Winnipeg’s Canadian Museum for Human Rights is commemorating Nelson Mandela’s long struggle against the white South African apartheid regime. Mandela, who died in 2013 at age 95, was imprisoned for 27 years because of his defiance of the regime and his determination to end apartheid.
That apartheid regime divided people into racial categories and issued citizens of each category with identity cards. In effect, they were status cards: you were either white, black or coloured. Each category was entitled to different rights, with people in the white category having the superior entitlements.
This system was similar to the United States’ “separate but equal” system. In both systems, for example, blacks could not drink from the same water fountain as whites.
The South African apartheid system also bears many similarities to Canada’s Indigenous apartheid system. Both used status cards that classified people by race and both granted people of one race entitlements not given to others.
The American separate but equal system was finally brought to an end but only after ugly racial confrontations. The South African apartheid system ended in a similar way but only after heavy pressure was mounted by the international community – including Canada.
The Canadian Indigenous apartheid system is still here and shows no sign of ending anytime soon.
Canadians were among the most vocal opponents of the South African apartheid system. What’s not so well known is that the South African apartheid system was based, in large part, on the Canadian Indigenous apartheid system.
In the 1940s, when white South African politicians were designing a system that would keep people of different races separate, they came to Canada to study our system: its Indian Act, status cards and reserve system.
They went back to South Africa and created a system that modelled its homelands largely on our reserves and its status cards largely on the cards Canada hands out to status Indians.
The irony of Canadians passionately denouncing South Africa’s apartheid system, while not noticing that we had an apartheid system of our own, was not lost on either South African politicians or Canadian Indigenous politicians. In fact, during the height of the demonstrations against the South African regime in 1987, South African Foreign Minister Glenn Babb and Peguis First Nation Chief Louis Stevenson teamed up to stage a press conference pointing out this hypocrisy.
But Canadians didn’t get it.
The fact that Canada’s system was and is an apartheid system has been very apparent to Indigenous leaders for a long time. For example, former prime minister Jean Chrétien has stated that when he was minister of Indian Affairs in the 1960s, the chiefs demanded an end to what they themselves called an apartheid system.
Why did apartheid end in South Africa while we still have it here?
If the South African politicians could have used money to bribe people into keeping their status cards, I have no doubt they would have done it and South African apartheid might still be here.
However, blacks were the majority there and the country simply couldn’t afford it. In Canada, where on-reserve status Indians make up less than two per cent of the Canadian population, status cards carry significant financial benefits that people don’t want to part with.
Those status cards – based on race alone – would have been eliminated long ago were it not for the seductive power of the money they promise.
So status cards and apartheid stay.
Mandela, along with other great people like Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi, stood for the fundamental point that we’re all equal.
Let’s remember that when we visit this important exhibit.
Brian Giesbrecht is a retired judge and senior fellow with Frontier Centre for Public Policy.