David McConkey - Columnist, Consultant, Citizen
Columnist. Consultant. Citizen.

A More Thoughtful Approach to Racial Issues is Required

Brandon Sun, September 13, 2010 - David McConkey

I was disappointed with this summer’s cabinet shuffling of Chuck Strahl out of the Indian and Northern Affairs portfolio.

I was delighted when Strahl was first appointed to the critical Indian Affairs post. Over the years, I have had a high regard for Strahl as a thoughtful and level-headed MP, who especially stood out in the Reform and Canadian Alliance caucuses. 

Unfortunately, the turnover of ministers in Indian Affairs shows that the Conservative government does not value this issue’s importance. 

It takes time to learn a new job, especially one like Indian Affairs Minister. Since forming the government in 2006, Stephen Harper has appointed three different ministers. 

We need to give much more attention to resolving the problems facing aboriginals. The federal government plays a central role.

Dealing with long-standing racial issues is the subject of a new book that, although from the U.S., can shed light on Canada.

Reading the book is also a reminder of how differently Americans are confronting their racial challenges than Canadians.

The book is Not Even Past: Barack Obama and the Burden of Race and it is available at the Brandon Public Library.

The author, Thomas Sugrue, is a professor of both history and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania.

Sugrue summarizes the problems facing U.S. blacks, which result from long-term patterns of both government policy and social attitudes.

Now, however, the U.S. faces a paradox. Legislation as well as contemporary opinion accept the equality of races. Yet racial inequality persists. The U.S. now has “racism without racists.”

Couldn’t that also describe Canada? We have modern egalitarian views, but aboriginals still constitute a racially defined underclass.

Solving racial problems will be very difficult. But Americans dealt forcefully with their racist past by electing their first African-American president.

Author Sugrue says that Barack Obama is well suited to his position. While Obama is well-known for his work as a community organizer in Chicago’s poor black neighbourhoods, Sugrue points out that he is also much more.

Obama is very well-read and was a professor of law at the University of Chicago. Obama, Sugrue says, is more knowledgeable about the history of U.S. race relations than all but a handful of people.

Obama has also developed a comprehensive analysis of “racial discrimination, economic restructuring, family dysfunction, and poverty.”

The author calls Obama the most intellectual president in a century.

In contrast, in 2006, Canadians elected a Prime Minister and political party that are openly anti-intellectual. Case in point: Treasury Board president Stockwell Day`s recent statement that more prisons should be built to lock up criminals who have committed crimes that have not been reported.

The larger issue is also serious: the Harper Conservative’s building of more prisons, when the judgment of experts is that more prisons will have little effect on crime.

More prisons, however, will have a big effect on the aboriginal population, who bear the brunt of prison time. In Manitoba, 70% of prisoners are aboriginal – a proportion that has been steadily increasing for 60 years.

But the Conservatives mock academic research. As former Harper chief of staff Ian Brodie said of the government’s crime initiatives: “Politically, it helped us tremendously to be attacked by this coalition of university types.”

I agree crime is an important issue and also that crime in some places is going up, even though the overall rate may be dropping. I also think we are seeing more crime and violence stemming from racially based poverty, dysfunction, and frustration.

Look at Brandon and surrounding communities. Homicides – which even a few years ago were quite rare – now occur much more frequently. 

But I’m afraid that the Conservatives will exploit such problems to whip up public emotion by presenting simple slogans like “build more prisons.”

We can look for inspiration to the Americans, who have elected a leader who takes a thoughtful and uplifting approach.

Back during the presidential election campaign, Obama gave a speech in Philadelphia about racial issues.

Sugrue calls that speech “a powerful, sophisticated, and wide-ranging address, surely the most learned disquisition on race from a major political figure, ever.”

Change can come to Canadian politics.

For one, change can come from us citizens as we vote and put pressure on elected politicians.

For another, change can come from within political parties.

A few years ago, the Canadian Alliance leadership of Stockwell Day came to an end – following a rebellion of MPs led by Chuck Strahl.
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See also:  

Perception and Reality of Crime Not Always the Same

Issues for the Next Election?

Campaigns of Contrast

Prime Minister Obama?

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David McConkey,
Brandon, Manitoba
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