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Injustice? Un-participate...

By petra - Posted on 20 February 2013


Living on an island, we can see the ocean so we know that the land we live on is finite. Vancouver Island is huge, of course, so it can be easy to forget we’re surround by water, but on little islands, especially little islands way out in the sea, it is obvious that the space for humans is limited.

Over the weekend, I was reading about a south-pacific island called Yap (it’s also called Wa'ab by the people who live there), and I learned something that I think is important. Yap is a small, super remote island where once-upon-a-time humans had to be entirely self-sufficient. Obviously there were no supermarkets, but there also was nowhere to migrate when food was scarce or villages got overcrowded. People were stuck there, with whatever resources they could gather from the land & sea. Apparently, people on Yap dealt with this problem by creating a caste system, in which some people were considered more important or high-caste, and others were believed to be less worthy or low-caste.

On Yap, you were born into your caste, but unmarried women and younger sons could also be demoted into a lower caste if the population grew too high. The low caste was prevented from eating the good food, owning or farming the land, and owning valuable property. They were the people who suffered when food was scarce. In effect, the low caste acted as a buffer against famine and scarcity for the high caste. They could get sick or die without anyone getting too fussed, as long as the high caste people were protected. This arrangement was bizarre & unjust, of course, but worked quite well to ensure that some people always had enough food to survive and thrive, and thereby could continue living on the little island of Yap. Even during bountiful times, when there was more than enough for everyone, the low caste people were forbidden to eat the good food, because they were still required to act as a buffer in the future when times got hard again.

As I said, sometimes it’s easier to see certain things when one lives on an island.

My question is: how are we any different?

It’s not as obvious. It’s way more subtle. But in what ways do we also have a caste system, right here on Vancouver Island? In what ways do we keep groups of people down, to suffer when times get hard, to act as a buffer against scarcity and want? Why is it that it is somehow acceptable for Indigenous kids, or poor kids, to go hungry and live with neglect while other kids get treated like royalty?

Every time the parents at my kid’s elementary schools started fundraising for newer, fancier playground equipment, I would say “when there are no more hungry kids in this city, then let’s consider improving our children’s play time” (which, judging by the hundreds of thousands of dollars that are continually raised & spent on fancy new play structures, while kids STILL go hungry in Victoria on a daily basis, remains an unpopular point of view).

But this caste-buffer thing. I have never thought about it in quite this way before, but now I think I do. And I’m also thinking that maybe if we understand it, we can do something about it. It seems to me that a social structure like this requires our participation. So we need to pay attention so we can find out how we are (knowingly or unknowingly) participating. No matter which side of the caste system we find ourselves on. And then we need to find creative ways to un-participate. To start with, if we find ourselves on the bum-end of the caste system we can remind ourselves (and our kids) on that it doesn’t define us, and we can find ways to deviate from the expectations the caste system has of us. If we are reaping the benefits of the system, we can sow. And do with less. And teach our kids to do with less. And share.

Living together on an island we have an opportunity to recreate and restructure our expectations & beliefs, and therefore our society, with universal community well-being as the new expectation.

Come on. Let’s un-participate. It’ll be fun.