Truth and Reconciliation: what’s that?

For those unfamiliar with the atrocity that has run through most of Canada’s Euro-Canadian history–or who were under the impression that this is just a chapter, or a footnote–here’s a video to watch.

See that? 190 196 views on YouTube?

low count = does not count



This is why I get angry about voting on truths, popularity contests, top ten lists, idiocracy, abuses of authority. And a whole list of other pet peeves. They’re not just my little idiosyncratic peeves. They’re a bit bigger than that: truths and truths no matter how many or how few know and accept them. They’re not made more or less true by having more “likes” and “shares” and whatever other gross abuses of language get perpetrated next by the powers of Web 3.0, marketeers, Big Business: oligarchic authority. We already have a case of it at the TRC itself, as one of the sponsors is Kinder Morgan a.k.a. the Big Oil of the Tar Sands pipeline: hypocrisy? Trying to buy a clean conscience? Trying to buy more land that shouldn’t be for sale, and buy votes for getting pipeline plans approved (under discussion this week, hmmm)?

Linguistic abuse should be a cause for worry: it perverts, converts, and may destroy the ideas behind language. Through that control, it manipulates and reshapes reality. Your world. And the truth. And people.

Language needs to be protected. Take a stand against its misuse. Take a stand as a human being, even if you’re not a full-blown gynarchist. We’re all human: and part of being human is being an animate creature that lives socially and communicates. Language, in all its forms and expressions–not just verbal, but also visual and haptic–is vital. To human life: you know, as humans and as living beings. Any force acting against that, to negate and abnegate and render you abject? All attempts to control and manipulate and remould? That way lies dehumanization. Robert Antelme’s L’Espèce humaine and the “final solution”… a term, incidentally, witnessed in early pre-Nazi use in reference to Canadian Residential Schools, by their designers. See: “Canada’s Final Solution” (2010), here.

Language, overall: and languages. Protecting languages and the cultures and ideas to which they are intimately connected, with which they are bound up: that’s a form of resistance, support, solidarity with one part of what unimaginably large numbers of people have suffered here in Canada. The numbers? Somewhere in the area of 150,000. Around half (many sources say more than half) the children forcibly sent to Residential Schools died or disappeared as a result (directly while at school, or through for example suicide). That’s a lot, even once the target demographic had been successfully reduced by decimating the Aboriginal population by smallpox; including deliberate infection.

There remain several thousand living survivors. To whom must be added the survivors’ survivors: their parents and children, the intergenerational survivors, who have often suffered in other ways as collateral damage. In a deliberate campaign to destroy culture, language, traditional knowledge and skills, identity: that is, genocide. A well-planned campaign to destroy peoples by destroying people, individual by individual, with repercussions though families and communities. Colonial / kleptocratic authority’s aim: to control, manipulate, and reshape them and their world.

On the Canadian genocide, see for a start:

What happened that was so awful? Forced removal of children from their parents, family, community, and way of life. Taken often a long way away (in the far north, thousands of miles). Returning home seldom if at all. Made to speak English or French (depending on the school and area), in many cases punished for speaking their own language, told one is stupid because one can’t speak or understand this new language. Taught what was deemed necessary, no more, and not their own culture and knowledge. Taught to know one’s place, as an inferior. Enforced assimilation. Add to that: taught to a low level, often by ill-educated teachers, for useful productive purposes only: ex. Industrial Schools, schoolchildren used as cheap labour. Cheap? Free? Slave? Factor in the move from a loving environment to an uncaring one, even with simple cold neglect: misery, mental illness. Add in poor funding (or mismanagement or theft, varying): malnourishment, insufficient clothing, cold, disease. For most of the schools’ history, the greatest killer, statistically, is tuberculosis.

To abduction and neglect add active, proactive abuse: emotional, psychological, physical, sexual. Corporal punishment. Beatings for running away. Then add abusive use as unwitting and unconsenting experimental subjects: in experimental programmes on nutrition and TB, for example. In which children died, because that’s how such experiments are designed and work. Then add forced sterilization (on the latter two items, see for example Alberni: links elsewhere in this post).

Calling a spade a legal spade, on the physical side alone that’s millions of individual charges of kidnapping, false imprisonment, assault, battery, bodily harm, manslaughter by neglect, rape, child rape, and murder.

As for the individual psychological side, and cultural and ethnic destruction? The damage is incalculable. Beyond price. Any attempt to put a price on all the damage would bankrupt Canada. And it would still be nowhere near reparation; and would miss the point that it’s not about money, that money isn’t everything, money is what got us all here–especially the Europeans–in the first place.

Perhaps that’s where Big Business comes in: these are the people who should be dealing with money-matters, it’s what they do. And they can afford more than a government could. But there are ethical issues: can one accept tainted money? blood money? How much community service and charitable sponsorship is acceptable, even if it’s shallow superficial halo-polishing, paying lip-service to convention and political correctness? One of the TRC sponsors is Kinder Morgan, behind the planned Calgary-Vancouver Tar Sands pipeline, and one of the Reconciliation Canada sponsors is TransCanada, behind the planned Keystone XL and Coastal GasLink pipelines. I would be suspicious too. “Citizen D” adds, in comment on the Intercontinental Cry Magazine article above:

Not to mention the other sponsors: BC Hydro, who wants to flood thousands of acres of First Nations territories for Site C, or RBC who bank rolls the tar sands, or the Sun & Province who disingenuously report this all to the public as economic development. It seems all the colonizers want a piece of this event.

See also: Truth and Reconciliation Commission Canada at YouTube

Maybe it’s trying to buy people off, or buy votes, or at least to decrease the unpopularity of these companies and their projects when there’s negotiation going on and votes coming up. Of course there has to be at least a whiff of wanting to decrease Tar Sands resistance at the level of Elders, Chiefs, and community leaders. Maybe it’s just corporate event sponsorship. Maybe it’s sincere contrition. Repentance. A wish to do penance and make amends. But how could one possibly tell, when dealing with The Suits of Big Bloody Business, at once faceless and two-faced?

This may be where reconciliation comes in. Unless that’s all part of what BBB considers a game, a sport, or a hunting expedition in which the end result is acquisition, conquest, and the defeat of an enemy or annihilation of an obstacle in the way. And part of that game is appearing to be playing another game, one of courteous overtures and rituals. A game that may or may not have anything to do with what “the opponents,” First Nations, are thinking and saying and doing. Are double-bluffs possible here? Like not looking Big Bloody Business’s gift horse in the mouth, and accepting a gift at face value as if it genuinely has no strings attached. As a gift, an early stage in breaking down barriers and building bridges (BUT NOT PIPELINES). Where the only obligation is to thank the giver. That’s already a big step, talking to Them at all. Tongue in poker-faced cheek or not.

Reparations? How about if the Crown were to return all lands to First Nations? Or, rather, how about returning the land to itself?

And then the Crown might be in a position to sit down with First Nations and UN arbitration, to do some serious close reading of existing Treaties. With a view to fulfilling promises made, renegotiating to ensure that no unfair and unequal clauses remain, perhaps even starting again as a new Canada. Maybe talk through the name of this place: the current name for the whole country was imposed from outside it, and quite recently (1867): not coincidentally, in the same time-period when the Residential Schools are being developed as part of coherent (anti-)”Indian” policy. If the name is part and parcel of the whole colonial business, and has historical and bureaucratic ties to the Canadian Genocide: maybe it is time to rename, for everyone, and to do so on a proper equal footing this time?

The St Lawrence Iroquoian “Canada” is, I’ve always thought, a good word with good solid sound meaning. This brings us back to words and what they mean, and to preserving original senses; and to the need to protect language from misuse, abuse, perversion, and corruption. “Canada” is a good word: “village.” We could all go back to that, and along the way, we could all look closely and slowly at what “village” means to all of the peoples of this land—First Nations and subsequent settlers, right through to recent immigrants, to refugees who landed here this week—and think about its associations of close community, interpersonal responsibility, reciprocity and mutuality, caring and sharing, respect, and love.

One word we’ve heard a lot at the TRC National Event is this next one, leading up to the Walk on Sunday:

Reconciliation: we’ll see. What’s been happening this week, and how, fits with the word’s etymology and sense.

How about truth?

The news about Canada’s residential schools is by no means new. But the emphasis on the “truth” part is: many people would have hidden what happened to them; or worse, may have taken it for granted as normal, part and parcel of everyday normality under a colonial oppressor. The few people who told of what happened to them? Dismissed as liars, mad, bad, inventing stories. Worse: people would be disbelieved and dismissed as incapable of telling the truth, because they were Aboriginal: through a combination of cultural and racial prejudice. Based, like most prejudice, on ignorance. Supported, all too often, by a deliberate will not understand, to make an effort, to listen and learn. Because these other people are not worth finding out about, they don’t count, they’re not actual people. Sound familiar, as crappy attitudes go? Something that continues, of course, as an everyday normality in police racial profiling, stop and search, and other such humdrum mundane activities, all over the world.

It’s not a new horror. The first Canadian schools assimilating First Nations to fit the colonial mould: early 17th century, in Quebec. Often by religious orders akin to some of the worst offenders in Ireland; in both countries, continuing until recently, into living history, living memory, in our lifetimes (albeit, in Ireland, without the ethnocide and genocide; not in Catholic schools anyway… ).

The only possible argument for relegating abuse and atrocity to a mere minor footnote? Reconsidering what history means. Remembering, or reminding oneself honestly, when history began. A place isn’t created or begin to exist when someone first arrives from somewhere else and “discovers” it. A place and its history could be said to begin when it is first historicised, made into a history, through a story being told and heard. That requires two human beings and some means of communication.

Some might quibble about distinctions between “history” (with a written record to preserve it concretely) and “pre-history” (before such recording of history). Some might say that’s silly, as there are plenty of ways of recording history that don’t involve writing (quipos, wood-carving, weaving) and/or that exist in the modern era, in cultures that clearly perceive of themselves as selves, and have a conception of something that could loosely be termed their “history.” And the “history is written” statement fails when it fails to take into account the accounts of oral transmission. The TRC seems well aware of and sensitive to these niceties and sense(s) of history:

Pursuant to the Settlement Agreement, one of the objectives of the Commission is to “witness, support, promote and facilitate truth and reconciliation events at both the national and community levels.” See the current list of Honorary Witnesses.

The term witness is in reference to the Aboriginal principle of witnessing, which varies among First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples. Generally speaking, witnesses are called to be the keepers of history when an event of historic significance occurs. Partly because of the oral traditions of Aboriginal peoples, but also to recognize the importance of conducting business, building and maintaining relationships in person and face to face.

Through witnessing the event or work that is undertaken is validated and provided legitimacy. The work could not take place without honoured and respected guests to witness it.

Witnesses are asked to store and care for the history they witness and most importantly, to share it with their own people when they return home.

On October 15, 2009, the Right Honouarble Michaëlle Jean became the first Honorary Witness. A ceremony was held at Rideau Hall, the Governor General’s official residence and workplace. At the National Event in Inuvik, Halifax and Saskatoon, as well as other TRC events, subsequent persons fulfilled this important role and committed to share what they learned.

(TRC: Honorary Witness)

The use of digital media enables many records to be unwritten but permanent. Thus not liable to the fragility that goes with human fragility, the potential for destruction when human knowledge-carriers are destroyed. That is, when someone tries systematically to do exactly what Canada has done for its whole history as Canada… and that some of Québec seems keen to continue, discreetly and under much laïcité rhetoric:

  • La Charte des valeurs québécoises
  • and protest against them has included Idle No More:

    We must remember that Canada finally endorsed the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) in 2010, though the agreement is non-binding.

    UNDRIP “sets out the individual and collective rights of indigenous peoples, as well as their rights to culture, identity, language, employment, health, education and other issues”.
    UNDRIP also “emphasizes the rights of indigenous peoples to maintain and strengthen their own institutions, cultures and traditions, and to pursue their development in keeping with their own needs and aspirations.”

    Idle No More Québec was quick to remind the Québec government, “it has an obligation to consult First Nations on all subjects that affect them, as is outlined under Section 35 of the Canadian Constitution, and reiterated by numerous decisions of the Supreme Court of Canada. Ignoring this responsibility has continued to advance colonial mentalities throughout the process of colonization.

    It’s impossible to believe that the government of Pauline Marois has a genuine desire to unite people through a common societal project of values when its approach simply follows in the history of neo-colonialist assimilation that remains fresh in the hearts of First Nations people. In the past, our ceremonies, sweat lodges, potlatches, dances, songs, religious and spiritual symbols, cultural identities and languages were forbidden through the same kind of colonial policies that now threaten other religious practices.”

As many have commented: Québec, nul points: blind ignorance, blinkers, cultural insensitivity except where one’s own is concerned, what would translate to other North American cultures as a “redneck” attitude, and generally shooting oneself in the foot.

Plus ça change.

But I digress. The obligatory digression. Back to our main story, about history.

If we’re looking at history as experienced and told by humans, human to human, in this part of the world that’s going back to around about 25,000-40,000 years ago. So the last 150 years, covering the history of the modern nation-state of Canada? The nearly 500 years of French and British kleptocratic-colonial history? The somewhat longer history of Canada as known by Europeans, what with Viking explorers and settlers and all? A minor footnote to Canadian history.

Make “history” larger, to include life-forms incapable of such communicative acts? Add in inanimate rocks and chemical soup? Now what counts as Canadian, British, French, and European histories of Canada become even more minor. As does human history overall. An idea of history and of human humility that may sound familiar from Truth and Reconciliation Events.

Other answers? As ever, the big one: Education, education, education.

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