Canadian Apartheid

I was listening to the rebellious CBC Radio this morning and they were talking about the similarities between the racist system of apartheid in South Africa and the historical treatment of First Nations people in Canada. Specifically they had Linda Freeman, a professor of politics and African studies at Carleton University and author of The Ambiguous Champion – Canada and South Africa in the Trudeau and Mulroney Years as guest.

Freeman spoke of a time when the government of South Africa was in the early stages of setting up the system of apartheid; a time when Canada hosted South African officials who were interested in understanding our own democratic system of government that created and allowed the reservation system.

On its website CBC references Shannon Thunderbird, a First Nations elder, educator, speaker, poet and singer and her thoughts on Canada’s recent voice against apartheid.

It is ironic because the Canadian Indian Act formed much of the basis for the oppressive apartheid policies in South Africa,” Thunderbird told the CBC. “It’s kind of an understood custom and practice that Canada’s Indian Act came to be known as the acceptable role model for apartheid policies…

CBC goes on to say on its website “Thunderbird said the Indian Act served as the blueprint on how to oppress a people within a democratic system. “It’s actually hypocrisy for Canada to stand forward as a kind of bulwark of protest against atrocities going on in other countries while at the same time we turn a blind eye to our own people,” she said.”

As a Canadian and former university student in the late 80’s involved in anti-apartheid activities, it never occurred to me that something similar has been perpetrated in our own country and culture. I think that we become blind to our own racism and often focus our eyes on the sins of others as a way of ignoring our own issues and distracting ourselves from ourselves.

There are significant differences of course – in South Africa the white 5 percent of the population unjustly made up the ruling class while our segregation is primarily enforced through entrenched poverty, although law plays no small role.

In the wake of Nelson Mandela’s death, as we collectively ponder the systematic racism and abuse of apartheid we might do ourselves, our nation and our First Nations a service by turning our eyes inward and considering where we might make changes toward a more equal society. It is difficult for Canada to remain a champion and leader in human rights globally when we have some significant problems here at home, and it is at home where our efforts need to focused.

When I was a pastor a number of years ago I led 23 youth on a mission trip to Tijuana, Mexico. It was a powerful experience and I have no doubt our group contributed positively to the local population. But one of the things that nagged at me then and continues to even now, was why we chose the sunny tropics for our mission effort rather than our own country which has many impoverished communities in desperate need of a little assistance. To put it more succinctly – why do we leave?

While I do not doubt the value of the tropical mission trip/vacation to the communities who receive Canadian teams I wonder at why these teams are not flying north instead of south…my cynical side thinks it knows the answer.

By the same token, should we choose to train our resources and efforts, be they missional or otherwise, on our own country, our own First Nations, how do we do so while avoiding the sin of become patronizing superiors desiring to assist the unfortunate inferior? I think perhaps by entering into partnerships with our neighbours; seeking to be invited into communities where we might exchange ideas and know-how rather than entering as the “great white hope”.

There are no easy answers but there is a first step that could be taken and in so doing perhaps a great, healing and reconciling journey can begin.

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