Righting a great wrong

Observations on Canada

Diana Billy is a tiny woman of 50 with a soft voice and a talent for metaphor. She is the daughter and sister of hereditary chiefs of the Squamish Nation, whose traditional territories are scattered in the region north of Vancouver, British Columbia. She lives in a mobile home on the Waiwakum Indian Reserve No 14 near the town of Brackendale.

The reserve is sandwiched between the town and the salmon-rich river that bears the name of her people, and sits under the shade of snow-coated Mount Thyestes, named after the cannibalistic son of Pelops, from the Greek myth of the House of Atreus.

The topographical maps of the region do not note the Squamish Nation names of the mountains, or give any hint to a history of thousands of years of wilderness living and rich native mythology.

Billy, like 80,000 other aboriginal people across Canada, is due to receive compensation from the federal government for being forced into a Catholic residential school as a teenager in the early 1970s. Stuck 135km away from Waiwakum, she was expected to drop everything that made her who she is.

Now considered by many as a nationally implemented racist policy of cultural and actual genocide, residential schools took children away from their families, their languages and histories, and often left them to the mercy of sadistic guardians, subjected to widespread sexual, emotional and physical abuse. Native activists believe up to 50,000 children died at the schools, which were first operated in Upper Canada (now Ontario) in the 1840s, while Canada was still a British colony.

In 1928, a government official predicted that the country would end its "Indian problem" within two generations. Church-run by various denominations, including Anglicans and Presbyterians, the government-funded residential schools for native children were supposed to prepare them for life in white society. But the system backfired, of course, the aims of forced assimilation leaving deep and abiding scars.

By 1898, there were 54 schools nationwide, which increased to 74 schools in 1920. In the same year, the Department of Indian Affairs decided to make such schooling mandatory for children aged seven to 15. The 1950s were the peak of the residential school era, with 76 schools in operation. However, the numbers started to go down as rumours about the treatment of the children spread.

Billy recalls being abused by the nuns at St Mary's Mission Indian Residential School over several months. "Something happened to me. When you're young you don't know what that is. But I felt crushed," she said.

She and another girl decided to run away. When they were turned in by the mother of a white girl they had befriended, Billy was delighted to find she was expelled and could return home. Others, she said, stayed on for years. The school was not closed until 1984, one of the last to do so.

For the time (less than one year) she stayed at St Mary's, Billy will receive C$10,000 (£5,040). Others who suffered sexual and physical abuse over longer periods will get more.

Aboriginal people have demanded, and received, official apologies from the Anglican, United and Roman Catholic churches for their treatment. As more former pupils come forth with stories about abuse, some religious authorities who administered the schools are being criminally charged.

In November 2005, a truth and reconciliation commission was established with an aim similar to that of the South African commission established a decade earlier: to allow native people to tell their stories of almost 500 years of oppression.

As part of this, a final compensation package worth $2bn came into effect last autumn for those who attended the residential schools, settling dozens of class-action lawsuits.

But no money can remove for Billy the knowledge that her elderly father has never spoken to her about his experience at residential schools in the 1940s, nor that her late mother never explained to her what to expect at St Mary's but just one day dropped her off at the threshold of the facility. The experience was never spoken of.

And there is her cousin, Arnold Williams, a man Billy describes as a "true warrior". Williams fought successfully for their traditional territories against ski-resort developers, and travelled across Canada to take part in the famous Oka land dispute crisis of 1990 when native activists from around Canada confronted armed police near Montreal, Quebec.

According to Billy, Williams never got over the sexual abuse that he suffered at residential school and struggled with alcoholism all his life. Eventually, he committed suicide.

This article first appeared in the 18 February 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Naughty nation

Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.