The liberal revolution never made it to Attawapiskat. Not that this Northern Ontario community necessarily wanted it to. That’s because liberalism, with its claims of being universal and impartial, is neither.
Middle-class, white and privileged at its core, liberalism, from its inception in the 17th and 18th centuries, was a particular way of thinking about the world based on two radical but flawed ideas: that each individual was equal and that each was free. One size fits all. Accordingly, its proponents argued that all should share rights and responsibilities equally, and special or group-specific treatment should be shunned. But some groups are different; some groups require particular rights and accommodations. Some groups are nations.
During Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence’s hunger strike, many Canadians have taken to online forums, message boards and dinner tables to wonder what she and her people are after. In response to her actions, Canadians have taken up the classic liberal narrative to challenge her attempt to bring the plight of her people to the public’s attention and to meet with Prime Minister Stephen Harper to find a solution to their suffering. And while some of the commentary has simply been racist, the dominant narrative overtone remains philosophically liberal. No surprise.
Over the 300 or so years it took liberalism to fully settle in the West, its main principles became embedded in the laws of the countries in which it took hold, as well as the imaginations of the citizens who lived under those laws. Canada is no exception; we’re a liberal democracy. Our political system focuses on individual rights and freedoms, fairness, equality and the rule of law – all central tenets of liberal politics.
But the problem with liberalism is that it’s sloppy – “plate of spaghetti on a white shirt” sloppy. In Canada, this sloppiness manifests itself as a narrative that spills out from its core, covering everything uniformly, leaving little room for patches of differences to appear in a country known for its diversity of individuals.
When issues about the treatment of indigenous peoples arise – or issues pertaining to other “special” groups such as women or immigrants – the standard liberal argument against the claims of these groups goes something like this: “We’re all equal. No one deserves special treatment. So it would be unfair to treat this person/group any differently than the rest.” This has been the dominant critical approach toward addressing Chief Spence’s hunger strike.
But this brand of liberalism was built for the time in which it emerged. The 17th and 18th centuries were about budding freedom and equality for a group of middle-class men who wanted to level monarchical and divine authority. That’s no longer the world in which we live.
In a diverse democratic society marked by the co-existence of distinct groups, old liberalism is inadequate. Why? For one, we’re not equally free. Systems of oppression run deep – think of the likelihood of an aboriginal teen finishing her education from reserve to university versus a contemporary from a white middle-class family – and escaping them is difficult for some and impossible for others. For another, there’s no such thing as pure equality. There’s always some need for adjustment in order to manage mass populations and the desires of the individuals within them.
Most important, people and groups are deeply different. Some folks and collections of folks want to live differently than others, and they require alternative political and social setups to make that work. Moreover, some, such as indigenous peoples, are owed different treatment (through, say, treaty promises). Canadians who are unable or unwilling to recognize this are missing a key characteristic required for life in contemporary, diverse democracies: empathy.
When a commitment to liberalism is mixed with a failure to empathize, we really get into trouble. We become unable to connect with a leader pushed to the brink by the systematically induced tragedy of her people, even as she puts her life on the line to remedy persistent historical injustices.
While liberalism is meant to encourage diversity and freedom, it can smother those with whom we can’t empathize. In the Spence case, since many Canadians are unable to understand the lives and contexts of indigenous peoples, this failure has generated the pervasive liberal argument against intervention – an argument that, this time, might prove to be fatal.
David Moscrop is a PhD student in political science at the University of British Columbia and a founding editor of Thought Out Loud (www.thoughtoutloud.org).