I’m not sure it’s wise, for my first post on Slaw, to discuss a topic somewhat outside my comfort zone. But having just completed reading the 15,000-word cover story of the June issue of the Atlantic, by Ta-Nehisi Coates, I’m finding it hard to resist.
For those who haven’t read it, TNC’s essay is an introspective look at the United States’ “national economic plunder” of African-Americans. That plunder, as he describes it, was carried out over centuries. Worse yet – and this is the part that is most striking about the essay – much of it was rooted in deliberate federal government policy, long after slavery had been abolished, and even as Jim Crow laws were nearing their end:
An honest assessment of America’s relationship to the black family reveals the country to be not its nurturer but its destroyer.
And this destruction did not end with slavery. Discriminatory laws joined the equal burden of citizenship to unequal distribution of its bounty. These laws reached their apex in the mid-20th century, when the federal government—through housing policies—engineered the wealth gap, which remains with us to this day. When we think of white supremacy, we picture Colored Only signs, but we should picture pirate flags.
“Until we reckon with our compounding moral debts, America will never be whole,” TNC writes, making the case for reparations.
For a Canadian, it’s hard to read that and not think of the Canadian Crown’s own debt, compounded over the centuries, at the expense of aboriginal people.
By this I don’t mean to draw a direct analogy with the plunder experienced by the descendants of slaves in the U.S. The historical and legal contexts are obviously quite different.
But just like our neighbours to the South, we struggle in Canada with coming to terms with our past, as well as our present.
Sure, there have been efforts at reconciliation that have produced positive outcomes. Under the 2006 Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, over $3 billion in reparations have been paid to victims of a destructive and devastating system of forced schooling for aboriginal children that was our government’s assimilation policy for close to a century (The fund put in place to this end will continue to pay claims until 2018).
Hopefully, the settlement will go some way to repairing the relationship between Canada and aboriginal people.
We can also hope that some of the efforts that have been directed at enforcing legal treaties that the Crown ratified years ago will go some way to reversing some of the compounded damage inflicted on aboriginal communities as a result of non-compliance. Our courts have shown an inclination to order the federal government to pursue reconciliation.
And yet, Ottawa continues to be derelict in its duties to consult and accommodate aboriginal rights and interests. And it refuses to embrace reconciliation as a guiding principle and policy aim. Over the years, successive federal governments have failed to change paternalistic policies toward aboriginal people.
Alarmingly, median income for aboriginal people is 30 per cent lower than for other Canadians, according to a 2010 study by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. Status Indians working on urban reserves earn 75 cents for every dollar a non-aboriginal person makes; on rural reserves the figure drops to 53 cents per dollar. While the report highlights an ever so slight narrowing of that income gap between 1996 and 2006, at that rate, the report concedes, it would take 63 years “for the Aboriginal population to catch up to the rest of Canada.”
This wealth gap, argue the likes of Tom Flanagan, is perpetuated by a shamefully misguided legal institution, the Indian Act, that dates back to the 19th century and that removed the notion of individual ownership on reserves. It stands today as a major obstacle to leveraging economic assets to create wealth.
There’s no question that moving First Nations away from that legal institution is painstakingly hard and makes for an uneasy transition. Proof of that is the recent and sudden resignation of Shawn Atleo as the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, over disagreement among the chiefs about moving forward on government bill aimed at reforming aboriginal education.
There are those who will point to dysfunction within the AFN for this state of affairs. But in all this, Canadians, finding themselves at a bit of loss for solutions, would also prefer to ignore the fact that the poverty among aboriginal communities is deeply rooted in legal institutions that continue to drive current government policy.
Changing this mindset remains one of the greatest challenges facing this country. But we best get on with it. As TNC reports in his essay, redlining — the government-backed practice of selectively granting loans for buying property to whites only — was outlawed in 1968. That was 46 years ago, and the consequences of those destructive policies – federal government policies – are still being felt to this day. Consider the past to understand the present, he asks of his readers.
Canadians should heed that advice, or our country will never be whole.