Yesterday, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission issued its absolutely epic report on the impact of Canada’s policies towards the First Nations, particularly its long-running colonial program to disrupt and negate Native culture; for generations it was the official policy of the Canadian government to force the assimilation of Native people into “white” culture, particularly through the practice of removing Native children from their homes and placing them in residential schools, where they would be “civilized.”
Year after year Native children would be removed from their homes, by force or threat of force, taken long distances, made to live for years in crowded, prison-like institutions, punished and abused if they spoke their native language or failed to “act white”. It was the official government policy that Native culture was worthless and had to be destroyed; it quickly followed that Native people were likewise worthless. Abuse, disease, neglect and death were a fact of life in these schools: one of the more horrifying discoveries of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is that the death rate among Native children in residential schools equalled that of Canadian troops fighting the Second World War. For generations.
Think about that.
The Commission has described the practice as “cultural genocide” and they are right to do so. If you look at the numbers, it is absolutely mind-boggling. It is horror on an ghastly, numbing scale. It is a dark and shameful crime perpetuated by our country, Canada, on our own people… and it is one that most white Canadians have tried to block from their own awareness. The vicious, casual racism that many whites direct at Natives in this country has its roots in those policies. Native people are still widely regarded as worthless, semi-educated children who can’t run their own lives; shiftless, drunken, cigarette-smuggling loafers who get everything handed to them on a silver plate by the government… and if you don’t believe that Canadians feel that way, read literally any comment section on any news story about any Native issue or protest in this country. The hate is sickening.
And what’s really tragic is how many Native people have internalized that anti-Native racism. For generations they’ve been told they are lesser and lived under laws rooted in 19th-century racialist pseudoscience — in fact one of the most bizarre conversations I’ve ever had was when a couple of Native activists explained to me the theory of blood quantum, whereby Native people are judged for their eligibility for official status based on how “pure” their blood is. (This was discussed in such a totally nonchalant, matter-of-fact way that it was disorienting, as though I’d stumbled into a Flat-Earther meeting or had my family doctor refer me to a phrenologist.) While it might seem ridiculous, blood quantum matters a great deal to Native communities because government funding, taxation status and property rights are utterly dependent on holding official “Indian” status.
Regularized and even government-sanctioned anti-Native racism in our national character is why Native people can be marginalized, abused, and swept aside even in the twenty-first century. Poverty, crime, substance abuse are all hideously endemic in Native communities… and white Canadians don’t care. Natives are disproportionally over-represented in the prison population and disproportionally under-represented on juries and in government… and white Canadians don’t care. Natives are frequently — almost routinely — victims of violence, abduction, rape and murder… and white Canadians don’t care.
In the face of that, it frankly amazes me that Native people aren’t literally up in arms in this country. The occasional protest, occupation or blockade are only surprising in their infrequency. Native anger in this country is not about injustices which happened hundreds of years ago. It isn’t about — or at least not primarily about — injustices which have happened in recent generations. Native anger is about the injustices which happened yesterday, literally yesterday, the injustices which are happening today, and especially about the injustices which will continue to happen tomorrow.
(At this point I feel like I should insert the usual caveat “painting with a broad brush, not all white Canadians are like that, blah blah blah.” Yeah, I’m not going to bother. If white Canadians, and I’m including myself in this assessment, truly gave a shit about Native suffering, then something would have been done. Take water accessibility, for example: When there was an E. coli outbreak in Walkerton Ontario, it became a national outrage; ninety-one First Nations communities currently don’t have access to clean water and it doesn’t make the news. There has been no political will in this country to resolve the very real issues that Native people face. The whole point behind this blog post — not to mention the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report — is that situation needs to change.)
The relationship between white Canadians and Native Canadians is an open, running sore in our national consciousness… and in our subconscious, too. The first step is admitting there’s a problem: The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s purpose is to bring these facts into the open and find a path to begin the healing. Its report is a groundbreaking, historic, and of vital importance not only to Native people, but to all Canadians whether they accept that fact or not. The Commission’s report does not seek to lay blame, but to establish responsibility and makes ninety-four recommendations as a necessary start towards healing the terrible wounds inflicted on the First Nations. Those recommendations include new education respecting Native languages and culture; a public inquiry into the epidemic of missing and murdered aboriginal women; an annual State of Aboriginal Peoples report to be delivered to the House by the Prime Minister; funding for memorials, commemorations and education in order that the terrible losses suffered by the First Nations will never be forgotten; and most of all the government’s recognition of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
The Committee’s recommendations represent the best opportunity in generations, possibly the best opportunity in Canadian history, to resolve the conflict between colonizer and colonized. Not to sweep it under the rug, but to acknowledge our ugly history, to accept it, and to find a new path beyond it. It calls for an act of courage and unity by Canadians — all Canadians — to learn from the mistakes of the past and fix the system our forebears created. It calls for us to end the injustices and provide a decent life for all our people, native and non-native alike.
So of course, just hours after the Commission released its report, the Canadian government under Stephen Harper has made it clear that they will do nothing about it.
The first indication of that attitude was during the ceremonial release of the report itself. The Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Bernard Valcourt, refused to applaud when the Commission recommended a national inquiry on missing and murdered aboriginal women.
If you want an image of everything that’s wrong with the government’s approach to Native people, that’s it, right there: A white Tory politician sitting awkwardly on his ass during a standing ovation. A Conservative cabinet minister, whose portfolio is Aboriginal Affairs, casually signalling with folded hands and an uneasy grin his government’s rejection of the efforts of the Commission.
And I can’t even feel surprised. Of course the Conservatives won’t do shit: The status quo works just fine for them. Natives keep getting uppity about oil pipelines and resource extraction on their land. Providing clean water and decent housing on Native reservations is going to cost money, and it won’t earn votes; hell, there may even be a backlash from reactionary white Canadians, a demographic which traditionally votes Conservative. Truth? Reconciliation? Doing the right thing for all Canadians? Just what in Harper’s record would make anyone think any of those things would be a priority?
I’ve been trying to come up with words for how I feel Harper’s government this morning and I’m really drawing a blank. Not that I can’t find words, but that I can’t find words that are big enough. Callousness doesn’t cover it. Cowardice is too small. Disgrace, stupidity, short-sightedness, failure of vision, lack of integrity, moral turpitude… none of them come close to covering the utter exhausted disgust I feel towards the Harper Conservatives this morning. They didn’t even wait a day before making it clear that they don’t give a damn about Native people. They didn’t even try to hide the fact that they don’t care.
For me, if there was one hopeful thing about yesterday, (however small) it was also to be found in the picture above: Take a look again at the person standing next to Bernard Valcourt, literally towering over the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs? That’s Thomas Mulcair, leader of the New Democratic Party and hopefully (please Goddess) our next Prime Minister. I think it was pretty telling that he was the only party leader to attend the ceremony. I hope his presence signals a willingness by the NDP to commit to the recommendations of the Commission, because it’s going to take enormous effort to address these issues, to repair a broken system and heal broken people. It won’t happen quickly or cheaply or easily. There will be scars. Real courage, real compassion, and leadership are required… and it’s obvious those qualities simply do not exist within Stephen Harper’s government.