The wrong kind of Canadian: Christine Blatchford on Theresa Spence and #idlenomore

The wrong kind of Canadian: Christine Blatchford on Theresa Spence

Christine Blatchford’s full comment in the National Post on December 27, 2012 is a writhing critique of Chief Theresa Spence’s hunger strike, and her aim of securing a meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper (which has since been scheduled for January 11). Blatchford argues that Spence’s request for a meeting is “too vague” and that it borders on “terrorism.” The idea of a ‘nation-to-nation’ meeting, suggests Blatchford, also fails because it elevates to a “lofty status” the crumbling culture claimed by First Nations.

I’m sure there will be a lot of defenders of Spence and the Idle No More campaign. Enough internet traffic will jam up social media with responses to Blatchford that many forests will breathe a sigh of relief that they are no longer part of everyday correspondence. But there is another side of the equation; one that does not spout judgments about what is good for First Nations, how their cultural heritage or legal rights fit into contemporary social movements or omnibus budgets of the federal government. This side begins by being disinclined to the view that other cultures have failed to be modern—that they don’t meet some imagined standard of nationhood. It doubts that different ways of doing politics are as scary as Blatchford makes out. And she does seem afraid: Afraid of the unknown forum in which politics do not reduce to procedural niceties. Afraid of politics where we are adversaries but not enemies and in which we refuse to make opponents into others.

Of course, Blatchford is not alone in her fears. Those who toss even a sideward glance towards Ottawa during a parliamentary session will see similarly scared images. The House of Commons is routinely a forum for making enemies. No longer does it seek to respect the views of legitimate, democratically elected adversaries. Genuine debate is too frightening. It’s best to shutter contests. Longtime observe Chantal Hebert described today’s Parliament Hill as a place corrosive to one’s soul. Not much attention is paid to the dynamic itself. Granted, every so often a twitter account is deleted when things come to verbal fisticuffs. But there is no questioning of a parliamentary culture in which all sides seek not only to win, but also to weaken their opponents.

If we avoid the easy platitudes about what is best for cultures other than our own, what is the other side of the equation that Blatchford misses? It is that no democratic ideals reside outside of culture. This goes against a lot of the “common sense” wisdom of governing these days. Common sense culture has got things figured out. Austerity when the economy goes south, streamline processes so as to maximize efficiency, get resources to market and so on. But all of these are learned judgments. For instance, efficiency is not a good in itself. It is a ratio of one thing to another. Behind efficiency, then, are judgments about what goes in the numerator and what in the denominator: I watched Lincoln in the theatre last week, a great movie on the abolition of slavery, and an efficient use of my twelve dollars. How do I know? Because I know how I judged it. It’s not because I divided the cost of admission by the length of the film—though that is one way to calculate the bang for my buck.

Democracy is culturally sited, and there is nothing scary about that. A better question then, is what kind of democratic culture do we wish to cultivate? Blatchford seems to want one where doing politics fits comfortably with relatively simple explanations, such as that she offers of Spence’s actions. As she says, “[n]atives are suffering, and Chief Spence, as she has said repeatedly, is prepared to starve herself to death until and unless she gets that meeting with the PM.” But things are clearly not this simple. So maybe it’s not comfort Blatchford is after. It could be rational accountability; just look at all of the money spent on Attawapiskat. But this hits a snarl too. Because in this case Spence is a lone martyr in a world populated by those who coolly reason and who plainly see that the demand to meet or die makes no sense. But Spence has given her rationale precisely. Given this view, Blatchford would at best only be making a judgment that Spence’s rationale is culturally unfit for her kind of democracy.

There are multiple ways of being democratic. And that is the challenge of what the University of Victoria’s James Tully referred to as a Strange Multiplicity in his careful work on how we might respect genuine political difference without reducing opponents to others. That is, without letting our own cultural biases engender political myopia. The question, I suggest, is how to position value judgments like “efficiency” or “common sense” in cultural context and to reject the notion that they exist in a value-neutral sphere. Such is the dream of liberalism—that school of thought that underpins the entire axis of left-right politics in western democracies and which suggests we can ground our political system in a value free zone where everybody is considered equal. But that idea did not include First Nations in its ambit, and they remain in liberalism’s blindspot. In fact, the unequal and troublesome roots of liberalism in existing, oppressive power structures is itself part of the problem. It is time to put to close scrutiny the ways in which liberalism is part of the culture that makes Spence the wrong kind of Canadian—the sort who does politics in a different way, with a vision to changing culture rather than to assent to the status quo.

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