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Tyrannosaurus Rex and the rude “natives”

in Featured/To Each Their Own by

There are times when one is almost embarrassed to be a Newfoundlander.

Not many, of course.

But one moment that leads us to collectively cringe is when Rex Murphy is about to take to the airwaves. We cover our eyes and hold our breaths as we wait to see what recycled brand of right-wing conservatism he is about to foist on us now.

If we are fortunate, the auditory assault will be too addled with adjectives for us to actually figure out what he is talking about.

All too often, however, some argument emerges from the morass of onomatopoeic arrangements and we avoid our Twitter feeds for the rest of the night, lest some mainlander ask us “what was Rex on about tonight?” “I may be a Newfoundlander, but I am not Rex Murphy’s keeper!” you yearn to respond. But it is easier to try to ignore the whole affair.

At other times he appears in the National Post, the quite literal Post[er] child for late 20th century right-wing populism. He’s the ideal catch for the right-wing media: a former progressive activist who in his old age has turned stodgy conservative. His unique brand of on-air free verse poetry offers what may pass as ‘culture’ for reactionary conservatives, while his print posturings – rather more pitiful than pithyful – can always be guaranteed to provide provocative headlines.

I am not Rex Murphy’s keeper. But I will respond.

His latest tirade against those he disparagingly calls “natives” – his October 18 National Post editorial titled A Rude Dismissal of Canada’s Generosity – is just as full of tedious anti-First Nations rhetoric as we might expect (he has made Canada’s First Nations a particular favourite target of his in recent years). And while it would be much easier to write him off as merely a lamentable bygone lost in his own world of tediously overexpressed verbiage and antique attitudes, I do feel some obligation to respond. Not so much as a Newfoundlander, but from the even more basic angle of a humanitarian who respects the dignity of others.

Rex was addressing the confrontation between police and First Nations protestors in New Brunswick last week. In fact First Nations communities have been protesting for some time against government-supported plans by a Texas-based shale gas company to conduct controversial fracking procedures they worry could pollute their lands and waters. RCMP violently dispersed the protestors on Thursday using pepper spray and rubber bullets.

While many Canadians have expressed their outrage over the violent RCMP operation, Rex directs his own outrage against “the natives”: “At what can be called the harder edges of native activism, there is a disturbing turn toward ugly language, a kind of razor rhetoric that seeks to cut a straight line between the attitudes of a century or a century and a half ago and the extraordinarily different attitudes that prevail today,” he writes, from some enigmatic internally-generated utopian fantasy-land. “From native protestors and spokespeople there is a vigorous resort to current radical jargon — referring to Canadians as colonialist, as settlers, as having a settler’s mentality. Though it is awkward to note, there is a play to race in this, a conscious effort to ground all issues in the allegedly unrepentant racism of the ‘settler community.’ This is an effort to force-frame every dispute in the tendentious framework of the dubious ‘oppression studies’ and ‘colonial theory’ of latter-day universities.”

For someone who makes his living by giving soliloquies on the CBC, it’s odd to hear Rex making his own play at anti-intellectualism. But his feelings are clearly hurt at the fact “the natives” are not satisfied with the slow pace of change (he dwells repeatedly on the “grand gesture” of the federal government’s apology for the violently abusive residential school system for which he haughtily expects the victims to be grateful; clean drinking water is still apparently too much to ask for).

Settling up

Rex objects to being called a “settler”. A “colonial”. Well, identity is often a matter of perspective. Does he intend to rewrite history and pretend that European settlement never happened? That somehow white people organically evolved in Canada, and that the entire story of great sailing ships is in fact some fanciful mythology? Does he purport to argue that we spontaneously emerged from the soil of this land, magically birthed from a maple tree? (Actually, it might explain the hair.)

European settlement is a reality. It’s a reality that First Nations are invoking with increasing stridency not to upset Rex’s frail ego, but because it is a visceral reality rendered all the more poignant by the failure of successive generations of Canadian leaders to honour sworn oaths and treaty obligations: the kind and welcoming gestures of a people now displaced and dispossessed in their own land. It’s a subtle reminder that yes, European Canadians are descended from settlers whose leaders signed treaties, which they and their descendants broke or ignored with impunity.

Rex is upset with what he describes as “an even more deplorable effort to frame the interactions between Canadians and Canada’s Aboriginal Peoples as a genocide — an accusation both illiterate and insulting” (other mainstream media are also offended: the Globe and Mail adopted much the same argument he did). He’s upset with the term being applied to the centuries-long erasure and repression of Aboriginal and First Nations peoples. “It was bad, but it wasn’t THAT bad,” runs the basic argument. Well, who gets to decide what the line is between genocide and not-quite-genocide? Apparently those whose people were complicit in carrying out this act-which-must-not-be-named, according to these stalwart white settler journalists.

There is neither any usefulness nor dignity in engaging in arguments of “this genocide is worse than that genocide”, but what is worth noting is that the character of genocide can and does assume different forms. The one form Rex uses as his baseline is that of Nazi Germany or 1994 Rwanda: relatively concentrated albeit horrific and intense periods of mass slaughter. The genocide perpetuated against Canada’s Aboriginal and First Nations peoples took place over several centuries and comprised several interrelated projects: residential schools, appropriation of land, violation of treaty rights, pollution of reserve and treaty land environments, the systematic murder of Aboriginal women and girls as revealed by the Stolen Sisters campaign, and the willful ignoring of it by the government and the police, among many other projects. Different in character, yet just as systematic in its brutality and devastation, and just as imperative to acknowledge, address and bring to an end.

Indeed, according to Raphael Lemkin, one of the world’s foremost scholars on genocide who contributed to developing the UN Convention on the topic:

Generally speaking, genocide does not necessarily mean the immediate destruction of a nation…It is intended rather to signify a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves. The objectives of such a plan would be the disintegration of the political and social institutions, of culture, language, national feelings, religion, and the economic existence of national groups, and the destruction of the personal security, liberty, health, dignity, and even the lives of the individuals belonging to such groups.

It would be difficult to find a clearer articulation of the experience of First Nations and Aboriginal people in Canada.

Rex also decries the rhetoric of “oppression studies” as an “academically-generated” narrative.

No, Rex. It was not the academy that generated this great oppression. It was a disingenuous lack of leadership and honesty on the part of Canada’s settler leadership which generated this great oppression.

It is the academy – but even more prominently, First Nations and Aboriginal communities and those who support them – who are trying to reveal the scale of the oppression that has occurred and to figure out a way to move forward.

A good defense is a likely offense

Defensiveness is a quality of those who fear change or truth. There are many reasons to fear: fear that those of us who profited – and continue to profit – off of First Nations land and resources may now have to share some of our valuable wealth and privileges. Fear that our sense of ourselves and our history – the glorious narrative of courageous settlers building a nation with the aid of stalwart native sidekicks – must now be re-appraised and revealed for what it was: a dangerously egotistical fantasy of Canada’s most prosperous ethnic group.

But if we can move past that fear, there lies the potential for a future that will be equitable and prosperous for all of us. Don’t worry Rex – nobody is expecting you to wallow in guilt. If you spent some time actually learning about the academic narratives of decolonization that you decry, you’d understand that. ‘Decolonizing’ – as the academics call it – doesn’t require you to commit to a life of guilt. It requires you to commit to working for change in our society – a change which respects the dignity, diversity and rights of everyone.

It’s not so much to ask, really.

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