By Stuart Parker
In 1956, Japanese doctors first noticed Minamata disease, the affliction that is destroying the people of Grassy Narrows. Despite the repressive, state-colluding culture of Japanese industry, by 1968, the Chisso Corporation had been forced, by public pressure and citizen activism, to stop dumping mercury into Minimata Bay, poisoning shellfish and fish eaten by the people of Minamata City.
In other words, more than half a century has gone by since the story of corporate mercury-poisoning of a population played out on the global stage. Before I was 10 years old, the story of Minamata had become a touring stage play, which I watched in the early 1980s at the Vancouver Children’s Festival.
It goes without saying that—as with the fracked gas, bitumen, sulphur, and chemical waste we dump into Indigenous people’s drinking water throughout the petro-belt from Chetwynd to Llodyminster—we did not become aware of the adverse consequences of poisoning First Nations’ water through industrial activity after starting our mining projects; we knew of the consequences before we even began planning the projects, before any shovel hit soil.
This, of course, fits into the larger program of poisoning Indigenous Canadians through inferior reserve water systems that pipe nonpotable, dangerous poison into residents’ homes from coast to coast. When placed in context with the water systems of black-majority communities in Michigan like Flint, Dearborn, and Detroit, it seems almost as though when a group of racialized people in North America cease to be a necessary part of a regional labour force, we simply pipe poisoned water into their homes to kill them.
But that is not the scandal that has horrified Canadians. The systematic poisoning and murder of a racialized rural underclass is not news. It is the business of Canada, not just within our borders but in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, et cetera.
This, in other words, is not our Minamata scandal. Nobody is saying “How could we let this company do this to Canadians?”
We do not even construct that question because Canada’s white settler state nationalism does not include the people of Grassy Narrows in the way Cold War Japanese nationalism included the people of Minamata.
So what has scandalized Canadians about last week’s confrontation between our prime minister and the woman who witnessed against his government’s callous indifference to the poisoning of her people?
Etiquette. The failure of etiquette.
The problem, for Canadians, is the way Justin Trudeau deported himself when confronted.
Opposition politicians and media opinion leaders have decried Trudeau’s “sarcasm”, “callousness”, and “dismissal” of the protester’s concerns. They have spent no time decrying the disability and premature deaths of dozens of Indigenous people, the thing to which the protester sought to direct the nation’s attention.
The framing of our national debate goes to the heart of the Canadian colonial project and of our theory of civic nationalism. More than almost any other state on Earth, Canada is a liberal state, one in which the authority to govern is linked to the embodiment of the culture of the haute bourgeoisie, the upper middle class.
The fairy tale that best expresses this is "The Princess and the Pea". A young woman, switched at birth, is unaware that she is heir to a European throne. People question her legitimacy and the justice of her inheriting the throne. So, she is tested by placing a single dried pea under her mattress.
The consequence is that she cannot sleep and tosses and turns all night. But does not complain. The bed is padded more and more by those seeking to show she is not a princess. But she continues to feel the pea and she continues to stoically endure this fate until she is universally recognized as heir to the throne.
This story embodies the essence of the liberal project and the culture of the class leading it. The princess embodies self-control, the most important bourgeois value. This self-control functions as a form of merit, of deservedness. The fact that she has inherited it and it is in her blood is in no way contradictory of it also functioning as a meritocratic qualification.
In this way, hereditary privilege and merit are fused into a single thing. But the princess also embodies the other bourgeois value: sensitivity. There is no more haute bourgeois act than the well-timed stifling of tears, the fusion of two other contradictory values: sensitivity and self-control.
In a liberal Canada, one must understand that the tearful public apology and the territorial acknowledgement are not countervailing forces mobilized against colonialism; they are the justifying discourse of colonialism itself.
“Are you apologizing [to former Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould], Mr. Trudeau?” the prime minister was asked after sacking our nation’s first Indigenous justice minister for failing to give special treatment to his friends.
“I will be making an Inuit apology [in Iqaluit] later today,” he responded.
That is because we have tied our sense of entitlement to keep stealing Indigenous land, abducting Indigenous kids, and just flat out murdering Indigenous people by poison, by cop and by poverty, to our embodiment of restraint and sensitivity.
In other words, etiquette, the body of knowledge that distinguishes the haute bourgeoisie from the other classes.
That is how we give unemployed Indigenous parents $175 per month to look after their kids and then, when the kids appear to be suffering from the effects of colonialism and poverty, we abduct them and pay foster parents $750 per month to do the same job.
We explain that, unlike our racist ancestors, we don’t want to hurt Indigenous kids. We care about them. We care about them so much that we are prepared to rescue them from the cycle of poverty, colonialism, and intergenerational trauma.
Liberal Canada is freaking out right now because Trudeau’s mask has been torn; our mask has been torn.
When we see Trudeau smirking as he “thanks” the protester for her donation as she is violently ejected from the room by uniformed thugs, it is as though we have caught our own reflection in the mirror at a particularly unflattering angle.
Trudeau has revealed himself as fundamentally no different than the conservative bullies like Doug Ford who challenge Canada’s liberal state project by proudly embodying the cruel swagger, arbitrary violence, and misanthropy the liberal project seeks to conceal.
What offends us are not children convulsing in hospital beds in Thunder Bay; it is the glimpse in the face of our prime minister of who we really are.