UPDATE: In the light of the current discovery of a mass grave at the Kamloops Residential School in British Columbia (May 2021), I have lightly revised this column that appeared originally in 2018.
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, a complex phenomenon which many people now have reduced to merely 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 back in the nineteenth century in the young country of Canada.
Modernity, in the form of Anglophone power and later globalization, was inescapably 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? Chiefs themselves insisted that the Crown not abandon native peoples but educate them as they did other Canadians—including white children at some of the same residential schools. So we simply don’t encounter here what some overheated folk are saying we encounter here: some kind of Canadian Christian gulag for First Nations, much less extermination camps aimed at actual genocide.
Yes, it is regrettable that virtually no one in the nineteenth century seemed to have a model of how children could be at once authentic members of their tribal cultures and members of a modern Canadian society. (I’m not sure how obvious such a model is for us today. We’ve been attempting multiculturalism in Canada since the 1970s with what experts can call only chequered success.) And the actual contempt for native cultures among the governors of Canada—despite the pleas of missionaries in particular to respect much of what they encountered in those cultures—is indefensible. The charge of “cultural genocide” cuts pretty close to the bone here, I daresay.
What, however, should have been done instead? Just leave native people alone to perpetuate old ways on rapidly shrinking territorial islands of traditionalism? Give young aboriginal people no means of making their own way in the modern world—as every other Canadian young person was given? There was more than one way of being racist back then, and not educating aboriginal children was certainly one of them.
And, yes, as the father of three, the thought of having my sons forcibly removed from my home and taken to a faraway school is awful. Again, however, before the internet, before postal service, before any reasonable network of communication and transportation, how were native children in small and far-flung settlements to be educated? Do people with strong opinions on this subject actually know what life was like in Canada before, say, World War II, let alone World War I?
As for the charge that Christianity was foisted on vulnerable children, it seems evident that some heavy-handed, even abusive, proselytizing went on. And that’s abominable. The true religion of Jesus knows nothing of coercion in matters of faith. No one should have to pretend to be a Christian to get food, shelter, and education from Christians. Normally, no one does, as the global services of Christians to their neighbours over hundreds of years attests.
Still, 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. The religious part of the situation thus also remains complex, despite the insistence of certain activists that the only authentic religious stance for First Nations people is some sort of recent reconstruction of tribal religions that have mostly been lost to history, while most aboriginal people apparently still want to pray to Jesus.
Here’s what else I think I know. White people brought deceit and death to this continent, making and breaking treaties at will, pressing aboriginal people into service (or slavery) while driving them out of their homes and lands—when they weren’t addicting them to alcohol and trading them blankets full of smallpox. Why couldn’t the invaders have left the native people in peace?
But what peace? Despite Romantic-era visions of “noble savages,” there’s plenty of evidence of truly savage warfare among native peoples that resulted in, yes, slavery, burned-out villages, torture, and death. Those lovely native ceremonies we sometimes see nowadays also included the Sun Dance of Plains tribes that required men to dance around a pole to which they were fastened by rawhide thongs pegged through the skin of their chests. Eventually the dancing would become more frenzied and the thongs ripped out.
The Sun Dance was outlawed by colonial authorities, as was the Potlatch on the west coast, a charming festival of communal gift-giving, a bit like Christmas…except that it became pathological, with whole villages becoming destitute to feed the competition for glory between rival chiefs.
I know about white tourists callously shooting bison from train windows, leaving the poor animals to die lingering deaths from wounds and infection. But I also know about First Nations, also impressed by the abundance of bison, who killed them merely for their tongues and hides, leaving the rest of the animal behind to rot.
In our own day, I think I know about police forces and reserves in such a reinforcing spiral of distrust and deceit that criminal investigations are seen by both sides to be hopeless. Indigenous people don’t trust the cops to be industrious and fair, so they don’t cooperate fully, prompting the cops to despair since they can’t get testimony they can trust, and the mutual finger-pointing continues.
Which brings us to 2018 and Colten Boushie and Gerald Stanley and the rest of us. Here’s what I think I know.
Young Mr. Boushie came from the Cree Red Pheasant First Nation and was in the company of young people from the families of chiefs of that nation who are notorious for a long string of assaults, thefts, and corruption. He and his mates had already committed property crime that day, were driving drunk at high speed in an SUV with a tire gone, and when they fetched up at Mr. Stanley’s farm, they attempted to steal an ATV while packing a loaded rifle.
Mr. Stanley, for his part, fired a handgun (note: not a farmer’s shotgun or hunting rifle) twice into the air, and then got into an altercation while brandishing his gun sufficiently close to Mr. Boushie’s head that when it went off again, it killed him. Yet the jury convicted Mr. Stanley of nothing, not even manslaughter.
This is what I do know. The Bible says, “There is none that is righteous; no, not one” (Romans 3:10). But to listen to the activists and apologists, Canada today is populated entirely by no one except innocent, gentle First Nations people, brave, honest police officers, sincere, hardworking politicians, and kind, justice-loving white folk.
We cannot have reconciliation until we have truth—at least, a lot more truth than we’ve been getting…from every side, and particularly from lawyers, judges, cops, witnesses, activists, politicians, journalists, and professors.
No one has figured out an easy solution. The Australians have at least as much turmoil on their hands as we do. The Americans seem perpetually preoccupied with the historically more recent problems regarding Latinx immigrants and descendants of black slaves, with native Americans kept perpetually at the back of the line. And the New Zealanders had it easier with a single treaty at Waitangi that covered the whole land, instead of the crazy quilt of paper we have across this vast country, and even they wouldn’t claim to live in a perpetual Happy Valley.
We cannot have reconciliation until we have truth. Simplistic categories of “good guys” and “bad guys” along racial lines are, in fact, racistly untrue and merely perpetuate antagonism. Nor is it true that every “side” or every person is equally wicked. The truth is more complex than that.
Until we’re willing to wrestle with the several complex truths about what really happened and what is really happening today, reconciliation cannot be genuine, deep, and lasting. It will instead be sentimental, and thus vulnerable to being blown out of national consciousness, and conscience, with the excitement of the next news cycle.
Reconciliation can come only from staring hard at the truth, all the truth, together. Will we?
UPDATE 2: There is much more to say, of course, about the many issues involved. Here is a more recent post advocating for fresh water for all reserves in Canada.