I am in Canada for the second time in a month, staying for a week, as I did the last time. My visits coincided with the 150th anniversary of Canada’s inauguration as a settler-colonial nation.
The foreigner unfamiliar with Canada might make the mortal error of thinking it is just “like” its neighbour to the south.
Well, yes and no.
The drive from Toronto to Niagara Falls could be replicated just about anywhere in the US– one traverses kilometre after kilometre of suburban “developments” punctuated by strip malls and the occasional patch of green in an unremitting monoscape.
Canadian fast-food outlets and chain stores are pretty much the same as in the US (again this could also be said of London or Shanghai), as are the television offerings, but there the cultural overlaps start to end.
Canada has a significant hunting culture involving the use of guns, but at the same time it has many fewer of the gun rampages alas so routine in the US. According to a Vox report dated June 14, 2017, citing UN data compiled by the Guardian, “the US has nearly six times the gun homicide rate as Canada, more than seven times as Sweden, and nearly 16 times as Germany”.
I posed this issue to nearly everyone I met during my visits here.
Not surprisingly, given that I was attending conferences involving novelists, poets and academics, the responses I got were thoughtful and measured.
Here are some of them: the Canadian gun registration process is more rigorous and its gun laws more stringent (even pepper spray used as a form of self-defence is statutorily illegal) than in the US.
In the US, where toddlers with access to guns that are improperly stored kill more people than “terrorists”, it is interesting to read this section of Canada’s Criminal Code on what constitutes proof that a weapon was stored in a manner contravening the code’s gun storage rubrics: “the item was stored in an unsafe or careless manner and no reasonable precautions taken for the safety of others (e.g. no trigger locks, out of case, loaded)”.
Americans with oversight of gun-toting toddlers would face jail-sentences if they were Canadians, as opposed to having such cases typically dismissed as mere “accidents”.
Americans own more guns than Canadians (and research shows that more guns invariably translates into more deaths from guns), Canadian politicians are not under pressure from anything like the powerful US gun lobby, and Canadians have more trust in their government to protect them than their US counterparts (who are more likely to believe their own guns do this better than the government).
Other observations regarding guns were anecdotal.
Two Canadians, from its east and west coasts respectively, said they could see the tension and anxiety etched on the faces of New Yorkers and Washingtonians during their visits to US cities such as New York and Washington DC, a contrast with such Canadian cities as Toronto and Vancouver, whose inhabitants are much less discernibly stressed.
These Canadians implied that the psychologically distressed who possess guns are more likely to _ _ _ (readers please fill in the blanks).
Nearly everyone I talked to said it was virtually unknown for Canadians to carry handguns in order to “defend” themselves– this came as a bit of a surprise to this Brit, now thoroughly inured to having his American in-laws carry handguns in the glove compartments of their cars.
I also spent a highly informative couple of days at a reservation for the First Nations of Canada.
There was no back-patting there over the 150th anniversary of Canada’s inauguration.
“My church building on this reservation is older than that”, said the Anglican owner of a restaurant dismissively.
A social worker on the reservation told me: “My real allegiance is to the Mohawk nation, which now lies in both the US and Canada, so there is nothing to celebrate over establishing an official border between Canada and the US. I have family and relatives in all parts of the Mohawk nation (she was referring to her “American” kinsfolk), and people who had nothing to do with us decided, without any consultation, that our nation should now be in two separate countries– no reason for me to commemorate such stupidity!”.
Anyone who has taken a coast to coast road-trip across the US, taking southern routes mainly, will know how dire “native American” reservations are in the main. Even the more prosperous ones, such as Cherokee in North Carolina, operate very much on the “make do” principle (in the case of Cherokee NC, this involves legalized gambling and a Disneyfied version of “Indian” life, complete with all the accompanying fakery, such as made-in-China plastic tomahawks and chief’s headdresses for a fancy-dress party).
The reservations in the semi-desert United States further west, deliberately earmarked by the US government for “indigenous settlement” precisely because the barren land sustains neither crops nor grazing (very much a precursor of the sheerly inadequate Bantustans in apartheid South Africa), are nothing short of tragic. Decent jobs in these visibly distressed western American reservations are scarce, or non-existent, and entire populations are forced to regard a wretched sub-proletarian existence as something of a blessing.
The failure to achieve the modicum provided by a sub-proletarian existence in these areas results in severe deprivation and/or the oblivion conferred by booze and drugs.
The Canadian reservation I visited had none of these obvious shortcomings (admittedly, it could be atypical in this regard– let’s not generalize on the basis of just one example!).
For one thing, the land is fertile enough to allow the planting of corn and other crops, as well as a functioning animal agronomy. Moreover, it is close enough to places with industry and commerce to offer decent jobs within driving distance of the reservation.
At the same time, the age-old forces conducing to exclusion and marginalization are present, even if they happen to be attenuated here and there.
These, after all, are people from whom an immense amount has been taken, and preciously little given (and that grudgingly), over the course of several centuries. Colonization cost many First People their lives, and not just because they succumbed to diseases brought by the colonizers for which the First People had no immunity.
Others were murdered for sport (there is no other word for it). Edward Cornwallis, the British governor of Nova Scotia, issued a scalping proclamation in 1749, offering a cash bounty to anyone who killed a Mi’kmaq person.
Removing, today, some of the more blatant forms of discrimination will not be an adequate counterweight for what has gone on for a very long time.
A few strokes of the legislative pen, no matter how welcome, will not remove what the late Edward Thompson called “the enormous condescension of posterity”.
As is typically the case with the First Peoples of other countries– the aborigines of Australia, the orang asli of Malaysia, the tribal peoples of the Amazon, the people referred to (derogatorily) as “Indios” in Mexico, and so on– governmental steps purporting to rectify their dire situations, even if sometimes forthcoming, are invariably tardy and replete with shortcomings.
The most brutal forms of discrimination, amounting to ethnocide (such as taking children away from their parents and placing them in boarding schools where only English is taught, and banning dancing and drumming during ceremonies on reservations) have been removed by the Canadian government.
What the First Nations have done, in the face of governmental indifference and recalcitrance, is to set-up as many forms of enablement of their own as they can.
The Canadian government, in the name of “democracy”, scrapped the traditional chief system, where tribal decisions were made on the basis of consultation and consensus (and where chiefs, who could only be male, were chosen by women elders, this being a matrilineal society), replacing it with chiefs who were required to be elected.
The First Nations went along with the government’s decree, but simply operated their old chief system alongside the one stipulated by the government. I was told this has forced the government to consider ways of using both systems in tandem.
The First Peoples have always lagged behind other Canadians, and their subordination will probably continue under the government of Justin Trudeau, who made them some impressive-sounding promises during his successful election campaign.
The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation reports that Trudeau made five promises to the First Nations during his election campaign (the following is quoted from the CBC report):
* Launch a national public inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women.
* Make significant investments in First Nations education.
* Lift the two per cent cap on funding for First Nations programs.
* Implement all 94 recommendations from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
* Repeal all legislation unilaterally imposed on indigenous people by the previous government.
This prospectus would be hugely beneficial for the First Nations if implemented. However, history has taught their people that governments break, rather than keep, their promises.
After all, the saying that the “white man spoke with a forked tongue” is said to have originated when the French invited the Iroquois to “peace conference” during their war with the Iroquois nation in the 1690s, where their representatives were killed or captured.
Trudeau, like his French counterpart Macron, is a slick, media-savvy operator, serving neoliberalism with a ready smile and an easy turn of phrase. Journalists who call them an updated version of Tony Blair are not far from the truth.
It is early days yet for Trudeau and Macron, but so far, they have shown themselves to possess Blair’s viper-like qualities, evidenced by their willingness to give Trump a jolly good arse-licking, while distancing themselves (slightly!) from his heartless and destructive policies, invariably with a delicate circumlocution, when they are not in his company.
The indigenous Canadians I talked to are alert to the above, and know they have to govern themselves regardless of who is in power.
Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina. He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.