There are memes going around Facebook trying to shame people for celebrating Canada's upcoming 150th birthday. Not just shame them, actually single them out and brand them monsters.
"Canada 150 is a celebration of indigenous genocide", reads one, which provokes in my mind an odd juxtaposition of raucous fireworks outside the gates of Auschwitz.
Several of my Facebook friends have shared these and I can't resist rebutting them. What's hard to resist is the urge to lash out as I do so..that's how politics works, now, right? If you disagree with someone's thought process, that person is ignorant...evil...stupid...or some combination of the three.
Drawing back a little, I will concede memes like this have a point. Canada was founded on brutal and callous treatment of its aboriginal population, and such treatment continues today hardly unchecked. The last residential school closed in 1996. As of 2013, First Nations made up 4% of the overall population, but 22.3% of the population behind bars.
Certain law-and-order types of my acquaintances would dismiss this breezily as suggesting that natives commit almost six times as much crime as the rest of us, Q.E.D. Well, they're certainly victims of crime far more often than their numbers would suggest they should be: fully a quarter of Canada's murder victims are indigenous persons, for example.
Police tend to treat indigenous people differently, especially in cities, in many cases mirroring the way American police officers treat people of colour. Petty offences like jaywalking go not just unpunished but unnoticed if you're white (I know this, I've deliberately jaywalked in front of cruisers countless times without incident)...but try jaywalking as an indigenous person and odds are excellent you'll be detained and quite likely arrested.
And yes, there are more crimes committed. Crimes borne of a host of extremely negative, interrelated socioeconomic factors: the effects of the residential school system, which echo down the generations; the effects of your family being forcibly uprooted and its possessions stolen; the effects of crushing, almost inescapable poverty; barriers to education; a loss of spiritual/self identity; rampant substance abuse; mental illness.
There's a certain breed of person for whom all this reads like a litany of poor excuses. I know this too: I used to be one of them. "That's an insult to the vast majority of poor people who are law-abiding", I would say, conveniently forgetting even the poorest white person has scads of privilege compared to First Nations folk.
Don't believe me? Go and live on a reservation for a few years. Notice that you have to boil your water to drink it safely, and so did your parents, and so did theirs, and that's how much your government thinks of you. Notice that jobs are almost impossible to come by. Remember that by law, you can't own your home, depriving you of the single largest contributor to wealth and intergenerational upward mobility so taken for granted elsewhere. Health care is an afterthought when it's thought of at all. Domestic violence fuelled by substance abuse and, let's face it, boredom, is everywhere. And us white people JOKE about it.
What do you call a beer bottle in the woods? A Native artifact.
What do you call a HALF-FULL beer bottle in the woods? A RARE Native artifact.
A Native man goes to the unemployment office and says "I want a job. I have a strong work ethic, I'm punctual, meticulous, and can work well both without supervision and as part of a team." The man behind the desk says, "have I got a job for you. There's this White family looking for a live-in bookkeeper. Side benefits include sex with the mom and all the beer you can drink. Starting pay is $150,000/year."
"You've got to be joking!" says the Native.
"Oh, I am," the white man says. "But you started it."
Soak up that atmosphere for a while, marinate in it, and add the absolute conviction that you can never leave this behind, no matter where you go. If you tell me this wouldn't affect your propensity to commit crimes...you're not being honest with yourself.
Every few years a White Saviour comes along to tell you that all your problems will be solved if you would only abandon your heathen lifestyle, leave the reservation, go into Canadian cities and integrate into our "great society". Yeah, they said that to grandma, you think, they took her away to a "school" where they taught her how to be beaten and gang-raped and now she can only say one word, NO, that's all she says, day and night, sometimes a whisper and sometimes a scream. And now you, you white man, you want to take me off the land and bring me to a city where your cops will hound me every day of my life for things I never did and things I might do? Fuck you very much.
We have a serious, systemic, societal problem with the way we treat First Nations people. It's a problem with no easy solution: actually getting even drinkable water (which is a universal human right) to remote indigenous communities is a nontrivial undertaking. But the current governmental strategy of "don't just do something, stand there and make pretty noises!" doesn't seem to be working very well. It may well be that relocation of some communities is the only way to bring them into the fold of society. But let's not even think of doing that until we make the fold a place they'd actually want to come to. That means paradigm changes galore, education galore, and a shit-ton of empathy...if we can find any of that. It seems to be rather thin on the ground just lately.
I said all that to say this.
Canada is more than its treatment of indigenous persons, as deplorable as that is. Canada stands as a beacon of hope to immigrants and (yes) refugees the world over, and in many ways we do have it pretty right here: we still have a collective sense of we're in this together. (The United States is losing theirs: I truly believe they are on the road to another civil war).
We're not exactly known for much in the world, but I'd argue obscurity is better than infamy. Mostly what we do is let people come here and by and large be themselves...while still respecting them. Our government is by no means perfect, but at least it's trying to drag a petroleum economy into a renewable century. Yes, the way forward with Natives is a major concern and will be for many years to come...but we're not ignoring that anymore, either.
Canada is not an ideal country. But it's a country worth celebrating.