South Africa is much in the news these days, and there is a direct Canada angle. Before Nelson Mandela, that country’s apartheid policy was often compared to Canadian Indian policy. The relationship is not exact, but correct in its essentials. Each contemplates a parallel society, allegedly for the good of the target race. (Yes, there is a racist section of our Constitution – Section 91(24), which gives the federal government exclusive jurisdiction over “Indians.”)
South Africa has changed, but where is Canada’s Mandela? Surely, fighting the evils of our little bit of apartheid merits a worthy champion as well? Why hasn’t it happened?
The answer deserves a further international tour, beginning in Sweden.
Readers may recall Stockholm syndrome, so named to describe the positive, even protective feelings hostages taken in a Swedish bank robbery developed toward their captors over a period of several days. It is a subset of a wider class known as traumatic bonding, and it can happen on a national scale in a slightly different way.
This occurs when the oppressed come to depend upon not their oppressors but their oppression, and the captives come to depend upon their captivity for their very self-image. This has arguably been true of the Palestinians, the Irish Republican Army and Canada’s native peoples. The latter were so enmeshed by their captivity that when Pierre Trudeau attempted to end it in 1970 by abolishing the Indian Act (albeit not in a clever way), the chiefs rose up against him and he walked away.
All oppressed peoples develop narratives of grievance and victimization which forms a powerful bond for the community. But this is also a deeply negative force that is not conducive to progress. None of us can ignore our history, but where it has been a terrible thing we can try to escape it, to transcend it.
That was the genius of Mr. Mandela, Martin Luther King and, in a way, Mohandas Gandhi, although in a very different context. They were able to convince their people to move on, with wonderful results.
The Palestinians have not found such a person. Yasser Arafat might have been, but in the end, he always reverted to grievance.
In this country, the likes of Ovide Mercredi might have been this person, or Shawn Atleo in our time. But the Canadian scenario itself makes it unlikely.
In South Africa, it simply could not be ignored that blacks were the overwhelming majority. The modern dynamic of democracy made their triumph inevitable, but it was Mr. Mandela who made that both rapid and peaceful. In this, he was much aided by white president F.W. de Klerk, co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, who used the institutions of a powerful state to make the transition.
In the United States, blacks are a distinct minority, but liberal and democratic traditions there gave rise to a peaceful emancipation, powerfully led by King and with much credit due (but seldom given) to president Lyndon Johnson.
But here, aboriginals are a tiny minority. Not only that, they are fiercely divided, which has been most convenient for the government. Again, consider Mr. Atleo. He knows full well that education is fundamental for his people, and a good federal plan is on offer. But many of his bosses, the chiefs, undermine him at every turn, in this and every other matter that challenges their continuing power.
So if the great emancipator, the ender of Canadian apartheid, is not to be our version of Mr. Mandela, might we instead have our version of Mr. de Klerk? Any prime minister could take a shot at it – should take a shot at it. It could be a magnificent legacy for Stephen Harper or perhaps his successor.
What needs doing is simple. I wrote a book about it and so have others. It involves treating native peoples more as individuals than as collectives, and enlisting our common humanity to make them welcome in the mainstream.
The details are for another day, but it can be done. Failing that, change will come only very slowly, as more and more individuals gradually vote with their feet, go to town and exit the iniquitous and corrupt reserve system, the only solution seen by our governments. It is unlikely that Canada will have a Mandela.