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September 18

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The Inconvenient Truth about Civil Disobedience

The theme of this year’s Black History Month is “Canadians of African Descent: Going forward, guided by the past”. It is a time when Black Canadians reflect on how far we have come, and how far we still need to go. As this year’s celebrations draw to a close, I cannot help but see the parallels between my people’s history and that of Indigenous Peoples.

I am part of the Black Diaspora and the descendent of slaves. Like many Black Canadians, the legacy of slavery and colonialism robbed me of my original identity. I do not know with any certainty what languages my ancestors spoke, what religions they practiced, or what my original surname would have been. I cannot even tell you with any precision where my ancestors were born.

This stripping of Black cultural identity has come at a steep price, and the Black diaspora continues to suffer the consequences to this day. We are living proof that roots, land, languages, culture, traditions, religions; they all matter. It is no coincidence that Black Canadians and the Black diaspora have put so much painstaking work into reconstructing a sense of collective identity and pride. We had to.

However, what has been done can never be fully undone, and it is precisely because of this history that I am bound to support the recent actions of Canada’s Indigenous land-defenders and their supporters who have taken to the streets across the country.

For those Canadians who are struggling to understand why Indigenous Peoples are fighting so mightily to preserve their traditions, lands, languages, religions and cultures, please consider what the loss of such fundamentals has meant in other contexts and for other peoples. Think of what those things mean to you and then ask yourself how far you would be willing to go to protect them in the face of possible destruction. The recent acts of civil disobedience have to be understood in these terms.

Civil disobedience is a legitimate response to clear and substantial injustice, and it should go without saying that all peoples have the right to actively resist rules or systems that are patently unjust. As the direct beneficiary of peaceful resistance by others, I believe this to my core.

Not that long ago, for Black people on this continent, there was no pretense that the government was seeking reconciliation or that it was open to creating any reasonable pathways to equality and dignity. It was crystal clear that if we wanted change, we would have to agitate for it and become an inconvenient nuisance; through civil disobedience, protests, mass civic education campaigns, and court cases. It is possible that Indigenous Peoples have arrived at the same realization.

In recent days, the Prime Minister has said that we must all respect the rule of law; but this fails to acknowledge that rules must be just in order to merit respect. If the current crisis demonstrates anything, it is that many Indigenous Peoples believe that they still lack a credible route to reconciliation through our legal or political system. Governments have been talking out of both sides of their mouths for too long, and the hypocrisy of their policies has finally been laid bare. Fed up with the double-talk and broken promises, Indigenous Peoples have opted to actively resist.

Thus, as we celebrate Black History Month, all Canadians should think back to the Black community’s civil rights struggle and other epic social justice battles - from the Suffragettes to equal marriage - and consider whether Canada just might be experiencing such an historical moment of civil disobedience.

Rosa Parks broke the law, and her fellow passengers were surely inconvenienced, when she refused to give up her seat; should she have moved to the back of the bus? Viola Desmond broke the law, and disrupted the viewing experience of theatre patrons, when she refused to leave the whites-only area; should she have moved seats? Martin Luther King and civil rights protestors blocked traffic, undoubtedly frustrating many residents, when they crossed the bridge in Selma; should that march never have happened?

Civil resistance is inconvenient. That is the point of it.

Are the rights of Indigenous Peoples worthy of some inconvenience? In seeking the answer, we would all do well to remember that history rarely sanctions the leaders of peaceful civil disobedience movements, nor looks kindly upon those who stood against them.

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