Canadians need to educate themselves about indigenous peoples

TOMORROW MORNING I will get on an airplane and fly to Halifax, where the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada is hosting its latest gathering. Already the event has produced headline material, derived from the statement yesterday of University of Manitoba President, David Barnard. Toronto Star Reporter Louise Brown characterizes this apology to Aboriginal people “an unusual move,” and so it is. Yet Canada’s universities, and indeed the entire education system, have good reason to feel the bite of conscience. Please allow me to expand upon that theme.

There is a surreal character to the Canadian education system if it happens that you are a person of Aboriginal descent. I use the awkward phrase to make manifest the fact that one may arrive to the classroom by means not reflected in the curriculum, the education system — of my own youth at least — quietly assuming both the normality and moral-intellectual superiority of those arriving by means of a trans-Atlantic diaspora. From a young age I “learned” about the exotic peoples who in some cases were my direct ancestors, and the curriculum (as I would only later realize) was as noteworthy for what it left out, or half-explained, as it was for what it asserted.

Eventually I reached an age at which I decided to speak my mind, and today I can recall several arguments with professors. As an English Literature major, I often found myself fighting over esoteric matters such as “the representation of the Indian,” but there was one discrete figure who came up over and again, and as you may already have guessed that figure was the Confederation poet Duncan Campbell Scott. In a person he combined everything that might be construed pernicious by a citizen of the Six Nations, particularly one who happens also to be an English major. Viz., he wrote weird and one could argue sinister poems, for example about an Onondaga woman (the Onondaga being one of the Six Nations), at the time he was also and incidentally the supreme bureaucrat in charge of Canada’s Indian affairs. The ideas of poets and authors are as a general rule inconsequential, but every so often a writer attains directly or by proxy a position of influence, and D.C. Scott was one such person.  And so this post-romantic scribbler of picturesque verse was also the man who fired Indian Affairs’ Chief Medical Inspector P.H. Bryce for publicizing Canada’s “national crime,” while making compulsory for all Aboriginal children attendance at an Indian residential school. I had a few good tosses over this charming fellow, who after ten years of research into the residential school system now seems even less attractive to me than he did back then.

The best study of Scott’s poet-bureaucrat double life I’ve been able to find is E. Brian Titley’s A Narrow Vision: Duncan Campbell Scott and the Administration of Indian Affairs in Canada. This work ably teases out the contradictions and paradoxes of the man who made more than the average institutional contribution to the work of arriving at the Indian Problem’s “final solution.” The academy as I recall it was far less nuanced on this matter, Scott as a matter of course having been canonized in two dimensions as a good man and good poet. I am willing to enter into a discussion on this and related topics, but I would also say the Barnard apology does derive from the plain fact that Canada’s education system has not only done a bad job — it even today fails to educate Canadians. The objective must not be to demonize Scott but to produce more E. Brian Titleys, which is to say Canadians who are able to rise above the pathetic condition of historical amnesia which to this day obtains.

A less academic way of putting it is that I am thoroughly tired of being the only fellow in the room who knows. In the research I have done for the book I am now writing, the idea has surfaced over and again that Canada needs to develop curriculum concerning the Indian Residential School System. (That theme was foremost in the December 2010 report of the Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples, The Journey Ahead.)  I’ve put some of my own time and energy into this work, but the universities and colleges and school boards need to lead. Canada needs to educate Canadians. Apologies are good and, in my case at least, welcomed — but now that we have this matter staring us in the face, is it not time for action?

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