More than two decades after apartheid ended, South Africa is still consumed by fierce debate over how to eradicate the legacy of white minority rule. But its struggle offers valuable lessons for Canada’s own battle to liberate itself from colonial laws, Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould says.
The minister, who finished a week-long visit to South Africa on the weekend, is leading a working group of federal ministers to decolonize Canada’s laws and policies on Indigenous people. And she says the postapartheid journey in South Africa offers “many important insights” and “parallels” for Canada to study.
“For many Indigenous peoples, celebrating our country’s 150th birthday has its challenges,” said Ms. Wilson-Raybould, herself a long-time aboriginal leader in British Columbia.
“It is hard to celebrate 150 years of colonialism,” she said in a speech at the University of Cape Town’s law school. “What we need to do is make a 180-degree turn, so that our laws and policies are pointing in the direction of the future of reconciliation and transformation – not the past of colonization.”
While many see South Africa as a “rainbow nation” of racial reconciliation after Nelson Mandela became its first black president, racial tensions have heightened there in recent years. President Jacob Zuma’s supporters routinely blame “white monopoly capital” for the country’s economic woes, while the opposition Democratic Alliance party is filing disciplinary charges against ex-leader Helen Zille for her comments about the “benefits” of colonialism.
But as Ms. Wilson-Raybould points out, South Africa created a post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission that inspired a similarly named commission in Canada, which investigated the residential school system for aboriginal children. Both commissions were “a way to acknowledge the human-rights violations of the past, in order to build new relationships for a better future,” she said. The commissions helped to “discover the truth about our respective pasts and to record that truth so we do not forget.”
South Africa has also created a high-level panel, headed by former president Kgalema Motlanthe, to assess more than 1,000 post-apartheid laws to see if they do enough to tackle the problems of poverty and inequality. In her visit, Ms. Wilson-Raybould met the former president to see what she can learn from the panel’s work.
Many of Canada’s laws and policies “have been the tools of colonization,” she said in her Cape Town speech. “Canada must confront the history of colonization and the denial of Indigenous peoples and their rights, a legacy we continue to be surrounded by today.”
She said the colonial legacy is a factor in the problems facing Canada’s Indigenous people – “the poverty, the health and social issues, the breakdown of the institutions of social order, and the dependency.”
In an interview in Johannesburg, the Justice Minister said she was struck by the social inequalities that South Africa is trying to resolve, which reminded her of the economic gap between Canadian aboriginal communities and other communities.
She gave the interview in a luxury hotel in the upscale suburb of Sandton, just after driving through the nearby poverty-stricken township of Alexandra, where people live in crowded shacks. “The disparity is enormous,” she said. “It’s very striking.”
One of the recommendations of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission was an inquiry into the estimated 1,200 missing and murdered Indigenous women. Ms. Wilson-Raybould said she was concerned to hear the frustrations voiced by the families of some of women, who have complained about a lack of information from the inquiry and a shortage of names in its database.
“Expectations are really high, and they should be,” she said. “I don’t suppose this will be the last concern that’s publicly expressed, and that’s not a bad thing. I’m hopeful that all people who want to present will have an opportunity.”
There are many databases of names of the missing and murdered women, she said. “We’re very hopeful that with the expertise and drive of the commissioners, that they’ll be able to access all those databases, and ensure that individuals are provided an opportunity to present themselves.”
The inquiry is due to begin its public hearings on May 29 in Whitehorse.