Genocide in the Best Country in the World

Red Dress Project

Art installation inspired by Métis artist Jaime Black at Seaforth Peace Park, Vancouver. Edna Winti (3.October 2016)

The end of Canada would be nothing less than the end of a dream. The end of a country that has made us the envy of the world. Canada is not just any country. It is unique. It is the best country in the world.

-Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, 1995

A few years ago, when the federal election was underway and “Canadian Values” suddenly became the cultural battlefield, it struck me how much this vision of the good Canada was strangely without a coherent history. There is no great unifying revolution or rebellion or political struggle that moves the story from a collection of resource-extraction colonies working for a global empire to a post-national multicultural paradise. Modern Canada sort of emerges from the ether as a fully formed entity, while the unfortunate parts of the Old Canada disappeared: the Chinese Exclusion Act, Duplessis Orphans, the policy of sending Jews fleeing Europe in the 1930s back to their certain deaths at the hands of the Nazis. All of that is another era somehow irrelevant to ours today. It’s what occurred in Canada, and committed by the Canadian state, but Canada did not do it. It is now history. It is past.

The problem is that the Old Canada never really went away, it just receded into the background for the majority. The Canadian government doesn’t issue small-pox blankets, actively try to starve native populations, or forcibly relocate them like during the 60s Scoop. It no longer takes children from parents to put them in institutions to forcibly wipe out Native culture. That was all long ago in history. The last residential school closed in 1996. I was thirteen.

Robert Pickton started murdering women in 1983. The same year I was born. He was only arrested when I was 19 and sitting at university learning about how Natives were trying to rebrand to get more money out of the Canadian government. He was charged with killing 26 women, but he likely killed many more. Many of his victims were aboriginal women. One of the reasons he could get away with killing so many for so long was that police didn’t really care that native women went missing. When the news broke, it was sad, it was a tragedy.

What does it mean when you live in a state which cares so little for your welfare that a serial killer can operate for nearly two decades with impunity because he targets the right demographic? What does it mean if when he is caught, no one is really sure if he’s the only one because so many other Native women are missing? At what point does neglect become intent?

The National Inquiry into Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls found that there are “serious reasons to believe that Canada’s past and current policies, omissions, and actions towards First Nations Peoples, Inuit and Métis amount to genocide, in breach of Canada’s international obligations, triggering its responsibility under international law.”

Of course, the debate in the media has mostly centered around the appropriateness of the word genocide. It was quickly declared to be unfair – not incorrect from a legal standpoint mind you – but impolite and uncivil, even hurtful. One more chapter in Natives playing word games for money (our money) and trying to make us feel bad for things we didn’t do. I didn’t hand out smallpox blankets or drag children from their families or put a bag of gas in the hand of an Innu child. How are we expected to have reconciliation with this sort of discourse?

Because it’s not our tragedy. These things don’t happen in Canada. They happen over there – far away where people are different. Where they don’t have Canadian Values. They don’t happen in the Best Country in the World.

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The summer camp I went to in middle Ontario didn’t have any First Nations kids, but we spent plenty of time play acting as Indians. The image of native life was one of idyllic primitivism, coexistence with nature, rugged masculine skills. We competed against each other as members of opposing “tribes.” We wore loincloths made from beach towels and clotheslines. Some figured out ways to make mohawks with paint. In my last year as a camper, I was elected chief, which meant for the last competition it was my job to make a fire faster than the chief of the other tribe. We lost.

The founder of the camp was originally from Czechoslovakia and only after moving to Germany did I discover that my image of Native Canadian life owed more to the dime novels of Karl May – a long-dead German writer who never came to North America – than they did to any kind of lived reality. May wrote about a German engineer, Old Shatterhand, who moved to the American West and became friends with Winnetou – a classic noble savage. His Natives were the essence of how Germans romanticized the simplicity of the pre-modern North America and his work has been beloved for decades. It’s rare that an author has fans in both Albert Einstein and Adolf Hitler. The most recent TV adaptation came out in 2016 with Winnetou played by an Albanian.

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By the end of the 1990s, it was a matter of political faith in Canada that it was the best country in the world. Jean Chrétien made a point of mentioning it in basically every speech. This was no mere American jingoism, it was fact. The United Nations had said so. Well, not really, he was paraphrasing, but he believed it. It was a nice thing to think at the end of a decade during which Quebec had nearly separated and sliced the country in two. Our national nightmare was over. Order had been restored and with it came greatness. The low-key Canadian version that wasn’t too great (can’t be like the Yanks). The kind you of greatness conveyed by a Heritage Minute or winning at the World Juniors in hockey.

But through the 90s, there was always the other plotline moving along in the background, throwing up bouts of cognitive dissonance. I didn’t really understand the Oka Crisis when it happened, aside from knowing there were soldiers on one side and natives on the other. That was happening in Quebec (a strangely foreign part of the country where people were always agitated about all things political, not like civil Ontario). Like the conflict in Yugoslavia, it was something about race (or ethnicity?) or boundaries and there was something about a golf course. I was 7 and it was something I knew was important but beyond my realm of comprehension.

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New Article: Human Rights, Pluralism and the Democratization of Post-War Germany

different-germans

I’ve got a new article out in the now available volume “Different Germans, Many Germanies: New Transatlantic Perspectives” edited by Konrad H. Jarausch, Harald Wenzel, and Karin Goihl and published by Berghahn Books.

My contribution looks at the evolving ideas of human rights in East and West Germany and how they relate to processes of democratization between the post-war to reunification.

What does the book cover you ask?

“As much as any other nation, Germany has long been understood in terms of totalizing narratives. For Anglo-American observers in particular, the legacies of two world wars still powerfully define twentieth-century German history, whether through the lens of Nazi-era militarism and racial hatred or the nation’s emergence as a “model” postwar industrial democracy. From American perceptions of the Kaiserreich to the challenges posed by a multicultural Europe, the volume argues for—and exemplifies—an approach to German Studies that is nuanced, self-reflective, and holistic.”

For more information on the book, click here and you can read the introduction online here. There is currently a 50% discount on the book if you order online with the code JAR306 – orders can be placed here. Or you can request your library to order a copy here.

For those of you in Berlin, there will be launch party for the book at the Free University on February 16 from 6-8 p.m. I will be speaking along with the editors and Herbert Grieshop (Freie Universität Berlin). More info on the event can be found here.

More Than Just an Oxymoron? Democracy in the German Democratic Republic.

niewieder

Never Again! East German National Front election poster 1958.

In 1968, East Germany went about adopting a constitution that would provide the legal basis for country’s state-socialist system. Rather than simply imposing this new document, as the ruling Socialist Unity Party (SED) could have easily done, it instead chose a more labour-intensive option: a mass national discussion followed by a plebiscite. Between February 2 and the vote on April 6, 1968 nearly a million events and meetings were held throughout the German Democratic Republic (GDR) to discuss the contents of the proposed constitution. Over the course of this Volksaussprache, the constitutional commission received more than 12,000 letters and post cards from East Germans, expressing their support, concerns, and criticisms.

jademo

Pro-Constitution rally at Humboldt University, East Berlin. April 5, 1968.

But wasn’t East Germany a dictatorship? What was the point of such activities when it was clear to all from the beginning that the new Socialist Constitution would become law if the SED wanted it to happen? Much of the political structure of the German Democratic Republic appears similarly strange in retrospect. Even before East Germany was officially founded in 1949, the SED was clearly the sole power due to the influence of its Soviet patrons. In spite of this fact, there were several other political parties such as the Christian Democrats and the Liberal Democrats who also held seats in the national parliament, the Volkskammer. Article 1 of the new constitution of 1968 made it official that the SED was the leading party of East Germany, yet there continued to be elections until 1989. What was the point exactly?

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Human Rights after 1945 in the Socialist and Post-Socialist World – Conference Programme Now Available

Confernece image

The Human Rights after 1945 in the Socialist and Post-Socialist World conference programme is now available here.

If you can’t make it out to Warsaw, I’ll try to live-tweet some of the proceedings on @historyned.

Update (23.03.2016): Here is a link to a collection of live-tweets from the conference. Thanks to Merle Ingenfeld from the Weber Stiftung for putting together the Storify version.

Update (25.06.2016): Here is a link to the conference report written by Anna Delius http://geschichte-transnational.clio-online.net/tagungsberichte/id=6577

 

New article now online – “Human Rights as Myth and History: Between the Revolutions of 1989 and the Arab Spring”

Check it out here

This is the TL;DR version:

Since the end of state socialism in Eastern Europe, the revolutions of 1989 have become a central element in the mythology of human rights. Human rights are portrayed as a catalyst, alighting a revolutionary ethos within those living in the Eastern Bloc. By depicting 1989 as the result of a mass moral epiphany regarding universal human rights, such narratives naturalize and depoliticize the collapse of state socialism. While the discourse of human rights was important in unifying dissident groups, it had also been used to by socialist states to legitimize dictatorial rule. During the Arab Spring, international commentators and local actors invoked this mythological version of 1989 to declare that a similar awakening was once again taking place and that human rights were sure to triumph over dictatorship. The example of Egypt appeared to mirror that of 1989 with mass demonstrations for human rights, prompting optimism that a similar revolutionary change was inevitable. Instead, the successful reassertion of military dictatorship has been legitimized in the name of protecting human rights. In viewing the end of state socialism as the result of the proliferation of human rights consciousness, the mythology of 1989 creates a tragically flawed model for reform and revolution.

Full citation info: “Human Rights as Myth and History: Between the Revolutions of 1989 and the Arab Spring,” Debatte: Journal of Contemporary Central and Eastern Europe, (Volume 23, Issue 2-3, 2015), 151-166.

Update: the access for the first fifty clicks has now apparently been used up. Please get in touch with me directly if you are having trouble accessing the full article.

Writing Human Rights into the History of State Socialism

Imperial & Global Forum

Ned Richardson-Little
Associate Research Fellow, University of Exeter

One of a number of East German postage stamps commemorating International Human Rights Year 1968. The hammer and anvil represent the right to work. One of a number of East German postage stamps commemorating International Human Rights Year 1968. The hammer and anvil represent the right to work.

The collapse of the Communist Bloc in 1989-1991 is viewed as one of the great triumphs of the human rights movement. But this ignores how socialist elites of the Eastern Bloc viewed themselves: not as the villains in the story of human rights, but as the champions.

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Call for Papers: Human Rights after 1945 in the Socialist and Post-Socialist World

German Historical Institute, Warsaw
March 3 – 5, 2016

Call for Papers Deadline: 27 November 2015

Human Rights after 1945 in the Socialist and Post-Socialist World

Histories of late twentieth century global change have focused on its perceived winners on a macro-scale: democratic capitalism, global markets and individual rights. In such formulations, the “socialist world” and its history appear irrelevant to understanding global processes and unable to inform liberal Western democratic societies.

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40 Years Later: Rethinking the Helsinki Accords and Human Rights

US President Gerald Ford and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev

US President Gerald Ford and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev

Forty years ago today, 35 countries from both sides of the Iron Curtain signed the Helsinki Accords – the final act of the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe. Since the end of the Cold War, this agreement has been held up as a crucial turning point in the modern history of human rights. Academic and journalistic accounts often cite the Helsinki Accords as a breakthrough moment when communist states in the Eastern Bloc first accepted the principles of human rights. It is, thus hailed as the inspiration for the wave of human rights activism that culminated with the revolutions of 1989. This fatal decision by the leaders of the Eastern Bloc to sign on to an agreement with significant human rights provisions has been explained as an act of hubris, cynicism or some combination thereof. According to these narratives, wily diplomacy on the part of the West pressured the leaders of the Soviet Union and its satellites to sign its own death warrant by agreeing to respect rights they were obviously violating.

In the broader history of human rights in the Eastern Bloc, however, it becomes harder to draw a straight line of connection from the diplomacy of 1975 to the collapse of European state socialism in 1989/91. First, the Helsinki Accords were not the first instance in which communist states had recognized human rights. Second, while the human rights provisions of the Helsinki Accords were fiercely argued over, they were not simply imposed by the West on a recalcitrant East. Third, while the agreement provided fodder for dissidents, it was one of many human rights documents cited by activists rather than a singular catalyst for change.

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