What’s wrong with being radicalized?

At times of violence and fear, we search for words to describe what has happened and why it has happened, and what kind of person could be responsible; words to describe victims and perpetrators and motives. The more this discussion becomes politicized, however, the more meaningless and empty these words become; the more open to manipulation and the more useful for justifying actions and overreactions. The word “terrorism” comes to mind, a word that journalist Glenn Greenwald has pointed out is “utterly devoid of objective or consistent meaning.”

Much has been said lately about “homegrown terrorists,” as well as “radicalized” youth, and it is the latter word to which I am taking issue. Both government and media have taken to talking about “radicalization” in discussions about violent extremism. This, however, is a misappropriation of the word, something I find troubling as both someone who works with language and who is political active.

If asked, I’d be comfortable identifying as a radical myself, and would be happy to talk about my own process of radicalization. Many of my friends have also been radicalized. I’m not talking about religious extremism, however. Being a radical is, in fact, a proud political tradition, and a proud democratic tradition. I admire past and current activists, trade unionists, feminists, abolitionists, and the like, who were and are, themselves, radicals.

The word “radical” suggests deep convictions toward political change. It suggests political dissent, and a critical resistance to and suspicion of political traditions and conventions. Radicals believe in the necessity of a fundamental shift in how we view our societies and each other, so that we may live in healthier, more egalitarian communities.

Misappropriating the word “radical” is a means of doing the exact opposite: of not just promoting and prioritizing the status quo, but actively suppressing political dissent. By corrupting and demeaning the word “radical,” we are corrupting and demeaning a proud tradition of progressive—and yes, radical—political change.


Romania now safe for Roma, apparently

The Conservatives have added five new countries to its arbitrary list of countries from which it doesn’t want to receive refugees—known as Designated Countries of Origin (DCOs). Now included is Romania, a nation known for its systemic discrimination of the Roma. In Canada, refugee claimants from DCOs are given less time to prepare a refugee claim and face faster deportation. They are also denied the right to an appeal and denied basic and emergency health care, available to other groups of refugees.

Former Citizen and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney introduced the DCO list in 2012, in a bill that also scrapped plans to include human rights experts in a refugee board consultation committee, opting instead for arbitrary powers for the immigration minister. The DCO list was ostensibly created to speed up the refugee claim process, which has become backlogged due to understaffing at the refugee board. A major motivation for the list was the proportionally large number of Roma refugees coming to Canada—refugees the Conservatives have consistently labelled “bogus” and accused of taking advantage of our “generous” refugee system.

The list is curious. It is supposed to include “countries that do not normally produce refugees, but do respect human rights and offer state protection,” according to Immigration Canada’s website. However, included on the list are such countries as Hungary, from which the majority of Roma claims are made, and the Czech Republic, another major source country. Both countries are well-known for their systemic discrimination of the Roma.

According to a 2012 report from Human Rights Watch: “In Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia, the situation is even more alarming, with violent attacks and anti-Roma rhetoric and little progress towards ending housing and school segregation.”

Canada has slapped visas on the two other EU countries singled out in that report—Bulgaria and Romania—a measure known to efficiently and effectively deter refugees. As well, a month after Hungary was added to the DCO list, in January 2013, the Conservatives ran a publicly funded billboard campaign in the Hungarian city of Miskolc to discourage Roma from making refugee claims in Canada.

The Roma face persistent discrimination and marginalization—including physical violence and forced evictions—in the very countries we claim are free from this sort of behaviour. We are not just turning a blind eye to the widespread suffering of the Roma, we are actively participating in it, and allowing their home states to act with impunity.

Canada has made it known, yet again, that it doesn’t welcome Eastern Europe’s most vulnerable. But it’s not like we don’t want any Eastern Europeans: the same day that Romania was added to the DCO list, the Conservatives also launched a Business Express Program for Romania and Bulgaria, making “legitimate travel” quicker and easier for the more well-off. Lucky them.

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.

A comment on the title: A lot of people take issue with using the word “settler” to describe non-Indigenous peoples. I recognize that many of us do not claim lineage back to those original settlers who colonized this country and dispossessed its people. It’s important to recognize, however, that we still live in a colonial (or “settler”) society—colonialism is not just an historical phenomenon; it continues today, and all non-Indigenous peoples benefit from colonialism, both past and present. Those involved in Indigenous issues use the word “settler” as a way of recognizing this, as well as to express a desire for this to change.

The First Nations Education Act

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.