A former high school teacher and now friend, Rex Taylor (@RexFTaylor) , posted to Facebook an article by John Ralston Saul ( (novelist, essayist and co-chair of The Institute for Canadian Citizenship) regarding the conclusions of the Truth and Reconciliation (“Truth and Reconciliation is Canada’s last chance to get it right” Globe and Mail, 5 June 2015) looking into the nightmarish ‘Indian Residential Schools’ system that rightfully should be a shameful and condemned chapter in Canadian history. Rex had asked for my opinion on this article, and due to the limits of commenting in-line on Facebook, I thought this would be a more effective medium.
Canada: A Nation in its Spring
First thing first: Canada is multi-cultural nation unique in my opinion amongst other States in the international community. (Mea culpa: I am a mixed-race Canadian citizen, as well as being a British citizen – currently living in London, UK) Growing up in Toronto, I was immersed in a diverse community where the word different did not necessarily mean bad. In contrast, my experiences in the UK have many a time included statements such as “if they’re going to come to our country, then they should accept the way things are here…”, often times whilst tucking into a tasty curry. (I’ll return to the concept of ‘the Other’ later…)
It was a period of transition, however, whereupon a culturally European-centric domination within Canada was being replaced by a more reflective and inclusive system of tolerance, exploration, and camaraderie. Certain stalwart and entrenched attitudes sounded off about this departure from their self-styled vision of historic privilege (and no, I’m loathe to go around accusing all of inherent expressions of privilege) wherein their homogenous vision of Canada was relegated to the waste bin of history. These growing pains are inevitable, particularly given a difficult existential question posed to most students in Canada: What is a Canadian?
“…No constitution, no Charter of Rights and Freedoms, no sharing of powers can be a substitute for the willingness to share the risks and grandeur of the Canadian adventure. Without the collective act of the will, our Constitution would be a dead letter, and our country would wither away.”
I suspect that such a question’s elusive answer depends greatly upon one’s self-identity, their surrounding community, and their experiences within the Canadian context. The lack of a single definition can be both traumatic and exciting – much of our identity comes from certain historical (genealogical) linkages that provide relational sets of rules and expectations of conduct, and where these do not sound in a national identity, one may begin to question the value of a society where expectations and rules may differ from one person to the next, from one to community to another. On the other hand, there exists a freedom to carve out a truly unique identity for Canada, one distinct from our colonial past and its cultural homogeneity. Canada is still in its ‘spring’ – though a process started in 1867, we only truly separated completely from Britain in 1982 with the Constitution Act (Canada) / Canada Act (UK) repatriating the Constitution and establishing our Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In a positive light, it is perhaps enlightening to remember the spirit of the nation when it became a truly sovereign and independent State:
However, in order to pursue the freedom of that Canadian identity (what PM Trudeau referred to as a “fresh start”), we must confront our past treatment of disenfranchisement of Canadians who suffered greatly from discriminatory policies and continue to experience the generational effects of those transgressions. This includes, inter alia, the horrific legacy of the so-called ‘Indian Residential Schools’, as well as our troubled relationship with the indigenous peoples of Canada.
(Dis-)Honouring the Treaties: Rediscovering our Canadian Legacy
By very brief means of a history, the nature of the relationship between the indigenous communities in Canada and the European nations that settled there were established by treaties, such as the Great Peace (1701), the Peace and Friendship Treaties (1725-1749), the Royal Proclamation (1763), and the Numbered Treaties (1871-1921). Most of these treaties meant land acquisition rights for Europeans in exchange for material goods thereto unseen amongst the First Nations peoples. Alliances were forged that ultimately lead the British domination of North America, and subsequently the repelling of American attempts to seize Canada after the US Independence from Great Britain. In short, there would have been no Canada without our First Nations brothers and sisters – settlers would have succumbed to the harsh winters and lack of geographic knowledge would have meant defeat at the hands of the USA.
Interestingly, from my perspective as a public international lawyer, is how these treaties are in essence international covenants between sovereign peoples. In fact, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission frequently refers to these agreements in the recommendations (Calls to Action). However, it is clear that this treaty-based relationship has deteriorated over the centuries, with many of the treaty provisions being ignored, unilaterally rescinded, or forgotten. The conditions of living for the First Nations indigenous peoples have been repeatedly subject to interventions due to public health and welfare concerns – often without consulting the people themselves.
One of these interventions was the Indian Residential School system. Originally conceived as a means of ensuring education for subsequent generations of Native people, the schools (typically run by the Church with the approval of the Canadian government) sought to assimilate children by preventing them from exploring their First Nations identities. The federal police, the RCMP, were authorised by law to remove Native children from their families by force and relocate them into the residential schools. These children were made to dress in non-Native clothing, and set a curriculum intended to create industrial workers – farming for the boys, and seamstresses for the girls. Religious indoctrination was part and parcel of this ‘education’, where the spiritual aspects of the children’s heritage was sacrificed for Christian worship. As funding became an issue for these schools, the work carried out as ‘education’ was typically used to subsidise the running costs of the school – in essence, these were Canada’s sweatshops run with child labour.
And if that were not enough, the children were subject to extreme physical and sexual abuses at the hands of their Church-provided teachers. The emotional and psychological traumas suffered by these people continue to present in generational challenges regarding their relationships with family and community. Alcohol and substance abuse amongst these victims is both common and tragic. It is unsurprising that Canada’s highest ranked jurist, the Rt Hon Beverley McLachlin (Chief Justice of the Canadian Supreme Court), has agreed with many that this dark Canadian legacy should be considered as ‘Cultural Genocide’.
We as Canadians, both indigenous and non-indigenous, must turn our attention to this matter that deeply affects such core community within our lands. We owe it not only to the victims of this legacy, but also to ourselves as Canadians who must understand how our relationship with the First Nations is perhaps the first and foremost aspect of answering the question of What is a Canadian?
Beginning Again, Remembering the Past
Over the past 33 years, the relationship between the Canadian federal government and the First Nations reads like a dysfunctional family history. The Oka standoff in Quebec, numerous blockades – notably the one I witnessed personally just outside of the Six Nations of the Grand River reserve in Caledonia, Ontario (this dispute began in February 2006 and continues today), and numerous failings regarding quality of life on the reserves across Canada. One cannot help but feel frustration and anger that such a situation exists in a country that is typically viewed by the world as a beacon for tolerance and understanding in a multi-cultural population.
We have, of late, seen a much more politically engaged Native population, eager to address these concerns and to seek constructive methods for building a new and positive relationship. Here is a video by John Ralston Saul from October 2014 addressing this very point:
However, as with any Truth and Reconciliation process, we should begin with a certain ethical foundation:
- Our intentions should always drive towards a strong, dignified, and respectful pan-Canadian relationship with each other going forward.
- We are all Canadians – any approach that aims to create an ‘us and them’ division ultimately will fail. Canada should never have two-tier citizenship, in attitudes or in practice.
- Inclusion and consultation with affected persons should be the bedrock of any policies, whether specifically dealing with indigenous peoples or non-indigenous groups.
- We must recognise the failings of our past: there is not a light under which the current treatment of the Aboriginal peoples of Canada can appear to be positive. For instance, the current system of land claims settlements based on the Treaties is a violation of our principles of law, namely to have legal redress in a timely manner. The current system typically takes over 20 years to consider each claim, and that is simply unacceptable.
- Equally, mutual respect between all the peoples of Canada requires that we individually do the heavy lifting of changing, what Trudeau referred to as the ‘willingness to share the risks and grandeur’. Ralston Saul suggests that it is the non-Natives of Canada that are the only ones that must change. I disagree – change must come of us all, and we must together embrace the effort to begin again, to have ‘failed and to try again’.
McLachlin CJ (in her speech of 28 May 2015) points out three principles that apply not only to the TRC, but overall to the relationships of Canadians throughout the land, what she refers to as essential to the ‘norm of tolerance’: “first, insisting on respect for the human dignity of each person; second, fostering inclusive institutions and cultural attitudes in civil society; and third, maintaining the rule of law.”
“Living together in the ethic of tolerance is not easy. But it is worth the effort.”
Rt Hon Beverley McLachlin, Chief Justice of Canada
While the first two of the Chief Justice’s points are relatively undeniable, it is the third point that should be scrutinised by both sides of this situation. Certainly, the legal obligations undertaken in the past by Britain and France, now inherited by Canada, have been treated with a declining sense of importance by provincial and federal authorities – in certain circumstances completely violating what amounts to international law. This too is not typically the vision of Canada that most citizens wish to see as their identity. Equally, however, both Native and non-Native participants in reconciliation must submit to the precept that it is the law that treats us all as equals, and we all must commit to adhering to the law whilst moving forward towards a mutually beneficial process of re-establishing normal and positive relations between all Canadians. It is this commitment to the legal and social equality of its citizens that takes us further into the realm of answering the question of our collective Canadian identity, non-Native and Native citizens alike.
Asymmetric Citizenship: How the Canadian adventure may end in disaster
While accepting the premise of Chief Justice McLachlin, and (personally) finding much to admire in PM Pierre Trudeau’s 1982 vision of the ‘Canadian adventure’, there is one more aspect that truly ought to concern all Canadians: Canada must be for all of us, equally and simultaneously.
Much of the Constitution of Canada is predicated upon a collective system of resource sharing and power sharing in order to offset the various means of fluctuating circumstances that can befall one community or another from time to time. The financial relationship between the provinces was conceived as a means of equalising the Canadian quality of life in a manner that no Canadian would be left behind.
Sadly, this Constitutional premise has been sorely neglected in relation to the sharing of Canadian resources with the indigenous peoples to whom we owe our nation’s existence. All one has to do is pay attention to the plight of Natives living on certain reserves where there has been a complete collapse of social welfare and infrastructure. It is a difficult thing to realise standing at the intersection of Bay and King Sts in Toronto that there are entire communities without adequate sanitation, running water, or even shelter against our notoriously unforgiving winters. It is difficult perhaps due to a lack of active consideration, or worse, complete ignorance. As a society, we should be able to stand in the most advanced of cosmopolitan metropolises and still feel a kinship with the East Coast fisher, the Prairies farmer, the Inuit hunter. A Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian – we must equally “share in the risk and the grandeur”.
When we can allow our fellow Canadians to be treated less than equally, I would be remiss to neglect Shakespeare’s sage wisdom in the Merchant of Venice:
“If you prick us with a pin, don’t we bleed? If you tickle us, don’t we laugh? If you poison us, don’t we die? And if you treat us badly, won’t we try to get revenge? If we’re like you in everything else, we’ll resemble you in that respect.” – Shylock, Act 3 Scene 1
While I have suggested that the future of the Canadian citizen must be grounded in the rule of law, we must also accept that, much like Shylock, the turbulent response of the Native peoples was warranted given the abhorrent history of treatment by the colonial and post-colonial governments of the country. As mentioned in the TRC’s Call to Action recommendations, the history of the residential schools ought to form a part of the factual background when dealing with those persons who have taken up acts of civil disobedience and action to draw attention to this plight.
However, if we are to move forward together, we must not simply be aware of the tragedy of the residential schools as events that affected only the indigenous people of Canada. I have been aware of public attitudes when discussing similar events that traditionally fulfill the international legal definition of genocide, e.g. the Holocaust, the Rwandan Genocide, the conflict in the territories of the former Yugoslavia. Most of the perception is that these crimes were committed against a particular group who were the identified victims. I am often concerned that, while indeed the targeted protected group are the primary victims of these crimes, the path towards eradicating actions conceived in genocide (in the present case, the aforementioned cultural genocide) must rely upon the larger humanity recognising that these crimes are crimes against all of us. The diversity of humankind is its strength – linguistically, socially, culturally, ethnically, genetically – and attempts to reduce this diversity injures the human condition for us all. In Canada, the heritage of the Native peoples in Canada is as much a part of their identity as it is ours. We collectively must work to alleviate the injustice and inequality between Native and non-Native citizens because in the final sum, each of our individual identities can only truly be conveyed in relation to all of our fellow Canadians. Understanding the place of the residential schools requires us all to employ, in a word, empathy.
Is this Canada’s last chance?
John Ralston Saul has employed the rhetoric of this moment being the proverbial gun-to-the-head for any conception of Canadian identity being one of compassion, tolerance, and inclusiveness. While most of his discourse is agreeable and well-considered, I’m afraid I cannot agree with the terminal diagnosis that he has determined for Canada.
This is not a country defined by last chances, but moments of reckoning whereupon we are called upon to recognise our history, reconsider our direction, and reinvest ourselves in pursuit of our principles as a nation. Saul himself states: “The story of Canada is the story of many such peoples, trying and failing and trying again, to live together in peace and harmony.” Agreeing with this, it follows that we can never assume that we have perfected the Canadian formula. Indeed, even if we could fully implement the recommendations of the TRC, we must be brave enough to realise that other challenges may arise in the future.
What makes us all Canadian is a commitment to ourselves and each other that we will come together in these moments of reckoning with the entirety of our community’s will to deliver on the promise of Canada for all of her citizens. The Constitution provides us a very robust and principled framework for engaging these challenges. However, as noted by PM Trudeau, it is the people who breathe life into this country, no matter what hurdles come our way.
While it is right and overdue that the dishonourable legacy of the residential schools be openly addressed and rectified, it is important for all Canadians that we maintain our commitment to each other, conceived in dogged determination and hope for our nation’s future. We must, in our uniquely magnificent multi-cultural diversity, empathise with each other in a manner consistent with tolerance and admiration for our differences, and to truly feel the tragedy of the few is a tragedy for us all. This is not only a moment of healing for the indigenous peoples of Canada, it is a moment for us all to come together in strength and support for all Canadians. We must move forward together, or the dream of Canada shall wither on the vine.
Is this Canada’s last chance? No, it is not. However, answering the question ‘What is a Canadian‘ will greatly depend on how we deal with our past and work towards ensuring a bright and inclusive future for all people in Canada.
I wish to take the opportunity to dedicate this post to my friend and teacher Mr Rex Taylor. You opened the eyes of many of your students and imparted the skills of critical thinking and compassion. I could not possibly have begun to answer the question had it not been for teachers like you.