The mainstream press recently reported that at least 4000 children had died while attending Residential School. I’m sure I wasn’t the only person surprised to see such a story in the National Post.
Documents released as part of the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission have confirmed what many already know: thousands of kids died while in the care of the Canadian state.
The documents reference the deaths of only children in British Columbia, between 1917 and 1956 indicating that the true number of deaths is much higher. The TRC has already reported that 4,100 children had died across Canada while attending the state and church-run schools.
Of course, family members whose children never returned from these schools know these facts, but many Canadians don’t. The TRC is amplifying survivors’ stories. Many Canadians are hearing them for the first time.
To come close to achieving truth and reconciliation, Canadians must know about the abuses that were rampant within the residential school system. Through the work of the TRC Canadians will be provided with the proof that they shouldn’t need, but that they’ll have, of a school system that was set up to eliminate Indigenous identity; to eliminate Indigenous people.
It’s a hard thing for many Canadians to accept: that their country was built on the genocidal policies of previous governments seeking to clear people off of land. Once emptied, land could be sold and otherwise put to use (farms for white settlers, mining and other resource extraction, etc.).
With the release of documents and publicity around indisputable facts, could we as a country be coming closer to reconciling our past and righting former wrongs?
Of course not, and thankfully, national racist myths that have long dominated Canadian popular history are easy as ever to dig up to use whenever truth rears its racist head.
Because, of course, if Canadians understood how many of the problems that linger today were the result of state-sanctioned genocide, maybe there’d be more opposition to current (neo)colonial policies. Maybe Idle No More would explode and settler-stock-ers would rise up, hand in hand with Indigenous people, and demand that sovereignty and Treaty rights be recognized.
An impossibility. There is too much money in the ground to be made by Canada’s elites and too many Indigenous people who still live on top of that ground for Canada’s historical record to be corrected now.
Luckily, the elites have Steve Paikin. Steve, famous for some reason that I can’t figure out, helped to throw a party at Hart House at U of T, celebrating the legacy of white supremacist and Canada’s first Prime Minister John A. MacDonald and his 199th birthday (yes, they’re planning another party for next year).
The event was complete with prizes for old tymie costumes. Folks dressed in Red Face won, without any reference to the fact that dressing up as Indigenous people isn’t “old tymie” as they are, you know, still here, despite MacDonald’s efforts.
The same day, the Globe and Mail published an op-ed signed by six former Prime Ministers, arguing that all Canadians should be inspired by MacDonald. The only mention of Indigenous people was this: “There are also great omissions to be studied. Aboriginal peoples were, in effect, left out [of Confederation]. Understanding such mistakes will help lead us to the reconciliation and healing so urgently required.”
“In effect” left out? Mistakes? Seriously? MacDonald’s government was intentional in their work to get rid of Indigenous people. The only Indigenous father of Confederation sort of considered to be Confederationally legit, Louis Riel, was hanged, essentially by order of MacDonald and his government. This doesn’t even consider other leaders (Poundmaker, Big Bear, Dumont and Indigenous leaders whose names live on in oral history but rarely get written down in textbooks) who were also intentionally killed by the state, or forced to starve or die through other means.
If only Indigenous people were just “left out.”
Thanks to Twitter, we know that Bob Rae, Carolyn Bennett and Tony Clement were in attendance at the embarrassingly billed event, #sirJAM (apparently, there’s nothing quite like white washing Canada’s history to bring together the Liberals and the Tories.) We also know that MacDonald’s approach to Indigenous peoples was discussed during the Q&A and that someone (possibly the ghost of MacDonald) wore a Medicine Wheel, an Inukshuk and a Métis flag, according to a confusing Tweet from Bennett.
The #sirJAM is a reminder that for Canada’s elites, the real history of how Canada was founded, doesn’t matter. That the 4000 confirmed children who died in Residential School are less important than the maintenance of the myth of Canada’s first Prime Minister: that he was a benevolent and hardworking immigrant, not the racist, white-supremacist Conservative that he indeed was.
But, the revisionist history didn’t stop there this past week. The elites at the Post needed to drive home the fact that even these statistics and survivors’ stories of abuse shouldn’t stand alone to settle the Residential School: Good or Bad question. Letters editor at the Post, Paul Russell, asked Could it be that residential schools weren’t so bad? in a column that featured letters more suited for a National Post comment section than an article.
Imagine the National Post doing this for other atrocities?
There’s danger for the elites in acknowledging our history. Canada relies on access to territory just as much as it did when MacDonald’s first genocidal policies were enacted. The Indian Act remains at the centre of the debate about rights and access to land, and is still as important a piece of legislation as it was in the late 1800s.
If Harper is going to be able to exploit natural resources to the extent he’d like, he needs to keep Canada’s history buried. He needs to be able to rely on stereotypes to discredit Indigenous movements and maintain popular support for military repression of these communities.
And, lucky for him, he has help in his efforts.
But, lucky for us, these are indications that, as truth surfaces, many people feel they must bury it. That’s because there’s power contained in these truths.
Canadians cannot stand back and watch our history distorted over and over. We have a responsibility to acknowledge our past and expose historical myths when they are thrown around by the wealthy and powerful.
If they’re going to use historical distortion as a weapon in their campaign to destroy the land, we need to use historical fact in our arsenal to stop them.
Since having written most of the above, Steve Paikin wrote this. It’s an awkward attempt to explain that the folks posing in Red Face are American South Asians who simply didn’t know any better. Ripping apart Paikin’s drivel requires an entirely different article. Suffice it to say that blaming the incident on the two costume wearers as being ignorant, racialized folks and absolving the committee that awarded them best costume is, um, entirely missing the point.
Olivia Chow was in attendance too. According to Paikin, she challenged Richard Gywn, playing the role of MacDonald, on his racist policies towards Chinese people.