A System That Doesn't See People

Work is keeping me busy. The house is keeping me busy. Minnesota Atheists is keeping me busy. I have some appearances to prep for. And migraines occasionally put me out of commission. So my blog may get short shrift for a little while simply because I have very little brain left when everything else is done.

At the very least, I will try to find you interesting things to read. Luckily, that’s very easy around here. There is, for example, Crommunist’s excellent work for Black History Month. I like history that is rooted in place and people, as opposed to lofty abstractions and ideals. This series does that every year, this year with what might be considered an unusual focus for Black History Month.

The above points bring me to the thesis I wish to discuss this year. Last year I suggested that by understanding black history, we could gain greater insight and acumen when it comes to race-relevant decisions we have to make in the contemporary era – that understanding where we came from helps us figure out where to go. This year’s thesis is that, far from being the unfortunate bigoted actions of a small cadre of ‘racists’, contemporary racial realities cannot be properly understood without acknowledging that, for many years, there was a big white thumb on the scales of racial justice.

Our history contains a multitude of examples wherein white supremacy was practiced not simply by bigots in white hoods, but (perhaps more harmfully) by bigots in powdered wigs and judges’ robes. While our memetic image of racism is dominated by lynch mobs and ‘whites only’ signs above drinking fountains, the fact is that those are only the most dramatic examples of racism – not the most prevalent. The reality is that white supremacist beliefs and practices formed a major part of the legislative and legal history of the beginnings and middle-age of our nation, and may go a long way toward explaining why we see racial inequality woven, albeit unwelcome, into our cultural fabric.

So while the racism that was visited against aboriginal people, or Chinese migrants workers, or South Asian would-be immigrants, may not be identical to the racism visited against blacks in Canada, the ways in which that racism was literally given the power of the government and courts of Canada are at the very least similar.

It’s been fascinating so far. It’s started with a look at how race has been classified–and how flexible that classification has been based on the needs of the moment.

Before we can understand this particular case, Backhouse reminds us of the circumstances under which races were legally defined. A person could be white, red, black, or yellow (according to the categories in the 1901 census – categories that existed until at least 1951); however, in order to be ‘white’, one had to be ‘purely’ white, meaning that no parent or grandparent could have been known to be part of one of the other groups. Those of you who studied either the racial laws of the antebellum U.S. South or the racial caste system of apartheid South Africa will recognize the philosophy of the “one drop rule”, or the innovative idea of the “blood quantum“. Backhouse also invites us to note the way in which male chauvinism intersected with the white chauvinism, defining lineage and who could have ‘status’ based on patrilineal (and not matrilineal) descent.


However, the Inuit presented a novel problem: when the Indian Act was signed, the Inuit were not part of the equation. They had been declared citizens of Quebec without any thought given to consulting (or even informing) the affected group. As a result, neither the province nor the federal government had a clear idea of who was legally obligated to pick up the bill for a rescue package (a pittance of what amounted to $9 per person in the affected area). And so the federal government went to the Supreme Court to have them decide how to interpret the Indian Act.

Then a look at how racial essentialism has been used to wipe out both culture and political power.

The nature of the “Give-Away Dance” was not only threatening to the delicate sensibilities of farm-folk, it was a thumb in the eye of the root of civilization itself – selfishness*! It is worth noting that the Dakota, far from being indolent and impoverished due to their post-dance exhaustion, were apparently incredibly quite prosperous and industrious farmers, even in the face of interference at the hands of the federal government.

So productive were the Dakota, in fact, that there was a notable minority opinion that they should abandon the traditional ways and fully acculturate with the white settlers. It was from the ranks of this group of dissenters that emerged a man called Tunkan Cekiyana. The federal government, as part of their assimilationist policies (and likely simply to simplify their bureaucracy) had taken to appointing ‘chiefs’ to represent different aboriginal groups. Of course, this was a marked departure from the traditional role that ‘chiefs’ had exercised, and from the communal/consensus-based models of power-sharing that preceded the policy. Since Cekiyana’s beliefs coincided with their own, the government was happy to appoint him chief of the Dakota.

Some musings on the lessons we can take for today.

I find the conflation and intertwining of ‘civilization’, ‘capitalism’, and ‘Christianity’ very interesting in this example. The Canadian government, with its supposed defence of freedom of religion, did not extend those principles to aboriginal people (even though, strictly speaking, that wasn’t the government’s call to make in the first place). Capitalism was, explicitly in this case, part and parcel with a definition of civilization that included Christian belief and profession. The idea that another model, one that had been stable and effective, was worthy of exploration or at least deserved to be left alone did not seem to enter into the minds of those who were charged with making such decisions. Instead, a threat to one plank of the economic/religious/cultural fervor was a threat to all of them, and was ‘dealt with’ accordingly.


In light of the massive and ongoing #IdleNoMore activist movement, I also gained a new perspective on their chief tool: the public Round Dance. I was lucky enough to be invited to participate in such an event when I attended a rally here in Vancouver. The use of dance as a form of protest seemed to me to be an incredibly effective method – it is decidedly peaceful, it is distinctive, and it invites participation from passers-by. What I didn’t have much appreciation for, at least prior to learning about the Indian Act, is how subversive the use of dance is in this context. It is not merely a fun way to protest – it is a strong affirmation of aboriginal identity and sovereignty, and a giant ‘fuck you’ to Canada’s racist and assimilationist history.

Finally (so far), we have a look at the in which even legal precedent has been thrown out when it has been determined to be an insufficient tool to create the kind of society people in power have wanted.

Now it is crucial to understand that, from the perspective of the Hadenosaunee, this was an agreement made between equals. The two nations had made an agreement, had drawn ‘borders’, had agreed to respect each other’s claims to their own lands. The Hadenosaunee had, and continued to implement, a parallel political and judicial system for resolving their own disputes. The only acquiescence they had made, as far as British laws within Hadenosaunee territory were concerned, was to allow the British judiciary to punish British rapists and thieves who committed crimes within Hadenosaunee lands (roughly akin, I suppose, to an extradition treaty).


I suppose there is not a shorter straw that Eliza Sero could have drawn than to have her case presided over by Judge William Renwick Riddell. Justice Riddell was a man with not only a well-established reputation for anti-aboriginal bias, but who proudly identified as an “Old-Time Misogynist” to boot. Despite his support for the abolition of slavery, Riddell was an open and notorious white supremacist who viewed aboriginal sovereignty as an annoying fiction that he would not stomach to humour. Riddell did not recognize the validity of the Two Row Wampum treaty (or any subsequent agreements built thereupon), littering his decision against Sero* with references to ‘treaties’, often prefaced with the sneering inclusion of the words “so-called”.

This isn’t your average Black History Month list of inventions that can be repeated year after year without change or thought. Check the whole thing out

A System That Doesn't See People

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