Canada turns a blind eye to First Nations segregation
This month marks the 50th anniversary of one of the most significant milestones in America’s Civil Rights struggle: the sit-in at the Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C.
On Feb. 1, 1960, four black college students entered the premises, took their seats at the whites-only counter, and asked to be served – without success.
But they returned. For months, in fact, the quartet and their friends came back to that same lunch counter at Woolworth’s, peacefully protesting the restaurant’s racist policies, eventually inspiring similar sit-ins across the country. By summertime, they’d prevailed: The lunch counter was desegregated.
Thankfully, such tales – inspiring as they are — belong to history: In modern-day North America, anti-racism has become ensconced as a dominant creed. Canada has a whole apparatus of human rights commissions ensuring that even the slightest public expression of racial animus is censured and punished. In our enlightened time, Woolworth’s blatantly racist policy – or any set of rules segregating individuals because of their race — would be utterly unthinkable.
Or maybe not. This week, the Kahnawake native reserve on Montreal’s South Shore sent out eviction notices to 25 residents – most of them whites involved in relationships with local Mohawks – telling them that their skin was the wrong colour. According to a spokesman for the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake, the whites are fair game because “they are people with no native ancestry at all.”
“There have been numerous complaints regarding individuals contravening Mohawk law by residing in the Mohawk territory of Kahnawake without a right to do so,” the eviction notice declares. “We trust that you understand the seriousness of this letter and that you will govern yourselves accordingly.”
In any other Canadian context, such bald-faced racism would be illegal, not to mention a scandal of the first order. Imagine, for instance, if blacks were thrown out of a gated community on this basis — or if Jews were turfed from an apartment building by order of some neo-Nazi on the building’s management committee. Yet native bigotry against whites is somehow considered a breed apart — distinct from the “bad racism” that we otherwise deplore in the rest of society. And Kahnawake is not alone: All across Canada, band councils routinely make arbitrary decisions about who is, and who is not, permitted to live in reserve housing — often evicting people on short notice based on their native status, or even their particular clan.
It is a morally perverse double standard. Yet Canadians simply take it for granted — as if it were perfectly normal, in 2010, for human beings to be thrown out of their homes because of the colour of their skin. White trumping black is evil. But red trumping white is ho hum.
For decades, the prime directive of our country’s native-policy brain trust has been to protect aboriginal culture in little cocoons called reserves — even at the cost of undermining bedrock principles encoded in our Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It’s a fool’s bargain, of course: In the end, no amount of government policy will ever prevent the eventual integration of natives into the much larger, more prosperous society that surrounds them. All our policy accomplishes is the embitterment of whites who suffer under such double-standards: the non-native residents of Caledonia, Ont., the non-native Salmon fisherman of British Columbia, and now, the non-native exiles of Kahnawake.
Since the 1960s, academics and policymakers have assured us that if natives are able to run their own affairs — free from the interference of whites — they would recapture some measure of dignity and autonomy in their collectivist Bantustans. As anyone who’s spent time on a reserve knows, the reality is far uglier. This past week, for instance, a 10-year-old boy was torn to pieces by wild dogs in a Saskatchewan reserve. In other recent episodes, native children have burned to death in their homes, or been left to freeze to death in the snow. All societies experience tragedies — but some more than others. There are only about 400,000 natives living on reserves in Canada. Yet they seem to collectively generate more piteous tales than cities with populations 10 times that size. Even Kahnawake — which is relatively prosperous by the standards of native reserves, being located near Montreal — has become a strife-riddled center for drugs, contraband smuggling, and gang activity.
We have long known that Canada’s native policies are failing to provide their intended beneficiaries with healthy, prosperous lives. The Kahnawake episode shows that these policies are harming the rest of us, too — by rolling back our most cherished values to an age when people were forcibly segregated based on the colour of their skin.
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