Friday, February 17, 2017

Facts are stubborn things

John Adams pointed this out in his defence of British soldiers accused in the Boston Massacre:
 Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence...
Facts are also oppositional, in this sense: they restrain everyone in the same way, and in doing so they bring people together.  We have an infinite number of ways of coming at he truth: the soaring beauty of music, the inspiration of religious ritual, the stories we tell, the lives we lead. But when my life and my passions differ profoundly from someone else's, what then? If I find truth in the music of Mozart's concert masses, I might not succeed at finding a common musical language with someone who finds their truth in the work of Tupac Shakur. Facts, even the hard facts made notorious by Gradgrind, may offer the only way profoundly different people can find enough common truth to live together.

Which brings us to Yusra Khogali.
In an earlier post, I said Yusra Khogali's anger should not frighten us. I also said that not fearing her anger does not mean we cannot answer what she says. And some of what she says, quite simply, contradicts what we know about history. Yusra Khogali accused Justin Trudeau of being a white supremacist because the Canadian state is founded on the genocide of indigenous people and the genocide and enslavement of African peoples. The first is true. Canadian society did displace, dispossess, and in many cases and many ways destroy the original peoples and cultures they displaced. If the displacement of the First Nations had not happened, Canada would be a profoundly different place today.

An Act to Prevent the further Introduction of Slaves and to limit the Term of Contracts for Servitude within this Province
The second claim, that the Canadian state is founded on the genocide and enslavement of people from Africa is not true in the same sense. Both before and after Columbian contact, people living in what is now Canada practiced domestic slavery on a small scale, just as people did throughout the world. In Canada, some of those slaves were African. The economy in what is now Canada never depended on slavery in the same way the European agricultural colonies of the Carribean, and the colonies, later states, of what is now the American South did. Canada was not "founded on" slavery in anything like the sense Canada was founded on the displacement of the First Peoples. In this city over two hundred years ago the legislature of Upper Canada passed one of the first anti-slavery laws. By 1819, just under two hundred years ago, Upper Canada was effectively free soil, almost three generations before the emancipation proclamation in the United States and well before most of the rest of the world.

Statue of John Graves Simcoe in Queen's Park by Saharalipour
John Graves Simcoe
 by Saharalipour, via Wikimedia Commons
That doesn't mean both claims by Yura Khogali cannot be true. Canada, after all, belongs to a community of nations profoundly shaped by the African diaspora. Without the trade in African slaves, the history of colonial development would have been significantly different. But the two statements are not true in the same sense. Canada is directly founded on the displacement of First Nations and on the destruction of their cultures. The choices made by Canadians in founding this country both shaped the nature of the Canadian state and did profound harm to the First Nations. By contrast, when Canadians made choices about slavery, our predecessors generally made better choices than people in most of the world. That doesn't make them better people, as Canada's ugly history with the original peoples of this land attests. It just means, in this instance, they made better choices.

These are the facts. They may not change the sense of truth about our world each of us carries within us. Yusra Khogali's passion is real. But facts provide the only basis for shared truths. The facts matter, whatever we think of them.

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