Albert Einstein is said to have counseled us to “simplify as far as possible—but no farther.”
As a reasonably well-informed Canadian of some years, I confess to being absolutely stymied when it comes to the nest of problems surrounding our First Nations and those of us who came later.
Why? Because here’s what I think I know. And it’s a mess.
Missionaries were bad, and native people were good. That seemed to be what every student “knew” who had taken even one course in Native Studies and then took my course on Religion in Canada when I taught at the University of Manitoba in the 1990s. And this was before we all came to know about the residential schools, those seething dens of physical, sexual, and cultural abuse.
What no one has made clear to me yet, however, was what the alternative was supposed to be, as modernity, in the form of Anglophone power and later globalization, was encroaching on tribal peoples all around the world, as it was in Canada. Of course the abuses were terribly wrong in those schools, as abuse is wrong in any boarding school anywhere. But the project of bringing together kids from remote locations to train them in modern ways and particularly in the lingua franca of English—why was that so bad?
What, realistically, should have been done instead? Just leave native people alone to perpetuate the old ways on rapidly shrinking territorial islands of traditionalism?
Moreover, if the “white man’s religion” was merely an instrument of “cultural genocide,” why do more than 80 per cent of indigenous people in Canada still claim Christianity as their religion—a higher proportion, in fact, than the rest of the country? No one has forced them to be Christians for decades, and yet they still choose this faith.
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