49. CARE AND COMPASSION DURING THE TRANSITION PERIOD

Aside from the demoralizing effect on the world at large and the possibilities of disturbances arising as a result of the desperation of the people concerned, the consequences to the economy of the United States should be apparent to all. It is logical that the United States should do whatever it is able to do to assist in the return of normal economic health in the world, without which there can  be no political stability and no assured peace. Our policy is directed not against any country or doctrine but against hunger, poverty, desperation and chaos. Its purpose should be the revival of a working economy in the world so as to permit the emergence of political and social conditions in which free institutions can exist. – George Marshall, on the Marshall Plan1

For her panoramic study of ordinary lives affected by the downfall of the Soviet system Alexievich selected people from a generation who had become so immersed in the Soviet way of life that its’ sudden disappearance left them confused,  dislocated, and  struggling to find a new identity. 2

The basic, macro legal steps outlined above that would need to be taken to end the reserve system would only be a small part of the national, Marshall Plan-type undertaking that would have to be carried out in order to bring Indians in all respects into the Canadian mainstream.

No doubt the undertaking would be traumatic, especially for Canada’s Indians. A people kept psychically penned up- conditioned to experience only the reserve and the state as the ultimate focus of their worldview- conditioned to look to the state- to expect the state, now and into the indefinite future- to be the ultimate provider, one way or another, of their needs- when that kind of parental state involvement in their lives is removed, and they are reduced to living merely “normal” private lives,  (as when the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990’s), there will be significant adaptability and identity problems.

When the zeal and moral certainties of their adversarial, victim mentality-based, “nation-to-nation” fantasies have been replaced with the lukewarm gruel of “mere” equality, there will be social trauma.

They saw themselves as exiles from their vanished homeland, a mythical Soviet Union nostalgically remembered for its certainties, familiarities, consumer goods that never existed…For this generation the 1990’s were a catastrophe. They lost everything: a familiar way of life, an economic system that guaranteed security; an ideology that gave them moral certainties, perhaps some hope. 3

This inherently grand, noble and very difficult undertaking would take decades to accomplish. The financial costs would be enormous. An eventual target year and date for integration would have to be set- a date not only practical, but symbolic, such as July 1st, Confederation Day. The time between the legal beginning of this undertaking and that target date would be a very challenging, exciting, ultimately positive transition period.

It would be like the massive undertaking to bring East Germany back into a united Germany. A target date was set in that situation. Frenzied work was carried out during the transition period, and on the target date, it happened. An old regime died. A new, better regime took its place. Reconciliation and equality were the watchwords, and eventually those watchwords, despite the inevitably occurring adjustment problems- (similar to the Soviet Union’s, but without the descent into a gangster state that befell the latter)-  became a self-fulfilling prophesy. It was extremely difficult and uprooting, but again, like Lincolns’ civil war, looking back everyone agrees it was worth the sacrifices made.

Many other examples of some form of political life or status coming to an abrupt end, changing profoundly at a particular hour on a particular date, some inspiring, like the establishment of America on July 4th, 1776,  and many cautionary, come to mind.

On May 13th, 1948, living in Palestine, there were only the local indigenous Arab peoples, the new, ever-increasing Zionist Jewish immigrants, and the confusing and chaotic human remnants of colonial power. The next day, on May 14th, with the Jewish people having basically jumped out of the windows of the burnt house of Europe and landing on the local Arab inhabitants below, (see The Violence and Dispossession Caused by Migrating Peoples, above), the state of Israel, (the “Holy Land” to the new immigrants, merely “home” to the Arab peoples), came into being.

On August 13th, 1947 King George was the emperor of India. The next day, by prior proclamation, Great Britain renounced its’ paper power over the Indian subcontinent, and the countries of Pakistan and India were legally born.

History since then has made this event, the partitioning of the Indian subcontinent on the sole basis of religion and ethnicity, over the vehement objections of Gandhi, an especially egregious example of organizing socially and politically along these backward and illiberal lines.  As many as a million people have died as the result of the constant social strife that has followed. The Indian subcontinent had for centuries before been a multi-cultural and inter-married polyglot. Trying to partition it along religious and ethnic lines was impossible. It only increased the instability and violence it was meant to prevent.  It was  like trying to “carve the gravy.” 4

It’s the same for Canada. Increasing the legal and social partitioning of Indians from the rest of Canadians – another example of trying to carve the gravy – will only increase the instability and social problems it’s meant to prevent.

These life-altering, socially-cataclysmic events have happened countless times in humanity’s painful history. They’re never easy for those caught up in them, but in retrospect they are all usually viewed as having been inevitable, necessary and, despite the pain and anxiety accompanying them, worthwhile. That would be the case if the reserve system and special race-based rights and entitlements for Indians were abolished in Canada.

Unlike the Soviet Union, and more like East Germany, we have the enlightenment values, the liberal institutions and the overall social capital to make it work.

Massive opposition on the part of Indian elites and a large part of the Indian industry would be expected. But their complaints would ring hollow, because, as stated, during the transition period, the status quo would essentially remain.

Chiefs, councils and band administrations would continue, on in interim basis, as before. The Indian industry, in this short term, and with a new, much more positive and constructive long-term orientation, would remain substantially untouched.

Reform, even if it makes their fixations unsustainable, will not make their lives unlivable. 5

Overall, the manner and pace of change and transition would be measured, just, predictable and generally very gradual. In fact patience would be required on the part of many, because it would likely take years for tangible results to show. What would change almost right away, I believe, is that most Indigenous people would have a sense of increased self-esteem, as they realized that for the first time they were full and equal citizens of their country.

And in fact these people who made up the old Indian Industry would likely find it a lot more interesting and purposeful to go to work every day because there would be, for the first time, as their work was inevitably re-oriented to serve the overall positive purposes of the transition projects and undertakings, a new positive, task-oriented focus to their work. It would be, for the first time, noble and useful work that they would be doing, like the work in Nelson Mandela’s post-apartheid South Africa.

The larger reserves could be partially converted into municipalities, as suggested by William Wuttunee. Old chiefs could find themselves after the integration date as new mayors. Old band councillors could find themselves as new municipal councillors – old band administrations new municipal ones. Within the reserves all traditionally privately occupied and improved lands would be surveyed and, on the integration date, deeded to their traditional occupants.

All this just scratches the surface of the massive and complex nature of this integration undertaking, which despite the profound nature of it, and despite that massive complexity, history tells us can be done, as it has so often been done in the past, and which our innate sense of enlightened morality tells us should be done here.

We have the social capital to make it work.

We just can’t keep driving past the car crash and pretending we don’t see. Or seeing, just throwing band-aids out the window as we speed up and hurry on our way.

As Emerson wrote:

In this national crisis, it is not argument that we want, but that rare courage which dares to commit itself to a principle, believing that Nature is its ally, and will create the instruments it requires, and more than make good any petty and injurious profit which it may disturb.6

  1. Part of U.S. Secretary of State George Marshall’s 1947 speech announcing the European Aid Program, commonly known as the Marshall Plan.
  2. Orlando Figes, Alexievich’s New Kind of History, The New York Review of Books, October 13, 2016
  3. Orlando Figes, Alexievich’s New Kind of History, (above)
  4. John Keay, A History of South Asia Since Partition.Basic Books, 2014.
  5. Adam Gopnik,Liberal-In-Chief, The New Yorker, May 23, 2016: The writer’s reminder/admonition to the hysterically reactionary Republican obstructionists who almost nihilistically did everything in their power to prevent Barrack Obama from passing any progressive legislation.
  6. Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Emancipation Proclamation,excerpted in Atlantic Monthly, November 2012.

By: Peter Best