In May 1633, when Champlain came back to his settlement at Quebec…a large party of Montagnais arrived in their canoes to see him. Champlain gestured at the building works, including the fort, and said, “When that great house is built, our young men will marry your daughters, and henceforth we shall be one people.” [i]

In the late 1950’s when I was growing up in Espanola, Ontario, an hour west of Sudbury, there were (and still are today) numerous First Nations treaty reserves in the area: Birch Island, Spanish River, (now called Sagamok), Whitefish River, Serpent River and the reserves on Manitoulin Island. At Espanola High School, Aboriginal students with those immediately recognizable names- Cywink, Southwind, Toulouse, Trudeau, Abbotosoway, Nahwegabow- were in our classes and on our sports teams.

We also had classmates whose parents had immigrated to Canada, mainly from Europe, before and after World War Two: Welyhorski, Sokoloski, Kratz, Palmquist, Dolcini, Ram, Podlatis. But the majority of students were of WASP and French-Canadian heritage, many of the latter living in that part of town innocently and matter-of-factly called “Frenchtown.”

In the cheerful, self-centered oblivion of our youth, in that relatively secure and prosperous place and time, ethnic and racial origins and differences didn’t seem to matter much. They didn’t seem to significantly define who anyone was or affect greatly how they were viewed or treated. The only exception might have been whether or not you were Catholic or Protestant, which, strangely enough, took on a social significance at that time which in retrospect seems incomprehensible.

Despite the usual social divisions arising out of the inherently Darwinian nature of childhood and adolescence, there was a sense that old religious, ethnic and racial prejudices were hollowing out and being overcome, and that increasing social unity and equality was happening.

Canadians at that time, with our own northern small-town world being a microcosm of the country as a whole, instinctively felt that we were melding together as a society and creating something better than the “old world” society of Europe, which, because of its obsessive embrace of the concept of racial, ethnic and national differences, and because it had so disastrously organized and conducted itself socially and politically along those obsessive and virulent lines, had been so tragically consumed by two great, murderous and suicidal wars.

We saw some of our fathers in their old military uniforms (and a few of our mothers) marching to the cenotaph every November, suddenly looking and projecting so differently, revealing past, serious lives richly lived. The faint suspicion dawned on us that perhaps we hadn’t always been the absolute center of our parents’ universes.

We heard at the supper table snippets of stories of our friends’ parents’ homelands, of their various wondrous and perilous journeys from war and dislocation, through Displaced Person camps to, ultimately, (no doubt joyously and most wondrously to them), our Northern Ontario town, where for them, over time, an unexpected knock on the door no longer startled and started the heart racing.

Russian Poet Osip Mandelstam, in his poem Leningrad, described that fear and that sickening feeling common to people living in a lawless, totalitarian state.  (He died in transit to a Soviet labor camp in 1938):

The doorbell buzz strikes me in the temple and tears at my flesh.

Moral heroes like Osip Mandelstam, and the millions of victims of totalitarianism like him, by their sacrifice, and the resulting obligation that all free men owe to them, exhort and pressure us to strive to live and do right in our own society.

It seemed so safe in that time and place. Prosperity was on a continuous, general rise. We instinctively thought- not here– not here the dread, death, destruction and dislocation that had so ravaged Europe and Asia. Not here the obsessing over surface human differences, of making them so legally, politically and socially central, as in Europe and Asia, that they became the cancerous basis of the internal and external state policies of so many countries there, thus becoming one of the fundamental reasons for and lessons of Remembrance Day itself!

We instinctively felt that here … “We don’t think like that…we’re newer and better… race and ethnicity are essentially irrelevant here…in Canada we’re all basically equal and becoming more so all the time”.

As Richard Gwyn wrote in Nation Maker – Sir John A. Macdonald: His Life, Our Times,[ii] his biography of Canada’s great, first Prime Minister, it was a time “…when Canadians came to realize and believe that a “new nationality” could be political rather than ethnic, or composed of valuesand attitudes, rather than race.”

That’s how my generation, including me, was hard-wired. It was a good way- the best way- to be hard-wired.

Aboriginals were generally quieter, less socially visible, much less a part of things- “different” in some ways. As typically self-centered young people, we were generally oblivious to the depths beneath the surface of such things. We didn’t give their quiet and different nature much thought.

Did they feel the same way about Canada?  In retrospect, they couldn’t have. They lived a benignly semi-segregated life on “reserves” after all- a profound and dividing social reality.

That reality, the essentially tragic historical origins of it, and their different skin colour, would have had to have given rise to a very different kind of hard-wiring for them- a very different, inherited, inward narrative and sense of racial difference- that shaped the way they saw the world and today too much continues to do so.

Their general degree of separation from “the rest of us” at the time- their sense of racial difference- was akin to the “double consciousness” always felt by minorities in a majority culture, (a universal phenomenon, especially in today’s world, where migration is ever-increasing), described by the American Black writer W.E.B. DuBois in 1903:

It is a peculiar sensation, this double consciousness, this sense of always looking at oneself through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness, -an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.[iii]

Regardless, I think that if we or our parents had thought about it, we would have assumed that we would work out our differences with Aboriginals, just as all the disparate ethnicities in Canada thrown together by fate during those times were doing. We assumed we’d work it out, meld further together, shrink that double consciousness, and eliminate over time whatever it was that was so fundamentally different between us. 

We assumed that somehow, some time sooner rather than later, we’d all end up being equals in every respect. Everything would be governed by this “new world” humanist, universalist model of social and political being that we unconsciously thought was evolving and taking shape.

These liberal, humanist assumptions were ones that emanated from the confident, busy, prosperous people we were then. They seemed to be shared by everyone, right to the political and economic top of the country. They highlighted what a civilized, progressive, “ideals-in-action” society Canada was becoming.

Notwithstanding that old bigotries and prejudices were still very much evident in society then, they were slowly but steadily lessening in effect and melting away. Our better angels were winning and would triumph in this puzzling area of relations between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians. Then Aboriginals too, we assumed, would end up being equal members of the Canadian family.

Then Champlain’s dream would finally be realized.

It was only a matter of time and of staying the course.

We assumed.

But our assumptions have turned out to be wrong. It hasn’t worked out that way.

Somewhere along the way our Canadian elites, including our Aboriginal elites, through bad new laws, policies, and ways of thinking, killed Champlain’s dream.

They forgot the lessons of those great and terrible wars.

Somewhere along the way the formerly discredited “old world” model of political and social organization, based on the primitive overidentification with racial groups, race-thinking and racial apartness, was revived, dusted off and sent out into the Canadian world, to the continuing bewilderment and resentment of the majority of ordinary Canadians, to become the ideological basis for the supposed improvement of the conditions affecting Aboriginals in modern-day Canada- to be the ideological basis for the supposed “reconciliation” of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians.

Somewhere along the way liberal, humanist aspirations once common to our entire country were sacrificed to various forms of petty and chauvinistic ideological tribalisms, and, with respect to our Aboriginal peoples, to actual, racial tribalism.

Ignoring the emerging humanist, universalist political consciousness described by Richard Gwyn and exemplified by moral heroes like Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela, our elites, with neither input nor informed consent from ordinary Canadians, decided that our Aboriginal population’s Canadian experience would now and forever be focused on and defined by race, rather than shared liberal, humanist, civic values and attitudes. They decided that Aboriginals’ race-based double consciousness should be expanded.  

Our elites decided that the Canadian experience generally should be that of a benign, supposedly “progressive” race society;[iv] (a contradiction in terms, because a race society can only be retrogressive.)

Seemingly forgotten was the chilling, always-lurking, ultimate downside of the old ethnic and racial “in-groups and out-groups” old world models: discrimination and divisiveness at the very least, and at the worst, pogroms, expulsions, disenfranchisement, expropriations and violence on a massive scale.

Our new Canadians, a great many of whom have immigrated from South Asia where the odious caste system was and remains prevalent, must be upset and bewildered to see a major element of the caste system- special, hereditary rights possessed by one racial group to the exclusion of all others- being entrenched by our elites in the Canadian legal, political and social fabric.

The worst consequences of these tribalistic old world phenomena would never occur in Canada.

But the troubling fact is that the solution to the intractable and tragic social problems being experienced by Aboriginals in Canada today is being governed by an elites-driven, race-based, political, social, and constitutionally-enshrined model which is inherently crude, backward, divisive and illiberal, and which can lead to  nothing but further Aboriginal  social and economic failure generally, and which  cannot and will not lead to any meaningful kind of “reconciliation.”

Proponents of this new elites-driven status quo put lipstick on reserves, and call them “independent, self-governing nations”, (all 625 of them), with so-called “nation to nation” relationships with the rest of Canada.  But re-naming them something fancy and different doesn’t change the fact that they are all still and always will be 100 per cent dependent on Canadian taxpayers’ monies to function, and are and always will be ghetto-like places where joblessness, danger, despair and dysfunction reign supreme.

All the facts and numbers show it and all the people know it.

The fact that this “race society” model, (as opposed to the simple Canada-first model of Aboriginals simply being individual Canadians of proud Aboriginal heritage), has substantially contributed to the twentieth century being regarded as the bloodiest, most barbaric century in recorded history, should automatically make any kind of race society model, even a supposedly “progressive” one,  a candidate for instant and complete rejection by all right-thinking persons.

Instead, our politicians, courts, academics, media- our elites generally, including our Aboriginal elites- now seemingly ignorant of or indifferent to these basic lessons of history-especially and inexcusably historical events which have occurred in our own living memory and of which none of us can plead ignorance- are taking aspects of this old world, race society  model and enthusiastically making it part of the framework for the supposed current and future betterment of the troubled situation of our Aboriginal peoples.

In so doing they are almost willfully exemplifying mankind’s notorious, irrational tendency to continually repeat the mistakes of the past.

I believe that the vast majority of Canadians profoundly disagree with this elites-imposed movement towards further legal and social racial apartness between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians. They want our humanist, civic values, with their emphasis on equality and the rights of the individual over the rights of any racial group, respected, maintained and promulgated in all areas of society.

Ordinary Canadians, including me, are puzzled and perplexed about where our elites are pushing us.

What are they thinking? Why, seemingly indifferent to the dangers, despair and dysfunction inherent to reserves, and seemingly motivated by empty virtue signaling only, are they so seemingly smug and self-satisfied to be going against our liberal hard-wiring- going against the grain of human rights history- by expanding and further entrenching this illiberal, quasi-segregationist reserve system?

Why this rejection of 200 years of Western Enlightenment thinking?

With all the new money and rights being afforded to it- mere gilding of dross metal- it’s still a fundamentally harmful, segregationist, caste-like stain on Canada’s civic and moral landscape- still fundamentally very harmful for ordinary, powerless, vulnerable Canadian Aboriginals.

Consider that since the modern age began in the late eighteenth century, every social justice movement that has advanced the state of humanity has been characterized by a demand that some offensive barrier to human equality be removed so as to make persons more equal under the law.

The campaign to abolish the slave trade, and then slavery itself, the fight for women’s rights and universal suffrage, the trade union movement, socialism, the desegregation battles in America, the boycott of South Africa,  Gandhi’s struggles against the caste system in India, the movements for gender equality and gay marriage- all of these genuinely progressive, enlightened, beneficial causes and campaigns that have advanced the moral state of humanity have all been characterized by the noble, supremely civilized desire to make everyone more equal under the law.

These campaigns, causes, movements and struggles- where, initially in each, the often brave and lonely advocates for change were frequently derided, persecuted and marginalized by the prevailing forces of the status quo- when the change had finally been brought about ultimately improved the lives of and unified Canadians- bound them together more.

So, instead of our elites binding us together more on this profoundly moral national issue- debilitating Aboriginal inequality under the law– why are they so relentlessly binding us apart by creating greater Aboriginal inequality under the law?

Why are our elites rejecting, with no public debate, consent or explanation, Nelson Mandela’s Enlightenment goal and vision of all citizens of a country being equally bound by the same set of laws regardless of their race?

Ordinary Canadians, including me, in addition to being puzzled and perplexed, are afraid and worried about what our courts, governments and other elites are now doing in this area of Canadian life.

These people are making what was already a tragic, national disgrace much, much worse.

I am not an expert in anything bearing on this field. However, when I see my fellow Aboriginal Canadians continuing to suffer and be further marginalized under what is becoming a more and more deeply flawed and oppressive situation, when I see Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians becoming more and more like strangers to each other, I feel compelled to exercise my citizen right and duty of free speech-an expert or not- to speak out to express my reasons for my fears and worries.

I am not saying that the 1950’s and early 1960’s were halcyon times that I or other ordinary Canadians want or should want to go back to. Bigotry then, in all its forms, while waning, was still very much in evidence and still socially acceptable.

But I do argue that, however unconscious and crude may have been the path Aboriginal and non–Aboriginal Canadians were then on towards ultimate legal equality and thus true reconciliation- racial unity under one set of laws- it was the right path. And it was a great deal better and more civilized, civically safe and healthy than the negative, counterproductive, divisive and potentially very dangerous path our higher courts, politicians and other elites generally have recently set us upon in this profound area of Canadian life.

I write this- compelled by my hard-wiring- by my conscience- as a call to ordinary Canadians, including Aboriginal Canadians, to overcome their natural fears and speak up more on this crucial issue and, as much or more for the best interests of Aboriginal-Canadians, to start demanding a return to the previous path towards racial and civic unity- a return to the realization of Champlain’s dream.

Also alarming to me are the attacks on the concepts of legitimate government sovereignty and the rule of law which are ever more regularly occurring in this area of Canadian life, which I see as having serious, profound and adverse consequences for us all.

Aboriginals have had special, race-based legal status since shortly after Confederation. But surely, having regard to our highest and best civic values, we must now realize that what happened in our increasingly distant past with respect to our fellow Aboriginal citizens was a mere product of those very different times and should not constitute an unchangeable template for the indefinite future.

And surely, given what we now know from experience about where race-based thinking and constructs can lead, we should now be changing that old template by adopting new frameworks and solutions that accord with our current knowledge and values and that, deliberately, over time, point us all towards the common, shared,  united, “one people”, race-free, legal, political and social destination dreamt of by Champlain.

Ordinary Canadians know that this is the best way forward for all of us. The old-world model being forced upon us against our will by our courts, politicians and other elite groups is offensive to our humanist values and traditions. It’s counter-intuitive to our still intact, (although admittedly, under some stress these days), 1950’s-emergent, liberal, humanist hard-wiring, which focuses on individual rights and downplays group rights, especially group rights based on race.

We need to challenge our politicians and other elites on this issue. Ordinary, powerless Aboriginals, the ones so heavily suffering from the present, worsening situation in this very critical area of Canadian social life- at least those who are able to- need to challenge their own power elites as well.

We need to restore to its former primacy our Western Enlightenment, liberal, humanist, legal, social and political model as the only one to be governed and guided by in the task of carrying out our duty to improve the situation of Canada’s Aboriginals.

Only by doing so will they, as one of the founding peoples of Canada, be put on the shared path of meaningful progress towards true equality and social justice.

The task seems hopeless, but there’s something in our makeup that, despite so much evidence to the contrary, compels us towards optimism. The brilliant novelist/essayist Stefan Zweig, the European John Updike of his early 20th century era, wrote in his autobiography, The World of Yesterday[v]:

What a man has taken into his bloodstream in childhood from the air of that time stays with him. And despite all that is dinned into my ears daily…I cannot quite deny the belief of my youth that in spite of everything, events will take a turn for the better…I look up again and again to the ancient constellations that shone on my childhood, comforting myself with the inherited confidence that, someday, this relapse will appear only an interval in the eternal rhythm of progress onward and upward.

Mr. Zweig, whose “world of yesterday”: cosmopolitan, multi-empire, pre-World War One Europe, was destroyed by the forces of hatred and prejudice unleashed by that war, was ultimately driven into exile and suicide by those same forces.  He was a singular example of the extreme trauma and tragedy of change and cultural loss experienced in some degree by most cultures and human beings throughout history, including Canada’s Aboriginal peoples in the nineteenth century.

So inextricably woven into Canada’s laws, economy and culture is the increasingly harmful status quo in this area of our national life- a status quo akin to the “separate but equal” status quo that oppressed American Blacks for a century after the American civil war- that, as stated, it seems impossible to change it. Nonetheless, we may be comforted by the thought that, as it applies to this subject anyway, despite the “prejudice of presentism”-the careless assumption that bedevils us all that what is happening now will always keep on happening- nothing stays the same- and that whatever is happening now sooner or later is going to stop happening and be replaced by something happening… next.

And, as exemplified by Stefan Zweig, ordinary Canadians are nothing if not “tomorrow’s another day” hopers and dreamers.

So, Iwrite this article, and other ordinary Canadianshope and pray that what eventually happens next here- will be something better- will be something that restores to Canada Champlain’s dream of racial unity and thusly makes Canada “one people” better. 

Peter Best

March 16, 2023

[i] Margaret MacMillan, History’s People, Anansi Press Inc. 2015

[ii] Richard J. Gwyn. Nation Maker Sir John A. MacDonald: His Life, Our Times. Toronto: Random House Canada, 2011.

[iii] Quoted in Reckless Daughter, (the biography of Joni Mitchell), Harper-Collins Publishers Ltd, Toronto,2017

[iv] This chilling phrase from the brilliant political philosopher Hannah Arendt’s The Origin of Totalitarianism. Referring to South Africa and the 19th century European, imperialist governance model for Africa and Asia, she refers to “Lord Selbourne’s early insight that a race society as a way of life was unprecedented.”

[v] University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln Nebraska, 2013

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