Madam Speaker, this morning we are debating the entirely uncontroversial proposition that the House should recognize and celebrate the abolition of slavery throughout the British Empire. That abolition happened by act of Parliament on August 1, 1834.
Throughout most of human history, and in most parts of the world, slavery in various forms was simply normal. It was a given that people would be owned, bought and sold. Today, perhaps we are inclined to view abolition as the inevitable discovery of some obvious truth, but in historical terms we can see that the abolition of slavery was neither obvious nor inevitable.
In the 19th century, the idea that slavery should be abolished was controversial. Today, it is not. For some of us, this is an occasion to double down on Hegelian ideas about the inevitability of progress and to congratulate ourselves on our superiority over our ancestors.
However, the abolition of slavery, especially in the British Empire, was not part of some inevitable or irresistible trend of history. It was rather the result of a particular intellectual political and theological movement that successfully persuaded both decision-makers and the public. If that movement had failed in its efforts to convince Parliament and the British people, then slavery would have continued, just as other forms of violence and oppression have continued.
The ideas that led to the abolition of slavery were also contingent on a prevailing morality. This prevailing morality has been anything but universal in human history and has been rejected at times by both primitive societies and extremely sophisticated societies.
Today, we celebrate emancipation, but often without properly acknowledging the precariousness of the moral substructure that led to emancipation, or how the moral arguments that were used in this case should have implications in other cases.
With this mind, it might be worth asking ourselves where we would be if emancipation had not happened. What if slavery were still a live question in our politics today, either in terms of a continuing domestic slave market or an international slave market, with Canadians who invest in foreign stocks being able to profit from them? What might the arguments in this place look like if that were in fact the case?
Some, I assume, would argue for the abolition of slavery on the grounds that it violates the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, but sadly slavery has often co-existed with constitutional doctrines of human rights. After finding that all men were created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, the United States persisted in permitting slavery for almost 100 years. So, demonstrably, the existence of human rights doctrines does not guarantee the actual protection of human rights; it simply increases the chances that public debates will be denominated in terms of human rights.
In a hypothetical era of modern slavery co-existing with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, some would certainly use the charter to argue for the rights of enslaved persons, but others would argue that enslaved persons should not be considered persons under the Constitution or that rights doctrines should be interpreted in a way that does not interfere with the cultural rights of slave-holding jurisdictions, or that certain rights could be abridged for the sake of the national interest in accordance with section one, and politicians would appoint judges who shared their interpretation of the idea of human rights in this context and then defer to those same judges when decisions were made that they agreed with.
As de Tocqueville observed in Democracy in America, the manners of a people are substantially more important than their laws. Any critics of slavery would hear a certain amount of “what aboutism”. “How can you focus on this issue”, they would be asked, “when there are many other problems as well?” They would be criticized as hypocritical for opposing slavery, if they did not also advocate for the kinds of social programs and supports that would ensure a happy and comfortable life for people after they were free.
If slavery existed as a modern institution, its critics would likely face some forms of rhetorical cancellation. Their ideas would be called dangerous, and their descriptions of injustice called misinformation. Debates would be cancelled on the grounds that the issue had already been settled. Pseudoscientific arguments would be advanced to suggest that racism was grounded in empirical evidence. This has certainly happened in the past.
There would be economic arguments. Abolitionists would craftily make the case that abolishing slavery would be good for our economy, and perhaps build alliances with domestic labour groups who would see unpaid labour as a threat to the interests of their members. However, others would argue that the increase in production facilitated by slavery would create more cheap products for consumers. They would also say that some products would inevitably be produced by slave labour in an integrated global trading system. “Why abolish slavery here”, they would say, “when it would simply lead to an increase in slavery and slave production in other jurisdictions, hurting our economy and not actually doing anything to reduce the global aggregate amount of slavery?”
Some would argue that any restrictions on the importation of slave-made products would simply be an excuse for protectionism, which would violate the letter or at least the spirit of our WTO commitments, and that Canadian investors must be able to invest their money anywhere so as to maximize their return on investment, because any politicization of investment decisions would start us down a slippery slope and prevent the necessary diversification of investments that helps ensure the security of Canadians' retirement savings.
If we were speaking of slavery in an international context, would Canadian companies be willing to produce the implements and tools of human oppression for export, or would we intervene to prevent such export, even if doing so would cost us jobs, or might government decide to simply leave the question to individual conscience? Certainly if slavery were prevalent around the world today, we would hear the arguments of so-called foreign policy realists and international moral relativists. They would say that even if slavery runs contrary to Canadian values, we would have to engage with countries around the world to practice it and not seek to impose our ways on them.
Efforts to promote the abolition of slavery in other countries might be portrayed as a new form of colonialism. The pursuit of engagement would be used to justify turning a blind eye. Perhaps we would find it strategically necessary to align with slave-trading powers at moments where we were annoyed by the antics of other free nations. Who could doubt that if the Confederate States of America had successfully separated from the United States of America, we might find occasion to partner with the Confederate States of America in order to resist the thoughtless and boorish interventions by some administration or other of the United States that we did not like.
Parliamentary committees might hear from the Confederate States business council about how we should raise human rights issues in private, but not do anything that would damage its southern pride. Imagine if the Confederate States were hosting the Olympics, the 2024 Montgomery games. Would we use the occasion for taking a resolute moral stance or would we close our eyes and think of the athletes?
Grave injustices always look clear in the rear view mirror, especially when past victims or their descendants have the power to be heard, even in Parliament itself. Today Parliament will come together to celebrate the emancipation that took place in 1834. I doubt cabinet will abstain from this vote, but injustices that are before us instead of behind us never seem to be quite as simple or as clear, and too often the response of this place in those cases is simply the sound of silence.
There is slavery in our world today. Imagine half a million people forced to pick cotton under the hot sun. I am not talking about the antebellum south. I am talking about modern China, the world's most populous nation and second-largest economy, which is expanding its colonial footprint throughout the world with the help of Canadian investments, including our tax dollars in the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and investments by the CPP Investment Board a couple of years ago in Chinese state-affiliated companies developing the technology for the administration of Uighur mass enslavement and genocide. Canada lags behind in its response to supply-chain slavery and we have a serious domestic problem of human trafficking, which has been widely ignored and the prevention of which has been badly underfunded in recent years.
I congratulate the member for Richmond Hill for bringing forward this motion, but I would challenge him to step up and do more to call for freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law for the people of Iran, rather than mischaracterizing their current repressive regime as democratic. Our world today is seething with injustice, present injustice and certainly complicated injustice. The solutions that we should pursue are not always obvious, but the stakes are no less high than they were 200 years ago.
In our present reality, I often find it frustrating to see that people are more willing to condemn injustice perpetuated by the weak than to condemn injustice perpetuated by the strong. It is much easier to condemn weak racists as part of a social pileup, a Girardian scapegoating ritual, rather than to be the first to stand up and condemn an injustice being committed by someone who is as yet still powerful.
Many of us will have grown up with the classic Disneyfication of good and evil. In old Disney films, good and evil characters are easy to identify right at the outset, but in real life, those committing or who are complicit in evil often think of themselves as doing good. This is something that Disney itself probably understands after producing Mulan. In real life, it is not so much that people start out good or evil and act in accordance with their nature; it is more that of people with the same natures and aspirations rendering themselves good or evil by their actions, which serve to degrade or elevate them.
I was reflecting on this point recently after reading the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. In one section, he discusses being purchased by a woman, whom he describes as a generally kind and gracious person. He is the first slave she has owned. He also describes her becoming meaner and crueler as she is degraded by the institution of slavery. Slavery's contemporary critics never failed to notice the powerful degrading impact that the institution had on slave owners, people who begin life just as we all do, but who degraded themselves through their participation in it and evil actions, which were justified and normalized by the societies in which they lived.
William Wilberforce and others, including many of the oppressed who were themselves protagonists to the drum of their own emancipation, fought for the abolition of slavery in defiance of the spirit of the times. They were told to put aside their faith, their moralizing and their impoliteness and to get with the social program, but they refused. It is because they stood in Parliament and did what was hard, instead of what was easy, that we now find it so easy to celebrate Emancipation Day.