Friday, September 22, 2017

A first step to levelling the playing field from centuries of colonialism...Justin Trudeau at the U.N

Prime Minister Trudeau hit a home run in the General Assembly earlier this week with his historic speech of atonement for the century-plus abuses of colonialism against the indigenous people of Canada. Of course, words alone will not bring a full measure of justice for the innumerable wrongs First Nations people have, are and will continue to endure. However, to take the podium in New York and to acknowledge the black hole that is Canada’s history on this file, and to risk the derision, scorn, jealousy and even contempt of world leaders and the home media suggests that the man is growing into the potential of his elected office.

As he correctly and appropriately pointed out in his address, this is not merely about righting those deplorable wrongs in Canada; it is also about focusing the world’s attention on the serious power abuses that are intrinsic to colonialism, a pattern and a history that is endemic to empires, dominions, satellite clusters of countries and the proposition that dictators can dictate the lives of people in their sphere of influence.

Whether colonialism is at the root of political empire building, or corporate aggrandizement, or religious dogma and domination, or financial buy-outs and mergers in which the most powerful take control of the playing field regardless of whether they offer the most effective, the best-designed and built, the most efficient or the most ethical products or services, top-down hierarchies that are indigenous to colonialism, like behemoths, proliferate the planet.

In the Canadian context, for a government, after 150 years of insouciant racism and avoidance of responsibility for the lives of the original people (who claim to have been here  for 15,000 years), to take the first step in a long-overdue journey is not only a monumental shift in national priorities; it is also so complex and encumbered a prospect that it will not be completed in the life of the current federal government, nor in the life of succeeding governments for the next century.

Clean drinking and bathing water inside safe and hygenic housing, safe and competent schools, access to effective health care and most importantly work with dignity…these are achieveable and measureable targets, dependent only on the vision, the will and the commitment of national leaders, in collaboration with indigenous bands and their respective leaders. A system of indigenous justice, designed and implemented by indigenous elders, along with the national observance of land treaties, and the implementation of those clauses that require shared planning, shared design and shared compensation from natural resource extraction, refining and distribution projects.

 Individual human rights and dignity, along with a profound respect for the environment (land, air, water) as honoured by indigenous people are all potential gifts from that community to the broader national community. And the sooner the national consciousness embraces this reality, the more healthy will be the lives of all Canadians.

And then, on the world stage, there is no country on the planet that has not, and does not still have to face a colonial history, with the so-called major players in North America and Europe being the originators and the sustainers of colonialism while many of the countries in the developing world are still struggling to get out from under the binding ropes and chains of their colonial masters. And the implications of this power imbalance continue to plague the world community, from processes that would acknowledge the monstrous effluent being emitted by developed countries and their corporation and the legitimate demand that those countries offset the costs of pollution control in the developing world, to the deplorable imbalance in arms production, sales, proliferation and the political implications of that implicit and “imposed” injustice.

It is not only individual human rights that the world community has to protect; it is also the national and tribal rights of indigenous peoples everywhere that have to be factored into the collective decision-making, process-design and collaborative execution on the large and threatening issues we face: the environment, the drug crisis, the military arms race, the economic divide within developed countries and between the developed world and the developing world.

Trudeau is positing a very different way of perceiving and hence of dealing with minorities, especially those minorities who have suffered, endured and suffered some more at the “hands” of the rich and the powerful. Imagine if the Trudeau theme had been emitted from the mouth of the American president, about indigenous peoples in Dakota and in New Mexico, and about African-Americans and Latinos. Imagine the degree of integrity and humility, the historic level, that would have been trumpeted by the U.S. media, if such an address had come from trump rather than the name-calling, bullying drivel that we all heard.

Although the Canadian leader has perched himself and his government on a very high and slender branch of a very brittle tree, a branch that reporters and pundits will be gleefully trying to break from the trunk of the tree. There is nothing more seductive to a journalist that the prospect of bringing a high-wire rock-star politician down from his precarious perch. And already, the National Post, in headlining all those topics not covered by the speech, and the CBC’s At Issue Panel, in pejoratively dubbing the speech “lobbying for that seat on the Security Council (Andrew Coyne) and castigating it for failing to address all the ‘hot-button’ issues of the day like North Korea, Putin, Syria, refugees and cyber-security (Althea Raj of Huffington Post).

If there ever were a time when the length and breadth of vision of both political leaders and reporters/editorialists needed to be raised off the floor of the mud-wrestling ring in which both Kim and trump are wallowing, it is now. And for Trudeau to deliver a speech that positions Canada, and the Canadian people, squarely in the world’s headlight, as a counterpoint to the racist, sexist, homophobic climate denier now occupying the Oval Office (just a side-bar of accomplishment for the Trudeau address), demonstrates that he may actually be starting to fill his father’s shoes, and the inflated shirt he has worn since romping out onto the political stage as a candidate for the leadership of the Liberal Party.

Individual minority rights, while laudable and worthy of legal protection (in individual cases) will struggle for their rightful and respected place on the public agenda so long as minorities everywhere shoulder the mantle of “inferiority” (no matter how that badge is perceived).

So many different iterations of colonialism pervade the global culture:

·      Workers without labour rights and the organizations to advocate for their pay with dignity, their safety and security, their pensions and their access to health care are living a form of colonialism.

·      Even labour unions themselves are guilty of practicing a kind of reverse “colonialism” given their relentless, and now toothless, pursuit of new members, and their demeaning of employers who block union certification votes.

·      Small town politics and the players on that state continue to defer to the “founding families” or the most affluent, or the most “connected” in their granting of zoning amendments, building permits, disharges from minor offenses, street repairs, the restoration of services following a disaster like a hurricane, a large fire or an ice storm.

·       School boards, both public and private, as well as colleges and universities, whenever they can, defer to their own graduates when making staffing appointments, as if there were some “privilege” attached to “local” graduates, when we all know that new ideas, new perspectives and new ways of doing things will more likely assure the growth and evolution of the organizations. This is especially true when making appointments at the senior administrative level, thereby ensuring a narrowing and parochial approach, as compared with the promise of innovation.

·      Towns and cities, when prompted to ask neighbouring centres for some practical advice on files both are facing, will too often categorically refuse, preferring “local” approaches simply because they are local, and not because they are more effective. *

·      Ask anyone who has spent their school years moving from school to school, as part of their following their parents for whatever reason. So lonely and so isolated are most, and they have been for decades, that recently in Florida, one “outsider” student has implemented a welcoming program for new students. He has gathered some who see the wisdom and the compassion in his idea, and they now eat lunch, approach and welcome newcomers to their school as an act of student “citizenship”.

·      Watch the lethargic and almost relentlessly blocked integration of immigrants, refugees, and newcomers to most towns and cities, (or the reverse, a smothering of uber-“care” that leaves them no room to breathe) and the impediments to a successful orientation program for sponsors that takes place in many “welcoming” communities.

From a variety of perspectives, we are all living, simultaneously, on both sides of the colonial moat. We are, at one and the same time, dominant in parts of our lives and recessive and submissive in other parts. And the “divide” keeps us vacillating between feeling confident and feeling quite insecure. Whether the divide is generated by a physical symptom, a racial difference, an income divide, a linguistic divide (even one so mundane as a grammar divide), even a voice volume and enthusiasm divide will find some being rejected in select “fraternities” or “sororities.” In many North American towns and cities, there is a religious colonialism, pitting protestants against Catholics, Muslims against Jews, white supremacists against blacks, Jews and immigrants of all varieties.

The first and requisite act of levelling the playing field, after decades, or centuries of forcing it to favour the “dominant” agent is to acknowledge the pattern, the participation in the pattern and history of dominance, and to begin to “listen” (really listen) to the legitimate needs of the “colony” with a view to searching not merely for short-term accommodation but for long term and permanent reconciliation. And that process, regardless of where it begins, will inevitably take decades, if not longer.

Trudeau’s first, bold and courageous step this week offers a model for other agents who dominated and controlled the colonial world to begin to thaw their hardened and potentially arrogant arteries, let the gagged voices free, and begin a process, not of lip-service, but of real and authentic accommodation and collaboration. A process of reconciliation whose vibrations, like the rock tossed into the pool, can stretch out to the very edges of the world’s communal pool, and transform a world in which antagonisms, hatreds, feuds, and conflicts dominate to one in which processes that offer alternative dispute mechanisms can and will be learned, practiced, applied and continuing revised and researched.

The October 2017 edition of Reader’s Digest contains a quote from the first Jewish woman to sit on the Supreme Court of Canada (appointed in 2004), Justice Rosalie Abella, with which Trudeau would clearly concur, and with which the world’s highest ideals and aspirations comport:

These words are taken from a speech Madame Justice Abella delivered at Brandeis University:
“It is time to remind ourselves why we developed such a passionate and, we thought, unshakable commitment to democracy and human rights, to remember the three lessons we were supposed to have learned from the concentration camps of Europe:  indifference is injustice’s incubator; it’s not just what you stand for, it’s what you stand up for; and we can never forget how the world looks to those who are vulnerable.”

 *This scribe made a presentation of an original design of a “career retrofit” for unemployed tech workers in Ottawa early in this century. The program was designed in North Bay, some four hours to the north west of Canada’s capital. The first and most prominent question we faced in our presentation, so indelibly is it engraved on my memory was, “So why should a program from North Bay be implemented here and not one designed in Ottawa?” There were no reflections, questions or even criticism of the details of our design, just a rejection out of hand, because it did not originate in Ottawa.

Talk about colonialism!

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