Two University of Manitoba associate professors met last Thursday in a round-table discussion with students to debate ideas of liberalism, indigenous political theories, and human rights in a talk titled “Human Rights for All in the Canadian Context.”
Associate professors Kiera Ladner and Steven Lecce led the talk that saw Canada’s relationship with the land’s first inhabitants discussed in the language of contemporary politics, with a critical re-examination of liberalism.
Lecce started the discussion.
“I wrote my PhD as a defence of one type of liberalism and a critique of another, so it was an internal debate. It was largely motivated by a dissatisfaction with the word “liberalism.” It seemed to be a vacuous label for a vacuous category, or things that incorporated all sorts of radically incompatible things. We can talk about liberalisms as a family of ideas, as a family of political theories, but defending or attacking something called liberalism seemed to be fundamentally misguided, and it’s usually a way of defending or attacking a straw man,” he said.
Following his introduction, Lecce laid out a case for the concept of a universal set of human rights, and advanced the argument that such universalism can in fact exist.
“Think about the moral rights of all people in all situations. If there are such rights, then people are justly entitled to certain things, in all situations, simply because they’re people,” posited Lecce.
“First, because they’re universal, there aren’t going to be very many of them. Second, their formulation is going to have to be highly generalized or abstract – otherwise, they’re not going to include everyone.”
Ladner, on the other hand, took issue with the possibility of universality, and offered a different interpretation of human rights.
“My understanding of human rights comes from an understanding that there is no universal. For me, the universality of human rights really begins—for a lack of better words—when white people have the lands that they want [ . . . ] Once indigenous lands are in the hands of Europeans, it’s okay for Aboriginal people to be recognized as having some semblance of rights [ . . . ] their humanity can be recognized, and afforded the same rights and privileges as other human beings.”
Ladner currently holds a Canada research chair focusing on indigenous politics and governance, constitutional reconciliation, and decolonization. She is an associate professor in the political studies department at the U of M.
Ladner emphasized that Eurocentric schools of thought, grounded in the tradition of John Locke (namely, liberalism), have served to “justify and legitimize the colonial system and the systematic oppression of indigenous peoples.”
Lecce responded that while Locke did justify many atrocities, he sees the problem as being that liberal thought has not been applied properly or thoroughly enough in the relationship between settlers and indigenous people.
“Nothing in the treatment of contemporary Aboriginals would satisfy liberal principles of justice [ . . . ] I guess I would like to make a plea that you don’t have to go outside of liberalism to make destructive arguments of the treatment of Aboriginals today.”
Lecce, the political studies department head, specializes in contemporary political theory, with an emphasis on “theories of social and distributive justice; the ethical bases of liberalism; democratic theory; and children, families, and the state.” He is the author of the 2008 book Against Perfectionism: Defending Liberal Neutrality, and is co-organizing the Fragile Freedoms lecture series at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg.
The event was sponsored by Student Services, and organized by Rebecca Kunzman and Chrissi Fischer, from the global political economy and political studies programs, respectively.