IT APPEARS former judge Brian Giesbrecht has found another member of the legal community who supports his narrow views on the treatment of Canada’s Indigenous peoples. In his latest column, Giesbrecht quotes lawyer Peter Best from Best’s book, There Is No Difference, and asks: “Why can’t Nelson Mandela’s goal and vision of one set of laws for all be the goal in Canada?”

Giesbrecht has the audacity to use the work of Best to draw a parallel between South Africa’s race identification cards used during apartheid to the card used by status Indians in Canada and even suggests that getting rid of it would be following the lead of Nelson Mandela, the former president of South Africa and tireless opponent of apartheid.

This is not the first time the ex-judge has put forward the solution of simply getting rid of the status card in Canada and let the chips fall where they may. But more reprehensible, this time he’s attempting to buoy his arguments around a seriously flawed understanding of what apartheid was and how it worked in South Africa.

Giesbrecht is a senior fellow with the neoliberal think tank Frontier Centre for Public Policy. In his latest piece published recently in this paper, he notes that Canada’s First Nations rank at the bottom of most of the social indexes. There is no doubt Canada has a long way to go to improve its treatment of First Nation people. There are many reasons for the challenges faced by Indigenous people in this country, some current and some historic. But none of them have anything to do with the existence of the status card.

The comparison of this country’s policies and the policy of apartheid in South Africa is egregious and insulting to Canada’s Indigenous people. The policy of apartheid, which came into effect in South Africa in the late 1940s and continued into the 1990s, was condemned roundly by the United Nations. It saw the creation of laws such as the Race Classification Act which identified every citizen suspected of not being European according to race, the Mixed Marriages Act which prohibited marriage between people of different races, and the Group Areas Act which forced people of certain races into living in designated areas.

The fact many South Africans were given a card to identify them by race has no relationship to status cards in Canada. And contrary to Giesbrecht’s claim, the race card conferred no rights to South Africa’s black majority population. In fact, black citizens were denied basic human rights, such as the right to vote or attend the church of their choice. The card was used to enforce racial separation and racist laws. In other words, the Indian status card and the South African racial classification identity card have absolutely nothing to do with each other and any comparison is a malicious mischaracterization.

What’s more disturbing about the views of Giesbrecht and those who share them is that they totally ignore Canada’s own history and its relationship with Indigenous people. It’s a history of broken promises which continue to this day, the theft of land, the 60s Scoop, the poisoned drinking water, the dilapidated housing and the imposition of residential schools to name a few. He chooses to ignore the economic disparity and the privilege granted to non-indigenous people.

The status card, while far from a perfect solution, provides certain benefits in the areas such as housing, education and healthcare and is, at a minimum, an attempt to address social and economic imbalance. Most disappointing is that Giesbrecht and Best not only promote the elimination of the status card but offer no real or tangible alternatives. How this in any way addresses reconciliation is a mystery.

Their sink or swim assumption seems to be based on a theory that everyone starts out equal and has equal opportunity. As someone who presided in a Canadian court, Giesbrecht should realize more than anyone that this is simply not the case.

(Originally published Jan. 14, 2019)

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Dan Oldfield is a former CBC reporter and lead negotiator for the Canadian Media Guild and currently a partner in Syzygy Learning and Facilitation. He has a home in the Thunder Bay area.

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