Canada is no exception—just look at its record on Indigenous rights

By: /
November 1, 2016

Stephen Marche believes Canada is exceptional. If one gleans everything they know about our country from news headlines over the past year, this is an easy bromide to swallow. After the Liberal sweep of parliament in the 2015 election, Canadians seemed to share a collective sigh of relief. Not only were we on a path back to tolerant, multicultural roots, and ready to deal with grim socioeconomic realities for young Canadians, but, at last, we would have a reckoning with the historical crimes inflicted upon Indigenous communities under the aegis of our flag. In Marche’s eyes, Canada’s willingness to address these social causes in a coarsening global climate speaks to our collective nobility; think of St. Francis in a plaid cloak, embracing lepers as they flee from cluster-bombings in Assisi.

And yet, Canada has been condemned by the United Nations and Amnesty International for our callous and discriminatory treatment of Indigenous people, and our willingness to lock up immigrants indefinitely–even those whose status was made precarious by our changing the rules after they arrived legally. Our mining firms stand accused of human rights atrocities in Central America and Africa, including the rape and murder of local protesters, and we continue to sell arms to despotic regimes who use our weapons against their own people. 

Marche is dead wrong if he believes our willingness to endure these conversations and make these gestures are sufficient proof of exceptionalism. While comparing the American concept of “citizenship” and the British concept of “subjecthood,” he makes a glaring omission. Neither concept was formed with the intention of conferring their respective benefits to anyone besides particular classes of white men. Whether living on land invaded and plundered by Britain, or shunted from ancestral territory into near-inhospitable corners of the American west, both the Aboriginal Canadian and the Native American were bound to social contracts of adhesion; liable for all their drawbacks while reaping none of their benefits. Canada is no exception in this regard. We’re just better at forgetting.

Canada is no exception. We’re just better at forgetting.

If America can be defined by its resistance to government due to historical remembrance of tyranny, Canada is equally limned by its submission to government, due to collective amnesia. Our wide-eyed credulousness, that eagerness to believe we will someday do the right thing, is borne of habit of isolating every incident and atrocity as an “exception to the rule.” 

We want to believe our prime minister welcoming Syrian refugees at Pearson Airport is the rule, while naming the detention and demonization of the MV Sun Sea's Tamil passengers as the exception. We want to believe in our progressive immigration policy, but turn our eyes from temporary foreign workers whose bodies are used up while they’re healthy, then discarded to die when they become sick or are gravely injured on the job. We want to believe in reconciliation with Indigenous Canadians, as long they remain quiet while we continue to pillage the earth below them, poison their communities, and deprive them of needs as basic as potable water. 

While Marche may be correct that our national rhetoric cuts against global sentiment, words are simply not enough. If he truly believes that talking about doing good makes Canada exceptional, well, easy for him to say.

Andray Domise is a Toronto-based writer and activist. His columns appear weekly in Maclean's magazine.