Professor Henry Srebrnik

Professor Henry Srebrnik

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

May 16, 2006

A few brickbats.

Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

Many years ago, I used to read a newspaper that handed out bouquets and brickbats on its editorial page – the flowers for positive items, the criticisms for negative ones.

It doesn’t take much to come up with the latter, unfortunately. All you need to do is read a few days’ worth of news items in The Guardian or elsewhere. Here are my “three picks” this week:

First item: One of the founders of Canadian Parents for French, Patterson Webster, told the graduating class at the University of Prince Edward Island convocation last week that French immersion programs in Canada have been an amazing success story.

But it turns out that of the candidates vying for the leadership of the federal Liberal Party, fewer than half can function adequately in French. A recent news story declared that only five of the 11 hopefuls are truly bilingual.

Remember – these are Liberals, not redneck Reformers! They’re almost all from Ontario, not Alberta! And they are all the ideological disciples of Pierre Trudeau, the father of official bilingualism.

Clearly, despite French immersion programs, something is amiss with our language policies. This is something the Bloc Québécois will no doubt make certain Quebecers won’t fail to notice.

My next brickbat: When the Canadian dollar languished below 65 cents a few years ago, then prime minister Jean Chrétien insisted that a cheap currency was actually of benefit to Canada – it helped exporters, he claimed, even if it did mean that the rest of us were left with reduced purchasing power, or less money with which to travel in the United States or Europe.

Now, however, it turns out that trade-off wasn’t even necessary.

According to economist Stephen Poloz of Export Development Canada, the belief that a strong dollar hurts exporters is a myth. He told the Greater Charlottetown Area Chamber of Commerce recently that Canadian exports actually declined during that period.

So much for Chrétien’s words of wisdom; I guess he missed the Economics 101 lecture on currencies while at university. Let’s hope that the next time he visits the U.S., he asks the bank to give him 65 cents U.S. for every one of his loonies.

Finally, we have the case of our Governor General, the representative of our head of state, Queen Elizabeth II, lecturing Haitians on democracy while representing this country at the inauguration of Haitian president René Préval last week. Michaëlle Jean returned to her country of birth for the first time since being appointed in September 2005.

Préval won a disputed election last February, replacing a U.S.-backed interim administration appointed after the radical Jean-Bertrand Aristide fled the country in February 2004 in the face of a bloody armed rebellion. He had been elected president of Haiti in November 2000.

Aristide’s opponents charged him with corruption and of having created a climate of murder and terror. He claimed he was forced out because he had been trying to alleviate the condition of Haiti’s destitute and hungry masses.

Aristide, currently living in exile in South Africa, still has many supporters in Haiti, the poorest country in the western hemisphere, with annual per-capita income of about $400.

Though independent since 1804, when a successful slave rebellion ended French rule, Haiti has rarely been a politically or economically happy place. Throughout its turbulent history, it has usually been ruled by rapacious dictators. From 1915 to 1934, it was even occupied by U.S. Marines.

To Haiti’s impoverished majority, Préval is little more than an American (and Canadian) puppet, kept in power on the bayonets of the foreign troops serving with the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti.

Indeed, 4,500 UN troops and Haitian police in armoured personnel carriers and on foot cordoned off the areas where the ceremony was held.

There is little doubt that political violence and lawlessness will remain a feature of the country’s landscape. The struggle between Aristide’s followers and the Haitian elite is total, a reflection of the chasm between radically opposed sectors of Haitian society.

One side is Black, Creole-speaking, illiterate, disenfranchised; the other a privileged French-speaking Mulatto elite, often educated abroad. They don’t speak the same language and don’t have the same shared culture or history.

For poorer Haitians, Jean is representative of this latter group and they will not be as favourably impressed by her comments as we in Canada have been.

In any case, hers is a ceremonial, not elective, position, and therefore not a pulpit from which to dispense advice to the rulers and citizens of foreign countries. Aren’t many Canadians angry when George W. Bush does the same? Jean is not Peter MacKay, our foreign minister. And she should in any case not sound like like a colonial official.

Brickbats, brickbats, everywhere.

Friday, May 05, 2006

May 5, 2006

As Fijians go to the polls.

Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

Another election, yet more ethnic animosity. Such has been the sad story of the South Pacific island state of Fiji ever since it gained its independence from Britain in 1970.

Fijians go to the polls Saturday to elect a government, but no matter who wins, political harmony will probably again be the loser.

Ethnic Fijians account for 54 percent of Fiji’s 900,000 people, Indo-Fijians 38 percent, and Chinese, Europeans and Pacific Islanders make up the remainder.

The indigenous Fijians have historically been opposed to sharing power with Indo-Fijians, who came to the islands from India between 1879 and 1916 to work as labourers in the sugar plantations.

From the start, the two communities had little in common. While most native Fijians had been converted to Methodist Christianity, the Indians were Hindus and Muslims. They spoke different languages. And the economic system instituted by the colonial state compartmentalized the two ethnic groups.

The main area of contention between the Indians and the ethnic Fijians has been the land question. In order to preserve the Fijian way of life, the British had reserved 83% of the total land area of Fiji for the native Fijians in perpetuity. It could not be sold but only rented; it belonged to Fijian clan entities known as mataqali, each headed by a tribal chief.

By the 1940s, most Indian sugar-cane workers had come to lease the land they worked from Fijian clans. But this small leasehold system forced Indians into a precarious existence, since they could not own outright the land on which they depended for their livelihood.

From 1970 until 1987, the Alliance Party, led by one of Fiji’s powerful paramount chiefs, Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, governed the country. Indians, despite their legal disabilities, had come to dominate commerce and the professions, and were the mainstay of a rural economy which depended on the sugar cane industry, but they took a back seat when it came to exercising power.

All of that changed in 1987, when the newly-formed Labour Party won a general election. Most native Fijians considered it a vehicle for Indian political power and one month later, an army colonel, Sitiveni Rabuka, overthrew the government and installed himself as ruler of Fiji.

Rabuka’s new Fijian Republic would spend the next decade as an economic and political pariah and he finally allowed a return to civilian rule. A new democratic constitution was promulgated in 1997 and in the 1999 general election, the revived Labour Party emerged with an absolute majority. For the first time in their history, Fijians found themselves governed by an Indo-Fijian politician, Mahendra Chaudhry – but not for long.

Once again ethnic Fijian nationalists resorted to violence and in 2000 Chaudhry’s government was overthrown in a coup led by an ethnic Fijian, George Speight. Following a period of political chaos, the powers of government were transferred to an interim administration, with no Indo-Fijian representation, appointed by the military. The new prime minister, Laisenia Qarase, was an ethnic Fijian.

The 1987 and 2000 coups shook Indian confidence and many expressed anger at their treatment by a political class that considered them little better than aliens. Since then, more than 60,000 Indians have left the country, professionals in particular.

New parliamentary elections were held in 2001 and Qarase’s Soqosoqo Duavata ni Lewenivanua (SDL) or United Fiji Party emerged victorious, with 32 of the 71 seats in the House of Representatives, five more than Labour’s 27.

Qarase’s government, not surprisingly, has done little to ameliorate the condition of Indo-Fijian farmers. Their long-term leases, most of which have come up for renewal in recent years, have in many cases not been extended. Planters found themselves evicted from their land, little more than economic refugees.

In the current election Qarase and Chaudhry, who remain bitter enemies, are again leading their respective parties. Indeed, the election process itself, instead of evolving into a mechanism of unity and legitimacy, has become a battleground of inter-ethnic strife.

In its manifesto, the SDL continues to maintain that all agricultural land should be managed by ethnic Fijian bodies, in accordance with the wishes of the landowners, while the Labour Party hopes to improve the position of the Indo-Fijian farmers.

Even now many ethnic Fijians refuse to consider the possibility of an Indo-Fijian leader. Qarase recently stated that Chaudhry “is not a Fijian” and he has also broached the possibility of an amnesty for Speight, who received a life sentence for treason in 2002.

The last two decades have spawned a culture of lawlessness and intimidation in Fiji. And should Qarase’s SDL again triumph, the lot of Indo-Fijians will continue to be an unpleasant one.