Mexico’s Indigenous experience a lesson for Canada

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Brian GiesbrechtMexico offers a social model that Canada should consider.

Oaxaca is one of the best preserved colonial cities in Mexico. It has a bustling centre, rich with busy markets – street vendors and music wherever you go.

Oaxaca state has the largest percentage of Indigenous people in Mexico. Zapotec, Mixtec and other peoples mingle in the city, although most live in villages in the three surrounding valleys. Sixteen culturally distinct groups are represented, each with its own language and dialects.

The Olmec came first, then Zapotec, Mixtec, Aztec and, finally, the Spanish. Each group rose, fell and ultimately mixed in with the others.

Mexicans are basically Metis. Some have more Spanish blood and are lighter complexioned, others darker and more Indigenous. Their culture is deep and rich.

The Indigenous groups govern themselves at the local level, according to their traditional ways. This includes dealing with less serious crimes and seeing to the usual administrative duties needed to keep villages and rural areas functioning.

Despite such diversity, all Mexicans are equal in law, taking pride that the Mexican constitution makes everyone equal citizens.

In Mexico, there are no status cards providing one group with superior rights. There are no special financial privileges and everyone pays taxes. Mexicans take pride in the fact that they are self-reliant.

While alcohol abuse is a problem – mainly the traditional pulque that Indigenous have made from agave since time immemorial – it’s not nearly the massive problem that it is in Canada’s Indigenous communities.

So the Mexican status quo is quite unlike that which prevails in Canada, where Indigenous have status cards, special laws, special financial privileges and special tax exemptions based purely on race. Mexico has no separate system, and Mexico’s Indigenous communities don’t have the welfare dependency and alcohol-related child neglect problems that exist in many Canadian Indigenous communities.

Another striking difference between the Indigenous people of Mexico (basically everyone) and Canada’s Indigenous people is that in Mexico, there’s no sense of the grievance and victimhood that consumes Canada’s Indigenous people. Mexico lacks the endless series of victim inquiries and other demands on the federal government. Mexicans have no overriding belief that others are responsible for all their problems. Nor do Mexicans have the sense of helplessness and dependency on the federal government and mainstream taxpayers. Mexicans are independent, self-reliant and proud of their independence.

And this seems odd, because as Mexican history unfolded, there was no shortage of brutality and unfairness. Dominant tribes victimized weaker ones. And, when the Spanish arrived, brutality went off the scale. The encomienda system the Spanish introduced held the Indians in virtual slavery for 500 years. And the Catholic Church acted both as exploiter and protector. If one wanted to identify themselves as victim, the Indigenous people of Mexico would have good reason to make that claim. But they haven’t.

The Spanish were among the most brutal conquerors of old. The British in North America were pussycats compared to the fierce conquistadors. Spanish conquerors brutalized and exploited the Indigenous mercilessly.

Yet one only has to walk down a street in Oaxaca to recognize the contribution made by the Spanish. Their language served to unite the country. Their religion, remedied by the Mexican state takeover of all church property, still brings great comfort to much of the population. Oaxaca has beautiful churches on virtually every street corner. While the Spanish brought great suffering, they also made a tremendous contribution to what Mexico is today.

That’s not to say that Mexico lacks problems. Poverty is evident. In Oaxaca, one of the poorest states, most people get by on the minimum wage of 80 pesos a day (80 pesos can buy a sandwich and a Coke at a tourist restaurant). There are the usual tensions between areas and among groups – Mexico has its politics. And Mexico, being next door to a northern neighbour with an insatiable appetite for illegal drugs, suffers from the tragedy of cartel corruption and violence.

Yet despite these problems, there’s a real sense of brotherhood and sisterhood between Mexicans of all descents. And, with that, a strong sense of pride that everyone is equal under the law.

Mexico’s diversity is honoured and, while every citizen can celebrate their culture in their own way, there’s strong recognition that every citizen is, first and foremost, a Mexican. Every Mexican is equal under the law.

Brian Giesbrecht, a retired judge, is a senior fellow at Frontier Centre For Public Policy.

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The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

By Brian Giesbrecht

Brian Giesbrecht was a Provincial Court Judge in Manitoba from 1976 to 2007. During that time he served as Acting Chief Judge, and Associate Chief Judge. He is now retired and lives in western Manitoba.

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