Aboriginal Rights

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This week the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal found that the federal government has discriminated against Aboriginal children by under-funding child welfare services compared to funding that provinces provide their non-aboriginal citizens. The Finance Minister is meeting this week with indigenous leaders to see what can be done to rectify the situation.

Anyone who has spent even a brief time working on aboriginal issues will not find this surprising unless – like members of the Fraser Institute or the previous government (which stalked and harassed the woman who brought the complaint) – they are in complete denial. Ever since Paul Martin put a 2% cap on growth in transfers to First Nations as a (supposedly temporary) budget restraint measure back in 1997, things have been growing worse and worse for aboriginal programs and services.

While populations have grown at the fastest rate of any group in the country and other cost factors have often risen faster than the cap, already underfunded communities have fallen farther and farther behind. According to an Auditor General’s report, funding for education is more than $2000 per student less for on-reserve schools than are received by provincial counterparts. To put that in perspective, First Nation schools – who generally don’t have the advantages of the shared services of a larger school district – receive 15-20% less funding than a provincial school a few miles down the road. It makes it difficult for them to recruit and retain teachers let alone offer the full range of programs kids need in a modern world.

Some commentators have said that the problems of aboriginal people will not be solved simply by opening our collective wallet and throwing money at them. This may be true – but opening our wallet is probably an excellent and necessary first step.

Real solutions are more complex but aren’t hard to envision. Aboriginal people need – first and foremost – to be funded at similar levels as other Canadians for core services but they also need to have the ability to take control of their own destinies by having full access to economic development opportunities and by establishing their own systems of governance.

In Nova Scotia, for example, the Mi’kmaw took control of education nearly twenty years ago through a formal self-government agreement with the federal and provincial governments. Their students now perform and graduate at rates higher than their provincial counterparts, meeting provincial curriculum standards and, at the same time, giving their children the opportunity to learn their own language and culture as part of the local school programming.

Solving the problems caused by over a century of deliberate and systemic discrimination under the paternalistic control of the Indian Act and the department it spawned will take more than a few extra dollars in the budget – it will require an entirely different approach based on the aboriginal and treaty rights that are recognized and affirmed in our constitution.

And that barely scratches the surface of what needs to be said but that’s ten minutes.

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Religious Freedom

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Hilary Clinton once said that freedom of religion does not mean freedom from religion. She might be excused for espousing such a logical absurdity given that a poll of Americans once found that they would rather have a communist for president than an atheist. Despite the wishes of its founding fathers, America has indeed become a god-fearing country.

This weekend – on January 16th, in fact – some Americans celebrated religious freedom day. It marks the anniversary of a law passed in Virginia, under the guidance of Thomas Jefferson, which removed the Anglican Church (now called the Episcopalian Church) from being the official church of the state. Under this law, ALL religions would be treated as equal before the law and, as is promised in the US Constitution, no religion would have influence over the secular government.

While secular tyrannies abound – such as North Korea – it is far more common to find religious tyrannies in the modern world (Myanmar with its Buddhist extremists or Saudi Arabia where Sunni oppresses Shia Muslims). There are those in the United States who would like to see their own country become one. They would like to change the Constitution to make the USA a Christian country subject to Biblical law. Good luck to them – well, in the falling-down-the-stairs into a pit of flaming oil sense of the words: good luck.

Of course, the fact that there are dozens of varieties of Christians probably poses a bit of the problem. The same way it did in Europe during the Reformation and subsequent 200 years of religious war. It’s hard to tally the number of people burnt at the stake over disputes over the nature of the trinity. One in three or three in one – it’s a dicey question unless you are trying to fix a rusty hinge.

Freedom from religion is at the heart of the idea of the separation of church and state. It means, in essence, that everyone is free to practice their own religion (if they have one) without the worry of being persecuted legally by the adherents of another faith. It means, for all matter that happen outside an actual church, you can’t be discriminated against simply because you don’t believe the things that other people believe.

There are people who don’t seem to get that. A lot of them seem to be running for the GOP nomination for president. Several of those people are Catholics. There was a time in America when Catholics were excluded from membership in certain clubs. One of those clubs was the Presidency. John Kennedy would have won by more than a few hundred thousand votes if he hadn’t been the first serious Catholic candidate for the job.

Having been raised a Baptist, I can see the value of excluding Catholics from high office. Maybe we should even stop them from coming to the country. Some Catholics – Irish ones for example, like Mr. Trump’s ancestors – have been heavily engaged in terrorist acts. Maybe they should be excluded from even staying in the States just until ‘we figure this thing out.’

This is not really satire – it’s simply a case of following things through to their illogical conclusion. Without freedom from religion, there is no freedom of religion.

And that’s ten minutes.

Boycott America

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I’ve visited 15 American states; mostly in the west but a smattering on the east coast as well and around the Great Lakes. I love New York and Boston, Seattle and San Francisco, Denver and Santa Fe. I’d like to visit New Orleans or return to the deserts and mountains of New Mexico, Utah and California.

But I probably won’t.

America troubles me – not all of America and certainly not all Americans. As the saying goes, some of my best friends are American. But there is a central core of America that troubles me – that core who see carrying weapons openly in public as anything other than bullying, those Americans who are happily racist, homophobic  or misogynistic (though their heads explode when you call them out on it), Americans who believe that wealth signifies virtue.

What to do? I’ve boycotted products from countries that offended me. For two decades – especially after Tiananmen Square – I wouldn’t buy anything from China. I fought apartheid by avoiding products from South Africa. I even boycotted American grapes in support of farm workers in California.

So I’m considering boycotting America. I’m not sure if I can avoid all American products. They are Canada’s largest trading partner and a lot of American-made parts go into things made in Canada. But I can avoid travelling to the United States. I can refuse to spend my tourist dollars there.

Will it make a difference? I doubt it. I expect the very people I’m protesting will say – stay home you snotty nosed liberal. We don’t need your dollars. Oddly enough, America does need the dollars of foreigners to run their own economy – to create jobs at home – but those types of Americans still believe in trickle-down economics when even the IMF and the WTO say it’s a failed strategy. Rich people and their sycophantic supporters aren’t all that good at actual economics.

I suppose the logical step would be to refuse to sell my books in the USA. Exactly the opposite. I’d like to not only keep my money at home – I’d like to bring their money here.

This all probably sounds a little extreme – and it’s meant to be.

My point is that people have to realize that consequences have actions. It’s like those stores that refuse to serve Muslims or gays. They may initially do okay – as right wing crazies send in orders from all over America – but in the long run, a business that refuses to serve a sizeable percentage of their community (including progressives like me who will spend elsewhere) will fail.

There is much about America to admire. The progress they have made – and which people like Trump and Cruz want to roll back – is miraculous. Most Americans believe in caring for their neighbours and believe in playing an important role in maintaining a prosperous and progressive world. They even believe in reasonable gun control. American values of equality, liberty and democracy are exemplars that the world can learn from.

Which is why it is doubly disappointing to watch some Americans refuse to defend those values – who prefer isolation, fear, hatred and guns in every hand. Maybe America needs to boycott itself.

And that’s ten minutes

Casual Ageism

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A friend of mine recently announced he was thinking of having his remaining hair – just a fringe really – removed with laser treatments. While it will save him the time and trouble of shaving, that is not the primary reason. Rather, being completely bald and shiny will make him look younger than having a short fringe of greying hair will. A highly successful novelist, he is making the transition to film and TV and looking younger is a definite plus in Hollywood – where ageism is notoriously rampant. There, it not only impacts the limited roles women of a certain age can get but also diminishes your chances of being taken seriously.

Ageism is a factor that most people face as the years pile on. Sharon Pollock, who has won the Governor General’s award twice for playwriting and continues to work creatively well into her seventies, reacted this way when the Canada Council announced they were shifting a significant part of their funding to support writers under forty: What are old writers supposed to do? Die?

I see it all the time in the public service. When you reach fifty, you may be respected as an experienced manager and a useful policy analyst. By sixty, everyone expects you to leave. And, of course, you no longer know anything current. It’s even assumed you can’t use modern technology – even though you may have been programming computers before the whiz kids were even born.

Here’s a hint – it’s not that we can’t master our smart phones; it’s just that we have more important things to do. Like work.

Another friend of mine, now in her 70s, told me how shocking it was to her when men simply stopped noticing she was in the room. “It was like I became invisible,” she said. Still a sexy woman – if you care to look – she found her sudden dismissal hurtful. Fortunately she had the maturity to get over it.

Of course, ageism cuts both ways. Who hasn’t heard the dismissive ‘kids these days’ remark, usually immediately followed by: Hey, get off my lawn! One of the great things about going to the North when I was 27 was that I got to do work that I was fully capable of but considered too young to take on while I was living in Nova Scotia.

Despite the occasional dismissal of youth that still occurs (I frequently refer to the young punks in the PMO as kids in short pants), we do live in a society obsessed with youth. People are always telling me that that fifty is the new forty and that you are only as young as you feel. I certainly hope not – some days I feel over a hundred.

I’d say more but it’s time for my Metamucil and my cane needs oiling.

Besides, that’s ten minutes.

At the End of the Rainbow

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Rainbows everywhere and I couldn’t be happier. The extension of marriage rights to all Americans on an equal basis is long overdue. Canadians did it ten years ago and guess what? The world didn’t end, society didn’t collapse. No pastors set themselves on fire.

Okay it is true that a 44-year old conservative government was defeated this year in a surprise rise of the NDP, Canada’s modestly left wing party and the same party is leading in the polls nationally. But I’m sure the two things aren’t related.

Besides it took ten years to work through the system so that hardly impacts on the ability of the Republicans to take back the White House, now does it?

However, their unbelievably weak response both to the Supreme Court ruling yesterday, the one on Obamacare earlier this week as well as to the Charleston race-crime murders all demonstrate why the Grand Old Party is rapidly losing touch with America.

Ten years ago, before Obama, 59% of Americans opposed same-sex marriage. This year 60% approve of it, similar to the majority that approved it in Ireland. Over time that number will continue to rise. There will always be people who will oppose it – either for reasons based in their strongly held moral code or based solely in hate – but eventually most people will discover that rights are not privileges.

Whereas privileges can only be gained by one person at the expense of another, rights are infinitely expandable. Increasing the rights of others in no way diminishes the rights of those who already had them. My marriage is in no way reduced by the ability of two men or two women to marry. In fact, as I have recounted elsewhere, it was the recognition of gay marriage in Ontario that led me to get married.

But where does this leave America—increasingly divided into those who want the expansion of liberty and those who only want liberty for themselves? There is a hard core minority who view the rights of others as simply wrong-headed and evil; who view opposing opinions as something that need to be corrected—by Second Amendment remedies if need be. There is no future for a Republican party locked in past grievances and appealing to an aging demographic dominated by old white men. America risks becoming a one party state with a permanent angry minority.

The path forward seems treacherous but it is also one lined with opportunities. One of the multitude of GOP candidates has to find the courage to rise from the crowd and distinguish himself (or herself if Carly Fiorina uses this to climb out of obscurity) by standing for the true conservative values written in the Constitution: the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, then perhaps there is real hope for the GOP to stop its demographically driven death spiral and, so, real hope for democracy in America.

But that’s ten minutes

Reconciliation

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The Truth and Reconciliation Commission on Indian Residential schools has finished its work and made its report. There can no longer be any excuse for Canadians not to know the truth of residential schools in Canada or to deny that those schools were part of a pattern designed to ‘take the Indian out of the child’ in the words of one of its early designers, part of a series of actions designed to eliminate Aboriginal cultures and governments and to wipe away Aboriginal people from the mainstream of Canadian culture. While our governments did not use guns in an effort to eradicate Aboriginals, they did use the weapons of shame and starvation, of punishment, kidnapping and degradation. We allowed children to be abused; we allowed them to die.

You can read all about it in the final report; you can hear the testimony of survivors as well and you can see what the TRC believes needs to happen next. The truth is out there.

Reconciliation is the most difficult part. If the truth took over 150 years to create and six years to uncover and document, how much longer will it take to reconcile? That is the challenge facing Canada. We can’t spend another 20 or 50 years fixing the problems of the past. We have to act now. We cannot continue the legacy of failure and poverty and despair. We can’t waste another generation of Aboriginal youth.

The good news is we don’t have to. As Wab Kinew put it; one of the best paths to reconciliation is through Aboriginal success. While the media has generally been full of stories of the struggles of First Nations and Inuit communities, there have also been tremendous success stories – some of which I’ve been privileged to witness.

IN Atlantic Canada, the Mi’kmaq people negotiated control over the education system in the late 1990s. Though, like all Aboriginal schools, they have struggled with limited resources, they have managed to build new schools and expand programs. Now their students have the same or better rates of academic success and graduation as their non-Aboriginal peers. And they have changed the curriculum of their schools to include their own history, culture and language. And guess what? Not only has this had a great impact on their own kids but also on the entire educational system as Nova Scotia has adopted some of curriculum for the broader school system. Similar successes have been achieved in BC and Saskatchewan as well as in individual schools across Canada. Unfortunately it is not the case in every schools where severe underfunding by the federal government and lack of local control result in low graduation rates and poor academic results. Work to be done.

In the economy, we know that many Aboriginal communities suffer in poverty – largely because the Indian Act has effectively legislated them out of the mainstream economy. Yet progress has been made in many areas – almost entirely because of aboriginal led initiatives which have pushed for opt-in legislation or negotiated agreements. Communities across the country have taken advantage of reformed land and administrative systems to prosper – generating jobs and businesses not only for their own people but for neighbouring non-Aboriginal communities as well. Millbrook in Nova Scotia and Westbank in BC are only two such examples. In the North, the Inuvialuit have used their land claim settlement to build one of Canada’s Fortune 500 companies. The Cree of James Bay have done equally well. Yet for most poverty is the norm. Work to be done.

Of course, Aboriginal success is not the only measure of reconciliation. And achieving this goal is not only an Aboriginal goal. Each of us have a role to play in this. And it starts with understanding. The reports are there to be read. I suggest you do exactly that. Then start thinking about what you personally need to do to achieve reconciliation. Work to be done.

And again that’s a little more than ten minutes.

Truth

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When I was growing up in Nova Scotia I was completely unaware of Aboriginal people – even though there was a small reserve less than 20 kilometres from where I lived and went to school. The houses were well back from the main road along a narrow gravel track, hidden by trees. The kids, I now know, didn’t go to regular schools but instead were taken away to residential schools. The only sign of native people in the province that I saw as a child was a small shop called GooGoo’s Gifts just off the highway near Truro.

My fist real encounter with Aboriginal Canadians came when I went to work in Northern Canada in 1982. The community of Frobisher Bay was more than half Inuit though whites still held most of the top jobs and ran all the businesses. But change was in the air. The territorial government had a new determination to increase native employment and one of the first things I got to do was to begin training people to take over my job. It seemed like an appropriate thing to do. I was clearly just passing through but this was their home (and native) land.

Meanwhile at the national level, the patriation of the constitution was dealing with the recognition of Aboriginal rights. Chiefs and leaders had travelled to England to petition the Queen. The government of the NWT travelled en masse to Ottawa to lobby the Prime Minister. Demonstrations were held and in the end Section 35 was added to provide recognition and protection to Aboriginal and treaty rights.

My education was more rapid after that. I went to work for the then-Premier (now Senator) of the NWT who was an active proponent of Aboriginal rights. Fluent in Slavey and in touch with the elders of his community he championed languages, employment and changes in government to more closely recognize and reflect the native majority in the territory. I learned about language preservation and recovery – I think the women who mostly ran the program liked teasing the poor ignorant young man from the south – and about the way affirmative action could ensure that talented Aboriginals could get the jobs they deserved. I also got to go to several national constitutional conferences in Aboriginal rights held by the Mulroney government, where I learned just how complicated the file was – a lesson repeated when I briefly worked for the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples in the 1990s.

For all that, my real education in the truth of Aboriginal issues really started 15 years ago when I came to work for Senator Sibbeston in Ottawa. There I discovered the failings of the federal government to deal with education, economic development, housing and a raft of other issues. I learned of the shackles placed on First Nations striving to fix their own problems by the antiquated Indian Act – designed more than a hundred years ago to oppress natives and destroy their culture.

And I learned about residential schools, not in some abstract way but directly by listening to my boss’s stories of the horrors he suffered and by working with individual claimants who were struggling to go through the byzantine process of seeking compensation. Their stories are their own but I can only say that many of them made me weep for the injustices perpetrated by our country.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission reported yesterday. I’ll spend the next few days delving into it. Because the one thing I have learned is that our biggest challenge in fixing history is to acknowledge that it happened.

And that’s a little more than ten minutes.