Whitewashing Canada’s ugly past

What happened at residential schools is an abomination, and refusing to acknowledge it is outrageous.

Decolonizing - Bandit MuralA mural by Red Bandit
Canada managed to make it into the The New York Times on Tuesday, but the image was far from the one we like to see projected of the polite, friendly, apologetic Canadian. Instead, Times readers and the rest of the world got to see the Ugly Canuck, the one that perpetrated “cultural genocide” on its indigenous populations for nearly 150 years through its residential schools system.

The charge came from Justice Murray Sinclair, head of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, created in 2009 as part of a court settlement of a suit filed by residential school survivors. The commission released its summary report Tuesday after interviewing more than 7,000 witnesses as part of its effort to reveal what happened in those schools and to suggest ways to heal the wounds it left in First Nations communities.

“I think, as commissioners, we have concluded that cultural genocide is probably the best description of what went on here,” Sinclair told CBC Radio’s The House. “But more importantly, if anybody tried to do this today, they would easily be subject to prosecution under the (United Nations’) genocide convention.”

Several of our national columnists were immediately incensed at the suggestion that this system — which took aboriginal children from their homes and away from their communities in an attempt to wipe away the “Indian” inside them — was in any form a genocide. After all, only about one-in-25 children sent to these schools actually died there. At least 3,201 that we’re sure of, but likely more than 6,000. We don’t know how many, exactly, because we didn’t actually keep very good records. The churches that ran these schools could probably tell you how many pencils were purchased in any given year, but the bodies of children were often buried without any formal record of how they died — or even their names. In some schools, the living didn’t have that luxury either. As one residential school survivor, Lydia Ross, told the commission, “I didn’t have a name. I had No. 51, No. 44, No. 32, No. 16, No. 11 and then finally No. 1, when I was just coming to high school.”

But it wasn’t an attempt to wipe out native cultures, say some pundits, it was just good old-fashioned assimilation. One where we quite reasonably tried to wipe out individual and collective identities of indigent populations and give our captives numeric designations.

Sounds a little Borg to me.

“We are the Canadians. Lower your guards and surrender your children. We will add your biological and technological distinctiveness to our own. Your culture will adapt to service us. Resistance is futile.”


“Look, we apologized already. Why don’t you just shut up and move on?”

Okay, those weren’t the exact words used by pundits like The Globe and Mail’s Jeffrey Simpson in reaction to the Commission report. But that’s clearly the sentiment behind his lamentation that:

“How often does a society need to be reminded about its mistakes, even sins? Repeatedly, it would seem, in the case of Canada’s residential schools for what used to be called Indians. The story of these schools is well known, having been described in books, speeches and a long section of a royal commission established by former prime minister Brian Mulroney’s government. …”

Calling it a “fixation on the past,” Simpson adds: “There is in the picking-over of the residential schools’ history, and the deliberate use of ‘genocide’ to describe the schools and other efforts to assimilate Indians, a demand for expiation of sins that the current generation of non-aboriginal people is unlikely to accept, since they were not responsible (my italics), and an encouragement to keep looking backward when what is more urgently needed today is to look forward in forging new relations between aboriginal and non-aboriginal people.”

Simpson adds that other colonizers did worse things to their native populations, an exercise in moral relativism that often goes hand-in-hand with the “we’re not responsible” argument.

(To its credit, the Globe editorial board took a starkly opposing stance in its editorial on that same subject.)


Of course we’re responsible, because it was our government and our religious institutions that allowed that racist, colonial system to flourish. It is only by acknowledging that first truth that we can move forward toward reconciliation with Canada’s aboriginal populations. If we instead begin with Simpson’s attitude that “we’re not responsible,” we have already begun to distance ourselves from the need to understand the profound and long-lasting impact these schools had on native communities, from substance and child abuse to suicides, prostitution and criminality.

Worse, we weaken what should be our collective commitment to start healing the wounds through the recommendations the commission tabled Tuesday.

Already, the Stephen Harper government has shown its disdain for one of the Commission’s key recommendations, that the government launch a public inquiry into 1,122 missing and murdered aboriginal women and girls. As a packed hall gave Justice Sinclair a standing ovation (video) after reading that recommendation aloud Tuesday, federal aboriginal affairs minister Bernard Valcourt sat on his hands, reflecting his party’s do-nothing attitude towards the wildly disproportionate share of violence faced by native women.

Commission recommendations covering justice, health, education, language and other issues will fare just as poorly if Canadians of all backgrounds don’t stand up and tell Ottawa that it doesn’t matter who was directly responsible for the deaths of thousands of native children and poisoning the lives of tens of thousands, we all bear a collective responsibility as citizens of the society in which these horrors occurred.

Only then can we be sincere in our efforts to make amends and to educate future generations what “we” did, so that nothing like this ever happens again. ■
Peter Wheeland is a Montreal journalist. His sardonic observations about the city and province appear on Cult MTL every week. You can contact him by Email or follow him on Twitter.