(The new) Two Solitudes*


Peter Mansbridge asked an important question Monday night during a panel discussion about the Idle No More movement. ‘Why is it that such extreme views are voiced when indigenous issues are discussed?’ asked the host of CBC-TV’s The National.

The question is important because I see the gulf between aboriginal and non-aboriginal Canadians growing instead of shrinking, and I don’t think that a wider divide is going to benefit any of us.

I see the gulf between aboriginal and non-aboriginal Canadians growing instead of shrinking, and I don’t think that a wider divide is going to benefit any of us.

 Having grown up in a small town on Vancouver Island where many people had strong views on this issue, I think I can answer Mansbridge’s question, for the non-aboriginal side: fairness. Many non-native Canadians believe it is unfair that aboriginal people in this country receive benefits like free education and tax-exempt status.

 I don’t think it’s unfair that aboriginal people are treated differently. Our ancestors enshrined these benefits in writing when they made deals – called treaties – with their ancestors, and I don’t hear too many people arguing that the newcomers got the raw end of any of those deals. Making education free was a logical way to try and raise the education levels of native children. Tax-exempt status is enjoyed only by on-reserve status Indians, those who can earn enough to be taxed; the more than half of Canada’s aboriginal people who live off-reserve must pay the same taxes that the rest of us pay. The fact that we basically tried to renege on these historical agreements by stripping the ‘Indian-ness’ out of generations of aboriginal children in residential schools just gives the claims of indigenous Canadians greater moral authority, in my book.

 After university I was smart enough to go live in Quebec and study French. I remember a visit from the parents of my girlfriend at the time. They were of the ‘damn Frogs’ school of thought, believing that Quebec unfairly got a better deal out of Confederation because they held the rest of the country hostage with the threat of separation; I suppose they thought all Quebeckers were in on this conspiracy. Then they visited Quebec City – and loved it.

 I think it’s fair to say that the parents’ extreme beliefs were based at least partly on ignorance of Quebec and Quebeckers. Of course the English-French divide is not the same as the aboriginal-non-aboriginal gulf; however, I think that many non-aboriginal Canadians rail against the injustice of the benefits that indigenous people receive because – like many English and French Canadians – they have no idea about these ‘others’, how they live, what they do. They are ignorant of their realities. (How else to explain how otherwise decent people can explode at the alleged financial misdeeds of the leadership in places like Attawapiskat, yet not get a sinking feeling in their stomachs on seeing the black mould growing on the walls of many of the ‘houses’ in that First Nation. )

 So is the answer a programme for young non-aboriginal Canadians to visit First Nations communities – and vice-versa – the way I was sponsored by the federal government to live in Quebec for a few weeks? It does sound too simple a reaction to a very complex reality, but I really think we need to start talking about ways to break down the ever rising walls separating these two solitudes.

 *There is nothing new about this situation, of course, but I couldn’t resist the play on the title of the novel by Hugh MacLennan about the differences between French and English Canada.

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