Category Archives: Dennis Gruending

Charles Taylor on Muslims in Canada

Philosopher Charles Taylor in media scrum
Philosopher Charles Taylor in media scrum

The celebrated Canadian political philosopher Charles Taylor made headlines recently when he said that the prime minister’s critical comments about Muslim women wearing the niqab (a partial face covering) were both “dumb” and a boon for terrorist recruiters such as the Islamic State. Taylor’s point was that the prime minister is fuelling anti-Muslim sentiment and that in turn makes alienated Muslims in Canada more likely targets for terrorist recruiters. Taylor called the comments “a ridiculously disproportionate reaction” to the tiny number of women who wear the niqab in Canada. He speculated that some politicians are cynically trolling for votes by trying to sew division.

The news stories quoting Taylor arose largely from a scrum that he had with reporters following a keynote speech that he made to a gathering organized by the left-leaning Broadbent Institute, a think tank named after the former NDP leader.

A public intellectual

Taylor, a professor emeritus of political philosophy at McGill University, is perhaps Canada’s most prominent public intellectual. He was, for example, one of the main speakers early in March at an international conference in Rome convened by the Catholic Church’s Pontifical Council for Culture. Taylor was also co-chair of the Bouchard-Taylor Commission in Quebec, which arose from a controversy stoked by some in Quebec against Muslims and other minority groups. The commission’s report Building the Future was released in 2008 after months of testimony at public hearings.

Taylor’s speech to the Broadbent Institute did target recent comments by some federal politicians, but at an earlier time he was also a blunt critic of plans by the Parti Quebecois to introduce a charter of values that would have forbade people working in public institutions from wearing clothing or accessories of a religious nature.

Historical sweep

Taylor’s speech was rich in its historical sweep, providing examples of how social exclusion has been practiced but also how it has been overcome. “We are in a race,” he said, “between measures that create solidarity and those that create division. We must create bonds of solidarity and avoid stigmatization.”

Taylor said that all societies at one time or another attempt to exclude certain people and groups. There was once a strong opposition to Irish immigration into the United States, but Taylor said that the Americans overcame it. The symbolic end to that discrimination occurred when John Fitzgerald Kennedy became the country’s president in 1960. “But today in the U.S. Hispanics are unwanted by a lot of Anglo-Saxon types,” Taylor said, but he predicted that Americans will get beyond that exclusion as well.

He used France as an example of a country that once had a positive attitude toward accepting immigrants, but that changed after World War II and especially after the war in the former French colony of Algeria. “There is now a deep alienation among immigrants in France and the country is aggravating it with anti-Muslim measures.”

Bonds of solidarity

Taylor asked his audience to think about how certain countries succeed in confronting the obstacles to welcoming newcomers while other nations do not. “If we allow people to get to know each other and if we create enough connections, we can get beyond this just as the Americans did with the Irish and the Polish,” Taylor said. “We have to build connections of solidarity and to include those who are excluded.”

All political leaders, Taylor said, have a responsibility to refrain from stigmatization. “It is really dangerous for the prime minister to say that Islam is anti-feminine because some women choose to wear the niqab. This creates confrontation and stigmatizes all Muslims and ultimately the bonds of solidarity may not be able to keep up with the amount of division. You can be desperate to win an election and think you can do that by creating tension, but if you succeed you may actually lose the country you want. We have to think in the long term.”

Despite the controversies, Taylor said that he remains optimistic about the likelihood of having solidarity triumph over division in Canada. “We can meet this challenge. We have done so in the past in Canada and in Quebec and we can do so again.”         




Truth and Reconciliation Commission

Anglican mission school, La Ronge, Sask. LAC photo
Anglican mission school, La Ronge, Sask. LAC photo

On June 2, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) will release its report on the legacy of residential schools. The TRC was appointed by the federal government to examine the legacy of the schools back in 2008. It’s documented what happened there and held events at which survivors came forward to tell their stories. Also in 2008, Prime Minister Harper and churches, which operated the schools on the government’s behalf, apologized to former residential school students, who have since received financial compensation.

Indigenous people overlooked 

We may think that we know our history but unfortunately most of us do not. Perhaps my own life experience may serve to illustrate. I grew up in rural Saskatchewan, where Treaty Six — between the Crown and nations of the Plains Cree — was negotiated and signed in 1876. About 20 years later, my grandparents and others arrived as agricultural settlers. Our village was about 80 kilometres from Batoche, where the Metis made their last stand against the soldiers and militia of the Canadian government.

Amazingly, I grew up knowing nothing about the treaties or Batoche until I took a Grade 12 Canadian history course. In prairie communities, it was as though the First Nations people who preceded the Europeans never existed. History, it seemed, had begun only when the settlers arrived, and, invariably, comments about indigenous people in our community were negative.

No excuse for ignorance

There’s no longer any excuse for prejudice or ignorance, if ever there was one. The Royal Commission on Aboriginal People in 1991 described the history of oppression across Canada in exhaustive detail. There were a variety of instruments used in what’s now seen as aggressive assimilation, including the Indian Act. But perhaps, residential schools were the cruelest manifestation.

Beginning in the 1880s and continuing well into the 20th century, an estimated 150,000 Indian, Inuit and Metis children were removed — often forcibly —from their homes and placed in schools. They were punished for speaking their languages, lived in substandard conditions and endured physical, emotional and, in some cases, sexual abuse (I mourn as a parent when I think of that experience). According to documents obtained by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, some schools even carried out nutritional experiments on malnourished students with the federal government’s knowledge.

Justice Murray Sinclair, chair of the TRC, says that the residential school system constituted genocide. And there’s no harsher indictment for a nation.

Moving forward together

Of course, many Canadians may believe that we’ve put this all behind us and that we should move on. We know, however, from United Nations studies, media reports, the stories of survivors and from our own experience that indigenous people in Canada are still being left behind. We need altered political, regulatory and economic arrangements, not to mention a change of heart if we’re ever to move forward together.

Ecumenical group KAIROS aims at just that. During the months of May and June, it’s holding TRC-related events in Ottawa and across the country.

This piece appeared, in a slightly altered form, as a blog with the United Church Observer on March 26, 2015.

Security versus civil rights Debating anti-terrorism Bill C-51

Stephen Harper announces anti-terrorism measures. PMO photo.
Stephen Harper announces anti-terrorism measures. PMO photo.

There’s an intense debate happening in Parliament and now in the streets over Bill C-51, which the Harper government says is needed to prevent terrorism on Canadian soil. The legislation provides sweeping new powers to the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), which collects information covertly on security threats and forwards that information to the RCMP. Bill C-51 proposes that CSIS be allowed not only to monitor individuals who the agency thinks pose a threat, but also to disrupt their activities in a variety of ways, including seizing passports and cancelling travel reservations. Bill C-51 would also provide the RCMP with new powers to make preventative arrest or detention of suspected terrorists and lower the legal threshold under which such arrests occur.

Caught in the web

What’s more, Bill C-51 would allow 17 government departments and agencies to share amongst themselves — and with security agencies — information that they collect about Canadians, including tax records and details of travel for business or pleasure. It’s something Daniel Therrien, the federal Privacy Commissioner, objects to, saying “All Canadians — not only terrorism suspects — will be caught in this web.”

The bill would also allow CSIS to counter any activity that “undermines the sovereignty, security or territorial integrity of Canada.” That list includes “terrorism,” obviously, but also “interference with the capability of the government of Canada in relation to … the economic or financial stability of Canada.” Does this mean that CSIS can disrupt aboriginal protests against pipelines or mining on their lands, or target trade union members engaged in a rail or postal strike? Government ministers insist that legitimate protest is exempted but critics remain skeptical.

“So-called experts”

In defence of the legislation, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has said that “the international jihadist movement has declared war” and Bill C-51 is needed to keep Canadians safe. The context here involves two domestic fatal attacks on Canadian soldiers by disturbed and lone-wolf individuals, as well other attacks in Paris, Australia and elsewhere. These acts, as deplorable as they are, can hardly be accurately described as a war.

The Conservatives accuse those who question Bill C-51 as being soft on terrorism and they mock as “so-called experts” those scholars, government privacy commissioners and ombudsmen who say that the bill goes too far in offending the privacy and civil rights of Canadians.

Harassing  Zunera Ishaqa

Meanwhile, the Conservatives continue to defend the prohibition of Muslim women from wearing the niqab, a face covering, during oath-taking at citizenship ceremonies. Zunera Ishaqa, a new Canadian, had agreed to unveil in private before an official prior to taking the oath but not in the public ceremony but she was refused. She fought the ban in court and won, but now, the government is appealing the ruling.

The Conservative Party at one point even used Ishaqa’s case as the basis of a fundraising letter to its supporters. More recently, Harper responded to questions about the government’s appeal by asking, “Why would Canadians, contrary to our own values, embrace a practice that … frankly is rooted in a culture that is anti-women?”

Election prism

This must be seen through the prism of a coming federal election. The Conservatives laud themselves as good managers, but the economic news has been bad as of late: lacklustre job creation, an oil industry meltdown, growing inequality among Canadians and mounting consumer debt. As a result, the Conservatives’ new narrative is that only Harper can keep us safe from Muslim terrorists.

So what are we to do? For one thing, we can start treating rhetoric out of Ottawa with some scepticism. We can make our views known. We can also reach out to our Muslim neighbours. After all, this cannot be a pleasant time for them.

A shorter version of this post appeared on the United Church Observer blog on March 12, 2015.           

Manning Centre talkfest showcases “vapid conservatism”

MP John Williamson, foot in mouth
MP John Williamson, foot in mouth

Preston Manning fancies himself a big thinker and his recent networking conference in Ottawa was billed as an intellectual event for the conservative movement. But National Post columnist Andrew Coyne got it right in his column — the Manning conference was “vapid”. The Harper government has swallowed the movement and rather than talking policy the conference attendees showed themselves more interested in shilling for the Conservatives in preparation for the coming election.  Coyne says that the Manning event featured no fewer than seven sessions devoted to the use of social media and other campaign tools and tips. By my count nine federal MPs and cabinet ministers, not to mention premiers Jim Prentice and Christy Clark, were given platforms as conference speakers.

John Williamson’s clunker

The event, however, generated negative publicity when John Williamson, a Conservative MP from New Brunswick, put his foot in his mouth in talking about the Temporary Foreign Workers’ Program. Williamson told the crowd that it makes no sense to pay “whities” to stay home while companies bring in “brown people” as temporary foreign workers. By the next day Williamson was hurriedly posting a series of tweets to apologize for his language. He is a former communications director for Stephen Harper and a former director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.

Quebec MP Maxime Bernier, the minister of state for small business and tourism, is a regular speaker at the Manning conferences. One wonders why since he has rarely made the news since being turfed as Foreign Affairs minister for leaving a bundle of cabinet documents at his female partner’s house in 2008. Perhaps Bernier, one of only four Conservative MPs from Quebec, was there as a nod to what has been a political wasteland for the Conservatives. Bernier is hardly known as an ideas man and chose to spend his time at the podium attacking Liberal leader Justin Trudeau and his late father Pierre Elliott Trudeau, a former prime minister.

Oliver veers off script

Finance Minister Joe Oliver was there, too, ostensibly to talk about the economy. He abandoned his script, however, to warn about the dangers posed by Muslim terrorists and the wisdom of the Conservatives’ Bill C-51, which will potentially invade the privacy of Canadians in hitherto unimagined ways in the name of combating terrorism.

In fact, all cabinet ministers are veering off script these days, no matter what the topic at hand, to deliver a pat set of talking points about terrorism and how our fearless leader is the only one who can protect us from it. Welcome to the election campaign and expect to hear a lot more of this.

Conservative mismanagement

The terrorism-fearless leader trope has the added advantage of diverting attention from the economy, where the Conservatives squandered the billions of dollars in budget surplus left to them by the Liberals and then cut deeply into programs used by Canadians in order to reduce the deficit they had created. Job growth in Canada has been lacklustre at best and even the banks are saying that since the Great Recession poorly paid and temporary McJobs have replaced what was once full time and pensionable employment. Inequality among Canadians continues to rise along with alarming levels of household debt. Add that to a burgeoning trade deficit and a meltdown in the oil sector and one can understand why Oliver and the other ministers would sooner talk about terrorism and prisons than about the economy.

Working journalists?

The Manning Networking Conference failed to meet its public billing but the event received massive media coverage nonetheless. Several working journalists were listed on the agenda as speakers or moderators. One assumes they were paid for their efforts. The progressive Broadbent Institute will have a conference in Ottawa on March 26-28. Let’s all watch to see how much media coverage it receives.

Pope Francis’ second anniversary

Pope Francis, Time magazine's Person of the Year in 2013
Pope Francis, Time magazine’s Person of the Year in 2013

Fascination with Pope Francis continues as he approaches on March 13 the second anniversary of his election. The New York Review of Books carried a cover story on him recently and he also featured prominently in an article in Harper’s magazine. Time magazine named Francis as its Person of the Year in 2013 and early in 2014 Rolling Stone magazine published a lengthy cover story titled Pope Francis: The Times They Are A-Changin’.

The white smoke had hardly cleared after his election when Francis appeared on the balcony in St. Peter’s Square, not to lay down the law as his two immediate predecessors were fond of doing, but rather to ask the people assembled to pray for him. Soon after, he returned in person to the hotel where he had been staying during the conclave to pay his bill. He has eschewed the papal Mercedes limousine for a Ford Focus to ferry him around in Rome and he lives in a guest house for clergy adjacent to St. Peter’s Basilica rather than occupying the papal apartments. He even uses his land line to make cold calls to people, including some of his critics.

The pope’s behaviour has been deeply disturbing to some traditionalists among the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics who fear that he will undermine the power and prestige of his office. On the other hand, many liberal Catholics dare to hope that change and reform may be in the air but wonder if the pope’s gestures are perhaps a triumph of style over substance. That argument misses the point, according to Father Thomas J. Reese, a Jesuit and long-time observer of the papacy. “In the Catholic church, style is substance,” Reese told Rolling Stone. “We are a church of symbols.”

Francis, beneath his folksy exterior, is a highly focused individual who is attempting to do many things in the years remaining to him — he is 78 years old and lost one lung to an infection as a young man in his native Argentina. Several of his priorities stand out. He wants to move the institutional church and its clergy, including bishops, away from a mindset of privilege to one of service to the world, and particularly to the poor. It is for this reason that the symbolism embedded in his simple lifestyle is so potent.

Secondly, he wants to shift away from the monarchical papacy, where all wisdom and authority are vested in the bishop of Rome. Francis is scrupulous in avoiding any criticism of his predecessors but the message in his contrasting style is clear. He wants to share in decision making with the church’s 5,000 bishops. That is what the world’s bishops called for during Vatican II in the 1960s but Francis agrees that has not happened.

Francis is also especially concerned about the plight of the poor and marginalized in society. As the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he was known for his solitary pastoral visits to people in the slums. To get there, he rode by subway to the end of the line and then trudged in his orthopaedic shoes along muddy and garbage strewn roads. He asked people there to pray for him too.

In November 2013, Francis devoted much of his first major written teaching (called an exhortation) to an unflinching criticism of unfettered market capitalism, describing it as “an economy of exclusion and inequality” based on the “idolatry of money.” Francis is also preparing an encyclical on climate change for release in 2015. In late 2014, he convened a meeting of Latin American and Asian landless peasants and other social movements. He told them: “An economic system centred on the god of money needs to plunder nature to sustain the frenetic rhythm of consumption that is inherent to it.”

The pope’s economic and environmental critique has predictably annoyed economic conservatives. Peter Foster, a National Post columnist, dismisses Francis as an “economically challenged” progressive. “Obedience to the pope on contraception remains a controversial moral issue,” Foster writes. “Obedience on the climate agenda would be outright immoral.”

If economic conservatives are surprised by what Francis is saying about the economy, they should not be. Popes have been criticizing capitalism’s excesses since the time of Leo XIII in 1891 and both John Paul II and even Pope Benedict made similar exhortations.

Despite being kind, pastoral and economically progressive, however, Francis remains doctrinally conservative. There will, for example, be no ordination of women on his watch. “The church has spoken and said no . . . that door is closed,” he said in a news scrum in 2013.

In an otherwise exemplary address to the European Parliament in late 2014, the pope described Europe as becoming “a grandmother no longer fertile and vibrant.” That was a tone deaf remark from the leader of a church whose most fervent supporters are often older women.

Unfortunately, the  pope appears to remain obstinately out of touch when it comes to his understanding of women beyond the role of nurturer and mother. He fails to see that the equality of women, too, is an issue of fundamental justice and inextricably linked to questions such as poverty, inequality and violence.

A somewhat shorter version of this piece appeared on my blog for the United Church Observer on February 26, 2015.

Physician assisted death

May Court Hospice provides palliative care
May Court Hospice provides        palliative care

The Supreme Court of Canada has struck down a law that makes it a crime for physicians to assist in the death of individuals who are grievously ill. The court’s unanimous decision pleases many Canadians, alarms others and leaves religious leaders and politicians in a most delicate position. An Angus Reid poll in November 2014 indicted that 80 per cent of respondents in Canada support allowing a doctor, at the request of a competent, fully informed, terminally ill patient, to assist that person to die.

The court has ruled that the existing law leaves people suffering from an irredeemable illness with a cruel choice. “[They] cannot seek a physician’s assistance in dying and may be condemned to a life of severe and intolerable suffering,” the court said. The judges added that the law violates the charter rights and is therefore unconstitutional. As such, the court gave the federal government one year to draft a new law, and if Ottawa does not do so, there will be no law in place to regulate physician-assisted death.

Faith groups have long argued that life is a gift from God and that neither people who are ill nor those around them have the right to decide when life should end. They also warn lawmakers of a “slippery slope,” arguing that vulnerable people will come under pressure to choose death rather than burden their loved ones or society at large.

But the trial judge in the initial challenge to the law examined other jurisdictions where assisted death was available and concluded that the risks to vulnerable people were minimal. The Supreme Court judges agreed: “[The evidence] also supports her finding that a properly administered regulatory regime is capable of protecting the vulnerable from abuse or error.”

Judges in Canada don’t look at laws based on the interpretation of religious texts, but the court in this case obviously considered moral and ethical dimensions. “An individual’s response to a grievous and irremediable medical condition is a matter critical to their dignity and autonomy,” they said. “The prohibition [on physician-assisted death] denies people in this situation the right to make decisions concerning their bodily integrity and medical care and thus trenches on their liberty.”

Various religious groups have responded to the Supreme Court’s judgment. The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada expressed “deep” disappointment with the judgment and said that the court had decided that in some circumstances, “the killing of a person will be legal.” The Catholic bishops also expressed their dismay, saying that “helping someone to commit suicide is neither an act of justice or mercy, nor it is part of palliative care.”

Although the United Church of Canada made no formal statement, Moderator Gary Paterson wrote that “[the law] should change in order to allow physician-assisted dying in circumstances that meet carefully defined criteria.” The Primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, Fred Hilz, announced that his church is appointing a task force to guide its discussions on physician-assisted death.

All of these faith groups stressed the importance of improved palliative care. No doubt the Supreme Court judges would agree, although that was not the focus of the appeal that they heard. Better palliative care will not eliminate the requests for physician-assisted death by some people who are gravely ill, but the consensus is that it makes all the difference in the quality of life during one’s final stages.

This piece appeared in a somewhat more abbreviated form on my blog with the United Church Observer on February 12, 2015.


Money talks

Peter Mansbridge, CBC photo
Peter Mansbridge, CBC photo

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) has been forced by growing public criticism into prohibiting its on-air employees from giving speeches — that sometimes netted thousands of dollars per appearance — to corporations and industry groups.

The directive in January came almost a year after it was reported that Peter Mansbridge, CBC’s chief correspondent and host of The National, gave a paid speech to the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers in 2012. Mansbridge later indicated that he gives about 20 speeches each year, both paid and unpaid.

It was also reported that Rex Murphy, who provides commentaries on The National and who hosts CBC Radio’s Cross Country Checkup,has given numerous paid speeches to oil industry groups. In those same speeches, Murphy regularly praises the industry while criticizing environmental organizations.  And in late 2014, more controversy arose over paid appearances by Amanda Lang for Manulife and Sun Life Financial. Those companies are covered by Lang, the CBC’s chief business correspondent.

Modifying the policy

The CBC’s managers initially defended their journalists and expressed “disappointment” that anyone would call their integrity into question. Murphy even used his column in the National Post to say, “It’s an empty, insulting slur against my reputation as a journalist.” Lang used her Twitter account to defend herself, too, writing that, “The haters hate.”

In April 2014, shortly after the initial controversy, CBC management decided to modify its policy somewhat. They promised to publish on a CBC website all of the paid and unpaid appearances made by its reporters and hosts. The corporation also said it would “reject requests from companies, political parties or other groups, which make a significant effort to lobby or otherwise influence public policy, even if the speech or event seems innocuous.”

Flaunting the policy

Frank Koller, a former CBC journalist and foreign correspondent, used his blog to follow the controversy, and in late 2014, initiated a series of exchanges with CBC management and the broadcaster’s ombudsman. Koller said that some of the CBC’s most prominent journalists had flaunted the policy announced in April and that management allowed them to do it. He listed a number of companies and organizations who are registered as lobbyists with the government of Canada, but for whom prominent CBC journalists had recently made paid appearances. 

Then on January 22, the CBC finally announced its ban on all outside paid appearances by on-air employees. The new policy does not cover people such as Rex Murphy, who the CBC contracts as a freelancer and oddly it does not cover off camera people such as the executive producers of programs.  

The central question

It is worth noting that CBC is not the only organization whose journalists who speak for money. As well, other media reporting on the CBC controversy are among the corporation’s news competitors and may revel in the CBC’s problems. In some cases there may also be petty personal jealousies at play.

Still, the central question remains. Is it ethical for any journalist to accept money for speeches and appearances from organizations on which they report, and who in many cases lobby governments in attempt to influence public policy? In addition, the CBC is paid for by taxpayers and has provided its journalists with training, experience, credibility and, in some cases, a certain celebrity status. So is it right for those individuals to use that public investment in them for their own private gain?

Journalists have a precious role to play in providing us with news and information in a way that we can trust as unblemished. If they want to accept unpaid engagements for community or non-profit groups cleared by their employers as a public service, they are free to do so.  But they should not accept money from the organizations they cover — period.

This piece appeared in a slightly briefer version on my United Church Observer blog on January 29, 2015.


Sir John A Macdonald and presentism

Sir John A, Macdonald, Wikipedia photo
Sir John A, Macdonald, Wikipedia photo

The Canadian Establishment has begun to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Sir John A Macdonald’s birth in 1815. Prime Minister Harper even skipped events to honour the Charlie Hebdo victims in Paris so that he could be in Kingston to commemorate Macdonald’s birthday. But there is a darker story here about the man often considered to be the father of Confederation.

In December 2014, I wrote about an appearance by historian James Daschuk at an event to talk about his book Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation and the Loss of Aboriginal Life. In the book Daschuk describes how Macdonald deliberately used the politics of famine to force indigenous people into submission so that Canada could build a railway and populate the West with European settlers.

Daschuk quotes Sir John from the House of Commons describing his government’s policy as follows: “We cannot allow them to die for want of food … [We] are doing all that we can by refusing food until the Indians are on the verge of starvation, to reduce the expense.”

Macdonald and presentism

Jim Lang, a reader of my Pulpit and Politics blog, posted the following comment after the piece on  Daschuk’s book. “I agree strongly that European imperialism was achieved via genocide at worst, extreme marginalization at best. I’m wondering what to make of claims that in painting MacDonald as a genocidal criminal, effectively, the authors are guilty of something called ‘presentism.’ I gather this means judging historical people by today’s standards.”

I must admit that I had never heard the word “presentism” before but I indicated to Jim that I would think about this and get back to him.

Daschuk did not accuse Macdonald of genocide and he did not say precisely that Sir John A was a racist, although he surely was. Daschuk did, however, pose a question: “A glorification of John A Macdonald is underway as we come up to the 200th anniversary of his birth. How do we process this?”

Jeffrey Simpson weights in

In mid-January Globe and Mail columnist Jeffrey Simpson weighed in regarding presentism. Simpson wrote in a column about Abraham Lincoln and John A Macdonald both of who he said were flawed but also great statesmen whose accomplishments are apparent in the health and survival of their respective nations.

“To judge them through the prism of their flaws,” Simpson wrote, “is to deliberately minimize their accomplishments and to engage in historical ‘presentism,’ the application of today’s standards to those that prevailed long ago.”

Simpson sees presentism being practiced by “aboriginal writers and advocates of aboriginal causes,” not to mention people in university departments. He says presentism “is always popular with those for whom history is a stick with which to beat today’s drum s of injustice and to read their particular narratives into the past.”

I respect Simpson as a knowledgeable commentator on Canadian public life but few would accuse him of being a champion of the underdog. History, not to mention the present, appears much differently when looked at from the top down up rather than from the bottom up.

Nagging questions

Among the European settlers who populated the Canadian West in the 19th century racism was ubiquitous, what academics now call the colonial settler mentality. Sadly, racism is still common place today, as we have heard recently from leaders in Winnipeg, and as I learned as a political candidate knocking on doors in Saskatoon during the four federal elections that I contested between 1997 and 2004.

A nagging question when we talk about how to judge past actors relates to both the time frame and the scope of their actions. I can’t imagine that anyone would forgive or excuse perpetrators of the 20th century holocaust. But what about the genocide committed against aboriginal people in the Americas by the Spanish conquistadores? Should they be excused because their atrocities occurred at a time when Europeans had not yet decided if indigenous people were even human beings?

In Macdonald’s case, his attitude about the inferiority of indigenous people was commonplace at the time, but the scope of his actions presents a problem for his defenders. Did he use starvation and near starvation as a weapon against indigenous people in Western Canada whose communities had been decimated by loss of the bison? Daschuk says he did and that the deliberate withholding of food to hungry people led to hundreds of deaths by starvation, and also created the conditions for a tuberculosis epidemic in indigenous communities.

I have heard no worthy refutation of Daschuk’s claim.  In fact, he has been awarded the Sir John A. Macdonald Prize for a Canadian book of history judged to have made the most significant contribution to an understanding of our past.  This is highly ironic but it also means that Daschuk has written a good book.

Myth of decency

History is less than valuable if it does not inform the present. If we are not to beat Sir John “with a stick” to quote Jeffrey Simpson, can we at least learn something here that is applicable and useful today?

Daschuk thinks we can.  “White Canadians have not heard this story. We have this myth of decency, friendliness, and helping our neighbours,” he told his audience in Ottawa. “But in our relationship with indigenous peoples we have not been decent. I live in hope that we will become more open-minded about what is going on in Canada.”