The disaster of Canadian colonialism


There’s an old, awful joke that – in direct proportion to its offensiveness and horrific frankness – gets to the heart of one of the fundamental hypocrisies of Canadian apartheid and the comfortable air of superiority with which we tend, from here, to observe the catastrophic racial dystopia south of the 49th:

Q: What do they call n*ggers in Canada?

A: Indians.

Like the rest of the world, Canadian and Québecois progressives watched in horror as American city-, state- and federal-level agencies fumbled in the face of the racialized catastrophe wrought by Hurricane Katrina.  Petty arguments about which levels of government were or weren’t responsible for saving the lives of New Orleans’ overwhelmingly black and working class population raged on along with the storm and its effects, lending the weight of prophecy to words spoken by the protagonist of Don Delillo’s 1985 novel White Noise:

“These things happen to poor people who live in exposed areas.  Society is set up in such as way that it’s the poor and the uneducated who suffer the main impact of natural and man-made disasters.  People in low-lying areas get the floods, people in shanties get the hurricanes and tornados.  I’m a college professor.  Did you ever see a college professor rowing a boat down his street in one of those TV floods?” [White Noise, page 114]

The fundamental question for us now is this: In the face of the equally foreseeable, calamitous and racialized circumstances that led to this week’s emergency evacuation of the Kashechewan Reserve in Ontario, will we carry over our indignation at the negligence with which African-Americans are treated by their government into a justified and constructive rage over the treatment of the Cree near James Bay?

Specifically, we need to ask if the James Bay Cree on the Ontario side of the line will receive the kind of support that political parties in English Canada have cynically offered for years to the James Bay Cree in Québec as a prop against Québec independence (Anglo goodwill that largely dried up when Ted Moses signed the nation-to-nation Paix des Braves with the PQ government of Bernard Landry).

It has always been easier for Canadians to launch missives against Jim Crow America than to dissect the complex and dehumanizing machinations of Ottawa’s ‘internal’ colonialism: Neil Young, the famed troubadour from the Prairies – where the cops drag Indians to the outskirts of town in the depths of winter, leaving them to die in the ice and snow – is after all the man whom Lynyrd Skynyrd went after for “Southern  Man” in the seminal (and racist) “Sweet Home Alabama.”

For decades, federal governments in Ottawa and provincial governments (both federalist and nationalist) in Québec have allowed for the water supplies of the Cree near James Bay to be rendered toxic by dam projects and the redirection of rivers.  The problem of contaminated drinking water on the Kashechewan Reserve was, if anything, more easily foreseeable than the broken levees and failed infrastructures of New Orleans (if anything because the Cree have been highlighting the dangers for years). According to the Globe and Mail, Grand Chief Stan Louttit “told reporters the province should have acted years ago” on the issue of water safety on the reserve, where the “community’s dirty water problem is blamed on the location of [a] treatment plant’s intake pipe, which is 135 metres downstream from a sewage lagoon . . . sewage goes directly into the water filtration system” [Globe and Mail, Wednesday October 26].

To their credit, even the business-friendly Globe editorialists have taken the opportunity presented by this week’s evacuation to deplore the status of drinking water on reserves across Canada.   

The question now is whether – with an eye to disaster and evacuation linked intimately with structures of racial inequality and colonialism, while provincial and federal governments bicker over whose problem it is – progressives in Canada and Québec will protest the treatment of the Cree with as much energy as we did the woeful abandonment of New Orleans’ black population.

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