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Here’s a striking moment during Idle No More: In the National Post, columnist George Jonas writes that the “ultimate solution” — a poor choice of phrase — for native peoples is to “end special status” by “fashioning an entry for native Canadians into the mainstream of society” because “people must join the century in which they live.” In this respect he says residential schools were based on the right “model” even though their effects were “abominable.”
So there’s Jonas, who immigrated in the 1950s as a young Hungarian who was also Jewish, telling aboriginal Canadians, whose ancestors trekked across the land bridge in the Bering Strait, oh, 12,000 to 14,000 years ago by recent guesstimates and have been “here” ever since, a while before there was a thing called Canada — that they must discard their sense of self and join the “mainstream” as he decrees it is. With no hint of irony. He gets to tell them, on “our” behalf, what they must do. Who sets up these categories?
One benefit of crises like Idle No More, especially when they’re peaceful but unavoidable, is that they shake up the status quo and make everyone — not just protesters — look again at assumptions like who gets to define what’s mainstream. Take another example: a stumbling block to many non-native Canadians is the idea of aboriginal sovereignty. Isn’t Canada already a sovereign nation? How can First Nations be sovereign within it, without wrecking it?
But our notion of nation arose recently, during the 19th century, when unitary states like Germany and Italy, along with Canada, were birthed. (In fact, politically, the century that Jonas wants native peoples to join would be the late 1800s.) Bigger hasn’t always turned out better, certainly not for everyone. It’s like banks that are too big to fail. They’re also too big to hold to account. Breaking them up doesn’t mean obliterating them, it means rejigging the system in which they operate. The EU was a step toward unity with sovereignty included — and it’s run into problems. Good. They’ll have to rejig further. The Canadian template has always involved diversity within unity.
It’s also an opportunity to rethink institutions like the police. That’s been happening in Ontario since the Ipperwash mess of 1995 when the OPP were egged on politically and killed a native protester. OPP Commissioner Chris Lewis has been tenaciously “measured” (his term) and clear that his job isn’t to solve the federal government’s problems with First Nations. Behind police behaviour is always the question: which part of society do they really serve and protect? When CBC Radio’s Carol Off asked why Lewis was so cautious, he said it’s because there are a million native people prepared to act on this and we want to be careful. Then he added that it’s not because they’re native, he’d feel the same if there were a million worked-up Rotary Club members — a bedrock OPP constituency. That kind of equity in police service, genuinely carried through, is enough to start giving police a good name in places they don’t usually have it. The last time I felt so impressed by a public official came when Bank of Canada head Mark Carney said the Greek people should be allowed to vote on whether to accept the economic torture imposed on them by the EU.
Are Canadians willing to rethink basic “mainstream” assumptions? Well, Jonas’ employer, Postmedia, commissioned a poll that found “only 31 per cent” think shutting down roads and railways is legitimate protest. Only? That’s way higher than I’d have expected. And 63 per cent say the Harper government should act to improve aboriginal quality of life plus resolve claims over land and resources.
As for “mainstream” itself, it would be nice to place that in question too. Why? Because, as the ancient philosopher Heraclitus said: You cannot step into the mainstream twice for its waters keep flowing on. OK, he said that about rivers, but same same. The mainstream is what we make of it and it really does keep rolling along. I live for the happy day when Canadians don’t tell each other what the mainstream is and what they’re obliged to do to gain “entry” to it.
This article was first published in the Toronto Star.