology.
"With this kind of language and talk, I believe Matthew Coon Come is going to set the agenda back for many years," the Indian Affairs minister told the Toronto Star. "He's going to find it very difficult for people to do business with him if he's going to make those kinds of serious accusations, which we all take very seriously. People like myself ... are not just annoyed, we're just beside ourselves."
Annoyed enough to hint that native recipients of the $7-billion Nault's department spends every year, including money to send leaders to conferences like the one in Durban, should not bite the hand that patronizes them.
One problem: Coon Come's comments, though provocatively phrased, were accurate. Canadian Natives have been assigned to tiny reserves that constitute a minute fraction of their traditional lands. They are denied the benefits of natural resources underlying their lands. The living conditions on many reserves are, indeed, scandalous.
Nor were his comments unbalanced. According to the National Post, he acknowledged that, Canada's good reputation is "'in many ways' well deserved, as Canada was a key opponent of apartheid and provides development assistance around the world."
When Coon Come recounted the violence that followed the Supreme Court of Canada's Marshall decisions, the Post and The Globe and Mail's Margaret Wente treated dubious federal claims as known facts, and known facts as dubious native claims.
"When our people tried to obtain a moderate livelihood from the sea, white mobs burned our boats and beat our people," Coon Come told the conference. "The Canadian government intervened only to ram our boats at sea."
National Post reporter Corinna Schuler offered readers her own take on the events Coon Come described: "Violence erupted in Burnt Church last year after native traps were set illegally and fisheries officers began pulling them out. A fisheries officer had his cheekbone crushed by a flying rock in August and several days later natives accused officers of sinking two boats and ramming a skiff."
Accused? Schuler must be the only Canadian not to have seen the horrific video of fisheries officers running down native boats. She omitted to mention that whites mobs ransacked a fisheries plant at Burnt Church, and burned a religious shrine there. Or that white mobs roamed through Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, in search of hopelessly outnumbered natives, forcing police to block off roads. Or that a native boat was sunk in Yarmouth, and native lobster pots were smashed in both locations. Or that police and fisheries officers beat native fishermen in St. Mary's Bay.
Like all unwritten-rule-abiding Ontario reporters, Schuler and Wente describe the Native traps as "illegal." That's certainly Ottawa's position, but it's far from clear courts will agree. Most natives charged at Burnt Church had their cases dismissed, and Ottawa has used every legal strategy to delay a federal court challenge to their enforcement against natives in Nova Scotia.
Rest assured that Schuler's and Wente's blindness to the facts, and Nault's condemnation of Coon Come instead of the problems Coon Come cites, have nothing to do with racism.
They are complex and multifactorial.
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