Monday, June 3, 2019

Reflections on the Tabling of a Report on the "Genocide" of First Nations

Just over two months ago, I spent two winter weeks at a friend’s home in Florida, all alone. I never turned on the TV. I didn’t answer work emails. The neighbours were gone. I didn’t know anyone, anyway. I didn’t say more than ten words to anyone. My solitude was complete.

I loved it--staring at the Atlantic ocean waves; watching for birds I never see at home, in Toronto; hiking alone through scrub where everything was unfamiliar. Solitude.

Mistaking the Solitudes. Where are the First Nations?
But I have to be honest. What makes my personal solitude so delicious, so attractive, so healing is my partner, Irene. You see, when I’ve had my fill of solitude, Irene is always ready to take me back. When I come home from the cottage, we fall into each other’s arms; we kiss and hug. We sit on the porch and make small talk. Later, we might visit friends, go to church, or drop by our families. I love solitude, but what makes solitude safe and desirable is that it is rare, a sometimes treat, a chosen respite, and not how I have to live. 

You see, when solitude is the only option, or when solitude is fueled by resentment or anger or fear, it is usually a cancer. Historically, American isolationism leads to naval-gazing, Smoot-Hawley-style tariffs and economic ruin. North Korean isolation has led to unspeakable violence and decades of human rights violations. 

But Canada also has problems with unhealthy solitude--two solitudes, actually, usually described as English-speaking and French-speaking Canada.

Hugh MacLennan came up with that turn of phrase—two solitudes—in a novel by the same name. I have not read it in many years, since I was in college. I remember it as a huge rambling thing, covering generations of Canadians, both English and French-speaking, who are mutually antagonistic towards each other. 

The English in Quebec are portrayed as people building a nation on the backs of the French who are bitter. The French resent becoming a minority in a country they considered their own. They seethe because they have been made subject to a people who had conquered and humiliated them.”

And so, writes MacLennan, Canadians are, “Two solitudes in the infinite waste of loneliness under the sun.” Two solitudes: from the Plains of Abraham to two referendums on Quebec’s separation from Canada; two solitudes, from the WWII Conscription Crisis to FLQ terrorism to the Notwithstanding Clause. Two unhappy solitudes warily circling each other rather than falling into each other’s arms. Not like my wife and I at all.

And yet, this picture is tragically incomplete and out of balance. Could it really be that French-Canadians, as Hugh MacLennan suggested, or perhaps English-Canadians, or perhaps both of them together are “the only real Canadians?” 

Who after all, welcomed both the French and English to North America? Who brought them beaver pelts to get rich on, who showed the French and English the rivers and carrying places and mountain passes to get from Bonavista to Vancouver Island? Which confederacy  demonstrated and lived a constitutional democracy to invaders still mired in monarchial dictatorships in Europe? Who made treaties trusting that those who spoke English and French would keep them? Who are the real, or at least first, Canadians? On whose backs did both the French and the English ultimately both grow rich on by conquering and humiliating them? 

If there are two enduring solitudes in Canada, it is actually the First Nations on the one hand and everyone else on the other. 

In Canada, we have inherited a political and cultural system for keeping First Nations trapped in the solitude of reservations where there are no jobs, or trapped in inner-city ghettos where there are no jobs, or the solitude of jails, where they are vastly overrepresented compared to us. We have figured out how to relegate First Nations to the sort of solitude where, in living memory, just to leave for the city, a First-Nation person needed the signed permission of a white man to go. This Canadian system was used by South African whites as a model for their apartheid pass-laws. 

Perhaps you think this is just ancient history. Perhaps if so . . . then so is confederation, all of 150 years ago, or the battle on the Plains of Abraham, 268 years ago. But, as these events remind us, history does matter, and wants to be celebrated or atoned for. 

And yet, Canada’s First Nation children have been isolated in schools where they could not speak their own language or understand the new one their teachers spoke; schools where they were too often preyed on, physically, sexually, and culturally. They are still forced to go to schools that are grossly underfunded compared to our comfy suburban schools. They have been cheated of lands that by treaty-right were theirs or which they never ceded. They have been promised water treatment plants and social workers and health workers, jobs, self-government, and housing . . . but well, if you follow the headlines, you know how that has turned out for them. 

            And today, the report of the Canadian inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women was finally released. According to Marion Buller, the chief commissioner of the inquiry, it uncovered a cycle of violence that has claimed untold thousands of Indigenous women. “This report is about deliberate race, identity and gender-based genocide,” she said. 

            Genocide. By Canadians. By us. Something that is still happening under our noses. Our white, mostly Northern European, French- and English-speaking solitude’s approach to the First Nations.

            Genocide. I hate that word. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is treading water, carefully, with respect to that word. He has been supportive of the inquiry but is wary of how the word “genocide” will play, even among his supporters. 

            Genocide. A word that is harder to swallow, even, than “white privilege.”

            So, what level of cultural annihilation or ethnic cleansing or Anglo-Quebecois criminal negligence or murder would be required to make the word “genocide” stick?

            I’ve been thinking about that. And ultimately, I don’t think it matters. Canada is mostly English because of a victory won on the Plains of Abraham, and power has been shared between French and English since at least confederation. That’s old history we live with today.

            And the rest of the story, our history, is all about how we’ve killed, neglected, broken faith with, stolen land from, kidnapped kids, loaded our prisons with, underfunded social services for Canada’s First Nations. It is ongoing sin. It is evil and its stench is with us now.

            And if Canada is to become one nation rather than its two real solitudes—if First Nations and the rest of us are ever to fall into each other's arms—we better get busy with serious repentance, which involves atonement for what we’ve done and ongoing sanctification—that is, personal lives and a political culture dedicated to doing better.