BY DOUG CUTHAND, THE STARPHOENIX
My Dad and Nelson Mandela both are my heroes. I suppose every son should look to his parents as heroes, so that's not unusual. However, I see a comparison between Dad and Mandela, who were close in age.
Both came from humble beginnings and spent their lives working for the betterment of their people. Dad is slightly younger, so for part of the year the two were the same age. Dad turns 95 next month.
Mandela, who died last week, was a hero for colonized people around the world. He fought the ultimate settler state and won. Settler states are young nations created on land once owned by aboriginal peoples. To gain control, original inhabitants are shoved aside and not given any meaningful role in the development of the country.
Settler states include the examples of Australia, New Zealand, Israel, Canada and South Africa, which has an overwhelming majority of aboriginal peoples compared to newcomers. The white government's answer was to racially separate black from white, and create a state based on keeping apart the two races.
It was both extremely demeaning and sometimes hilarious as the South African government tied itself in knots trying to justify an illegal regime. For example, Japanese people were classified as "honorary whites." But for the vast majority, life under apartheid was soul destroying and a crime against humanity.
But while South Africa was an extreme example of settler racism, it persists in various forms around the world. It is the byproduct of 19th century European colonies built upon aboriginal land. Mandela embodied our struggle on an international stage.
He was especially loved by the first peoples in Canada. When Mandela visited Canada in 1990, his plane stopped after midnight at Iqaluit to refuel. It was in July, so the sun was up and Inuit people from the town came to the airport to meet him.
Mandela would recall later how touched he was to meet "Eskimos" for the first time. He thought that never in his life would he have that opportunity. It was an indication how small the world has become and how many people knew of him.
Mandela was a hero on several levels, starting with his strength to resist the illegal regime in South Africa. Then there was his charisma that led to his influence on a world stage and, most of all, his dignity and ability to forgive and move his country forward. It is said that he freed both the jailed and the jailers.
The last level was mentioned by Justice Murray Sinclair who heads Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Sinclair stated that Mandela served as a good model for reconciliation and pointed to the many similarities between the apartheid regime and Canada's policy toward its First Nations. The residential school system was Canada's example of apartheid in action.
In their statements of remembrance and adulation at Mandela's funeral, many of the world's statesmen concluded that we will never see another person of his stature. With apartheid gone, I agree that nobody else will spend 27 years in jail to forge the unique combination of the man that was Mandela, but now more than ever there is a need for statesmen and leaders with his depth and dignity.
Racism and inequality continue to exist around the world. Canada needs to get off its high horse and recognize the depth of settler racism and inequality in this country. First Nations are at the bottom of every social indicator, and we have the lowest standard of living in the country.
The current federal government has cut funding to aboriginal organizations and refused to deliver equity in First Nations programs. The hopeful approach of the Kelowna Accord was axed unilaterally, and we continue to be pushed aside by resource projects. The best we are offered is access to the job market, while the protection of our traditional lands and resource revenue sharing go unaddressed.
The latest and most blatant example of government unilateralism is the proposed education act. The minister of the colonial office, Bernard Valcourt, has stated that increases to First Nations education funding will come only when the chiefs get behind his education act. In other words, it's his way or no way. This is government policy by extortion, and it will blow up in his face.
Now more than ever we need someone to come forward in Canada to assume the mantle of a Mandela - someone who will stand up to the racist Canadian system, someone who will shame this country on the international stage and reveal the settler racism that serves as a foundation for the nation.
Mandela was a hero to colonized peoples the world over, and there remains a lot of work to be done.
His spirit lives on.