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Aaron Pete: Indigenous communities are paying a heavy price for political correctness

Commentary

People enter the Law Courts in Winnipeg on Monday, February 5, 2018. John Woods/The Canadian Press.

Political correctness is doing more harm than help for Indigenous communities in Canada.

As a member of the Chawathil First Nation council near Hope, British Columbia, a native court worker for nearly five years, and a graduate of the Peter A. Allard School of Law at UBC, I have been deeply involved in addressing the unique challenges facing our Indigenous communities. It’s something we should think about, given that it is National Indigenous Peoples Day.

A great deal of empathy and respect is owed when discussing these complex and sensitive issues. However, I’ve found that these conversations are increasingly being led and based more on emotion and political correctness instead of substance, evidence, and logic.

Indigenous people in Canada have overcome a lot of adversity over the past 150 years, in large part due to government initiatives like the Indian Act, Indian Residential Schools, and the Sixties Scoop. The effects of all this have led to the loss of the language in many Indigenous communities, which in turn has meant the loss of culture. Many First Nations have stories told in their languages that haven’t been translated into English. Without that translation, the story is lost and so too are the teachings. This loss has resulted in a lack of tradition, direction, support, and common understanding throughout communities, as well as a lack of coping skills that contributes to high substance use, addiction, and crime rates.

People now empathize with these realities. In 1996, informed by Indigenous overrepresentation in prisons, Parliament created section 718.2(e) of the Criminal Code which indicates that a court imposing a sentence on an Indigenous person should take into account “all available sanctions, other than imprisonment, that are reasonable in the circumstances and consistent with the harm done to victims or to the community should be considered for all offenders, with particular attention to the circumstances of Aboriginal offenders.”

In 1999, this direction of restraint was reaffirmed when the Supreme Court of Canada made its infamous Gladue decision which calls for an Indigenous offender’s personal and familial history to be compiled for judges to consider when sentencing. All this was based on an understanding of the adversity Indigenous people have had to overcome and the government policies that impeded their success.

However, just because this is an empathetic approach, doesn’t make it an unbridled good. And what has this empathetic approach got us? Things have gotten worse. In 1999, when the Gladue decision was made, Indigenous people represented approximately 17 percent of admissions to the federal prison system. Twenty-five years later, a whopping 33 percent of the federally incarcerated population are Indigenous, while Indigenous people only make up around five percent of the country.

During my undergraduate studies at the University of the Fraser Valley, a fundamental principle was drilled into us: the importance of “evidence-based approaches.” This means not merely acting on intuition or emotion but instead studying, understanding, and implementing policies which have been proven to be effective. Evidence is a principle that should guide our decision-making around Indigenous communities. However, that’s not happening. The policies created don’t seem to be based on real facts and figures. And the policies don’t appear to be fixing the problems they’re meant to solve.

More recently, First Nations courts are being rolled out nationwide. But this is not based on a solid foundation of evidence suggesting they reduce Indigenous recidivism or incarceration rates. Instead, it is based on appealing to the heartwarming notion of “cultural accommodation.” In my experience, First Nation courts still take place in a courtroom, but often only involve a few elders and some community service providers. Healing plans are developed with the offender, who has to plead guilty in order to enter the process.

The idea behind it is that by making the process more “cultural” alongside elders, and pulling in community resources, the offender’s life path will ultimately be improved. While parts of it are admirable and potentially true, we don’t really have any research being done into this issue. Simply adding a drum to a courtroom is not going to solve the problem or ensure justice is done.

Canada has not only worked to make culturally sensitive courtrooms, they’ve also been Indigenizing prisons with elders and smudging. Near my community in British Columbia, there is something called the Kwìkwèxwelhp Healing Village, which is a minimum-security prison. Local elders attend to meet with inmates to support them in reconnecting with their culture and traditions. Again, this work sounds absolutely fantastic. It sounds wholesome, understanding, and potentially effective.

The problem is that if we just follow what makes us feel good, without critically analyzing this to make sure it works, we are doing the people in these institutions a disservice. If someone addicted to alcohol wants help, it’s not our role to solely celebrate their willingness to seek help. It is incumbent on us to find them help and make sure there’s a reasonably high chance that the help they seek will actually help address their problem. When you see your doctor, you want to know they are providing you with a health-care solution that has proven to be effective, not just a treatment that sounds good.

My critics will argue these programs require more time, analysis, and funding to prove their worth. They’ll say the purpose of these approaches is to provide culturally appropriate resources, rather than to directly tackle overrepresentation and recidivism. But these approaches were often originally sold as ways to address overrepresentation and recidivism rates. What we need to accept is that the solution to these systemic problems will not be delivered in the courtroom. By the time it gets there it’s already too late. Instead, we need to think long-term and focus our attention upstream.

Upstream solutions

We know the basic resources needed for communities to thrive: a safe clean home, two-parent households, quality healthcare, higher high school graduation rates, economic opportunities, and childcare. Yet, many First Nation communities don’t have this. We hold massive justice forums on Indigenous issues without discussing any of these fundamental topics.

We’ve all heard that preventative measures are important and tackling issues early can have long-term benefits. Further, there’s also a lot of research on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and their potential impacts. An ACE test asks very basic questions about a child’s lived experiences like, “Did your parents insult you or humiliate you?” or “Did you feel you had enough food in your house?” The more yeses the higher your ACES score, the higher your ACES score the greater risk you have of having health and mental health issues.

ACEs-related health consequences cost an estimated economic burden of US$748 billion annually in North America, according to a 2019 study published in The Lancet.

We, as citizens, share a common desire: to address the root causes of criminal behaviour in our society, rather than see people end up behind bars. We need Canadians to reach their full potential by contributing to our economy, culture, and communities. We benefit when people share their skills, abilities, and knowledge. As taxpayers, we should not be funding an expanding prison system or new justice pilot projects, but instead investing in more constructive solutions.

Yet, the federal and provincial governments are making financial investments not based on evidence, but based on the whims of Indigenous political lobbying organizations, like the Assembly of First Nations, that aren’t required to prove how they’re actually solving the problem or provide concrete evidence on the impact of their initiatives. Add to this the fact that these organizations only demand things from government, rather than demanding Indigenous nations actually deliver essential services to their communities.

Indigenous communities have a history of having governments decide how to spend money in their regions without their input through the Indian agent. That was wrong. However, political correctness has now swung the pendulum in the other direction. There has been an overcorrection. Today, communities are developing plans and programs independently with little accountability or evidence.

Some may celebrate this as a sign of flourishing self-government. However, if these programs and plans don’t result in the real improvement of First Nation members’ quality of life, educational attainments, and economic position, then they shouldn’t be celebrated. Conservatives also need to come up with new fleshed-out solutions to these issues. Jail not bail may be a great slogan, but it is not a real plan.

Indigenous people do not care who makes the plan, but whether their lives are improving. These are real people who want economic prosperity, comfort, culture, connection, and community.

It is time we move beyond political correctness and engage in candid discussions about the efficacy of our approaches to Indigenous nations.

We need a comprehensive review of existing justice programs, the implementation of robust data collection, and a transparent analysis of the results. We must be bold in questioning existing paradigms and brave in adopting methods that are proven to work, even if they challenge the current narrative.

By doing so, we honour not just the spirit of our cultural heritage but also the pragmatic necessity of crafting a just society for all Canadians.

Zachary Patterson: Know your role, professors—and keep activism out of academia

Commentary

A group of George Washington University professors during a pro-Palestinian protest over the Israel-Hamas war, April 26, 2024, in Washington. Jose Luis Magana/AP Photo.

Why are professors treated so well? They’re paid high salaries from the public purse, averaging $148,000 in 2021. This puts them between the 92nd and 99th percentile of all Canadian salaries. They also have good pensions and very robust job security in the form of tenure that is bolstered by academic freedom.

Explaining why professors are treated so well requires starting with academic freedom. It helps understand what the role of professors is supposed to be—and how the professoriate has strayed from this role.

Academic freedom serves to prevent universities from interfering in teaching, research, and public commentary that professors undertake as part of their academic responsibilities. It protects professors from, for example, being reprimanded, sanctioned, or fired for research they pursue or public positions they take—even if they criticize positions of their own institutions.

This combination of privileges and protections is unique in society and speaks to the equally unique role professors are expected to play. Professors are granted these privileges so they can be independent.

It’s assumed, and even enforced by contract, that people working in the private, public, religious, or non-governmental sectors are to represent the interests of the organizations that employ them. This is not the case for academics.

Academics are supported to be independent because it is through independence that they’re seen as best able to fulfill their role. Independence allows them to pursue pressing research questions even if the research questions are controversial.

It also enables them to consider and draw conclusions independent of outside interests. This is essential since it’s only under such circumstances that they can be relied on to provide a rational and evidence-grounded perspective—their unique, common-sense, role.

The independence that academics are expected to exercise is nested within three foundational principles.

The truth principle is that there is, at the end of the day, regardless of empirical complications or political or personal motivations, an underlying truth characterizing the state of human society, the world, or indeed the universe.

The merit principle is that professors are to be chosen based on their abilities. Primarily, their ability to ask important questions, propose hypotheses about the answers to those questions, research them with adequate methodologies, and, finally, to draw independent conclusions about them based on evidence and reason.

The knowledge principle is that the best way to uncover, or at least approach—even if imperfect—the truth is through the open debate of ideas. Ideas are to be confronted robustly yet defended analytically and logically while being supported by evidence both theoretical and empirical.

An implication of the first and last principles is that it’s not the role of professors to be activists. Rather it’s to do their best to describe the world as they understand it. That way society can use and benefit from the most well-supported and objective knowledge available. This includes the students taught and trained by professors.

Indeed, based on the unique privileges and protections extended to professors, we can speak of a contract between the public and professors. The public provides professors with job security and high salaries in exchange for professors doing their best to provide an independently verifiable and objective understanding of the world.

Some academics argue that adherence to these principles is old-fashioned or not necessarily synonymous with the role of professors. If this were the case though, why would professors have such a unique status?

If their role were to be activists, for example, why would we have NGOs? If their role were to come up with policy, why would we need politicians or policymakers or bureaucrats? Conversely, if we already have these other institutions and professions, why would we need professors?

These questions (and their answers) are important. That’s because we increasingly observe professors and universities abandoning these principles. These principles are being abandoned as academics increasingly adhere to the Left-leaning, Marxist-inspired “critical social justice” perspective.

Accordingly, the truth principle has been replaced with social constructivism. Truth is seen to be determined by powerful victimizers (oppressors) for their benefit and to the detriment of the victimized (oppressed). Part and parcel of this view is that ultimate oppression stems from Western civilization and its legacy.

Because no claims to truth can be seen to be more authoritative or true than any other, people speak of their “own truth,” the illegitimacy of “Western” science and objective measures of merit such as the SAT, and the need to “decolonize” universities. (An inherent contradiction of this view is that no knowledge is authoritative, apart from the axiom that knowledge is constructed by victimizers at the expense of the victimized.)

With the abandonment of the truth principle, the other principles give way. With respect to the primacy of merit in hiring, professors are increasingly selected based on identitarian criteria.

Instead of seeking to objectively understand the world through open debate, increasingly the goal for academics is less to debate and more to confine the bounds of discussion, or to “cancel” debate altogether.

Contributing to this belief among academics is a progressive-era mindset. This mindset not only contends that academics have a superior understanding of the world, but that this superiority provides them with the moral authority and even an obligation to seek to organize and influence the public rather than to inform it.

As such, the primary role of professors is now seen to be to advocate and overturn. The goal of such advocacy is to correct putative injustices imposed upon the weak and indeed the world or environment itself. In a word, the professoriate has become politicized.

Needless to say, this is a far cry from the role implied by the unique privileges granted to professors. That is, to prioritize truth, merit, and knowledge; to seek to objectively understand the world we live in; to first and foremost inform.

While the results of such scholarship and analysis may be used to benefit society, it is not the academic’s role to militate. On the contrary, activism and the abandonment of the principles of the academic project are a betrayal and antithetical to the role of the professor.