Tuesday, April 24, 2007

The Fire Next Time

Last week's blockade of CN's and VIA's main line by the Bay of Quinte Mohawks was a taste of things to come. When the Harper government tore up the Kelowna Accord soon after coming to office, native leaders warned that we would face a warm and uncomfortable summer. John Ibbitson, of the Globe and Mail, warned in March that "Reasonable, thoughtful observers with no axes to grind or drums to beat worry that aboriginal crime and aboriginal violence are about to escalate; that this silent long suffering underclass will implode under the pressures of poverty and substance abuse, and then explode in anger." This from a columnist who generally supports Harper government initiatives.

Then, in its recent budget, the government provided by-the-bootstraps money to solve native problems. It offered money to encourage native home ownership -- even though native homes are considered community assets; and it also offered money for job training. But, despite the flood of money to lots of other causes, there was no money to improve the deplorable conditions on native reserves.

After Finance Minister Jim Flaherty trumpeted his government's generosity, Assembly of First Nations Chief Phil Fontaine -- fighting back tears -- declared, "I don't know how long we're expected to wait, but I don't think that this country can afford to see such poverty in such an incredibly wealthy country." Last week's actions along the shores of the Bay of Quinte are a signal that Canada's natives intend to wait no longer.

And, despite Mr. Flaherty's claims that his government's financial management of the country represents a "new approach," there is something well worn and utterly depressing about his rhetoric and his policies. As an article in this week's Globe makes clear, the federal government has been in the habit of ignoring its native peoples for over a century. In 1907, the Department of Indian Affairs sent its chief medical officer, Dr. Peter Bryce, on a tour of residential schools. What he discovered was an alarming incidence of tuberculosis among native students -- and a death rate of 24% over a fourteen year period. In some schools, the death rate was as high as 69%.

Bryce pleaded with the bureaucrats in Ottawa to quarantine sick children and to not allow them into residential schools when they were obvious carriers of the disease. The churches, which controlled the schools, refused to follow his recommendations. In order to protect the health of the schools' residents, Byrce recommended that Ottawa take control of the schools. It took over sixty years before Ottawa followed his advice.

Why? According to Dr. John Milloy, of Trent University, the government had set up residential schools on a "contracting out" basis. The deaths from tuberculosis, he says, were caused by "the policy of paying the churches on a per capita basis to run the schools. Numerous letters indicate that because of the funding policy, churches would admit sick children and refuse to send ailing ones home. Pleas to the department for more funding fell on deaf ears." To date, the Harper government has followed a similar policy. Rather than assume its constitutional responsibility for conditions on native reserves, it has left that file (like so many others) to the provinces -- a new form of contracting out. Having tried this failed policy in the past, we are now told it is part of the new conservative "ethic of individual responsibility."

But as Bill Bradley, in a recent essay in Time makes clear, neither the conservative ethic of individual responsibility nor the traditionally liberal "ethic of caring" make the solutions to the problems we face achievable. What we need, he says, is something which connects both the concepts of responsibility and caring -- what he calls the "ethic of connectedness." What we need is the recognition that we will only begin to solve problems when we realize that all of us have a stake in those solutions. We all want the same things, Bradley says -- good homes, good families, good jobs, good health care and good pensions. These objectives cannot be solely market driven. The require a shared sense of responsibility.

In a lecture at the University of Toronto last fall, philosopher Charles Taylor suggested that the only way out of the violence and nihilism of the so called War on Terror and the Clash of Civilizations is to start from Dostoevsky' s insight that "we are all responsible." Only when we recognize our collective responsibility for the predicament we are in -- our "connectedness" -- can we hope to find the the solutions which the planet and humanity so desperately need. The rail blockade at Deseronto last week was a plea for connectedness. If we choose to ignore that plea, then we will reap the harvest of our own neglect. We will all face the fire next time.


thwap said...

That was beautiful.

I felt that history.

Owen Gray said...

The idea that "we are all in this together" is heresy to the apostles of the New Right, thwap.

If we choose their solutions, we will -- as James Baldwin warned us -- be consumed in the fire next time.