What we’re (not) talking about when we talk about Franklin

It was beginning to seem like it would never happen. For a sixth year, the Harper government was sending a team into the Arctic to search for the lost Franklin ships. The expeditions were starting to seem as doomed as Franklin’s own: the British explorer famously got stuck in Arctic ice during his 1845 expedition to navigate the Northwest Passage. He never made it. Franklin and all 128 men from his two British navy ships—HMS Erebus and HMS Terror—escaped to land, where one by one they died from a somewhat predictable inability to survive in the Arctic environment, resorting to a bit of cannibalism along the way.

Despite his dismal failure, Franklin’s story has become one of heroics and bravery within an inhospitable land, a story of conquest and adventure. It’s become a foundational story in the mythology of Canada, a sign that we are, indeed, a northern people; a heroic, noble and very British people. The Brits searched for Franklin’s ships for years and decades. Then we did, too—the cumulative effort playing a major role in opening up the Arctic, both to the Canadian imagination and to the Canadian state.

The 2014 search was our biggest yet—including four ships, high-tech sonar equipment, two underwater vehicles, and the backing of a significant public-private partnership. On September 7, 2014, the expense paid off, and the expedition found one of the ships. The nation celebrated.

The nation gushed, actually, and so did its media. We were very excited, and very, very happy with ourselves. And why not? What a cool thing to find a centuries-old missing ship, to solve a great mystery. How fun to brave the frozen Arctic with big ships and expensive gadgets.

But it was never just about solving mysteries, not just about history and archaeology. Our search for the Franklin ships has always had two interrelated objectives. One is Arctic sovereignty—asserting control over the Arctic and its waterways, and all that goes on there, and proving that we have the authority to do so. It’s also been an exercise in nation-building—reinforcing that great, grand story we tell about ourselves, and that informs our priorities today.

These motivations have been central to the Franklin searches. This is no secret; everyone involved has always been very upfront that the Franklin expeditions are about more than just finding two lost ships. What should concern us are not the political layers to the Franklin search, but that Harper’s motivations and objectives in this regard are not receiving the kind of critical analysis that they desperately need.

The “New North”

Let’s look at some of the issues at play. Thanks to climate change, the same ice that trapped Franklin’s ships for two years before they broke free and sank is becoming a hot commodity (pun intended). The pace of change in the Arctic is frightening: scientists expect the Northwest Passage to be completely ice-free in summer within a few decades. This loss of ice is opening up the region to commercial shipping routes, as well as resource exploration and extraction—huge reserves of oil and gas exist beneath the ocean floor.

Harper’s concern, however, lies not with climate change, but with Arctic sovereignty: Canada sees the Northwest Passage is an internal waterway, while much of the rest of the world sees it as an international waterway, thus allowing their ships right of passage. Only by asserting our sovereignty in the region can we claim, and thus control, its waters.

So how do we assert our sovereignty over the region? This is a little fuzzy, but it seems to have a lot to do with simply being up there, and, you know, doing stuff—the kind of stuff that those involved in these matters think is important. Enter Harper’s Northern Strategy, a series of projects and initiatives tailored to our government’s “vision of a new North.” This New North is a busier and more economically productive place, host to increased military presence, infrastructure, resource extraction initiatives, and a deep-sea port. The Franklin expeditions are part of this Northern Strategy, complimenting this robust assertion of our sovereignty. By finding the ships, we are helping cement our claim over the Arctic waters.

Red flags

Ok, here’s where we need to step back for a moment and ask some fundamental questions, such as: Is this the way we want to develop the North? Are we keen on focusing on resource development, or are there other, better ways to develop the region? Does it even need developing? What do the Indigenous people who live there think? Are they offended by the suggestion that their thousands-of-years-old presence is not sufficient for asserting sovereignty?

I challenge any of you to look through the mainstream and corporate media for any articles, radio segments, or television segments asking these sorts of questions. Take all the time you need. If you can scrounge together more than two or three I swear I’ll buy you lunch.

This utter lack of a national conversation worries me. After all, it doesn’t take an investigative research team to notice a few red flags with the government-sponsored Franklin expedition, suggesting there’s a lot more going on, and that the government might not exactly be acting in our best interests.

Consider Parks Canada, which has been leading the expeditions, and doing so with some expensive gadgets. You’d think the Canadian government sees an inherent value in Parks Canada and its archaeologists, and is happy to fund them. But if so, then why has Harper slashed Parks Canada’s budget by $155.9 million since 2011? More to the point, why did he gut Parks Canada’s archaeological department in 2012 (culling 25 of its 32 archaeologist, four labs, all three researchers working on First Nations’ historical and cultural sites at the Historical Research Branch, and half the archaeology policy positions, along with removing their voice from the management table)?

What does all this say about the role Harper thinks Parks Canada should be playing in the shaping of public policy? It’s a good question. Why isn’t anybody asking it?

Consider Shell Canada, one of the private partners of the Franklin expedition, and a resource extraction giant with huge interests in the Arctic. What expertise are they providing? How might the exploratory work being done during the Franklin search benefit them? Is the technology being used applicable to the oil and gas industry? Again, these all seem like worthwhile questions. But who’s asking them?

Shell is also involved in building an educational tool for young students about the importance of the Franklin story. Do we want a resource extraction company teaching our children about the Arctic? Is this a conflict of interest? What value do we want our children to place on the Arctic, and to see in it, and does this match up with Shell’s priorities?

Consider PEARL, the world-class climate research station that Harper tried to shut down. Consider the new research station he’s building to overshadow it, a wholly different kind of research station focused on science and technology research to support development in the North—placing environmental research alongside resource development, “healthy communities” and “exercising sovereignty.” What does this say about our shifting priorities in the Arctic? Are we ok with this?

Nation building

And then there’s the exercise in nation building (a concept that should always raise red flags). To a great extent, the decades and centuries of searching for Franklin have defined our relationship with the North—why we go there, how we interact with it, what value we see in it; how we think it should be used and for what purpose.

Of course, when I say “we,” I am referring exclusively to Canada’s colonial people. This is our historical perspective, our cultural framework. But we cannot talk about the Arctic as if it were divorced from the people who call it home—and who have done so since before recorded history began. If this is a truly national story, what role in it do the Inuit play? Do they even have a role? (And conversely, what role should we be playing in their story?)

This, then, is how the exercise in nation building becomes problematic.

From Canada’s perspective—as with the British Empire before it—the Arctic has always been a place to be exploited, a wild and dangerous place, a place to be braved, conquered and tamed. Indeed, very little has changed since Franklin’s day. Not surprisingly, the Inuit have a strikingly different perspective of the Arctic. For a start, it’s not “Canada’s North,” a remote territory existing on the margins; it is their home—a place Kathleen Winters has called “real unto itself.” Though I can’t assume to speak for them, I’d be surprised to hear them talk about the Arctic using the same language of conquest.

Are the Inuit also seeking heroics in a savage land, and setting out to improve it with an assumed set of values for an assumed objective of economic gain? Or do they seek continued respect for a land that has long sustained them? Do they put more trust in our understanding of the land and its history, or theirs? Do they welcome Western, federalist visions of a New North, or do they prefer to see potential and find solutions in their own communities, their own cultural and legal traditions? I don’t know—perhaps we should ask them.

It is telling that to the Inuit, Franklin’s ships have never been lost, and were never in need of being “discovered.” The Inuit have always known where the ships lay, and the recent expedition would never have succeeded without the guidance of their oral tradition. According to author David Woodman, “All that really happened was it took 200 years for our technology to get good enough to tell us that Inuit were telling us the truth.” We no longer have any excuse to ignore the credibility and authority of their knowledge, and should turn to it wholeheartedly in all other respects—to look for ways of healing, ways of being, for ways of interacting with the land and with each other. Still, don’t expect a new tone to Harper’s Northern Strategy.

Franklin’s failure was the result of the misguided nature of his colonial agenda—he was ill-prepared, stubborn, and impervious to Inuit ways of living. He failed because the North is not something to be conquered and tamed; it is something to learn from and to respect. It is a place where sovereignty already exists. It is a place with a people and a history and a future that doesn’t require our paternalistic, heavy-handed interference.

There is an opportunity here, for both Canada and the Inuit people, but it rests on cooperation and respect. As Aboriginal rights lawyer Lorraine Land writes, “Recognizing the Inuit’s historical ties and use of the arctic would have far greater import, in international law, in legitimizing Canada’s arctic jurisdiction than finding old ships sent by colonial powers two centuries ago. … In other words, by cooperating with the Inuit, Canada could establish its own sovereignty goals.”

It’s fine to get excited about finding sunken ships, but we can’t afford to get distracted from the other factors at play. If we do, we risk letting those parties involved—first and foremost the Harper government—both define the story of our nation’s past and set the agenda for its future.

If this is our national story, then we are telling ourselves the wrong story. Or rather, we are telling the story in the wrong way. As the academic Adriana Craciun says, “Franklin’s legacy is not discovery or sovereignty, it is disaster.” His failure should be instructive. This is a lesson on how not to conceive of the Arctic. And yet, we are continuing in Franklin’s footsteps: completing his quest for a Northwest Passage open to commercial transportation, resource extraction, and imperial and colonial assertions. If we come to the Arctic just as Franklin did, looking to brave, to conquer, to tame, will we not also fail?

Tsilhqot’in ruling: reaffirming colonialism?

The Tsilhqot’in Nation, a First Nation in interior British Columbia, has won a major battle in Canada’s Supreme Court. In an 8-0 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the Tsilhqot’in Nation does indeed have title over their territory, and that this title gives them rights over the use of that land. Everyone agrees that this ruling has set a new precedent and will change the way Canada must deal with treaty negotiations. But how much of a victory is it, really?

First, a bit of background. In 1983, the Tsilhqot’in people blockaded in protest of provincially granted commercial clear-cut logging on their territory. The province agreed to consult with the Tsilhqot’in concerning industrial activity on their territory, but talks broke down. Eventually the Tsilhqot’in was forced to take the provincial government to court, arguing title over their land.

The first ruling was favourable. In 1997 the BC Supreme Court ruled that the Tsilhqot’in had title over 1,750 square km of land (their original claim was 4,380 square km). The BC Court of Appeal overturned that ruling, saying they could only claim title to “specific, intensively occupied” sites within their claim, not the entire territory. The Tsilhqot’in appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada, arguing that they use their entire territory, not just small, specific sites—and they’ve won: according to the courts, they do indeed have title to the full 1,750 square km territory.

But that’s not all. The Court also provided a working definition of Aboriginal title itself. This is really important, because up until now Canada has been operating without a definition, bizarre as that may seem.[1]

Now we have a definition: according to the Tsilhqot’in ruling, Aboriginal title includes “the right to decide how the land will be used; the right of enjoyment and occupancy of the land; the right to possess the land; the right to the economic benefits of the land; and the right to pro-actively use and manage the land.”

Finally on an equal footing?

This has the potential to completely transform treaty negotiations.[2] You see, it’s been in Canada’s favour to not have title defined; this lack of definition (or “uncertainty” in government lingo) gives the Canadian government the upper hand in all treaty negotiations.

Here’s the scenario. Because rights and title are undefined, it’s too risky for Canada to enter into treaty with a First Nation (or so goes the argument). After all, how can we possibly enter into an agreement if we don’t know what the terms are? And what if those terms are defined at some future date, and we don’t like them?

Not to worry, the government has come up with a solution, and boy is it a crafty one. It goes like this: You, the First Nation, will agree to give up (or “extinguish”) all of your inherent rights and title, and together we’ll negotiate and define new rights and title. Then we can sign a treaty. We’ll even give you a cash incentive!

It’s quite the trade-off: give up the inherent rights and title your people have held since the beginning of time (“inherent” meaning not tied to, and thus not granted by, the Canadian state), in exchange for a limited set of define rights, and a government cheque. Under the Harper government, this approach has become even more draconian. They refuse to even sit down at the negotiating table unless a First Nation agrees to give up their inherent rights and title. Self-extinguishment is now a prerequisite.

Now that Canada has given itself an actual definition of Aboriginal title, however, Indigenous peoples will have more leverage in treaty negotiations: a definition of title means the government’s extinguishment argument no longer holds water.

In another blow to the Canadian government, the decision ruled that Canada can no longer access Indigenous (titled) land through mere consultation—now they must get actual consent. This, theoretically, could give Indigenous peoples a veto over whether or not industrial projects can go ahead on their territory. This is very troubling for Canada, which currently has difficulty seeing outside the lens of economic benefit. All eyes, of course, are now on the Northern Gateway pipeline, and the First Nations who claim title to the land along its path.

Loopholes, and continued colonization

As positive as this ruling is for Indigenous peoples who have outstanding land claims, it’s by no means a full endorsement of their rights and sovereignty. For there’s a caveat. According to the ruling, if the government cannot gain consent, they can still go ahead with an industrial project—providing that it is “justified by a compelling and substantial public purpose” and not in violation of section 35 of the Constitution, which protects Aboriginal and treaty rights.

That looks to me like a back door left wide open. Is the Northern Gateway pipeline a “justifiable” project that doesn’t trample on Aboriginal rights? I can think of at least one federal government who would say so.

And thus the Canadian court system, despite everything, remains deeply self-contradictory, and fundamentally colonial. On the one hand, Canada recognizes inherent Indigenous rights and title to their land. We also recognize that much of this land has never been ceded to the Dominion of Canada. This, arguably, is the definition of sovereignty. And yet we still presume the authority to define those rights and title for Indigenous people, and we still presume the authority to grant rights for ourselves over their land (a respect for sovereignty this is not).

Neither Canada nor Britain before it ever signed an agreement with the nations west of the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean—aside from a recent small handful of treaties, there’s been no agreement to use or share the territory, no agreement to occupy it. It is unceded land, and as far as I can tell, none of what we call British Columbia has ever legally been part of Canada. It belongs to nations other than Canada: First Nations.

The Canadian government—and our courts, apparently—disagree. But if we didn’t sign any treaties with First Nations in BC, then when and how did Canada gain sovereignty over that land? Was it through colonization? If so, then we stole it—which by all modern international standards would make us illegal occupiers. Or perhaps it was at some later date? If so, when? And by what legal process? The answer, of course, is that we’ve never gained sovereignty over it—not legally, anyhow.

How then to deal with issues concerning that territory? Folding First Nations issues under the umbrella of common law is obviously fraught, and will never be adequate. The problem is not necessarily (or not entirely) with the law itself, but rather with which kind of law we’re applying. We are dealing with First Nations through the framework of domestic law, as if they and their territories belong to Canada. But this is not the case. They are sovereign—we have our law, and they have theirs. We need to be interacting nation-to-nation. In other words, we need to be dealing on the level of international law.[3]

With every tree we log, with every home we build, with ever pipeline we lay—and with every Indigenous right we “recognize”—we continue to colonize.

If we really want to coexist on the land, legally, then there’s only one thing to do: we have to approach the First Peoples and seek to enter into treaties with them. We need to do so in good faith, and in recognition of their sovereign nationhood. And we need to prove ourselves worthy treaty partners by honouring those treaties that already exist.


[1] In 1997 a major court decision known as Delgamuukw ruled that Indigenous peoples had inherent rights and title to their lands (thus the need for consultation), but the courts refrained from defining what those rights and title actually were.

[2] Although the decision was on the Tsilhqot’in claim, the definition of title applies to all Indigenous nations with outstanding land claims. This is a significant number, covering a significant amount of land—most of BC, large swaths of Ontario and Quebec, and pretty much all of the Maritimes.

[3] It would also help if we expand our rigid understanding of the nation state, to conceive of shared jurisdiction—as well as our understanding of property, which can be collectively owned, or collectively used.

{further notes}

I have not read the opinion pieces that apparently bemoan the way in which this ruling will undermine or threaten our so-called liberal democracy (through granting distinctions before the law). The always insightful Chelsea Vowel, however, has read them, and you can read her excellent analysis on her blog, âpihtawikosisân, or on rabble.ca.

I’ve also just listened to an excellent interview with Chelsea Vowel on Indigenous Waves (starts at the 23:45 mark), which I highly recommend giving a listen to.

Lessons from the Komagata Maru

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the Komagata Maru tragedy—a dark and revealing event in Canada’s history. On May 23, 1914, a ship chartered by 376 Indians reached Canada’s west coast. The SS Komagata Maru was detained for two weeks, its passengers driven to near-starvation before being turned back, ultimately into the violent hands of the British army.

In 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued an official apology, though many in Canada’s South Asian community doubted his sincerity. Their doubts were confirmed the following year, when 76 refugee claimants fleeing the fallout of a brutal civil war in Sri Lanka were similarly detained. Then another ship arrived in 2010, the MV Sun Sea, carrying 492 Sri Lankan refugee claimants. This time the Harper government clamped down, not only detaining the refugees and branding them criminals, terrorists and “queue jumpers,” but ferociously gutting Canada’s refugee policy—creating a system that is arguably as restrictive and discriminatory as the one that greeted the Komagata Maru in 1914.

Today, the Harper government commemorated the 100th anniversary of the Komagata Maru tragedy, sending out a press release that I read with great curiosity. It did not disappoint: their press release was titled, “Learning From Canada’s Past.” Ah yes, government spin is an awesome thing to behold. So impressed was I that I immediately wrote to the appropriate ministers (Ministers Jason Kenney, Chris Alexander and Tim Uppal), suggesting, among other things, that the title must have been a clerical error.

For despite apologies and press releases, the government’s message is the same today as it was in 2010: that when it comes to refugees, or any migrants for that matter, Canada has absolutely no intention of learning from its past.

{side notes}

Unlike the MV Ocean Lady and MV Sun Sea, the passengers of the Komagata Maru were not refugees. They were, however, British subjects (just like Canadians) and as such had every right to enter Canada. The voyage was bringing immigrants, but it also represented a direct challenge to Canadian racist policy, which favoured “White” immigrants over all others, who were deemed “undesireable.”

I recommend reading up on the Komagata Maru, especially if, like me, you weren’t taught about it in school. A good place to start is this article about the centennial at The Tyee. It opens with a rather shocking quote from our Prime Minister at the time, Wilfred Laurier: “The people of Canada want to have a white country…”

For more thoughts on the contemporary context, read the open letter at komagatamarulegacy.tumblr.com, penned and signed by members of Canada’s South Asian community. There is also this piece from the Toronto Star, as well as this reflection at The Tyee on the connection to today’s Temporary Foreign Worker’s program.

A Settler’s Guide to Understanding the First Nations Education Act

(This post was republished on rabble.ca.)

You may not be aware of this, but there is an important and heated debate going on among Indigenous communities right now. The issue at hand is a federal bill designed, ostensibly, to return control of First Nations education to the First Nations themselves.

But there’s a larger issue at play—one that those of us who are non-Indigenous would do well to pay attention to. The debate is a uniquely colonial one, the kind that is provoked when one nation refuses to give up control over what is rightfully the jurisdiction of another nation (or in this case, 633 nations). It’s impossible to understand the debate around the First Nation Education Act without an understanding of Indigenous people’s inherent and treaty rights.

What do inherent rights have to do with it?

Inherent rights are the fundamental and existing rights of Indigenous peoples, based on their original and long-standing occupation of and governance over their land. Canada’s top court first recognized Indigenous people’s inherent rights in 1973 in its Calder decision. The key word here is recognized. It’s important to note that Canada has never had, nor ever will have, the power to grant such rights—it can only recognize that which has always existed.

The Supreme Court has since held back from specifically defining what those inherent rights are. Luckily, there are people who are more than happy to do this for you—those who hold these rights: the Indigenous peoples themselves. You can also check out the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which Canada has signed, and which provides a handy list. One of these inherent rights is control over education and educational institutions, in their own languages, appropriate to their own cultures (see Article 14).

This is what people are referring to when they talk about First Nation control over education. Even the official title of the current bill acknowledges this—after recent amendment it was renamed the First Nation Control Over First Nation Education Act.

Now, there are also treaty rights to education. The original treaties that Canada signed with the First Nations granted the colonists access to Indigenous land, with provisions for things like settlement and access to resources. In exchange, the colonists agreed to certain conditions and obligations, one of which was to provide the necessary resources for education. This obligation appears in the first numbered treaties as some variation of: “Her Majesty agrees to maintain schools for instruction.” Later numbered treaties affirm “the policy of the government to provide . . . for the education of the Indian children.”

Rights violated, rights reclaimed

Basically, we are obliged to provide the resources, but they have the right to provide the education. Very quickly, however, this agreement fell apart. Canada’s takeover of First Nations education began immediately, and in earnest, culminating in the notorious residential schools. The residential schools were designed to purge First Nations children of their language and culture, and to turn them into “proper Canadians.” It resulted in systemic abuses—cultural, physical, and sexual—that continue to affect not just survivors but their children and their children’s children. When First Nations say they want control over their own education, their words are tinged with the memory of residential schools. This is also why, when Canada offers a new bill on education, it cannot be received with anything but wariness and suspicion.

The last federally operated residential school closed in 1996, and the Government of Canada apologized for the system in 2008, but First Nations activists began fighting for control of education in the early 1970s, with some significant successes.

And yet Canada has always maintained solid control. And boy have the results been shoddy. Just over half of Indigenous students nationally make it to Grade 12. High school graduation on reserves is at 35.5%, compared to 78% for the whole country.

The main reason for this “performance gap,” as it’s often referred to, is most likely chronic underfunding. The provinces spend an average of $10,000 per student, while the federal government’s core funding for First Nations schools is around two-thirds that, at less than $7,000 (the federal government argues it spends more than that, and it does, but on ad hoc projects and programs). Furthermore, in 1996 the government capped funding increases for First Nations schools at 2% annually, despite the First Nation population growing at least twice that much at the time. This population growth has only increased, which means every year funding must be spread even more thinly.

The First Nation Education Act

Clearly things have got to change. That much, at least, everyone agrees on: thus the First Nation Education Act. So what’s in the bill? Honestly, there’s a lot of really good stuff there. It provides for not just a massive boost in funding, but “adequate, stable, predictable and sustainable” funding. It allows for funding and curriculum to be dedicated to First Nations language and culture. It allows First Nations to develop their curriculums. It calls for ongoing discussions over the implementation of the bill. It’s light years ahead of where we are today.

And yet First Nations criticism persists—even outright rejection—which leaves a lot of people dumbfounded: Doesn’t this bill give them everything they need? What else could they possibly want? To answer this, we have to go back to inherent and treaty rights, and to Canada’s colonial relationship with these rights. For despite everything in the Act, the fundamental problem remains: Canada still refuses to give up control.

Here are some examples: Under the Act, teachers must be certified by the province, and diplomas will be issued by provincial Ministers of Education. Curriculums, while incorporating aspects of Indigenous culture, must meet provincial standards.

There are also these juicy bits: Under the Act, the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs has control over who sits on and chairs the Joint Councils (the main decision making bodies under the Act). If a school fails an inspection report, the Minister can unilaterally appoint a “temporary administer” to run the school, and this person can ask the Minister to revoke a First Nation Education Authority’s status.

There’s also this caveat: all new funding is tied to this bill, meaning that if First Nations refuse to accept this bill, there will be no new funding. Even if they do accept it, no new funding will come until 2016.

Details aside, the simple concept of this bill—telling First Nations what they are allowed to do, and granting them powers—is inherently paternalistic. It’s inherently colonial: if we stand by the concept of inherent rights, we can only relinquish our control, we have no right to grant it.

What should Canada do?

The funny thing is, the federal government claims that it does indeed stand by the concept of inherent and treaty rights. According to the Act itself: “nothing in this Act is to be construed so as to abrogate or derogate from the protection provided for existing Aboriginal or treaty rights of the Aboriginal peoples of Canada.”

So are we handing over control, or aren’t we? Do we acknowledge their inherent and treaty rights, or don’t we? No we aren’t, and no we don’t.

Acknowledging Indigenous inherent and treaty rights over education would mean funding their schools appropriately, and doing so with no strings attached. We need to accept their own qualifications for teachers, their own standards for high school graduation, their own curriculum, and their own standards for assessing the quality of that curriculum. This is not a foreign concept: if we can acknowledge the educational standards of other nations, surely we can acknowledge theirs.

I realize how unpopular this would be, but we signed the treaties, and that’s the deal. It’s the price we agreed to pay. And not just that: if we want to live peacefully alongside our Indigenous neighbours, and if we want to treat them with respect, we must give them what is rightfully theirs. Anything else just keeps colonialism alive.

No more mental health care for refugees?

When a refugee flees to Canada seeking protection from persecution, entering our borders is just the first step. Canadians assist refugees out of a basic concern for human rights and human dignity, and this assistance covers everything from tending to their immediate needs to helping them integrate into Canadian society, whether their stay is temporary or permanent. Our government-funded programs and services help refugees find employment and housing, provide them with physical and mental health care, provide them with language classes, and connect them with communities both familiar and new.

Ok, ok, I’m pulling your leg a little bit here. Until quite recently, all of this was on offer, but in 2012 our government eliminated nearly all health care for refugees, and now mental health is on the chopping block, too. Refugee mental health services in British Columbia ended at the beginning of this month, leaving the 2,000 refugees and refugee claimants who come to BC each year without care.

Let’s take a moment to recall just how bad things can be for refugees. Having fled persecution, usually out of fear for one’s safety, refugees must set up in a foreign country, often with little or no family or community support, and little or no material possessions, for an indefinite period of time. No matter their circumstances, they are displaced, under stress, isolated, and vulnerable. In extreme cases they may fear or have experienced not just intimidation but the violence of kidnapping, imprisonment or torture, or have had family members or colleagues murdered.

Talk about putting a strain on one’s mental health! It’s no wonder these programs were set up for refugees. Why, then, would the Conservatives want to eliminate mental health care for people in such need of it? It’s a difficult question, and one I’m not sure I can answer. But while we’re mulling over the why, I’ll quickly explain the how.

The How

In 2008, the federal government turned management of federally funded refugee settlement programs over to the province of BC, as part of the federal-provincial immigration agreement (each province and territory has its own agreement). The deal was, the federal government would continue to provide funding ($616,000 a year), but BC would be in charge of distributing that money to specific programs. Then in 2012 the feds changed their minds, announcing they would take back this funding control, by April 2014. This simply meant organizations would have to apply for funding from the federal government, rather than the provincial government.

And that’s what happened. Last year the four BC organizations who provided refugee mental health services applied for continued funding, as per usual. Except this time the federal government denied their applications. And just like that, BC mental health services for refugees were gone. (Note: A small amount of funding actually remained, but as with physical health care it was earmarked exclusively for government-sponsored refugees, and for two of the organizations it was not enough to keep the services running.)

Ironically, the funding cuts came into effect right in time for Refugee Rights Day (April 4), in keeping with the government’s almost comical track record of poorly timed policy changes.

Possible Explanations

So what’s going on? Was this mere bureaucratic incompetence, or was it part of a larger government policy? And why has this only happened in BC? Honestly, it’s difficult to tell. What I can tell you is that the announcement of changes to mental health funding came at the same time as the announcement that gutted refugee health care (in April 2012, by then-Immigration Minister Jason Kenney). In both cases, the government played favourites with one category of refugees—those they select themselves—over the other two categories: those sponsored privately, and those who land in Canada independent of any selection process (known in the biz as “Refugees Landed in Canada,” or RLCs).

The three categories aren’t all that important (it’s an organizational thing); all you need to know is that we have equal responsibility to all of them. Still, the Conservatives have made little attempt to hide their disdain for RLCs (the category they have the least control over): the government’s squeeze on federal refugee policy was itself in reaction to the arrival of a boat filled with RLCs, and the new policy is designed explicitly to dissuade RLCs from coming to Canada (against international convention, by the way). Even though most RLCs arrive by plane, the Conservatives only really freak out over boat arrivals—and the port of Vancouver is the major point of entry for RLCs arriving by boat. So if you want to discourage refugees from coming by boat, BC’s the place to do it.

The Most Generous Refugee Program in the World

But enough speculation. Here’s the point: the Conservatives like to say that Canada has one of the most generous refugee programs in the world. They say it again and again, as if repeating it will make it true. Refusing to support the basic mental health needs of refugees, however, is a major strike against this claim.

I’m betting the government wouldn’t call its refugee program a token gesture aimed at maintaining an international reputation. I’m sure they wouldn’t say they do the absolute minimum necessary (or even less, if they can get away with it) to maintain this reputation. But between you and me, that’s how it looks. If they really want to boast about having one of the world’s most generous refugee programs, they damn well better start putting some effort into it. They’ve really got to start caring—not just about their reputation, but about human dignity itself, about human rights. Because in the end only one thing really matters: we need to take care of our most vulnerable, and we’ve got to mean it.


The BC organizations hit with funding cuts are the Immigration Services Society of BC, the Vancouver Association of Survivors of Torture, Family Services of Greater Vancouver, and the Bridge Clinic.

37 is too young to die: Indigenous and marginalized in Toronto

Erratum: My original post suggested that urban Indigenous people in Canada may suffer the “worst life expectancy in the world.” After speaking with Dr. Chandrakant Shah from Anishnawbe Health Toronto, however, I’ve corrected my mistake. Dr. Shah’s report discusses “average age of death,” and refers only to those Indigenous people who used the services of the two major Toronto health units used in the report discussed below.

At the end of March, Anishnawbe Health Toronto, a community health centre, presented a report to Toronto city council outlining “premature deaths” among the city’s Indigenous community. How premature? According to the report, the average age of death for Indigenous people using health services in Toronto is 37.

The report shocked the nation, and at times it seemed impossible to escape the constant analysis in the media. The Canadian public was stunned, shocked, and rose up to demand action. I jest, of course: our national public broadcaster didn’t even pick up on the story until nearly a month after the report came out.

Just 37 years—35 for men, 41 for women. These figures are abhorrent. For context, the average age of death for all Torontonians using the same health services is 75, more than twice that of Indigenous people.

My original post compared these stats to the average life expectancy in Canada (80) and Sierra Leone (47.5), which it turns out was not correct (the world of statistical analysis is a strange and murky place). Average life expectancy and average age of death are different beasts. However, it remains helpful for me to know that Indigenous people using health services in Toronto—Canada’s largest (and self-described greatest) city—are still at risk of dying 10 years earlier than the lowest life expectancy rate in the world.

This is not a national embarrassment; this is a national crisis. And we need to start dealing with it, now. Thankfully, Anishnawbe Health Toronto has already done some legwork identifying the root causes:

“Indigenous peoples face some of the heaviest burdens of ill health,” says the report. “This is due to histories of colonization, marginalization, discrimination and racism, which results in a multitude of issues, such as loss of identity, culture, unstable housing and homelessness, a lack of education and stable jobs, and a lack of social supports.”

The report goes on to identify two specific root causes. The first is the impact of colonial and postcolonial policies (including assimilation, systemic discrimination, and cultural disruption) on the social determinants of health. The second is chronic stress as a result of these policies, resulting in “violence towards self and other, identity issues, mental health challenges, addiction, and social isolation.”

A typical medical chart of someone who has died prematurely includes diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, inadequate housing, tobacco addiction, substance abuse, anxiety, depression, posttraumatic stress, and chronic stress. This is the medical manifestation of what one person quoted in the report calls a “broken heart syndrome.”

Although the authors of the report suggest a number of programs be put in place to counteract the problems they outline (one of which they politely refer to as the “empathy gap”), they have refrained from specific recommendations, suggesting everyone involved get together to start finding solutions together.

Yes, let’s begin. Let’s begin now. No one deserves to suffer such deplorably early deaths. Least of all our own neighbours.


The Anishnawbe Health Toronto’s report, “Early death among members of Toronto’s Aboriginal Community: Walking in their shoes,” is available here, and the backgrounder here.


A complete guide to the Fair Elections Act

Two months ago today the federal Conservatives introduced their changes to the Elections Act, which they called, apparently without any irony whatsoever, the Fair Elections Act—an audacious title for something defined by its utter lack of fairness.

The bill will disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of voters, give the Conservatives advantages over other parties, ban Elections Canada from encouraging people to vote, muzzle Elections Canada’s reports and investigations, and hold Elections Canada back from conducting proper investigations, notably of Conservative-linked election fraud. It also creates a voter fraud bogeyman, distracting from actually existing election fraud, conducted by and connected to the Conservative Party itself. Fair Election Act indeed.

Since the bill’s introduction in Parliament we’ve seen street protests, petitions, and harsh criticism from people whom we should take very seriously. The Conservatives are used to meeting resistance when introducing new bills, but rarely is that resistance so sustained and mounting. Not even the mainstream and corporate media’s interest has waned.

It’s encouraging to see that people do indeed take their democracy seriously. Canadians are proud of their democratic system. We like to think that we live in a model democracy, that we have a fair and just system, and that keeping this system fair and just is not only desirable, not only important, but fundamental. When a government attempts to erode the democratic system and twist it to their advantage, people tend to get concerned.

Over the last two months we’ve also witnessed some crass and downright juvenile politics, with the Conservatives doing everything in their power—and using every loophole in the parliamentary procedure handbook—to make sure this bill passes. If you could thrust a middle finger at democracy, it might look something like this.

Unfortunately, this bill is forging ahead, en route to becoming law well ahead of the next election. In light of this impending triumph, I thought a recap would be in order.

The Fair Elections Act

The Fair Elections Act is perhaps most seriously offensive in its removal of the vouching system and the use of voter information cards as a form of identification. This will effectively take away the right to vote of nearly half a million Canadians—something that many argue amounts to voter suppression. Currently, anyone who doesn’t have valid ID showing their address can use voter ID cards and/or be “vouched for” by someone else. In the last election, around 400,000 voters used voter election cards as proof of residence, and 120,000 of these relied on vouching—mostly students, seniors, low-income people, and Aboriginals (Indian Status cards do not include an address). The vouching process is quite stringent, and there has never been a reported case of abuse, or voter fraud.

Perhaps it’s worth noting that the right of every citizen to vote is in our very own Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Have a look. It’s the third point in the Charter, making it rather hard to miss.

What else? The bill prevents Elections Canada from promoting voter participation, by banning all marketing and educational materials and programs. That’s right, the government would rather you didn’t vote. They especially don’t want young people to vote (most of the soon-to-be-banned programs are directed at young people). The bill also puts a gag order on Elections Canada, preventing it from publishing any of its research into the electoral process. So if they ever find problems with the electoral system, we’ll never know. A gag order is also placed on Elections Canada investigations, meaning we’ll never know when offences have occurred, either.

The bill also allows the incumbent party in each riding to appoint central poll supervisors, who oversee the running of voting stations during elections (currently they are appointed by Elections Canada), thus opening the door to political influence over activities and decisions made at voting stations.

The bill also changes election funding rules, creating a loophole that exempts all fundraising of past supporters (anyone who has donated $20 within the past five years) from regular spending limits. This creates a clear disadvantage to smaller parties, and especially to independents. The bill also increases the amount individuals can donate to a campaign (from $1,200 to $1,500) and the amount candidates can personally give to their own campaign (from $1,200 to $5,000), benefiting parties whose supporters have deeper pockets.

Finally, it’s notable what the bill does not do. It does not fulfill its original mandate, which was to deal with the problems resulting in the robocall scandal of the 2011 election (which involves the Conservative party itself, though perhaps this isn’t relevant?).

Elections Canada is frustrated with its inability to properly investigate the robocall fraud case, and Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand has requested that Elections Canada be given the powers and resources it needs to properly investigate serious electoral offences, like this one. Elections Canada has warned that it may never get to the bottom of the robocall case if it is not given the power to compel testimony from witnesses. It has also requested the power to require political parties to provide documentation of election spending. Neither this nor the power to compel testimony were granted.

Now, on to the shenanigans

Normally I wouldn’t bore you with details of Parliamentary procedure, because normally they bore me, too. But I’m making an exception, because the Conservative’s posturing around this bill illustrates not just their obstinacy (they are determined to see this bill pass, no matter the criticism, and no matter the legitimacy of that criticism) but their disregard for democracy even in the very house of that democracy.

Shutting down debate

No sooner had the Conservatives tabled the bill then they moved for time allocation, a procedural device used for ending debate (or in this case, shutting it down). Rarely used by previous governments, the Conservatives toss time allocation around like candy at a town parade. By this point they’d used it around 50 times, far exceeding that of any other government. Of course, the irony of shutting down debate on a bill about democratic reform was not lost on critics.

Brad Butt misleads Parliament

That same day, Conservative backbencher MP Brad Butt (not to be confused with Corner Gas star Brent Butt) stood up in Parliament and lied. He claimed to “have actually witnessed” campaign staff picking up discarded voter information cards and turning them over to party supporters, who then used them to commit voter fraud. Ergo, vouching was inherently problematic and must be stopped.

Later, Mr. Butt made the mistake of owning up to his lie, and apologized. He had misspoken. He had not personally witnessed voter fraud, as he had originally claimed. He had merely been relaying information given to him by “second and third parties.” It had never been his intention, he said, to mislead the House. The opposition disagreed, and the NDP rose on a point of order to recommend Butt be found in contempt of Parliament.

Now, being found in contempt of Parliament is a serious thing, and can result in jail time. There have only been a handful of cases in Canada, two of which were committed by the Conservatives in 2011—one of those being the entire Conservative cabinet, for refusing to hand over detailed cost estimates of its anti-crime bill. It was a “breach of privilege” that, as you may recall, triggered the 2011 federal election.

As for Brad Butt, the Speaker of the House, Andrew Scheer, agreed that Butt appeared to have misled Parliament. However, given that the point of order was an opposition motion, the matter had to first be debated in Parliament. Lo and behold, the Conservatives invoked closure (another of those once rarely used parliamentary devices) to shut down all debate on the Brad Butt affair. Brad Butt got off scot-free, and parliamentary democracy hid its face in shame.

No public consultation

Meanwhile, more trouble was brewing. Due to the lack of consultation in the writing of the Fair Elections Act, the opposition NDP called for the bill to be given public hearings. Not surprisingly, the Conservatives refused. Yet again, the irony of a bill on democratic reform not being given its democratic due.

And so the NDP rolled up their sleeves and tried their own hand at Parliamentary shenanigans. A number of other bills were up for public consultation at the same time (evidence of this being common practice), awaiting approval of their proposed travel budgets. The NDP gave the Conservatives an ultimatum: give the Fair Elections Act public hearings as well, or we won’t sign off on the travel budgets for these other bills. The Conservatives called their bluff, and refused, finding out the hard way that the NDP don’t bluff.

Next, MP David Christopherson, the Official Opposition Deputy Leader, began a filibuster in a House of Commons committee to demand public consultation. A filibuster is the most common form of protest within government. The idea is that you stand up and start talking, and you don’t stop. It’s what Jimmie Stewart’s character did in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Christopherson filibustered for seven hours, finally striking a deal with Conservative MP Tom Lukiwski—not for public consultations, but to at least let Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand speak at an upcoming committee hearing.

The absurdity of this should be noted. Not only would the Chief Electoral Officer normally be among the first people invited to speak at committee, but they would already have been consulted about the bill while it was still being written. Not so with the Conservatives. Their failure to consult with Mayrand had not gone unnoticed.

More time allocation

Mayrand was scheduled to appear in committee two days later, and was given 90 minutes to speak. Now check this out. At the exact time he was to begin, the Conservatives introduced time allocation yet again—this time not just once, but twice, on two separate bills. The thing with time allocation is that all activity in Parliament must come to a stop, so that members can sit in the House to vote. Each time allocation imposes a final 30 minutes of debate, plus time for members to get to and from the House. Just like that, Mayrand’s 90-minute speaking window vanished. At most he would get 15 minutes.

But perhaps time allocations were necessary for the bills being debated, you might think. You’d be wrong. Neither were contentious bills, and all parties were in agreement on them. Debate would already have been smooth and brief. Time allocation was imposed for Mayrand’s benefit, only. Thank you very much, Harper, for treating parliamentary democracy with such respect.

Criticism from the experts

Thankfully, in the end, the Conservatives relented and let Mayrand have his 90 minutes after all. They must have regretted doing this. Mayrand proceeded to give a scathing critique of the Fair Elections Act, ripping into its voter suppression, its tilting of the level playing field in the Conservative’s direction, its muzzling of Elections Canada, its banning of programs to promote voting, and its failure to give Elections Canada sufficient investigative powers.

Mayrand also attacked the Conservative’s claims of mass “irregularities” in the vouching process, which Mayrand said were procedural, only. His exact words were: “There is no evidence tying those errors with ineligible electors being allowed to vote.”

Evidence of these irregularities came from a report by former BC Chief Electoral Officer Harry Neufeld, who was commissioned by Elections Canada to look into voting irregularities during the 2011 election. The Neufeld report has been brandished by the Conservatives (MP Pierre Poilievre, Minister of State for Democratic Reform, in particular), who cited it again and again as justification for banning vouching. How unfortunate for them, then, when Harry Neufeld himself appeared in committee and said that the government was misquoting his report.

Like Mayrand, he confirmed that irregularities were procedural, and evidence not of voter fraud, but of a lack of training of electoral officers. In fact, the only mention of fraud in Neueld’s 76-page report appears in the curious phrase “there was no evidence of fraud.” So there you have it. As NDP leader Thomas Mulcair wondered, “Is the government going to prevent hundreds of thousands of Canadians from voting because it is incapable of properly training people? Is that their policy?”

More recently, another scathing criticism has come from Sheila Fraser, the former auditor general with near-universal respect who ferreted out the sponsorship scandal in 2004. “Elections are the base of our democracy,” she said, “and if we do not have truly a fair electoral process and one that can be managed well by a truly independent body, it really is an attack on our democracy and we should all be concerned about that.” She added that with the bill, “it’s going to be very difficult to have a fair, a truly fair, election.”

Will all this criticism result in any changes? Not likely. The committee stage used to be a place of expert analysis and amendment, but the Conservatives have turned it into a mere formality. If any amendments are made at all—even the slightest word change—it will be a rare and triumphant thing. What we have is what we’ll get.

So, why do we need a Fair Elections Act? Well, we are told it will protect Canada’s democratic system from voter fraud. But we know that this fraud does not exist, at least not in the form the Conservatives have identified.

Yet fraud does exist. In May of last year, a federal court judge ruled that election fraud had occurred during the 2011 election, in which a Conservative voter database was used to make misleading robocalls (tellingly, the Conservatives have refused to disclose the list of people who had access to that database). In 2011, Elections Canada found that election fraud occurred during the 2006 election, when the Conservatives exploited a loophole in campaign spending, referred to as the in-and-out scandal.

Yes, fraud does exist, but it has not been committed by citizens—it has been committed by the Conservative government, and they have tabled this bill as a distraction. They may get away with it, but in doing so, 400,000 Canadians will be prevented from voting. And they won’t be the only collateral: so will be the integrity of our democratic system.