Robbie Burns’ day marks injustice

This month, many people in Stikine will celebrate the birthday of a leader who worked against political and cultural injustice

Many of those living in Stikine and B.C. will celebrate the birthday of a leader who worked against political and cultural injustice this month and although the gatherings will mark a 255-year anniversary the messages delivered by Robert Burns remain very relevant in this province today.

Burns, of course, was the “ploughman’s poet” who provided political and cultural commentary on the lives faced by Scottish impoverished rural labourers during his lifetime from 1759-1796. In his day the Scottish clan system was under attack and cultural symbols like tartans, kilts and the writing of Gaelic were banned. It was in this context that Burns simple writing in dialect was a subversive political act. His proving that poetry could be written for, and enjoyed, by the peasant class made him a statesman.

During his lifetime the Highland clearances were in full swing where Lords conducted mass, enforced emigration off clan territories to open up the land to more lucrative sheep farming and create a ready supply of cheap labour.  Instances of brutality and the injustice of the clearances led Burns to write “Address of Beelzebub” where Satan is writing to the Lords telling them what a good job they are doing with the troublesome, starving Highlanders and assuring the rulers there will be a well-deserved seat waiting for them at his side in hell.

The poems of Burns from more than 250 years ago eerily describe events in B.C. when we consider our relationship with aboriginal peoples.  Similar to the banning of Highland dress, regalia of Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en was burned publicly in the early 1900s and the federal law banning feasting, the basic governance forum, was not rescinded until 1951. Like in Burns’ day, communicating in the local dialect was seen as inferior: aboriginal children were taken from their families and sent to residential schools in B.C. from 1861 to 1983 where they were punished for speaking their own language.

Land clearances are similar too. Many First Nations were moved off their territories and the example of Gitanyow members who were forced onto reserve in the 1950s is not uncommon. One of their hereditary leaders was arrested and spent time in the Ocala maximum security prison for resisting B.C.’s version of the clearances.

And these days the provincial government is still behaving in a manner reminiscent of the injustices of Burn’s day.  Under the B.C. minister of justice, government lawyers in the Williams’ case argued in front of the Supreme Court of Canada in December that the Tsilhqot’in have no aboriginal title on their traditional territory because they “had no definite boundaries” and it is all Crown land because Gov. James Douglas proclaimed it so in 1859.

So if you are inclined to raise a “wee dram” this Jan. 25, consider the injustices the ploughman’s poet was addressing in his writing and what you are inclined to do about the ones perpetuated by our provincial government today.

Doug Donaldson

Stikine MLA