Drug policy in Canada: from alcohol to opioids

Beginning with the history of alcohol and tobacco regulation, this conversation explores some big questions about how and why psychoactive substances are used and controlled in Canadian society.

The Panel

Tara Bruno is an Associate Professor in Sociology at King’s University College. Her research interests include addictions, mental health, criminology, homelessness, youth and families, and research methods. Tara’s new book, The Drug Paradox: An Introduction to the Sociology of Psychoactive Substances in Canada, will be released in the Summer of 2018.

Robert Solomon is on the Faculty of Law at Western University, where he holds the rank of Distinguished University Professor. He has been engaged in research on alcohol and drug policy, and tort, criminal and health law for over 45 years and has published widely in these areas. He has served as the National Director of Legal Policy for Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD Canada) for 20 years and has frequently appeared as an expert before various Parliamentary Committees.

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Reconciliation Between Whom?

There are lingering disconnects in my mind when it comes to the discussions of truth and reconciliation in Canada. As an observer, it seems like there is a critical gap between the federal government’s politics/optics of reconciliation on the one hand and the policies that affect the lives of indigenous communities on the other.

To put it bluntly: what does it mean when you are at one moment declaring that “No relationship is more important…than the one with Indigenous Peoples” and in the next moment building a pipeline through their lands against their protests?

Don’t get me wrong, listening and learning from one another in a spirit of reconciliation seems critically important to me, but what good is ‘listening’ and ‘learning’ if you are simultaneously exploiting the resources and poisoning the land of your interlocutor?

I had the opportunity to hear Margaret Buist (Director General for Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada) speak in London a few weeks ago. During the question and answer period, I brought up this apparent discrepancy and asked for her perspective. Her response was interesting.

She pointed that the federal government is a vast and complex institution. On any given issue, there are competing forces within the system. Ergo while one branch of the government may very well prioritize respect for the nation-to-nation status and autonomy of indigenous communities, another branch may be more concerned with, say, the Canada’s competitive status in the global economy. In other words, it’s entirely plausible that the department of Indigenous Affairs and, say, the Ministry of Natural Resources, or the Ministry of Innovation, Science and Economic Development, might have competing ideas for how ‘the government’ should conduct its business. After all, what is a bureaucracy if not an establishment of conflicting agendas? And what is more bureaucratic than a federal government?

Upon reflection, Buist’s reply raises more questions for me. What would systemic reconciliation even look like? What would it mean to structurally ‘decolonize’ the agenda of every branch, department, and ministry of the institution that has driven the agenda of colonization from the beginning?

What does reconciliation mean if one or more of the parties are not even reconciled with themselves? Between what, or between whom, is reconciliation being made? In the long run, what is more important: reconciliation between First Nation communities and the Ministry of Indigenous Affairs, or between First Nation communities and, perhaps, the Ministry of Natural Resources?

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Canada and Nationhood™

As a nation, Canada has lots of ideas about nationhood.

The present federal government champions the notion of a “nation-to-nation relationship with Indigenous Peoples.”

The past government passed a motion recognizing “that the Québécois form a nation within a united Canada” — a nation within a nation.

How is it that the geographical territory we call ‘Canada’ can be the homeland of so many nations?

The answer, I think, is that the federal government of Canada has very few qualms with ‘licensing’ the use of ‘nation’ to particular groups that it needs to appease. But as with most negotiations, the most critical details live in the small print: at every turn, the ‘definition’ of nationhood is determined by, well, the Nation. In Canada, the word ‘nation’ has evolved more or less to become synonymous with groups who have a particular bargaining status with the federal government, but it is still nonetheless the federal government who bestows, grants, or acknowledges the officially sanctioned ‘nationhood’ of its subgroups of subjects.

Last week I heard Al Day, a local indigenous leader, give a talk. He brought up the observation that First Nation communities have little to nothing to do with defining their concept of nationhood. “First Nations” — and what it means to be such a ‘nation’ — is a definition imposed on indigenous communities by the government of Canada. Nationalism and Nationhood, he argued, are mental concepts inherent in the mindset of the colonizer, not the colonized.

On the global, geopolitical stage, nations are defined in practical terms by the juxtaposition of their power vis-a-vis one another. In a word, sovereignty. But within a nation, this idea of so-called ‘sub-nationalism’ must be defined by whatever rules and parameters the central authority deems most expedient. It is a brand of nationhood with caveats. Many, many caveats. Caveats that have been written by — and presumably serve — someone else. (If the terms and conditions of your nationhood are determined by another party, in what sense, exactly, do you consider yourself a nation?)

The lesson here is that it is important to subject politically mobilized language to scrutiny. When a central government defines and negotiates with a certain group as a nation, who retains the power and authority to define their nationhood? And, most importantly, whose nationalism is entrenched in the process? In Canada, we need to have a debate about whether it is the national identity of the ‘nationalizer’ or the ‘nationalizee’ that is served by the rhetoric of ‘nations-within-nations’ and ‘nation-to-nation’ relationships.

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‘Canada 150’ and the Idea of a Nation

In his Canada Day speech on Saturday (July 1, 2017), Justin Trudeau proclaimed,

Ours is a land of original peoples and of newcomers. And our greatest pride is that you can come here from anywhere in the world, build a good life, and be part of our community. We don’t care where you’re from, what religion you practice, or whom you love, you are all welcome in Canada! (Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, 2017 Canada Day speech, 9:42-mark)

There is an interesting, unanswered questioning lingering behind these maudlin words: who, exactly, is this ‘we’ who so passionately does not care about my birthplace, religion, and love life? And if they — whoever this ‘we’ might be — do not care whatsoever about any details or characteristics of my life, what do they care about? And who is doing the welcoming here, exactly?

Canadian national identity is famously vexing. Defining what it means to be ‘a Canadian’ does not distill into a single, essentialist descriptor: as a whole, we are settlers, colonizers, migrants, immigrants, forcibly displaced, refugees, or the descendants of some combination thereof. For many First Nations, Métis, and Inuit communities, the word ‘Canada’ represents a litany of broken promises, disastrous social policies, and [what most Canadians would describe in any other country as] exploitation and oppression. Ergo, defining a shared, collective sense of what it means to say, ‘I am Canadian’ is impossible because it feels like all descriptions inevitably omit or contradict each other. To fill all the placeholders for Canadian identity means coming up with a statement that says nothing by trying to say everything.

Trudeau himself has referenced the dilemma by referring to Canada as a ‘post-national‘ state where ‘there is no core identity, no mainstream in Canada.’ Whether we have entered the age of post-nationalism or not, Trudeau still apparently thinks that there is a ‘we,’ and I’m curious to understand who this ‘we’ describes.

Surrounded by Royal Canadian Mounties, cannon salutes, and CF-18 flypasts, I thought back to the writings of the German sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920) who coined one of the most famous and provocative definitions for ‘a state’:

a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory. (Weber 1919)

Whether you agree or disagree with Weber’s definition, it is worth noting how virtually every celebration of nationhood (anywhere in the world) is manifested by a commemoration of military prowess. Whether you live in Canada or North Korea — whether you parade your mounties or your missile silos — it seems impossible for us to say, ‘We are a state’ without simultaneously amplifying and showcasing our militaristic sovereignty. Apparently, you can’t celebrate a nation without celebrating its military — the ‘Canada 150’ extravaganza in Ottawa being no exception. (It might also be worth speculating how fireworks serve the penultimate function of conspicuous consumption — ‘Look! We have the power to randomly blow up lots of shit!’ — as a benign fanfare of nationalistic-cum-militaristic identity.)

If we follow Weber’s definition, it would be naïve to think of Canadian identity as just a pleasant ‘shared idea’ to which we all happily subscribe. Our national anthem is not a quaint version of kumbaya but a highly overt declaration of our commitment to patriotic sacrifice. However, I’m guessing most celebrants of Canada’s so-called sesquicentennial were not amassing to consciously cheer on their military. Perhaps this is another dilemma of being Canadian: perhaps ‘we’ refers to the identity of a nation who does not want to worry about who has the ‘monopoly’ on the legitimate use of violence? (As Machiavellian as it sounds, I think it is fair to say that Canada certainly speaks as a nation who has not had to worry about being invaded for a very long time.) Perhaps our eagerness to describe ourselves as international ‘peacekeepers’ stems from a deeply rooted cognitive dissonance.

If Trudeau’s ‘we’ refers to the institution of our sovereign nation state, then ‘we’ ultimately means the federal government. (After all, who possesses the power the set the date of a national birthday in the first place? Who else would arbitrarily delineate their point of origin to the signing of a confederation?) If this is the case, we could rewrite the speech: “The federal government of Canada does not care where you’re from, what religion you practice, or whom you love.”

On the one hand, this sounds refreshingly non-paternalistic. (Is this not the ideal we should expect from a free, healthy, liberal democracy? In a world full of oppressive regimes and dictators, does this not deserve to be celebrated?) On the other hand, it gets to the crux of the ‘Canada 150’ controversy: is all the hype about July 1, 2017, not ultimately just a big federally-sponsored party to celebrate the institution of the government itself? And if, since the date of its highly self-popularizing inauguration, this organization had gone on to violate your land treaties, forcibly remove your children from your home, and exploit your resources, would you not be forgiven for protesting the festivities? In fact, you might even be forgiven for questioning why so many other residents in the land uncritically don red and white and line the streets of the parade.

Many of us find ourselves with a difficult question: how do you celebrate ideas — like equality, human rights, and freedom — under the auspice of an institution that has — like all federal governments the world over — repeatedly failed to manifest them in practice?

What better way to celebrate a value than to act on it?

After all, if the ideas of equality, human rights, and freedom are what truly define us as the ‘we’ of Canada, then our collective identity itself is no stronger than the most discriminatory or exploitative policy of the governments we elect.

External links for further reading:

UNsettling Canada 150

Not everyone will be celebrating Canada 150 this weekend. Here’s why.

Facile ‘Canada 150’ celebration deserves to be disrupted

150 years of cultural genocide: Today, like all days, is an insult

Can you celebrate Canada 150 and still respect Indigenous rights?

‘You’re celebrating colonization’: 4 Indigenous people share why they won’t be singing O Canada on July 1


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