Douglas Todd: Canada’s immigrant-aboriginal knot

May 22, 2015

By Douglas Todd, Vancouver Sun |

In the minds of many Canadians, the treatment of aboriginals and immigrants is inextricably tied together, and it’s creating moral confusion.

I have witnessed on dozens of occasions a discussion about Canada’s immigration policies going sideways when someone suddenly flags the plight of the country’s aboriginals.

Whether it’s in a coffee shop, at a conference or on the Internet, the person who raises the topic invariably maintains non-aboriginal Canadians are guilty of profiting from land that was originally aboriginal.

Therefore, their argument goes, it’s hypocritical for any Canadian who has benefited from migration to aboriginal land to want to have a say over future immigration.

Each time someone plays this aboriginal card, any hope of a reasonable discussion ends.

European observers are among those who have noted the strange public silence in Canada. They chalk up the absence of a vibrant debate on immigration policy partly to long-standing French-English tensions, but mostly to self-condemnation about past treatment of aboriginals.

It doesn’t need to be this way. It’s possible for Canadians to sort through our possible blameworthiness for the “sins of our ancestors,” so we can discuss these issues more openly and systematically.

Almost every person who lives in Canada, population about 34 million, forms what cultural geographers call “the host culture.” That includes people whose ancestors arrived more than 400 years ago, as well as immigrants who moved here in the past decade.

It should go without saying “the host culture” includes Canada’s roughly 1.5 million aboriginals, many of whom are extremely critical of Ottawa bringing in 275,000 additional people each year.

Still, as wise aboriginal leaders such as B.C. Chief Robert Joseph remind us all: “No one’s leaving.”

So what kind of country do those who intend to stay in Canada hope to create?

Michael McDonald, an emeritus applied ethicist at the University of B.C., says it’s worth sorting through how our obligations to aboriginals are categorically different from our obligations to immigrants.

First, McDonald makes it clear contemporary Canadians “are not directly responsible for what their ancestors have done to aboriginals. There’s nothing we can do to directly undo the past. We don’t have a time machine to go back.”

But McDonald believes Canadians who benefit from what happened to aboriginals need to do what they can today to atone for any wrongs of the original settlers (the Europeans who established Canada’s current laws and customs) and of more recent immigrants.

“If we inherited a lot of benefits from the dispossession (of land held by aboriginals), it’s wrong to say, ‘Tough luck guys, the statute of limitations is over on this,’” McDonald said.

The past devastation of aboriginal culture in Canada needs to be overcome in the present, however imperfectly. That’s what Canada’s courts and governments have been trying to do by signing vast land-claim agreements, providing aboriginal housing allowances and granting billions of dollars to survivors of residential schools. The complex reconciliation process goes on.

But the moral knot remains for many Canadians.

“How do we move forward on the immigration question?” McDonald asks. “We can’t say we can’t discuss it until we resolve aboriginal issues. That would be like someone saying, ‘I can’t pay my rent until I deal with my child-support payments.”

As we do in the rest of our multi-tasking lives, we need to act on more than one ethical policy issue at a time.

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