The Arctic is Calling – But Not for More C-18s

Published: October 21, 2011

How international relations can help us understand Canada’s most pressing problem.

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Dropout rates and youth-suicide rates among aboriginal Canadians are six times those of non-aboriginals, and incarceration rates are more than seven times higher among aboriginal Canadians. The discrimination that leads to these discrepancies is perhaps the gravest moral issue facing Canadians today.

Canadians may care, but they do not act. With the exception of a feather-headed slur and an ignominious misstatement by a Bloc Québécois candidate, aboriginal issues rarely made headlines during the most recent federal election. Last week, former prime minister Paul Martin raised this issue at an event hosted by the C.D. Howe Institute. His message was clear: For Canadians to do something, we need to reframe the problem. Fortunately, the language exists.

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Aboriginal Incarceration: A Black Mark for Canada

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A few weeks ago, as part of Action Canada, I visited an Inuit community in the Nunatsiavut region of Northern Labrador. I had not anticipated that two years of arguing about the responsibility to protect and contemplating the application of human security to the Levant would serve me, but, to my surprise, it did.

There are at least three ways in which the vocabulary of international relations can help us articulate one of the greatest challenges we face at home. Once we are able to conceive of the problems facing Canada’s Inuit, First Nations, and Métis people in the same light that we see the oppressed masses of Libya and Syria, perhaps we will feel compelled to address them.

Human security. The United Nations defines human security as the protection of “the vital core of all human lives in ways that enhance human freedoms and fulfillment.” The notion emerged at the end of the Cold War when security could finally be articulated outside the framework of the state. By that point, the casualties of war had wildly shifted from combatants to non-combatants, and the impact of war was no longer measured in terms of wounds and dead soldiers but, instead, according to the effects of starvation, disease, and displacement. What appeared was a notion of security – human security – that relied on the integration of political, environmental, economic, military, and cultural systems “that allow individuals to prosper over time” (see this article by OpenCanada’s Taylor Owen for a more detailed description).

At that point in time, Canada was one of the few states that embraced human security as a guiding point for development and peace-building activities. The doctrine proved central, for example, to its leadership in banning landmines. Why, then, have we failed to deliver on human security within our own borders? Using this terminology, and thus drawing parallels between insecurity at home and abroad, perhaps we can reframe this issue so as to impel action.

Failed and fragile states. In his government’s 2005 International Policy Statement, Paul Martin explained, “Canada and the international community share a responsibility toward the people who are the victims of state failure.” This was largely the rationale behind Canada’s mission in Afghanistan – whether it was about stabilizing the state to limit its capacity to breed terrorists or to protect individual Afghans, the justification was largely articulated in the language of “failed states.” This framing of the problem convinced a majority of Canadians to support the initial effort in Afghanistan. The political currency of this terminology remains strong, playing a prominent role in the more recent Canada First Defence Strategy.

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Is Nunavut Really a Failed State?

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Why not recognize that we have a fragile – and perhaps failed – state within our own borders? The threats that emanate from our dire social landscape may not materialize in terms of terrorist attacks (despite what the Canadian Forces’ National Counter-Intelligence Unit may believe) or refugee flows, but they are just as striking.

Consider that Canada’s aboriginal population is its fastest-growing segment. If more than half of aboriginal students are dropouts, what does this mean for Canada’s stock of human capital? If our criminal-justice system is structured in such a way that 22 per cent of Canadian inmates are aboriginal (despite the fact that aboriginal peoples only represent three per cent of Canada’s total population), what does this mean for Canada’s future prospects? Where labour shortages are acute – such as in the oil sands industry – Canada’s neglect of its aboriginal population is already being felt by businesses. As the trajectories of globalization and demographics collide, it is crucial that Canada harness this resource – for both moral and economic reasons – if it is to compete. By employing the same language to reserves as we do to Afghanistan, perhaps Canadians will be able to refocus the national interest inwards.

Sovereignty. When asked about the self-governance agreement the Nunatsiavut government signed with Canada six years ago, the mayor of Nain reflected, “It is much easier to deal with the mistakes we make ourselves than those others make for us.”

It has been almost 100 years since self-determination first became en vogue in Versailles, and, as the centennial of Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points approaches, we are seeing the doctrine emerge with renewed vigour. As organizations like Independent Diplomat embrace secessionism as creed, and as the Arab Spring turns into the Arab Fall, it is time for Prime Minister Stephen Harper to re-read his copy of John Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding – and for Canadians to follow suit.

It is not just a matter of providing our First Nations with nominal self-determination; we must also provide them with the political, environmental, economic, military, and cultural resources required to fully assert their rights. This is where the language of international relations – of human security and failed states – can help. By recognizing that the problems of Afghanistan and Libya plague our co-nationals, perhaps we can transfer some of the effort we put into policies beyond our borders to policies within them.

This article was originally published for the Canadian International Council Dispatch.

Photo courtesy of Reuters.