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Rudyard Griffiths: Instead of reconciliation, we are busy with pointless acts of retribution

Commentary

As national angst over the latest horrors of the residential school system morphs into a physical war on public symbols associated with this ignoble chapter in our history, we are fast approaching a moment of national reckoning.

Do we, in the name of racial justice and reconciliation, strip our public spaces and public observances of the entirety of Canada’s “colonial” past? What would this mean for our national identity and how we imagine our society in the context of a “shared” past?

Answering these types of fraught questions requires getting at essence of history’s role in society. One of the best all time answers to this existential problem must be L.T. Hartley’s famous quote “the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” This brief, seemly flippant phrase, encapsulates beautifully what history is and isn’t and reminds all of us of the enduring utility of the past to the present, now and for all time.

For starters, Hartley’s assertion that the past is a “foreign country” illustrates the objective reality that history is removed from “us,” forever separate from the present and future.

To the point, history is over. It no longer exists. All the millions of Canadians who came before us are dead. Anything we do today to our memory of the past has no effect on previous generations’ perception of their successes and failures or how individual people were lauded or condemned in their own time.

This reality should be comforting in the current context. The current obsession with relitigating the lives of long dead political, military and civic leaders is, at best, a thought exercise. It is about “us” not “them” and the tearing down of statues does nothing to honour or dishonor the actual lives these people lived.

To react to the vandalism of statuary with outrage is pointless. No one is being harmed. This is a victimless crime. It is theatre of the mind (or the street). What matters, if anything, is what these acts of public anger says about who we are as a people today. And, here, serious self-criticism is warranted.

Relitigating the lives of long dead leaders is, at best, a thought exercise.

The subjugation and abuse of generations of First Nations peoples in residential schools is an undeniable and urgent national issue. It demands our attention and more importantly our ongoing, collective commitment to meaningfully make amends. Our response needs to be everything but symbolic. Yet this is largely what has happened in terms of public interpretation of the legacy of residential schools, the appropriating of blame and the righting of past wrongs.

Instead of focusing on the complicated task of reconciliation we are engaged in pointless acts of historical retribution that means nothing to its bronze encased victims and does little for the communities who are still living with the legacy of residential schools.

By attempting to defenestrate from our collective memory everyone from John A. Macdonald to Egerton Ryerson to Henry Dundas we are indulging in selfish, armchair acts of empty contrition. Acts that will ultimately obscure the very historical record that should be uncovered, debated, examined to inform our present-day responsibility and response to our fellow citizens who have been harmed.

This is the culture of narcissism that defines our time. We behave as if the past cares about the present. We invest in purely symbolic, individual acts of vandalism and destruction a public significance that belies their utter pointlessness. We embrace historical amnesia as the foundation of our future collective identity. And it all feels so good, so right, so just.

This narcissism is also at the heart of the current rejection of the truth contained in the second part of Harley’s quote “they do things differently [in the past].” This is not a statement condoning the past and everything contained within it. It is instead an acknowledgement that each historical period, the individual motives and particular events in any one moment of history, is unique.

To assume that any of us today would behave differently in the past, unaware of our future selves, is bizarre, magical thinking. In effect we are judging people in the past as if they are time travelers from our future aware of the full sweep of human history and their place in it relative to ours. This is wonderful science fiction but as a way of capturing the value of history to the present, it is as useful as bag of hammers.

The utility of history is precisely the context it provides or the very thing that we are destroying by purging in the present the visible symbols and observances of a shared past. It is precisely because of the juxtaposition of our present to our past that we know once-condoned social practices like slavery, public executions, and denying women equal rights are immoral.

History informs the present. It fills it with context and resonance anchoring our values to a chain of causality imbued with meaning. Its erasure does the opposite. Its erasure creates a collective amnesia in which the arbiters of the norms and mores of the present are our momentary impulses and desires, a rootless narcissism devoid of context, driven by the mob.

Let’s have a historically rich debate about the origins and consequences of residential schools. Unearth the motivations, beliefs and assumptions of its architects and its critics in the past. Use the tensions within and between historical periods to inform and enrich our own response to this tragedy.

To have any hope of doing this we need to stop the destruction of the public symbols and observances of our history. This is madness. It’s against our most basic interests now and into the future. It runs counter to the reconciliation we need to move forward. Let’s put down the hammers and pick up a history book before we lose our way back to who we are as a people.

Sean Speer: It’s time for Canada to get serious about China

Commentary

Two episodes from this past week have once again underscored a lack of seriousness on the part of Canadian policymakers in thinking about the growing geopolitical and technological threat posed by China.

The first is the renewed speculation that SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) may have originated in the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China. This theory, which has long been rejected by Chinese officials and marginalized by Western political and scientific elites, is now gaining momentum due to evidence collected by a small yet persistent group of “amateur sleuths.” In response, the Biden administration has reversed its characterization of the lab-leak theory as a “conspiracy theory” and recently instructed U.S. intelligence agencies to intensify their investigation into COVID-19’s origins.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been far slower to concede that his government’s initial resistance to this notion was unjustified and overstated. He’s also continued to dismiss questions about the risks of research collaborations between Chinese military researchers and Canadian scientists on highly sensitive matters in general and reports that two Canadian scientists with ties to China were recently fired from the National Microbiology Lab in Winnipeg due to national security concerns in particular.

Last week, when asked in Parliament about this specific national security case, Trudeau instead spoke generally about the importance of tolerance and diversity and the risks of anti-Asian racism. His health minister, Patty Hajdu, went further and accused the opposition of “playing a dangerous game.”

It’s hard to see how these parliamentary questions, even if posed with typical partisan rhetoric, are more dangerous than the potential of a Chinese cover-up of COVID-19’s origins or the national security risks of Canadian scientists shipping highly infectious diseases to the Wuhan Virology Institute. The former may have bigger geopolitical consequences, but the latter is more emblematic of Canada’s ongoing lack of a systematic and realist China strategy.

The government’s divisive and partisan answers are themselves characteristic of this deeper problem. They reflect an ongoing failure on the part of Canadian governments, universities and other public and private institutions to fully understand the strategic threat posed by China. Our institutional positioning vis-à-vis China continues to be marked by a set of disproven neoliberal assumptions about the liberalizing effects of economic and non-economic cooperation. Our China policy is stuck in a Fukuyamaian “end of history” view of the world.

Although virtually every other country has moved on from this policy failure, the Trudeau government has stubbornly persisted. Consider, for instance, its ill-fated scheme to collaborate with Chinese firm CanSino to produce a coronavirus vaccine. The idea that Canada ought to partner with a Chinese company on something as important as the COVID-19 vaccine in the middle of heightened bilateral tensions is self-evidently dumb. It’s perplexing that neither Cabinet ministers nor government officials saw the inherent problems.

Discerning the source of this blind spot can be challenging. It may be the allure of the Chinese market for Canadian businesses and investors. It may reflect a latent anti-Americanism among our cultural and political elites who cheer China’s rise as a counterweight to the United States and a return to a bipolar world. Or it may be a well-intentioned yet ultimately misguided expression of the recent emphasis on anti-racism.

But whatever the underlying causes, the Canadian government’s response to growing speculation about COVID-19’s origins follows a familiar pattern: Ottawa persists in its childlike inclination to grant the Chinese regime more deference and trust than is reasonable. Our weak positioning on China is increasingly making us an outlier among peer jurisdictions across the Anglosphere and other advanced economies.

Even when we do take tougher positions, they tend to be non-strategic and unfocused half-measures. Which brings us to the second episode related to China this past week: Ottawa’s imposition of tariffs as high as 300 percent on upholstered furniture from China.

While Ottawa is imposing tariffs on furniture imports, the Biden administration has announced tough new restrictions on U.S. investment in 59 Chinese companies linked to military and surveillance technology.

The tariffs, which took effect in early May, are due to concerns that the “dumping” of low-cost, highly subsidized Chinese goods is harming Canada’s domestic furniture-manufacturing industry. In its 117-page statement of reasons, the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) outlined in some detail how a number of Chinese furniture manufacturers benefit from a panoply of financial and non-financial supports in the form of government policy.

There’s no reason to doubt the CBSA’s analysis or the government’s tariff decision. There’s plenty of evidence that Chinese manufacturers do benefit from unfair, non-market trade practices in this sector and others. We also know that this has had negative consequences for Canadian firms and their workers. The so-called “China Shock” is estimated to have destroyed at least 105,000 Canadian manufacturing jobs between 2001 and 2011 alone.

The problem here, then, isn’t the imposition of retaliatory tariffs per se. (Libertarian screeds against so-called “Tariff Man” may be interesting fodder for online message boards or university debate societies but generally don’t have much real-world utility.) Instead, the issue is that a one-off tariff on Chinese furniture imports divorced from a broader set of industrial and geopolitical considerations is too myopic and marginal. It doesn’t address the deeper questions about Canada’s ongoing economic relationship with China.

One just has to read the Chinese government’s Made in China 2025 strategy to see that its goal isn’t to be a global leader in couches and chesterfields. China’s long-term strategy involves developing technological advantages in sensitive and strategic sectors such as next-generation information technology, advanced manufacturing (including advanced robotics and artificial intelligence) and emerging bio-medicine.

With this in mind, it seems backward-looking and fragmentary to impose tariffs on upholstered furniture without articulating a broader view about how Canada will manage two-way investment and trade in these new and evolving sectors. These forward-looking technologies, which tend to have monopolistic qualities and dual commercial and military purposes, are where the future lies.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has described them as the underpinnings of a new global rivalry between “techno-democracies” and “techno-autocracies” in which the competition is over technological advantage and the application, use and regulation of these modern technologies.

It’s an inadvertent study in contrasts, therefore, that while Ottawa is imposing tariffs on furniture imports, the Biden administration has announced tough new restrictions on U.S. investment in 59 Chinese companies linked to military and surveillance technology, including telecommunications manufacturer Huawei Technologies. Expectations are that President Biden may encourage his G-7 counterparts to adopt similar measures at the forthcoming meetings in England.

The key takeaway from these separate yet related episodes is that the Canadian government needs to update its thinking about China. We’re currently disadvantaged by mentality. The Chinese are systematically pursuing technological dominance in key sectors and we’re focused on futons. It’s time to get serious. Canada needs a new China strategy.