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OPINION: Bending the arc of the moral universe

Societies only trend towards justice if people demand change, columnist Gerry Chidiac says

I try to be optimistic and embrace the truth that “the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice.”

When I examine the way the Canadian government treats Indigenous children, however, it is hard not to be cynical.

I began my Social Justice 12 unit on residential schools by watching Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s 2008 apology to the Indigenous peoples of Canada. 

An apology is a wonderful thing, but it is empty unless it is followed by meaningful acts of reparation. 

My students then delved into what precisely Mr. Harper was apologizing for.  As we did so, we came across an underlying theme in Canada’s policy toward aboriginal children:  it has never wanted to spend the money that was needed to support their well-being.

This truth became very clear when we examined the tuberculosis epidemic of the early 20th century.  Children in residential schools were dying at a rate that far exceeded the national average, and the government knew that most of these deaths were preventable.  Rather than improve the living conditions, the Department of Indian Affairs decided not to spend the necessary funds and instead consciously chose to let children die.

Of course, Canada has advanced as a country.  We are no longer so barbarian.

As I closed my lesson on Dr. Peter Bryce, the public health specialist who wrote about this chapter of Canada’s wilful neglect in his book A National Crime, a Canadian court announced a ruling on a case with regard to Indigenous children in the 21st century.  They dismissed an appeal by the federal government to again withhold funds that would better the lives of Indigenous children.

Most Canadians are not aware that the British North America Act stipulates that education is a responsibility of the provincial government, except for the case of Indigenous children living on reserve.  The Federal Government is responsible for the education of these children, and they continue to spend 30 to 50 per cent less per child than provincial governments. The same lack of funding applies to all services these young people receive, and the impact is devastating.

This issue, first brought forward by the Human Rights Tribunal in 2007, has been challenged by both the Harper and Trudeau governments who spent millions of dollars abusing the legal system in order to avoid paying for the services needed by our Indigenous children.

The Trudeau government has not announced that they will appeal this decision once again, but they have not stated that they would honour it.  Instead, Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller said, “We are moving forward in discussions with the parties involved to make sure that people are properly compensated.”

What does that even mean?  And while he said it, his surfer-dude Prime Minister was making plans to skip out of Orange Shirt Day commemoration services and hit the beaches of Tofino, B.C. 

At least Trudeau followed through on something.

I’d like to believe that Canada’s 2008 apology to Indigenous people meant something.  I’d like to believe that the lives of Indigenous children mean more to our government than they did 100 years ago, but I find myself losing hope and losing credibility with my students.

The truth is that governments operate in their own self-interest and will not do the right thing unless their citizens insist that they do so.

This is a case where the Trudeau government will provide proper funding to our Indigenous children only if we flood the offices of the Prime Minister, the Indigenous Services Minister and our local Members of Parliament with letters, phone calls and emails insisting that the federal government not appeal this court ruling; that they follow the order of the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal. 

The arc of the moral universe really does bend toward justice, but only because good people push it in that direction