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What Would Nelson Mandela Think of Canada's Apartheid?

Posted: 12/18/2013 5:26 pm

Thomas Mulcair wrote a very touching tribute to Nelson Mandela in today's Toronto Star, using Mandela's story of struggle and eventual triumph over a deeply racist regime as a call to arms to Canadians to affect change in our own country. Like so many of the things that I've seen presented by the NDP lately (and by lately, I guess I mean since Jack Layton's death), it has a nice, socialist gloss to it but, upon closer inspection, doesn't actually live up to what I expect from my party. To give credit where credit is due, there are several things that Mulcair gets right in his piece. There are also a few things that he gets very, very wrong.

I've read quite a few tributes to Mandela written by prominent white folks over the past week, and Mulcair's is, on the surface, different from many of them. What sets his piece it apart from most of the others is the fact that Mulcair makes a fairly direct comparison between South Africa's apartheid regime and Canada's treatment of the First Nations, Inuit and Métis people. He's not wrong, either -- in fact, the apartheid system was based on Canada's Indian Act. Our residential schools, Indian Reserve and many other deeply racist systems inspired South Africa's oppressive regime. I'm glad that at least one of our federal leaders has (somewhat) acknowledged this in their remarks on Mandela's death.

What Mulcair gets so very, very wrong is in how he talks about the fall of the apartheid and Mandela's role in it. South Africa, he says, is a "miracle." Mandela, he said, "inspire[d] people to be more forgiving, to be more united, to be better than they ever thought possible." There is no mention of the involvement of the Umkhonto we Sizwe, which Mandela co-founded, in violent political resistance, resistance that was key in bringing apartheid to an end.

There is no mention of the fact that Mandela himself was implicated in that violence; no discussion of the fact that part of the reason Mandela was sent to prison was because he was responsible for bombing a power plant. Though we seem to like to imagine that Mandela brought change to South Africa with nothing but wise words and a kind, grandfatherly smile, the truth is very different. Mandela fought for his freedom, tooth and nail.

And yet the western world has somehow managed to whitewash all of Mandela's actions, to the point where we no longer remember that at one point in time America considered him to be a terrorist. And the same people who are lauding Mandela are those that I see complaining about First Nations blockades and protests on a regular basis. It's a funny sort of cognitive dissonance -- if we declare ourselves in support of the fight to end the apartheid in South Africa, then shouldn't it necessarily follow that we also support the fight to end the oppression of Canada's First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples?

If we can have this kind of unwavering love and support for a man who bombed a power plant in order to bring down a racist regime, then shouldn't we offer some kind of aid and encouragement to the citizens of our own country who are trying to protect their lands from environmental devastation? How is it that we, as Canadians, manage to view these two situations as being entirely different?

It also seems pretty funny that what Mulcair wrote could almost be taken as an endorsement of radical and perhaps even violent tactics in order to further decolonization, considering that his response to almost any type of First Nations protest is to ask them to work with the Canadian government.

Take, for example, his official statement on the current events in Elsipogtog:

New Democrats are very concerned about the escalating situation involving the Elsipogtog First Nation in New Brunswick. We are monitoring the situation closely. We join the Assembly of First Nations in calling for calm on all sides. The safety and security of all parties is our number one concern at this time. This situation underlines the importance of peaceful and respectful dialogue between governments and Indigenous peoples.

Or else his response to Chief Theresa Spence's hunger strike:

I would sincerely call upon Chief Spence to realize that there has been a step in the right direction, to try and see now if we can keep putting pressure on the government to follow through. The government seems to be moving so I think that the best thing to do would be to step back from that now.

It's just the same old racist bullshit of asking the oppressed to work with their oppressors. He's not adding anything new or helpful; he's just reiterating what the First Nations peoples have been hearing for generation after generation. His approach is not going to solve anything. Peaceful talks with a racist and oppressive government, a government that has a vested interest in continuing to marginalize the First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples, are not going to bring about any kind of real change.

As NDP candidate Shannon Phillips said,

Nelson Mandela didn't do 27 years in prison for sitting in the wrong seat on the bus. He was there, in part, for his role in bombing a power station in order to make the machinery of a racist regime grind to a halt. A regime most of the world, including Canada under those Great Liberals Pearson and Trudeau, thought was completely a-ok. So can we just remember that next time we see indigenous people blockading a highway? Thanks.

So the next time you hear about a First Nations blockade or protest or hunger strike, I want you to look at it from a different angle. I want you to consider how our government's treatment of the Aboriginal peoples of this country compares to the South African apartheid. And most of all I want you to ask yourself: if he were here, in Canada today, what would Nelson Mandela do?

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