Red Cross emergency mission to Indian reservation exposes Canadian apartheid
PM Harper's prohibition propaganda of fear ignores children living in poverty
by Perry Bulwer
I have previously written on this blog about how Canada's Christian fundamentalist Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, is an ideologue who insists on implementing public policy based on political dogma rather than scientific evidence. His insistence on not only perpetuating but expanding the disastrous war on drugs is a glaring example of that.
Evidence from around the world conclusively demonstrates that the prohibition of drugs has been one of the most perverse, deadly, costly and ineffective public policies ever. All the myths, lies and propaganda propping up prohibition have been exposed and scientific evidence proves that decriminalization and/or legalization of all drugs achieves the goal of harm reduction prohibition sought but failed to achieve for the past 70 or 80 years. The only country to abandon prohibition policies so far is Portugal, where all drugs were decriminalized 10 years ago, but based on the results more countries are certain to follow. In Portugal, where drug addiction is now treated as a public health issue rather than a criminal issue, drug use by youth is steadily declining, drug related deaths are down as are rates of communicable disease. When decriminalization was first proposed most Portuguese were opposed to it, but now with such obvious benefits no one is clamouring for the bad old days of prohibition.
Watch the opening statement in this debate for an excellent overview of the failed drug war
Janus Forum - Should the US Legalize Drugs? from Brown University on Vimeo.
Recently, Prime Minister Harper publicly reiterated his refusal to allow scientific evidence to inform his drug policies when responding to reporter's questions in Vancouver, ironically, at the reopening of Science World. Four former mayors of Vancouver had just endorsed a call by a new coalition of experts in British Columbia demanding the end of cannabis prohibition, which the current mayor later also endorsed.
A new coalition of B.C. health, academic and law enforcement experts is calling for the legalization and regulation of marijuana, saying existing laws only drive the billion-dollar industry underground and fuel gang violence.
Stop the Violence B.C., which comprises dozens of police officials, doctors, university professors, legal experts and more, released a report today titled Breaking the Silence, which aims to show that marijuana prohibition, while well intentioned, has been ineffective — and, in fact, has adverse effects.
All of those professional experts, and many others around the world, have examined the available evidence and come to the only reasonable conclusion possible: prohibition is a drastic failure that makes things worse, not better. But none of those expert opinions or their overwhelming evidence can move an ideologue like Harper. When asked if he would ever consider legalizing and regulating cannabis he responded:
“That won’t happen under our government. We’re strongly opposed to the legalization of drugs. Obviously, we’re very concerned about the spread of drugs in the country and the damage it is doing to our kids.”
[Update April 4, 2012: the link above where that quote came from is now dead. It was on the Vancouver Sun website, but the article has disappeared. I found another report of that event at this link: http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2011/11/26/marijuana-laws-legalization-canada-stephen-harper_n_1114388.html The quote above is slightly different in this report: "No, it will not happen under our government," Harper said. “We're very concerned about the spread of drugs in the country and the damage it's doing and as you know we have legislation before the House [of Commons] to crack down." This issue of link rot, or dead links, is a big problem for bloggers who rely on linking to sources, which is one reason I have archived entire news articles on my other blog.]
First, Harper makes it very clear that he is not interested in science, even though he made that statement at a ceremony for an educational science center. He is definite about it. Nothing could change his mind. Ending prohibition will not happen under Harper's government no matter what the evidence shows. That is the epitome of political dogma, though I have no doubt that it is partly informed by Harper's religious dogma as a practising member of the evangelical Christian and Missionary Alliance. After all, fundamentalists are not concerned about evidence and facts.
Second, the demagoguery in Harper's statement not only discounts facts and evidence, but it also deceptively gives the impression that he is concerned about the welfare of children. Children are a favourite subject for political fear-mongers because they can imply that anyone who opposes them is endangering children. However, the reality about drugs and children is that the myths, lies and repercussions of prohibition present greater dangers to children and teens than drugs themselves. Canadian children can access cannabis and other illegal drugs easier than legal but deadly drugs such as prescription medication, alcohol and tobacco because those are strictly regulated. Legalizing and regulating drugs now prohibited would both reduce the spread of drugs and protect children, as the Portuguese have found. Furthermore, there simply is no evidence that there is a crisis of drug use spreading across the country and damaging children. Harper just made that up. The real national crisis causing untold damage to hundreds of thousands of Canadian children is not prohibited drug use, but poverty and the hopelessness it creates.
If Prime Minister Harper was truly concerned for the welfare of children he would be proactively doing everything in his power to ensure that no Canadian child lives in poverty. But he is not, even though protecting the most vulnerable citizens should be one of the basic functions of government. As I wrote in a previous post, on his official website Harper shows more concern for stray cats than children living in poverty. Oddly, I could not find a search function on that site. I easily found references to protecting cats, but I could find nothing about protecting children through poverty reduction and housing programs. In one of the richest countries in the world hundreds of thousands of children still live in dire poverty without basic necessities of life, and our Christian Prime Minister never says a word about it. Perhaps he misunderstands the scripture that says "suffer the little children".
It has been more than 20 years since the House of Commons unanimously resolved to end child poverty by 2000, but a national advocacy group says it's shocked by how little progress has been made.
While the economy has more than doubled in size since that 1989 resolution, the incomes of Canada's poorest families have stagnated, Campaign 2000 says in its 20th annual report card on child and family poverty released Wednesday.
"Every year I am shocked by the lack of progress made in poverty eradication," said Laurel Rothman, national co-ordinator of Campaign 2000. "The gap between rich and poor families has continued to widen, and low-income and average-income families are left struggling to keep up."
The group says 639,000 children still live in poverty in Canada — one in every 10 children. Among aboriginal children, the rate is one in four. [emphasis added]
I do not think anyone aware of Canadian history is surprised that aboriginal children suffer from poverty at higher levels than other children. There has been two hundred years of colonial, institutional, and governmental racism in Canada, epitomized by the Indian Act under which the Indian reserve system was set up. South Africa frequently looked to that system as an example for their own segregation policies and apartheid system,and when criticized government officials would use the Canadian experience to justify state racism and discrimination. [Note: CBC has removed the article at that last link from their archive. It reported that South African officials visited Canada to learn from the Indian Reservation system how to implement apartheid. This article in the archive makes a similar argument: http://www.cbc.ca/archives/categories/politics/international-politics/canada-and-the-fight-against-apartheid/apartheid-in-canada-babb-to-visit-peguis-indian-reserve.html
Now, 20 years after South Africa abandoned its segregation program, apartheid in relation to Canada is back in the news.
TORONTO, Nov. 30, 2011 /CNW/ - As the UN climate summit gets underway in Durban, South Africa, a group of anti-apartheid activists and African non-governmental organizations are calling on Canada to restore its reputation as a leader on global issues, which has been tarnished by Canada's active promotion of the tar sands. A full-page ad in the Globe and Mail compares the Canada that was one of the first western countries to impose sanctions against the apartheid regime in South Africa in 1986 with the Canada's failure to date to respond to global warming, which will have serious social and environmental impacts. The text of the ad reads:
"Canada, you were once considered a leader on global issues like human rights and environmental protection. Today you're home to polluting tar sands oil, speeding the dangerous effects of climate change. For us in Africa, climate change is a life and death issue. By dramatically increasing Canada's global warming pollution, tar sands mining and drilling makes the problem worse, and exposes millions of Africans to more devastating drought and famine today and in the years to come. It's time to draw the line. We call on Canada to change course and be a leader in clean energy and to support international action to reduce global warming pollution."
They are right to criticize the Harper government's regressive environmental policy, which ignores facts and evidence, just like its drug and crime policies. But I find it a bit dismaying that those anti-apartheid activists seem to be unaware that a kind of apartheid still exists in Canada, though to be fair, saving the environment is perhaps more important than saving humans since without a livable environment there will be no humans to save. Yes, Canada did eventually oppose South African apartheid, but did so while continuing its own discrimination policies under the Indian Act, which essentially makes First Nation peoples wards of the federal government. The Indian Act is apartheid legislation in part because it is the means by which the Canadian government segregated the original inhabitants by pushing them onto small reserves after most of their traditional lands were expropriated, while at the same time attempting to assimilate them into settler culture through oppressive laws and institutions that denied many their basic human rights.
At the same time environmentalists were rightfully trying to shame Canada for endangering the planet environmentally, a Red Cross emergency mission to an Indian reservation may have been an even greater international embarrassment for the Harper government by exposing the deplorable effects of Canadian apartheid today. It has been common knowledge in Canada for many decades, at least to those who cared to look, that conditions such as infrastructure and services on many First Nations reserves are sub-standard compared to the rest of Canadian society. Under the Indian Act, the responsibility for providing those things on reserves falls to the federal government, whereas it is provinces and municipalities who provide them for everyone else. However, while provinces and municipalities have legislation and codes that ensure minimum standards for infrastructure and services, the federal government has no similar legislation to protect those living on reserves, only policies that can be changed at the whim of fickle, dogmatic or demagogic politicians.
Here is how a United Nations Special Rapporteur described the situation of human rights and fundamental freedoms of indigenous people in Canada in a 2004 report. The summary of that report lists many of the effects of Canadian apartheid on First Nations people:
Economic, social and human indicators of well-being, quality of life and development are consistently lower among Aboriginal people than other Canadians. Poverty, infant mortality, unemployment, morbidity, suicide, criminal detention, children on welfare, women victims of abuse, child prostitution, are all much higher among Aboriginal people than in any other sector of Canadian society, whereas educational attainment, health standards, housing conditions, family income, access to economic opportunity and to social services are generally lower. Canada has taken up the challenge to close this gap.
Ever since early colonial settlement, Canada’s indigenous peoples were progressively dispossessed of their lands, resources and culture, a process that led them into destitution, deprivation and dependency, which in turn generated an assertive and, occasionally, militant social movement in defence of their rights, restitution of their lands and resources and struggle for equal opportunity and self-determination.
Aboriginal peoples claim their rights to the land and its natural resources, as well as respect for their distinct cultural identities, lifestyles and social organization. Current negotiated land claims agreements between Canada and Aboriginal peoples aim at certainty and predictability and involve the release of Aboriginal rights in exchange for specific compensation packages, a situation that has led in several instances to legal controversy and occasional confrontation. Obtaining guaranteed free access to traditional land-based subsistence activities such as forestry, hunting and fishing remains a principal objective of Aboriginal peoples to fully enjoy their human rights. So does the elimination of discrimination and racism of which they are still frequently the victims. In some cases, taking advantage of development possibilities, Aboriginal people have established thriving business enterprises. Much more needs to be done to provide such opportunities to all Aboriginal communities in the country in order to raise employment and income levels.
The date of that UN report, 2004, is important in this context. A year later, in November 2005, then Prime Minister, Paul Martin (Liberal) met with the premiers and First Nations leaders in Kelowna, B.C. The result became known as the Kelowna Accord, which would have allotted $5 billion towards ending some of the gross inequities faced by aboriginal peoples as identified by the United Nations. However, just days later, Martin's minority government fell, an election was called, and Stephen Harper's Conservative party took over. Harper walked away from the agreements signed in Kelowna, choosing instead to ignore the problems, until forced to face the facts of dire poverty and homelessness on many reserves by one brave band Chief, Theresa Spence, who declared an emergency in her community of Attawapiskat after years of government neglect. That declared emergency, by the way, was ignored by the federal government until the Red Cross and the media became involved. But the government's immediate, patronising response was to blame the victims, offer unworkable suggestions for emergency shelter and send in an accountant, rather than expedite an emergency response to protect the lives, including infants and children, of those living in frozen squalor in one of the richest countries in the world.
After reneging on the Kelowna Accord and being in power for six years, what has Prime Minister Stephen Harper done to alleviate these long-standing problems and disparities his government has legal obligations to ameliorate, both nationally and internationally? Nothing but maintain the deplorable status quo. Here is what the Auditor General of Canada wrote recently, in a June 2011 report:
Lack of clarity about service levels. Most of the services provided to communities throughout Canada are the responsibility of provincial and municipal governments, but this is not the case on reserves. Under the Constitution Act, 1867, the federal government has exclusive authority to legislate on matters pertaining to “Indians, and Lands reserved for Indians.” INAC has been the main federal organization exercising this authority. While the federal government has funded the delivery of many programs and services, it has not clearly defined the type and level of services it supports.
Mainly through INAC, the federal government supports many services on reserves that are normally provided by provincial and municipal governments off reserves. It is not always evident whether the federal government is committed to providing services on reserves of the same range and quality as those provided to other communities across Canada. In some cases, the Department’s documents refer to services that are reasonably comparable to those of the provinces. But comparability is often poorly defined and may not include, for instance, the level and range of services to be provided. [emphasis added]
Prime Minister Harper's failure to make any progress towards dealing with the inequities faced by the First Nations peoples actually makes things worse for them. Lower levels and qualities of service than other citizens receive means that those on reserves slip further and further behind, which the current emergency has made all too clear. But there is another way Harper has made things worse. Speaking in the House of Commons, Harper callously suggested that it was the people of Attawapiskat and their band leaders who were to blame for the crisis of poverty, homelessness and sub-standard housing. If there was an undertone of racism in Harper's comments (they were definitely patronising), his ineffective response to the crisis could be seen as overt racism. After all, it is difficult to imagine Harper offering unworkable suggestions and sending only government observers and an accountant to a non-reserve community that has declared a life threatening emergency. Moreover, the subtle racism in Harper's speech and actions is reflected by many citizens across Canada, considering the comment sections of online newspapers, which are filled these days with utter ignorance and blatant racist attitudes towards the first peoples. With such attitudes openly expressed by politicians and the public, it is understandable why the Assembly of First Nations just passed a resolution asking the United Nations to have a 'special rapporteur' to once again investigate whether the government is fulfilling its legal obligations towards indigenous people.
The optics are not good for Canada, which is slowly losing its progressive reputation under the dogmatic, backward looking, conservative government of Stephen Harper. It is an international embarrassment that twenty years after the government of South Africa ended its apartheid program, Canada still has its reserve system that inspired that apartheid. The fact that this current crisis exposing Canadian apartheid is happening in the community of Attawapiskat is extremely ironic considering that there is a De Beers diamond mine just 90 kilometres away. Reminiscent of South African apartheid wherein the state enabled exploitation of indigenous peoples by corporations, De Beers has so far extracted about half of the estimated $1 billion worth of diamonds the mine is expected to yield. The company has pledged just $30 million, or three percent, of that total yield to the original inhabitants of the land the mine is on.
Perhaps it is time for the world community to pressure Canada into ending its colonial policies and apartheid system under the Indian Act, just like it did to end South African apartheid.
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