Friday 18 April 2014

Back to Normal in Quebec?

Back to Normal in Quebec?
In September 2013 I posted a blog about Quebec’s Charter of Values, which you can see here: In brief, this proposed Charter said that people who worked for the Quebec government should not be allowed to wear conspicuous religious symbols such as the Jewish kipa (skull cap for men), the Muslim hijab (head scarf for women), and the Sikh turban (for men).  The principle behind this proposal was laicité, or secularism. 
The governing party that proposed this Charter was the nationalist Parti Québecois (PQ). On April 7, 2014 the PQ was resoundingly defeated by the Liberal Party in a provincial election. So everybody worried about this Charter can now breathe a sign of relief.
Who would even defend such a Charter, you might ask, assuming that anyone who did so was just afraid of “the other,” residents of Quebec not descended from the original French Catholic settlers of the 17th and 18th centuries. Certainly it seemed that many of the PQ’s supporters were rural Quebeckers who had little contact with the many immigrants groups that are common in Quebec’s largest city, Montreal.  
A typical Canadian- Wiki Commons

But some Quebeckers supported the Charter as a good model of government, without being prejudiced against religious or ethnic minorities. On March 13, 2014 I co-sponsored a debate on the Charter at Wilfrid Laurier University, where I teach. Guillaime Rousseau, a law professor from the Université de Sherbrooke, defended the Charter. 
Roussean argued that laicité reflects the French Republican tradition. He said this mean that the state gives citizens the opportunity to free themselves from their various communities—such as their ethnic community and their religion. So, the Charter of Values would help individual Quebeckers free themselves from religious and ethnic practices, if they so wished. I agree that the state should protect citizens from being coerced or pressured into following religious or ethnic practices that oppress them, or with which they disagree. But I think the Republican tradition goes too far.
Rousseau argued that the liberal tradition, as found in English Canada, was based on freedom from the state, rather than freedom through the state, the Republican way. I prefer the liberal tradition because it acknowledges that there can be advantages to membership in religious and ethnic groups. Many individuals feel a need to belong to groups of people with similar beliefs, customs, or languages. In these groups there is a feeling of familiarity, and of being welcomed, withough being judged by competitive market standards. These groups are also politically important: they stand between the individual and her government. Such groups can organize people and help them form a bulwark against an intrusive state, if need be.  
Professor Rousseau also talked about the principle of cultural convergence, as opposed to English-Canada’s stress on multiculturalism. I agree with him that cultural convergence is a worthwhile concept, especially in so far as it supports underlying liberal values. These values—of freedom equality, respect and recognition--underlie what many Canadians think is a “multicultural” society. We are not really multicultural in Canada: we have a unifying small-l liberal culture, which permits people to act in the private sphere as they see fit, as long as they do not break the law. So we no longer pressure immigrants to change their names, stop speaking their native languages, or change their religion. I argued this in an article I published in 1999 called "Canadian' as an Ethnic Category: Implications for Multiculturalism and National Unity, " in Canadian Public Policy, vol. 25, no. 4, pp. 523-37.
More typical Canadians-Wiki Commons
Under the liberal multicultural tradition, a multiplicity of religions is fine, as is wearing religious symbols. So when you enter Canada from abroad, you might be questioned by an immigration officer wearing a hijab. You might not know that the air traffic controller who guided your airplane to safely was also wearing a hijab (A few weeks ago I met a woman in her thirties or forties, wearing white robes and a lacy hijab. She told me she supported herself as an air traffic controller).
But multiculturalism shouldn’t be allowed to undermine the basis of Canada’s liberal human rights.  I agree there should be some limits to cultural accommodation, as the Quebec Charter proposed.  We can’t have the kind of situation I posted about on January 17, 2014, where a male student at York University asked to be excused from a group activity because he said his religion prohibited from interacting with strange females 
I also agree that there are some situations where an individual must uncover her face: I don’t think the Charter’s insistence that people seeking or providing public services must uncover their face is unreasonable. A while ago a case went to the Supreme Court of Canada. A woman bringing rape charges against two male relatives wanted to testify in court while wearing the niqab, which covers the face. Instead of ruling that in such an important situation, where her testimony might send innocent men to jail, the woman must uncover her face, The Supreme Court came out with a wishy-washy ruling, essentially leaving the decision to the individual judge. That was a mistake.  
There are some religious and ethnic practices that I really do not like. I would hope that any Muslim woman in Canada wearing hijab does so freely, but I am sure that some wear it because they are pressured or coerced into doing so by their families. If that coercion includes violence, there are already laws against it; violence within the family is prohibited in Canada regardless of the reason. But if it’s just social or familial pressure, a law against it is foolish. We can disagree with some customs and hope that women and girls will voluntarily remove themselves from them, but we can’t legislate their removal.  

Friday 4 April 2014

21st Century Malnutrition among Canada's Aboriginal Peoples

21st Century Malnutrition among Canada's Aboriginal Peoples

Readers of this blog may recall that in the last year I’ve posted a book review about how Canada used starvation in the 1870s to force its Aboriginal peoples onto reserves, thus opening Canada’s West for settlement by Europeans  I’ve also posted a blog on nutritional “experiments” in Canada’s residential school system that deprived some Aboriginal children of food   

Malnutrition among Canada’s Aboriginal peoples still exists. In 2011, 27.1 per cent of Canada’s Aboriginal households were food insecure, as opposed to 11.5 per cent of non-Aboriginal households. A nutrition survey conducted in 2004 found that 33 per cent of off-reserve Aboriginal households were food insecure, compared to 9 per cent of other Canadians. In part, this food insecurity was attributable to higher rates of reliance on social assistance and higher rates of lone parenthood among Aboriginals than non-Aboriginals, but even controlling for these risk factors, Aboriginal households’ rates of food insecurity were 2.6 times higher than non-Aboriginal households’ rates.

Some of this malnourishment might be a consequence of the high cost of transporting nourishing food to remote Aboriginal communities; for example, in 2012 residents of Nunavut, one of Canada‘s Northern territories where most people are Inuit, spent $14,815 per year on food, compared to $7,262 in Canada overall. A 2007-08 study of Nunavut preschoolers found that 56 per cent were food insecure.
A head of cauliflower for $8.15- Wiki Commons
*In comparison, cauliflower in Waterloo, Ontario is $2.99

Aboriginal food insecurity can be attributed in part to their sad history. Suffering from the debilitating psychological effects of having been incarcerated in residential schools, removed from their families, forbidden to speak their native tongue, and subjected to long-term physical and sexual abuse, many Aboriginal individuals found and find it difficult to obtain hold down a job.  An under-financed on-reserve school system exacerbates these difficulties in the 21st century. With much higher rates of unemployment than the general Canadian population, many Aboriginal individuals become homeless or are incarcerated. Indeed, the Economist reported in 2013 that Aboriginal Canadians were “more likely to go to jail than graduate from high school.”

Another reason for food insecurity among Aboriginal Canadians is reduced access to traditional foods—especially meat—which is much healthier than the processed foods that Aboriginal people are likely to eat, especially in remote areas where it is difficult to import or cultivate fresh dairy products, fruits and vegetables. One major cause of lack of access to traditional foods is loss of land and limitations of rights even to use the land supposedly reserved for Aboriginal people. Another cause is loss of culture, especially transmission of hunting skills over the generations; the kidnapping of children and their confinement in residential schools meant that they could not learn how to fish and hunt from their elders.

As I discussed in my review of Peter Kulchyski’s book,, some scholars of indigenous rights think that human rights are a “Western” invention that does not pertain to indigenous peoples. But it is precisely the lack of human rights that has enabled the Canadian state to treat Aboriginal people so badly for so long.

For many decades after Canada became a nation in 1867, Aboriginal people were legal minors who could not vote. Aboriginal individuals could get the vote if they left their reserves and assimilated into the wider population, but in so doing, they lost their rights to live on the reserve and be part of their community. Aboriginal people living on reserves were not permitted to vote until 1960.
Aboriginal peoples were also denied freedom of association. In 1927 the government passed a law that prohibited Aboriginals from collecting funds for advancement of land claims; in effect, the amendment prohibited all national organization. When one hereditary Iroquois Chief tried to go to the League of Nations to plead his people’s case, the government stationed a permanent police presence on his reserve and deprived hereditary chiefs and councilors of their positions. The ban on Aboriginal political activism was not removed until 1951.
Meantime, a pass system was rigidly enforced prohibiting Aboriginal freedom of movement, while restrictions on commerce meant that Aboriginals could not participate as equals in Canada’s evolving capitalist economy. Even service in Canada’s armed forces did not mean that Aboriginals got equal rights. Micmac veterans in Nova Scotia were pleading for rations in 1953, in part because they did not receive the land grants available to non-Aboriginal veterans.
So, Aboriginal Canadians have been formally entitled to the full range of civil and political rights for little longer than 50 years. And they are not yet protected (if they ever will be) by the collective rights enshrined since 2007 in the Universal Declaration of Indigenous Rights; although Canada expressed its support for this Declaration in 2010, as of 2014 it was not yet law.
This is a shameful record for a wealthy democratic country in which all human rights are supposedly guaranteed to all citizens.