As I watched Canada pay tribute to Nelson Mandela, it reminded me of the difficulties this country had supporting the end of apartheid and its role in setting up the whole system. The indigenous people of South Africa and the First Nations share a unique relationship. And there is an important lesson to be learned here.
The system of apartheid Mandela opposed confined the indigenous people of South Africa to homelands, required them to obtain special passes to leave those homelands, and they were denied the right to vote. If this sounds familiar, it is not only because Indians in Canada were confined to reserves, required passes to leave their homes and could not vote until 1961.
In the 1940s, South African government officials were given tours of Indian reserves, which served as a model for homelands, and they studied Canada's Indian Act in laying the groundwork for the apartheid system.
Mandela was freed from prison after 27 years and was elected South Africa's president in 1995 in its first free, democratic vote. Instead of seeking vengeance, Mandela established a truth and reconciliation commission that allowed people to come forward and tell their stories, including tales of horrific wrongdoing, and they were given amnesty. Canada based some of our Truth and Reconciliation Commission on that model.
But the Indian Act remains, as do some key differences between the majority and minority relationships in the two countries. Indigenous people make up the vast majority in South Africa while native peoples are the minority here. Mandela maintained there should be no difference based on race while First Nations people retain special status and certain rights based on treaties.
The rationale behind the arguments of both indigenous groups are obvious. Black South Africans protested against the special rights and privileges the minority white population had under apartheid and had much to gain by treating all peoples equally. First Nations people in Canada are a distinct minority whose rights have been trampled often by the majority throughout history; it is in their best interests to protect certain rights that are inherent and protected by their sovereignty established through legislation and treaties.
Canada publicly opposed the racist apartheid system while it did business with the white rulers of South Africa. Pierre Trudeau's government sympathized with the anti-apartheid push, but Canadian companies were invested in South Africa, enjoying the benefits of cheap black labour.
Trudeau supported the international arms embargo against South Africa but did not enforce it. In the early '70s, the Montreal Gazette discovered the RCMP trained South African police in para-military liaison and intelligence-gathering.
It wasn't until Brian Mulroney stood up and publicly chastised world powers that were opposed to Mandela's African National Congress that this country started to take a strong stand against the racism of apartheid. Still, it was difficult to endorse the ANC because of fears it would establish a communist regime.
When Ottawa wanted a guarantee the ANC would follow pro-capitalist policy, critics maintained that was the economic engine driving the apartheid-like system for the benefit of private profit at the expense of human rights. As things turned out, Mandela stressed the need for co-operation with his "white brothers and sisters" who controlled the economy, trade and the military, and travelled throughout the world to re-establish trade relations and gain badly needed capital from countries such as Japan and the U.S.
Whether or not Canada was slower than it should have been in coming out strongly against apartheid, this country has always been cautious to gauge world opinion before it acts. When it comes to First Nations rights, however, Canada reacts much more quickly whenever our status as "a great place to live" is lowered because of the conditions First Nations people live in.
The lesson to be learned in all of this?
Canada has had a history of "business as usual" until worldwide pressure causes us to get in line with causes such as First Nations rights and the anti-apartheid movement. We have certainly not been a world leader in either.
One of the strengths that maintains Idle No More is the international support the movement has (the four women who founded INM were just named to the "top 100 list of global thinkers" by Foreign Policy magazine).
And so as our Canadian government cuts off funds for First Nations political organizations (their "voice," like the ANC is to South Africa's blacks), and as the federal government imposes more and more outside control over the education, management and governance of First Nations, we might have to look more and more to international support to get anything done when it comes to preserving First Nations rights.
Things would not have changed in South Africa without the pressure applied by the global community. Canada has so much in common with South Africa, especially when it comes to dealing with indigenous peoples, that we don't have to be so slow in coming around anymore.
Don Marks is the editor of Grassroots News.