Gandhi is reported to have answered the question What do you think about Western civilization? with the laconic declaration “I think it would be a good idea.” Noam Chomsky has had frequent occasion to invoke this trope also, mostly in relation to American imperialism and by means of the phrase “the norms of Western hypocrisy.” Indeed, many are the victims, both dead and living, of the West’s civilizing missions. It is with this suitably dark observation foremost that I bring to your attention a conference this week in Vancouver, on the subject of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s National Research Centre.
On yesterday’s webcast of this three-day forum, I listened with interest to a presentation on the International Tracing Service (ITS), an agency in Bad Arolsen, Germany, which researches the fate of the Nazi’s many disappeared victims. The ITS houses information on over seventeen million persons, including concentration camp detainees, forced labourers, displaced persons, children separated from parents, and Holocaust victims — Jews, Roma, Sinti, homosexuals, and more. Founded in 1943, the International Tracing Service to this day receives a large number of requests from the families of victims, concerning the ultimate whereabouts of their relatives. The documents archived by the ITS, if placed end-to-end, would form a twenty-six kilometre column, each document representing a personal story.
The many tens of thousands of indigenous children taken by force from parents and community, to be institutionalized and re-engineered as per Canadian policy, pose a similar challenge and perhaps require a similar project. I know from personal experience that there are many formerly institutionalized Onkwehonwe (Aboriginal people) today searching archives throughout Canada for information concerning their siblings and parents. The trip south from Nunavut to the Library and Archives Canada, in Ottawa, is a commonplace pilgrimage. I have met a number of people whose knowledge of their parents is derived entirely from the few records they have managed to glean, at great personal effort and cost, from archival sources.
This is but one illustration of life as it happens for the survivors of Canada’s coercive assimilationism. A list of fitting National Research Centre initiatives would include public education and outreach campaigns (in collaboration both with public and private sector partners), curriculum materials, multi-media recordings of personal narratives, a physical and online research library, and marketing campaigns designed to raise awareness of this history. There are many opportunities and also challenges pertaining to a National Research Centre, chief among them the technical and ethical considerations that come with a project of this character and scope. The fact of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s limited resources will impose itself on the project’s potential, as will the widespread ignorance and, let’s be candid, indifference of many Canadians.
There is no single institution in this country possessing both the moral-political will and financial resources required to educate the people of this country about their own ugly past — more precise, the ugliness of a deliberate and systemic state-sponsored effort to kill the Indian in the Indian child. I bring ITS into this essay because it was from the top Indian Affairs official of Canada, Duncan Campbell Scott, that the Nazis took the phrase “Final Solution,” employed first in Canada to “the Indian problem.” How many Canadians do you suppose know that their government inspired Team Hitler? This is only one of many such manufactured gaps in the public consciousness. However, ordinary human decency requires that the work of public education occur. For my own part, as long as I have oxygen in my lungs I will be certain to pester any and all concerning both the past and present crimes and indignities of Canada against indigenous peoples. This I do for the simple reason that we do not yet have justice in this country, which alone is I think sufficient reason to support the vision of a National Research Centre.