Robert-Falcon Ouellette is in the process of introducing the Indian Residential School Genocide and Reconciliation Memorial Day Act in the House of Commons. Not everyone likes this idea of having a day each year to “dredge up” or “dwell” on something that’s, you know, like, over and done with.
I’d guess that most people feel that way, actually.
And there is a wide variety of ways for naysayers to tell us why the Residential Schools Outrage doesn’t need to keep being brought up:
- “It was a different time, and I wasn’t around for it, and we need to move on, already, jeez…”
- “My family is from India/Russia/Paraguay/Equestria so I don’t see why it has anything to do with us or any other New Canadians”
- “It was the churches who did it, not the government. Blame the churchies for it. (and Praise Sagan/Hitchens/The Flying Spaghetti Monster, while we’re at it)”
- “Those aboriginals already get free money all the friggin time, man, so it’s not like they need some new form of handout and/or pat on the back”
But one of the newer ones I’ve seen, which I think is a much more clever way for someone to delude themselves, is this one:
“This was years ago, it’s in the past, and the First Peoples have not only survived, but thrived. And that’s what I choose to celebrate.”
That’s very similar to the way the German people hold their annual Siewillkommenfürdenholocaustjudenfurfünfzigjahreseinerunterstützungfürdenisrael-FEST, or, as we know it, the “You’re Welcome for the Holocaust, Jews, Since It Gave You Fifty-ish Years of Support For the State of Israel” festival. That, of course, is on January 27th of every year, when parties break out in the night clubs of Berlin, Munich, and Buchenwald. In addition to the Rabbi-shaped piñatas — coloured pink so the gays don’t feel left out — there are ceremonial circumcisions of bratwurst and cocktails made with passover herbs and gin, which is considered by Germans to be the “jewiest” of liquors. This is all done to the beats of gypsy music, which is meant to remind the Roma people that despite continuing worldwide persecution before, during, and after the Nazi death camps, that they should be happy to be mentioned at all. Which makes sense: it’s not like people even bother talking about the RMS Lusitania, when the RMS Titanic wins out by sheer number of dead passengers and heartbreaking made-up love stories.
So here I am, comparing a 60-80% successful (my best out-of-the-rump guess) attempt at cultural genocide with a 30-50% successful gun-and-gas genocide, and mentioning those naughty Nazis, no less. So are the two events related at all?
Well, the events that took place are not the same. At all. And the motivations were not the same, either. I do believe that the misinformed and paternalistic authorities in Canada were (for the most part) thinking they were doing the right thing for white people and for the “indians”, though I don’t doubt for a moment that they all knew it was a little more right for the whites. It’s simple: they didn’t want to kill anyone, but they wanted the “race” of First Peoples to die out. So what could they do? They could try and make the indian children as white (and Christian) as possible, so that in a hundred years, the only trace of them would be fewer freckles and blonde mops in the Canadian populace, like in the United States today where practically every white person is 3/57 Cherokee (an exact genetic measurement, I’m guessing).
So best case for the First Peoples of Canada, in the opinion of Her Majesty’s (Queen Victoria, that other Her) Government? That their children and grandchildren will survive with no connection to the culture of their ancestors. But as we’ve seen, even that unethical best case didn’t happen, because there is a great deal of collateral damage that comes from taking children away from their families and leaving them orphaned and isolated from their culture for a decade or two, and then tossing them into a society that still views them as the other (and the lesser). Of course, not all of these children survived, since over three Titanic’s worth of them (6,000 that we have an idea of) didn’t actually live long enough to find out what happens after the demoralization and abuses of the residential school.
What happens after? You could try to describe it as a sort of societal breakdown, where the children of the schools feel alien to their families and communities, where a lack of appropriate care and attention to pyschosocial development (Erik Erikson-style) has led to a crisis of identity and its resulting issues of abuse, both to others and to oneself. Or you could call it cultural genocide, since that’s what a number of scholars believe.
And the mostly well-meaning but very wrong officials who came up with the plan also bear responsibility for the buttload of “bad apples” who spoiled the whole orchard, not that the orchard wasn’t already covered in rotting batshit. It’s not hard at all to find the testimony of former students who were beaten for speaking their language, beaten for a whole pile of arbitrary reasons (or for no reason at all), or sexually abused because there was no one around who could or would protect them. This happened to non-aboriginal children as well, such as orphans at Mount Cashel Orphanage in Newfoundland, or the man I knew personally who remembered quite well how the nuns in Alberta would use beatings as a primary form of punishment on him. I’m not sure if it’s better or worse to know that that unlike many of the children at those orphanages across Canada, the tens of thousands of children at residential schools had parents at home, but those parents could still do nothing to help them.
But that was in the past, friends. Like we’re talking twenty years ago, which is similar to the cut-off for declaring your rusted-out gas-guzzling beater a classic automobile. That guy I knew has been dead for fifteen years, and most of the last survivors are getting older, too. It’s not like we still have any issues affecting our First Peoples, no substandard water supply or housing, no serious governance crisis involving cronyism and misallocation of funds, no constant stream of racism against aboriginals that every resident of Winnipeg has seen in front of their very eyes.
Personal experience time: I would say that a full 25-50% of the people I know in my life, whether they are friends, coworkers, or relatives, have personally demonstrated to me that they view aboriginals as “less-than”. That’s not like that one uncle who talks about nuking the rag-heads in the middle east, or that one mentally-ill white man I found wandering down Market Street in San Francisco screaming about “the damn niggers”. It’s up to half of the people I know who’ve made jokes, offhand comments, or full-on declarations to me that it’s the aboriginals who are the problem, and that they need less paydays and coddling, and more tough love from their big brothers. So not really that different than the thought process from 170 years ago that led to these schools in the first place.
And I’m not innocent. Just so you know, when it comes to every bad thing, I rarely am. Nowadays I still find myself skirting around the racist comments, only confronting when the mood strikes me. And in the past, I’d made a few of those jokes myself, because I like jokes, and I’d never given much thought to where those jokes come from or what they’re meant to do. They were never meant as a good-natured jab between friends, or an edgy social critique on whatever. They were meant to make us think of other people as being worth less.
That’s not really funny, is it? I mean, even supporters of the Conservative Party of Canada are human beings worthy of respect. Yes. Even them.
So it’s not the event that is comparable to the Holocaust. But what we need to contrast is the response, the difference between German schoolchildren having been taught the horrors of what their country did for the past seventy years, while in Canada our national shame is glazed-over like a box of Timbits. How it would be considered an extremist Neo-Nazi position to praise the Holocaust in Nuremburg, while residential school victim-shaming in Winnipeg is considered a form of intellectual debate.
Wait, what? Who is shaming the victims?
Sorry, pal. But the thing about our friendly Canadian attempt at cultural genocide is that a large majority (IF NOT ALL) of our one and a half million First Peoples are still dealing with the repercussions of an act perpetrated by OUR GOVERNMENT. That makes Canada the victimizer, and, yes, our First Peoples the victims. That doesn’t mean they are helpless, or pitiful, or broken down husks of humanity. But it means that when someone calls into question the notion that First Peoples’ communities aren’t still affected by the residential schools system, that person is whitewashing the crime, and through that no-pun-intended whitewashing, saying that it’s unjust and unfair for the people OUR GOVERNMENT WRONGED to expect us to even accept what happened and how those terrible acts are still affecting their lives today.
You don’t get to decide how our First Peoples should feel. Or how they should respond to what happened to their families and communities and cultures. Are there serious problems within many of those families and communities? I don’t think anyone is arguing otherwise. What I’m saying is that unless you’re living each and every experience of those affected by residential schools, you cannot decide when this historical shame is no longer applicable. You don’t get to choose when everyone “should just get over it”.
So what do we need to do? We, as in all Canadians?
It’s not up to me to decide what the First Peoples should do. What I do believe could help is a real nation-wide dialogue (I’d like to see a constitutional convention, actually) between all First Peoples, where representatives of all the various nations meet (not just chiefs, but also representatives of minority or underrepresented groups), where experts from outside are also invited to provide their experience and suggestions. There are people from around the world who have faced similar issues and have implemented solutions that worked. There are also people who are experts in finding consensus, and people who are experts in drafting the kind of documents and action items that are needed for progress to be achieved.
From this congress, I’d like to see a blueprint for an improved governance model for aboriginal communities, one that includes an understanding that not all communities and tribes are the same, so not all ideas work for everyone, but that also denotes those items that are necessary for all First Peoples’ governments to implement going forward. This wouldn’t be a list of action items for the Canadian government, or the provinces and territories, but for the local and regional First Peoples’ governments. Items that they will control and that they will measure, that they will be accountable for.
And our other governments (Canada, the provinces and territories) would have no say in the decision. Because it’s not up to them. You don’t make treaties with other nations and then tell those nations that you don’t have to live by those treaties because you don’t agree with their internal decisions. As long as the First Peoples honour their side of those treaties, they have every right to create their own internal governance model. And to expect our governments to support them as needed.
And it’s my job to hold my governments to account when they mess up on their commitments, and to hold my peers to account when they treat anyone else as lesser.
And it’s also my job to call BULLSHIT on people who think that we should just forget and move on from the disgrace of residential schools.