& occasionally about other things, too...

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Idea of Canada

Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence

2012 ends on a sombre note in India and in Canada.

India stood still in the last two weeks as the 23-year-old girl battled for life, eventually losing it in a Singapore hospital. A nation of billion plus is shamed like never before. Although I’ve been away from India for four-and-a-half years, and I can’t claim to know and understand what’s going on, I’m optimistic (perhaps unreasonably) that the tragedy will force a change led by the urban youth – a small and basic but much-needed change in the attitude toward women.

Canada is on the edge as Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence’s hunger strike enters third week.

It is this development that has touched me in a significant manner. 

As a newcomer to Canada, I voted with my feet. I chose to come and live in a country that I think is better than my former homeland. Not merely because of the economic opportunities it offers, but because it is a more just society – a society that celebrates differences and treats everyone with the same respect.

Spence’s hunger strike shatters that belief. It tells me that I’ve been na├»ve in making such assumptions; that, in fact, the Canadian system is deeply unjust, even if the society is not.

As a newcomer to Canada, I’m hesitant to take sides. But Spence’s fast for the rights of First Nations people strikes a chord and takes me back two decades when as a journalist I covered environmentalist Medha Patkar’s hunger strike fighting for the rights of India's aboriginals.
Chief Spence says “she won’t back down until the Canadian government agrees to address First Nations’ struggles.” Mahatma Gandhi's legacy lives on in the 21st century, too.

When I had first read A Fair Country Telling Truths about Canada John Ralston Saul a couple of years ago I felt it was a wishful, romantic view of both the First Nations and Canada.

Saul contends that Canada is a Metis nation shaped by the First Nations’ concepts of egalitarianism and negotiations. However, in the context of Spence’s fast, the central thesis of Saul’s argument acquires a new resonance for me.

In the book’s chapter Learning to Imagine Ourselves, he says:

Canadians carry both the Aboriginal and the European tradition. We have become rich in part because of that Western Manichean drive. And ideas of exclusivity and race were certainly introduced here with a vengeance. Yet those tendencies have been limited by our other tradition. And today the delight we take in our non-monolithic society suggests that our Aboriginal foundations are rising to the surface. At the same time, the sense of discomfort in the country over environmental and economic policy shows that much of the tension between our two basic forces remains unconscious.

And so we work hard to fit our non-monolithic culture into a revised version of our European liberal monolithic inheritance. But that requires twisting ourselves into a knot in search of Western justifications for non-western actions. Of course, there are European liberal elements in our way of life, but our deep roots are here not there; they are far more indigenous than liberal. The source of our non-monolithic – and for that matter our egalitarian – sense of ourselves lies in the structures of the Aboriginal maze the Europeans found here and into which they eased themselves over hundreds of years. You have to work hard to avoid this argument. And you have to turn your curiosity away from our local reality. Both parties were changed. Both gained. Both lost. But our deep roots are indigenous, and there lie the most interesting explanations for what we are and what we can be.”

Click here to read more about the campaign: Idle No More

Listen to CBC’s Jian Gomeshi’s essay: This is Q


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