Monday, 13 January 2014

Success and Failure: Jews and First Nations

There are a lot of preconceptions or rationales (excuses) as to why First Nations people have not "succeeded" in the conventional sense of the term.  If one were to be brutally honest, they consistently end up at the bottom of the heap on most indicators, such as numbers attending post - secondary eduction.  Generally apologists come up with a formulaic set of reasons including discrimination, racism, colonialism and other "reasons" that "explain" the low performance relative to other Canadians. 

Due to the perceptions of why First Nations individuals have not made much progress in entering the higher rungs of eduction and the professions, I thought that it would be instructive to turn to another group in Canada who has suffered infinitely worst circumstances of prejudice, and even true genocide (not platitudes such as "cultural genocide") - Canada's Jewish population.

At just over 300,000, Jews make up about half the numbers of Status Indians in Canada.  Their history is one of almost consistent persecution, and often when they were no longer of use, or the elite owed them too much money (as was the case in England in the Middle Ages) they were either expelled or murdered en mass.  Pogroms were instituted to keep them confined to ghettos (rural or urban), and laws were enacted to prevent Jews from owning land or participating in the economy except in areas where they could prove useful to the Christian elite (e.g., as jewellers and money lenders).  They were often a people without a country, and merely tolerated throughout much of Europe throughout much of history.  Of course the most enduring and recent of these atrocities against a people is the Holocaust, Hitler's "final solution", where Jews were rounded up and shipped in cattle cars to "factories" such as Buchenwald where they were either placed in work camps (until they died of starvation and exhaustion), or directly to the death camps where the gas chambers were awaiting.  A minimum of 6 million Jews were murdered in this manner alone.  Yet they not only survived as a distinct people, they thrived.

So my concern is, while Canada's Native people believe that colonialism and racism and the like are root causes of their social problems, there are very few examples of this - just perceptions.  If looked for carefully, the facts do exist, and they do not tally with the perceptions.

The Residential Schools did happen, but far from being "genocidal", they were often the one hope to take Native people away from the dysfunctional situation of their homes in the North, or from family dysfunction, and provide food and education, both of which were in short supply where they came from.  The goal indeed was to assist the Native people in assimilation to the ways of the broader society because quite frankly it offered the only escape from being dragged back into a Stone Age existence and guaranteed poverty and despair.  This of course is not reflected in the "party line" where we are supposed to believe (despite the evidence) that these schools were cold institutions of forced cultural change where daily beatings ensured that the native language would be forgotten, and the ways of the oppressor ingrained.  Not all Native people who attended these schools see it this way, as I have stated with examples in previous posts.

So Native people and their apologists, to extract more money from Canadian taxpayers, put forward the "fact" that they have been victims, and that the colonialist and racist mentality exists to this day acting as a force to keep them from reaching their aspirations.  Of course the aspirations consist of a set of mutually exclusive categories of returning to the ways of their ancestors (but I guess snowmobiles and pickup trucks don't count), or being dragged kicking and screaming into the mainstream of society so that they can compete on an equal footing and thus set the stage for success away from the car theft industry, oxycodone abuse, illegal cigarette sales, and the seduction of welfare.  In the Northern Reserves the list would include kinship based tribal societies where the chief and family decide who gets what, and where family violence, rape, murder, gasoline huffing by youth are endemic (this is the short list).

Who are the Jews in Canada?  William Shatner, Seth Rogan, Drake, and Howie Mandel are well known celebrities who are Jewish - Canadian.  Jews have been in Canada, in small numbers, since the British took control of Canada from the French in 1760.  A good review of the subject is found here.  Despite the fact that their numbers are small, it is interesting that my best freind during and after my university years was Jewish, and that the majority of my mentors in university were Jewish.  I never met one single Arab, African or Native American instructor in any of the universities I attended in Canada.  During the Jewish High Holidays in October, classes pretty much ground to a halt since most professors were Jewish.  So despite my heritage, I have Jews to thank for the opportunities presented to me, and who I am today - and I will always be grateful.

So why are Jews such an immense success when they have had such an uphill battle, and everything set against them?  Some information touching on this subject follows.  It may be worth noting that after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem the Jews became a mobile people.  Their precise movements into Central Europe likely arose via a movement over the Alps from Italy post 79 A.D. - but somehow they never lost a sense of who they were, their culture, their traditions, their language (Hebrew and later Yiddish).  There was a "glue" that keep Jews linked together throughout the diaspora which saw them in three primary groups:  Ashkenazi (Central and Eastern European Jews); Sephardic (Iberian Jews), and Mizrahi (Oriental / Middle Eastern Jews).  Ashkenazi Jews came to outnumber all the rest, and went though a severe population "bottleneck" such that today all share a myriad of segments of DNA making them in effect close cousins many times over even if their ancestors lived in Poland and Lithuania.

Land Base and Relationship to Host Country:  Jews generally were forbidden from owning land, so they were either mobile or settled where they were told (in urban ghettos such as Warsaw; or rural ghettos - stadtles).  It was not their land though, and so could be dispossessed at any time.  Jews because they have been at best barely tolerated, and at the whim of a Prince, could be expelled or exterminated.  Contrast this to Canadian Natives who have been present since day one, and if a sale or surrender of land was to occur, the British ensured that a Reserve was guaranteed to them by the Crown.  Experience had taught the Crown authorities that if given the land in fee simple it would be sold to strangers and the community would disperse.  So Native Canadians have always had a homeland, and were not forced to move thousands of miles away after for example a forced land surrender as happened in the United States throughout the 1830s (e.g., the "Trail of Tears").  The Indian Act of 1876 provides ample rights and protections.

It is only since 1949 that Jews has been given a "homeland" in Israel - with the help of the British.  This has now become an important feature in Jewish life, for example buying Israeli War Bonds is the patriotic thing to do even if you live in New York or London Ontario.  However the point is that even without a homeland, Jews managed to survive 2000 years on the move and dispersed, but never forgot who they were and never capitulated to the pressures to give up their culture and all features that made them a distinctive people. 

A fair question is what would happen if the Reserve system was abandoned, would Native Canadians have the cultural strength to survive as a distinct people as the Jews have done - or do they need the land base to survive and avoid complete assimilation into the Canadian mainstream?  One problem is that in general the 665 Bands see themselves as unique, and any sort of "pan - Indian" concept rests on shaky ground - unless there is an advantage to be gained - which is usually short term.  However that remains to be seen as there are umbrella groups (funded by the Federal Government) representing the Status Indians of Canada (e.g., Assembly of First Nations).

Cultural Stagnation:  As it happens Jews have traditions and cultural practises (e.g., lighting the menorah; the Seder) that go back thousands of years - and they are still practised faithfully to this day.  However their holy book, the Torah is brought out (usually as a scroll) to be examined on Saturdays (the sabbath) and read out at regular intervals instead of accepting what is written as etched in stone and to be applied without change to this day (as fundamentalist Christians and Muslims would say about the Bible and Koran respectively).  Jews use the Torah as a device to provide guidance in a world that they acknowledge is changing - although of course there are fundamental / orthodox sects who view things differently.  Thus many embrace change, but look for Devine guidance as to how best to cope with it.  It is up for discussion with the rabbis (teachers / religious ministers). 

The Native Canadian fundamentalist view as espoused in any Longhouse is that change is bad and that the rituals and the teachings should reflect the views of the ancestors hundreds or thousands of years ago.  This can only be maladaptive if ones goal is to compete successfully in a very competitive world.  The Great Law was established because the Five Nations were killing each other off and warfare was almost constant.  So laws were established to avert this self - destructive behaviour - although it merely facilitated the complete genocidal erasure of the Erie and Attiwandaronk (Neutral) peoples among many others.  Not to say we should not respect the Great Law, but 1000 or so years later things have changed, and history teaches us that those who move with the times, keeping the best from the early traditions, and discarding what is superfluous, is a successful formulae.  The same can be said about Handsome Lake and the Gaiwiio (Good Message) which is the foundation of the teaching at most Longhouses today.  A problem is that there are serious anachronisms embedded in this "message".  It was a child of its time.  There was a lot of focus on witches and the right to kill a witch.  Clearly no one would wish to acknowledge this element today.  The constant and futile search for the romanticised "golden age" is just going to lead to a blind alley - it doesn't exist anymore - if it ever did exist - which is unlikely.  One can respect traditions without having to experience an existential crisis if something needs to be changed to work better.  

There are many who look longingly and idealistically at for example what they see as the Native respect for the land and how it should be a guide to take us into the future.  In fact the environmental impact was low because of the low number of people in North America in pre-Columbian days (as shown by archaeological research).  When looking at the way in which Natives interacted with the environment it appears no different from Europeans at a similar stage of their society.  In other words both produced garbage which they tossed over the walls, and both were a little lax in the sanitation department.  Destruction of the fertility of the soil necessitated village movements every 20 or so years in Iroquoia, and the slash and burn technique of creating new fields was wasteful but for stone age people, not much more could be expected.  Only when fertilisers and the ard and plough were invented could agriculture proceed indefinitely at the same site, with crop and field rotations.  This was learned by the Europeans many years before, and the attempt was to teach these methods to the Natives - with pretty dismal success in general.  Going back to the "old ways" would simply be regressive and counter productive.  Change is inevitable if one wants to move forward.  If one wants to stay fixed in some idealised period in time one can try to do so and suffer the consequences as the rest of the world moves forward and accepts that which is likely to foster positive change.

Education and the Professions:  Jews are voracious learners and have ended up at the top of almost every profession in Canada.  Look at professions as diverse as the law, psychology and economics.  Four of ten doctors and dentists were Jewish in 1991; Jews hold three in ten managerial and professional positions in Canada.  Considering that they make up less than 1% of the population of Canada, it is quite telling that they sometimes compose 50% or more of any one profession.  Even in the entertainment industry, Jews have always been the forerunners.  In the US all of the big studio bosses in Hollywood were Eastern European (Ashkenazi) Jews (Warner Brothers, Samuel Goldwyn, etc.).  All of the composers of Broadway musicals were Jewish (e.g., Gershwin Brothers; Rogers and Hammerstein).  Jewish parents push their children to attend post secondary schooling, and the stereotype of the "Jewish mother" mirrors that of the "tiger mother" in Asian culture.  Failure is not an option.

43% of Jews have a bachelor's degree, compared to 19% of British Canadians and 16% in the general population.  At large Universities in Canada Jewish students are found in numbers well beyond their expected level of 1%.  At McGill, Queens, York, and the University of Western Ontario in London Jews make up 10% of the student body.  Native Canadians are virtually invisible, well below their expected level of about 2%.  I am sure that there are a legion of excuses that could be pressed into service to explain this difference, but it is abundantly clear that Jews, while often perceived to be "clannish", wish to fully integrate into mainstream Canada, but wish to retain their distinctive culture.  Clearly it is possible to do this successfully.  They become lawyers not just for other Jews, but for Canadians in general - and some of our finest lawyers come from this community.  Unfortunately most aboriginal Canadians who go into law go into "aboriginal law" in a programme that is "geared to their needs" - in other words their performance in High School was poor (whereas Jews are typically at the top of their class), so they are given modified programmes in law to "make up the difference" and the outcome is an inferior product that can only perform aboriginal law for aboriginals.

In looking at "dynasties", Jews are once again over represented.  For example the Bronfmans, the Reichmanns, the Segrams are but a few examples.  So the over wealthy are found more often in the Jewish group relative to other Canadians.  23% of the 100 wealthiest Canadians are Jewish.

Language Learning:  Like it or not, fluency in the English language sets the stage for success the world over.  Norwegians learn English very early in school and it is taught throughout with the realisation that it provides the key to success in the wider world.  It does not in any way inhibit their fluency in their native language.  Some English Canadian parents opt for French language immersion for their children.  While this seems as a "no brainer" for those who want to be able to compete for jobs in the civil service and military promotions, it is far from clear that this is the only or even best route to follow.  I have not found good evidence to support the merits of French immersion since the outcome is largely a function of the parent's support of the programme - which is true of just about everything.  Hence I would strongly question the move these days to have Mohawk or Cayuga immersion for children at Six Nations.  These languages are immensely difficult to learn if the parents don't speak it at home, and there is no "outside" benefit to spending inordinate amounts of time here and expecting that children will be able to learn abstract concepts by this manner.  If so, where is the evidence.  I expect there is none.  It is a political decision, and divorced from any close look at the realities of Native education producing a product that as it stands cannot compete in the wider world - let alone with untried language and cultural immersion.  I expect that the children who emerge from these educational experiments will be high on ethnocentrism, and low on basic skills.  How or when will be three "R's" be taught - let alone preparing, via teaching critical thinking skills, for the maths and sciences which hold the key to success in modern society?

Frankly it is getting somewhat embarrassing to make these comparisons since one group consistently comes out as winners, and the other, not so much.  So are there any lessons we can take from these disparities?  It seems that the answer is obvious, if you want to succeed in life (not via a sinecure funded via transfer payments from the Federal Government), you have to have the skills to compete.  Obtaining those skills does not mean giving up ones culture - Jews are among the most cohesive and distinctive groups in Canada.  The same could be said for Japanese - Canadians who suffered interment in camps during WWII, significant discrimination, but are among the wealthiest Canadians today.

Jews frequently started with nothing, but through hard work, dedication, a willingness to integrate just enough to meet their needs, Jews have become the most successful ethnic group in Canada bar none.  So the question I ask to all First Nations people, and in particular the Six Nations, which do you want - a platform to set the stage for success, or continued perpetual dependency on the Canadian Federal Government?  The status quo will not cut it as failure lurks at the end of each path.  Things are coming apart at the seams and will crumble.  It is no secret that the Canadian taxpayer has reached the end of their rope as more and more money is sunk into a bottomless pit with no tangible signs of success.  So what do you want to do to avert disaster?


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