Talons Philosophy

An Open Online Highschool Philosophy Course

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Beyond a Formal Acknowledgement

Image from the First Peoples Guide for Newcomers, published by the City of Vancouver (2014)

In 2014, the City Council of Vancouver voted unanimously to recognize that the city was built – and exists – on unceded aboriginal territory. The statement from the city reads in part:

“Underlying all other truths spoken during the Year of Reconciliation is the truth that the modern city of Vancouver was founded on the traditional territories of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations and that these territories were never ceded through treaty, war or surrender.”

Earlier this month, HG Hamilton wondered in the Mainlander what may lay beyond this formal acknowledgement, especially given councillor Andrea Reimer’s admission that the acknowledgement wouldn’t effect the legal practices of the city, “because Vancouver is not involved in treaty negotiations and has no such authority over land.”

Hamilton notes that:

Vancouver City Council and other political parties are praised for their formal acknowledgement of the city’s occupation of unceded territory, even if it does little to change the everyday conditions of Indigenous peoples (poverty, dispossession, criminality, premature death). This gesture is what Tuck and Yang would define as a “settler move to innocence,” a strategy or positioning that attempts to relieve feelings of guilt or responsibility of a settler without the settler giving up land, power, privilege or changing much at all.[4] Gestures of remorse or acknowledgement may endow the settler with “professional kudos or a boost in their reputations for being so sensitive or self-aware.” For example, David Schaepe, director and senior archaeologist of the Sto:lo Research and Resource Management Centre and technical advisor for the Sto:lo Xwexwilmexw Treaty Association, has congratulated city council on its formal recognition and called it a “very positive development.” Despite the fact that the formal acknowledgment has been received positively in the media, Tuck and Yang warn that settler moves to innocence are hollow and only serve the interests of settlers. Such actions lend false legitimacy to settler governments, allow the ongoing work of dispossession, displacement, and settlement.

In addition to connecting to our visit this coming Friday with UBC professor Dr. Mark Aquash, the case provides a local look at our ongoing discussion of systemic oppression.

Hamilton continues:

“You’re never going to gain the full recognition of your freedom from your oppressor,” argues Glen Coulthard, member of the Dene Nation and author of Red Skin, White Masks, in an interview. “They will only recognize you to the extent that it serves their own interests. The effect that that recognition being given to you has on the dominated or the colonized is that they come to see that gift of recognition as a form of justice or decolonization itself. You think recognition is actually freedom and decolonization, but it’s really colonization in a new form.” The recognition that Vancouver city council has offered to Indigenous peoples only extends to the acknowledgement that Vancouver occupies unceded territory. This primarily benefits Vancouver city council and other political parties because it creates a semblance of sensitivity and self-awareness. The formal acknowledgement falls short because it only acknowledges one aspect of settler colonialism rather than the multitude of ongoing violence and traumas. It does not recognize the historical or ongoing role of Vancouver city council in settler colonization through practices such as policing and community dispersal of the Downtown Eastside community, where economically marginalized Indigenous peoples are over-represented.[4] Nor does it begin to engage in the difficult work of moving beyond metaphors and gestures and towards changing the material conditions underlying the daily warfare of colonization.

Hamilton’s piece includes a great many references to scholarship and historical research into the British Columbian and North American history of colonialism, and poses difficult questions for those of us who have been contemplating the moral reasoning of John Stewart Mill, Immanuel Kant, and John Rawls.

Continuing with the theme of our ethical studies, it is likely best to begin from a place of discussion. And as a means of approaching this local issue, about which many of us likely hold some opinion – however informed or unformed we feel our own views to be – in a critical fashion, let us begin by looking at the lenses of moral philosophy we have been working with this week:

  • How might each of these three moral philosophers approach these recent events?
  • Are there ways in which they might agree?
  • Where do you see their thoughts on indigenous land claims diverging?
 

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Colonialism and Reconciliation in Canada

Image courtesy of the CBC

In returning to a guiding question in our investigation into systemic oppression, we have spoken in class here and there about Canada’s relationship with its indigenous populations. If there are those who are negatively effected by discrimination and oppression, there are those who benefit from this oppression; and with respect to Canadian First Nations, the dominant culture represented by our affluent suburban public school ought consider the question:

Is it possible to benefit from the oppression of others and not be responsible for the perpetuation of that oppression? And if it is, how?

Before reflecting on the ways in which we might approach this most pressing of Canadian problems, Ottawa Citizen columnist Terry Glavin’s contrasting of indigenous Canadians’ plight against that of their African American neighbours deserves consideration, where he admits that “the conditions that torment Aboriginal Canadians to this day are no less a disgrace than the dead-end impoundments so many African-Americans find themselves within today.”

Aboriginal Canadians and African-Americans suffer from a nearly identical suite of maladies: high rates of cancer, of heart disease, mental illness, suicide, spousal abuse, drug addiction, alcoholism, fetal alcohol syndrome and tuberculosis.

The median income of African-American men is about $31,000. Among white American men it’s $42,000. In Canada, the median annual income for Aboriginal people living off-reserve is $22,500 (among those living on Indian reserves it’s $14,000); the average annual income for Canadian wage workers in general is about $48,000.

The unemployment rate among working-age Aboriginal people in Canada is 13 per cent – more than twice the general jobless rate among working-age Canadians. This is every bit as wide a gap as between African-American men and white American men.

Comparing welfare rates makes Canada look far worse. Slightly more than 10 per cent of African-Americans are on welfare, but in Canada, roughly a third of Aboriginal people are on welfare or some other form of income assistance.

Canada looks worse again when we look inside the prisons. African-Americans make up only about 12 per cent of the U.S. population, but 40 per cent of the U.S. prison population is African-American. A mere four per cent of Canadians are Aboriginal, but more than 23 per cent of the inmate population in federal institutions are Aboriginal people – an incarceration rate 10 times higher than among non-Aboriginal people.

Things are going downhill, too. Over the past decade, the Aboriginal population in federal prisons has grown by more than 50 per cent. In Western Canada, two-thirds of the inmates in federal and provincial institutions are Aboriginal people.

That this scenario exists at all is a tragedy of the first order, to be sure. Yet that it exists in a country which has enshrined in its laws the promotion of “the full and equitable participation of individuals and communities of all origins in the continuing evolution and shaping of all aspects of Canadian society and […] the elimination of any barrier to that participation” is tragically ironic. Though it is not without broad complicity that such a state of affairs is allowed to continue, as Amanda Gebhard highlights in an essay on how “The over-incarceration of Indigenous people is not an unassail­able reality.” Rather, she writes that

It is a violent, colonial project that requires the co-operation and complicity of countless people. Unmaking the situation will require the same sustained and concerted effort. Learning how we are all invited to participate in the colonial project of Aboriginal over-incarceration – and then refusing to do so – is the first step in demolishing the pipeline to prison for Aboriginal youth in Canada.

As Jess highlights in a comment here, with regards to gender discrimination, “the only percentage that matters is that 100% of women have experienced some form of ‘minor’ sexual harassment.” So too do 100% of aboriginal Canadians exist in a country which discriminates against them. In either case it is important to ask: who bears the responsibility to reduce the amount of discrimination and oppression experienced by these groups? Should it fall to the oppressed to liberate themselves from a pervasive society of oppression? Or are we all responsible?

Is it possible for non-indigenous Canadians to benefit from this historical (and continued) discrimination and not be responsible for its perpetuation? By what moral reasoning might they be absolved from acting to end this cycle?

Or must they act?

In a new book Canadian philosopher and author John Ralston Saul notes that “sympathy toward aboriginal people from outsiders is the new form of racism.”

It allows many of us to feel good about discounting their importance and the richness of their civilizations. Sympathy is a way to deny our shared reality. Our shared responsibility. Sympathy obscures the central importance of rights.

The other day the idea was raised that both oppressors and the oppressed are trapped within a society reliant on systemic oppression, and yet we still find ourselves seeking a means by which the beneficiaries of that discrimination might be absolved. Given the realities of our past and future as a nation which contains multitudes, and which prides itself on the “full and equitable participation” of those multitudes, isn’t it our shared responsibility to fight for a system and a society other than the one passed down to us?

These might seem rhetorical questions, but I pose them with the hope that they provoke critical thoughts about a scenario that envelopes us as Canadians whether we like it or not. As Michael Sandel observes, moral philosophy challenges us to make the familiar distant, and in so doing come to understand our reality in new and profound ways.

“Once the familiar turns strange, it’s never quite the same again. Self-knowledge is like lost innocence: however unsettling we find it, it can never be un-thought, or un-known.”

Now that it has become known, if we can agree that it has, how do we move forward, together?

 

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Diversity in Philosophy

We’ve spoken a little in #Philosophy12 this semester about the propensity of texts and teachers to rely on the roots of Western (and often male-centric) philosophers to form the basis of our understanding on the subject of knowledge, something we will likely address as we move toward epistemology this semester. However, the discussion has come about in our classroom in years past with respect to the search for female metaphysicians:

This tweet [to the left] started a ball rolling that saw me sending a late-at-night email to MIT Philosophy professor Sally Haslanger about why there weren’t any female Metaphysicians listed on Wikipedia’s List of Metaphysicists [Note: the page has since been updated to reflect our question.]. Sally was gracious enough to email me back the following morning, asking if she might “share your question with some of my female metaphysician friends?”

Which gave way to a conversation that began in room 111 – and on #ds106radio – showing up on this blog, moderated at least in part by Berit Brogaard:

Bryan Jackson recently wrote to Sally Haslanger to ask why there were no women on the list of metaphysicians on wikipedia. Sally shared this very good question with a few philosophers who have been interested in similar questions. After some discussion via email Sally started revising the entry. I have no idea how to revise wiki entries or what the rules are for making revisions, but I strongly encourage wiki-tech-y people to make further improvements to the list.

This week, GNA rekindled this conversation by passing along this essay by Concordia professor Justin E. H. Smith on “Philosophy’s Western Bias“:

The goal of reflecting the diversity of our own society by expanding the curriculum to include non-European traditions has so far been a tremendous failure. And it has failed for at least two reasons. One is that non-Western philosophy is typically represented in philosophy curricula in a merely token way. Western philosophy is always the unmarked category, the standard in relation to which non-Western philosophy provides a useful contrast. Non-Western philosophy is not approached on its own terms, and thus philosophy remains, implicitly and by default, Western. Second, non-Western philosophy, when it does appear in curricula, is treated in a methodologically and philosophically unsound way: it is crudely supposed to be wholly indigenous to the cultures that produce it and to be fundamentally different than Western philosophy in areas like its valuation of reason or its dependence on myth and religion.  In this way, non-Western philosophy remains fundamentally “other.”

It is my hope that in our current semester of philosophical inquiry, we move beyond this inclination toward ‘tokenism,’ and delve into different traditions of knowing beyond those dominant here on the western shores of North America.

I am curious though:

  • How have others confronted this problem of modern philosophy?
  • Are there in-born limitations in trying to comprehend cultural norms too far outside of our own?
  • What attitudes, approaches or processes might help challenge us to move beyond our own cultural perspectives?

 

 
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