Baby, tell the truth

I was going to make a post about the upcoming election, but since there are TEN GODDAMNED WEEKS left, I think I have some time. And then I heard something on the radio that made me realize something. We have a long, long, LONG road ahead of us when it comes to owning up to, acknowledging, and repairing the damage that centuries of colonial history have done. If you’re tired of hearing about this, go ahead and go do something else for ten minutes. But this is important, so I’m totally judging you.

Someone made the comment on a call-in show that “how long are we going to be punished for our forefathers’ mistakes?” and that really got me thinking. First, the harm done to entire civilizations of people by colonialism is a little more than a “mistake”. It takes CENTURIES. Every culture that the ‘ruling colonial class’ has attempted to rub out – if they’ve survived at all – has had to re-establish itself. The most recent in Canadian memory is, of course, our government’s treatment of Indigenous peoples. So my first question to the person who called in to that radio show is this:

How long do you think it should take to rebuild an entire culture, from the basic family unit to language to religious and cultural observances, to education and employment? How long does that *usually* take, in your opinion? Like, if the government officials came to your house and took your kids away and wouldn’t let you see them and wouldn’t let you leave your street and forced your kids to only speak Esperanto or Welsh or Mandarin, and then they did it to your grandchildren too, how long do you think it would take you to “get over” that? And what about if the people to whom the government delivered your children also participated in emotional, psychological, physical, and sexual abuse? How long do you think it would take you to forgive them for that?

And my second question is, what the hell do you mean “punish”? Are you suggesting that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s recommendations are some kind of PUNISHMENT for genocide? Are you suggesting that eliminating educational gaps between Indigenous peoples and non-Indigenous peoples is a form of PUNISHMENT to non-Indigenous peoples? Are you proposing that the revitalization of Indigenous languages is some kind of punishment? Are you suggesting that improving Aboriginal peoples’ health is somehow taking something away from your own family? Seriously? That it’s some kind of punishment to ensure that all lawyers trained in Canada receive education about the Residential schools and their lasting and destructive legacy? That learning the truth about what happened to human beings as a result of our government’s action is a PUNISHMENT?

Because that sure sounds like what you’re saying.

I’m going to be charitable here and assume you haven’t actually read any of the TRC’s report, findings, or recommendations and you’re just basing your opinion on what you hear on the radio and on coffee row. I’m going to assume you haven’t even read the Call to Action paper. I’m going to assume your biggest piss-off is that your hard-earned income, remitted to the government in the form of tax dollars, is going to be used to improve living conditions on Reserves. And hey, if you object to having any of your income taxed at all, then I understand your position (I don’t agree with it, but I understand it).

But you can’t pick and choose who should benefit from federal programs and services. You don’t get to say “I want my tax dollars to ONLY go to the military”. Sorry, buddy. If you think Canada needs a public funded military, you’re going to have to pay for it. And that also mean you’re going to have to pay for other programs and services that help Canadians. Like if you want your children to benefit from government-subsidized education (which they do), then you can’t say it’s *punishment* for other peoples’ kids to benefit from educational programs.

Your kids aren’t any worse off if we support the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. They will still be eligible for University. They will still be hireable. They will still have access to health care and dentists and sports programs and museums. The Indians are not going to take your shit, people. I’d kind of like a shirt that says “Canada’s TRC: The Indians aren’t going to take our shit”. Can someone make that happen, please?

One of the main points of the findings of the TRC is that more education – way more, and better, and more often, and more accurate – is needed at all levels so that Canadians understand our Treaties. So that we understand what our own government did to the Indigenous peoples who lived here before our ancestors came over. So that some day, we can say “our government was horrible and committed acts of genocide, and this is how we have begun to repair that relationship”. CLEARLY that day is really, really, REALLY far off.

How does it hurt to rebuild a relationship that is so horribly broken as to be nearly irreparable? Are you seriously saying you think Canada shouldn’t spend any money on learning which children died while in federal custody? That learning where children were buried is a PUNISHMENT? Are you saying that memorials, monuments, and accurate museum records are some kind of PENANCE?

If that’s what you’re saying, I don’t get you. Look, this isn’t supposed to be EASY. Saying you’re sorry doesn’t mean you’re saying “I’m sorry I personally did this to you personally”. When someone’s best friend dies in a tragic gasoline fight accident, you don’t say “I’m sorry” because you were the one holding the match. You say “I’m sorry” because you’re sorry they have had to go through pain and suffering. A big step here is to learn what that pain and suffering truly was, and is. If it’s such a hardship to listen, and to learn, then I honestly don’t know what to do with you. Maybe we simply can’t be friends. I keep harkening back, though, to the fact that the Canadian government signed Treaties with the Indigenous people of this land, and we are not exempt from those treaties. If you are a Canadian citizen, you are bound by *all* of our international treaties. Just like you’re not exempt from having to show your passport at the US border, or declare everything you bought while in a foreign country.

Genocide doesn’t just *go away*. We’re not just going to forget about it, although the people who administered and ran many of the Residential Schools may have hoped we would. Our government tried to eradicate an entire group of people. That’s pretty fucking important. And we’re not “paying for mistakes”. We’re learning how to fix this relationship.

Chances are good that the person who said this never had forefathers who had to ask permission to leave their land or to get married. Chances are good this person’s forefathers didn’t have their children taken away from them by the government, to be forced to live in an institution where they weren’t allowed to speak their own language. Chances are good that if this person’s forefathers WERE treated that way, THAT’S THE REASON THEY CAME TO NORTH AMERICA.

Providing education, social programs, health services, research, proper child care (especially in the foster system), equal access, equal opportunities – these aren’t bad things. It’s going to take a long time. So I guess, to answer the asinine question in the first place, it’s going to take at least as long to repair this relationship as it took to cause, and then to ignore it. At least a century. And instead of whining about how hard done by we who have never had to go through genocide in living memory are, maybe we can take a positive action. Read the TRC Executive Summary and the TRC Calls to Action; visit trc.ca and see what’s happening across the country – that’s a good place to start. Yeah, this is going to take time, and money, and a lot of work. And it will be the most worthwhile thing we ever do, as a society.

I’d like to include here a quotation from the TRC’s Executive Summary:

…shaming and pointing out wrongdoing were not the purpose of the Commission’s mandate. Ultimately, the Commission’s focus on truth determination was intended to lay the foundation for the important question of reconciliation. Now that we know about residential schools and their legacy, what do we do about it?

We’d better get cracking.

cenobyte
cenobyte is a writer, editor, blogger, and super genius from Saskatchewan, Canada.

10 Comments

  1. I just had this “discussion” twice in the last few days with people who figure residential schools were a good thing. “You’ll never convince ME that it wasn’t a good thing!” This, after asking how it could be a good thing to have your children stolen from you and have them institutionalized from a right early age, to have no idea how a family should function and to be taught that your own culture was backwards, wrong and dirty. In an attempt to mold children into being just like their white counterparts you raise them in an environment that is exactly the opposite of that the white children are raised then wonder at the fact that it didn’t work. I think a century to repair the damage isn’t going to be enough, but to do it at all we do need to drag it all out into the light and talk about it.

    1. It’s probably counterproductive at this point to try to convince people about what happened. About the truth of the thing. If they aren’t willing to listen to the survivors, and they aren’t willing to listen to a relatively impartial source (the TRC), and they aren’t willing to accept proven facts, these are probably the same people who think the universe was invented 5,000 years ago and vaccines cause autism. In other words, idiots.

    2. That is astounding. I’m truly amazed that anyone would say that the Residential schools were good. I think that I need to go have a lie-down.

      1. I’ve heard people say, “well they can’t have been ALL bad”, and “surely those residential schools did some good for some people”, and sure. Maybe that’s the case. My argument has always been that the bad…the DEGREE of bad and the repercussions of the bad far, far, FAR outweigh any good that may have come from systematic destruction of language, culture, family, and health.

  2. Urg. The base value incompatibility of punitive vs restorative justice makes this a really hard-if not impossible-conversation to have.

    1. I don’t even think it’s possible to apply punitive justice. I mean. I KNOW it isn’t. And I’m not sure restorative justice can even begin to address genocide. But I’m positive that doing nothing will make it all worse.

    2. Someday, in the distant future, we’ll be able to realize that punitive justice in nearly any context is just pointless and damaging. It doesn’t work in the justice system and it won’t work here.

  3. If we start teaching Canadian history including First Nation history and what our governments and other institutions did to FN in order to take and control their land and teaching about residential schools and all of the barbaric treatment of FN including genocide we may start having generations of Canadians who know and understand the truth and will be able to create some really beneficial solutions involving restitution and some really great ideas in reconciling with FN starting with listening to what FN have to say. We won’t then have people telling FN to get over it. We will also learn how FN really lived prior to the Europeans and what their culture up to present day is all about. And guess what, after any number of years of working at this we can end up sharing power with First Nations. We would then be building a truly great nation.

    1. I agree, Pamela. And you’re right! The first step is education, which hopefully will lead to acceptance and a greater and deeper understanding of one another. I would love for non-Indigenous Canadians to be the champions of learning to do this. We could be so great if we could learn to work together.

i make squee noises when you tell me stuff.

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