Friday, December 12, 2014

Saying Dumb Things about Original Peoples

A Winnipeg teacher named Brad Badiuk has said some stupid things on Facebook and been suspended (or, placed on leave) as a result. This might be a good place to talk about Badiuk’s right to free speech -- whether or not he should be placed on leave for saying stupid things in a public forum -- but instead there is a more pressing issue.  That is: what he actually said and what is wrong with it. Without wanting to attribute any particular intelligence to Badiuk’s comments (or the punctuation errors -- something I found disturbing for a person who is supposed to be a teacher -- that they contained), I actually think his comments deserve to be discussed. Let me be clear up front: what he said was ignorant (in a literal sense of the term), silly, bigoted and showed not a shred of research into the issue he was addressing: Canadian/Aboriginal relations. Still, this can be an “educational moment” because the concerns this particular individual raised are concerns I’ve heard others raise. For those us who support better relations between Original Peoples and Canada, there is a bit of an obligation to address Badiuk’s point and show him and others why they are misguided. That is what I seek to do in this post.

Badiuk’s points were posted on social media; they were not a refined argument. I won’t use his language and so something might get lost in translation but briefly, he makes several points regarding Original Peoples:

Original Peoples use past injustices as a “crutch” to try to get things from Canadian society
They are a “conquered” people
They get more benefits than white Canadians
Treaties should be torn up and people move on
The answer to Aboriginal Peoples is for them to work hard
Why should he, as a contemporary Canadian, pay for the injustices done by others in the past and to which neither he nor his family has any connection

Obviously, it would take forever to address each of these points and a blog might not be the place to try reader’s patience by writing page after page. Let me, therefore, try to address the key points that need to be addressed in order to suggest a better and more profitable way of looking at this subject.

First, most Original Peoples are not conquered peoples. In fact, I cannot -- of the top of my head -- think of a single conquered nation in Canada. Instead, relationships between Native and settlers were defined by treaties that provided for land surrender (or, not, as the case may be), commercial exchange, further settlement, etc. The first point we might want to make, then, is that Badiuk does not know his history. He hinges part of his argument on an event -- conquest -- that did not take place. Hinging an argument on something that did not occur weakens your argument, or at least that is what I tell my students.

But, what is more important here is that Badiuk *thinks* that there was a conquest and my bet is that a whole bunch of other non-Native Canadians do too. The problem here is not just misunderstanding history -- being incorrect -- the problem is ethics. In effect, what the proponents of conquest are saying is that “might makes right.” In the past, Original Peoples were conquered ergo, their rights in the present are limited. Imagine that we accept this ethics, what then? Well, if might make right then that is a rationale for Original Peoples to use violent protest to accomplish their objectives, is it not? If violence subjugation is a legitimate ground to extinguish rights, then surely, to be consistent, we must say that violent protest is a legitimate approach to establishing rights, no? The argument about conquest, then, carries with it an irony of legitimizing behaviour that I doubt Badiuk wants to legitimize -- the politics of violence -- and, in fact, places him in a position where -- to be consistent -- he has to support Original Peoples; not oppose them.

But, it gets even more confusing and ironic than this. Badiuk’s other points refer to history as well: his family immigrated after 1900 and so he is not responsible for what happened before that. In other words, history does not apply to him. OK, perhaps, but did he not just use an historical argument -- conquest -- to cast aspersions on Original Peoples. What we have here, then, is the situational use of history. History applies to some people (Original Peoples) but not others (him). Even leaving aside the faculty matters, this is an odd argument indeed because it is riven with inconsistencies.

Second, Badiuk does not seem to understand what a treaty is. The idea that one party can just tear up a treaty -- and I’ve mad this point in this blog before -- is just not true. I like treaties. I think they are a much preferable way to establish relationships between peoples than violence. They do not always work; they are ignored frequently by the Canadian government. But, of all the ways to regulate interaction between people, treaties are better than alternatives. But, Badiuk has not just missed this point. He’s missed the point that a treat is an agreement between two peoples.  The Original Peoples who signed onto the treaties back in the day clearly intended them to last for a very long time. They often contain language like “as long as the sun shines” or some other metaphor. Did the British imperial government or the Canadian government believe that these treaties would last forever. I don’t know but I suspect not. I suspect that they believed Original Peoples would disappear into the mists of time. But, they did sign the treaties. And, the treaties are legally enforceable. That is Canadian law and to disregard it is, in fact, to state that one feels Canadian law should not apply to them.

Let’s leave aside the question of legitimate ways of contesting the law for another time (because their are legitimate ways to do so, but simply stating that “it should not apply to me” and then disregarding it is not one of them). Instead, let’s focus on two things: (1) in defending treaties Original Peoples are not, in fact, doing anything that is wrong. They are obeying the law and making use of the legal mechanisms that Canada has established to adjudicate disputes between parties. It is what we are all supposed to do. Hence, to fault them for it (for defending treaties and taking their case to court) is to suggest that Original Peoples are doing something wrong by insisting that Canada obey laws it has made (or, into which it has voluntarily entered as part of a treaty) and then using the courts to adjudicate disputes on legal matters. This is an odd argument, is it not? (2) Treaties are between two parties. One party cannot unilaterally break a treaty. Let me use an example that I have used before. Imagine a slightly different situation: I contract someone to mow my lawn each week and agree to pay them $1000 for the summer to do so. They dutifully mow my lawn. Can I now refuse to pay them because I don’t want to? Of course not. That would be breach of contract and we all know that. I cannot unilaterally change the terms of a contract after I have gotten what I want out of it. A treaty works the same way. Canada got what it wanted (or, before that the Empire and colonies) from the treaties. Can they now say “gee, we find this agreement inconvenient and so we’re going to tear it up?” If this logic were applied to any other case, the answer would be so clear, no one would debate it.

Finally, there is the “why should I pay” question. Let me ask this question a different way: Badiuk is a teacher. Why should I pay his salary? There are many reasons why we pay into the public purse. We can’t go through all them here because this blog is already getting too long but we can note that paying taxes is part of one’s obligations as a citizen. We usually like those taxes from which we seem to derive an immediate benefit and dislike those, the benefits of which are not clear. I would argue that good societies solve their problems -- or, at least try. We pay taxes to maintain a military (I pay them whether or not I am a pacifist) because we need a military; I pay taxes that pave roads whether or not I owen a car; my tax dollars help to fund repairs to the minor ballpark, whether or not I pay. There are benefits to paying taxes and, by and large, Canadians actually don’t have very many concerns with taxes. I’d argue that addressing the problems of marginalization and unresolved conflicts between Canadians are good uses of tax dollars because they help citizens and help build a good society. In other words, we should pay because those tax dollars help out the society and we are committed to making Canada a better place.

Let me go just a bit further: Badiuk has every right as a citizen to object to taxes and to vote for candidates that want to lower taxes. I think he is ethically wrong to say pick an already marginalized group and inaccurate, ethically troubling things about them and conclude that they are the reason for his taxes being what they are. It is scapegoating and does nothing to advance a serious discussion of tax rates if that is what we are interested in.

I’ll conclude on this note. I am sure Badiuk’s comments hurt a lot of people. They were silly, build on an inaccurate perception of the past, and involved a shaky logic in which there was a situational deployment of history (applies to some people but not others). This is something that I’d like people to learn about the anti-Original Peoples arguments that we hear. The problem with the argument Badiuk put forward is not that he commented on public policy. That is his right as a citizen and he should. The problem is that he treated that right in a cavalier way. He did not bother to do his homework and so her paraded inaccuracies as truth; he did not think through the logic of his ethics or the situational way in which he argued from history, he ignored the fact that his scapegoating did nothing to advance public debate about an important issue: tax rates. I don’t want to generalize too broadly because that itself is logically shaky, but I trust you see the point. Many of the argument we hear in opposition to Original Peoples just don’t hold up. The result is that we have a debate that we do not need to have that gets us nowhere. I hope this blog -- for those who read it -- helps get that discussion back on the right track.
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