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.
ABOVE THE fold of October 4th’s Globe and Mail there was featured a piece by the fine journalist Steven Chase, “Military intelligence unit keeps watch on native groups.” A more candid and accurate phrasing (Chase, not a writer given to mealy-mouthing, is not responsible for the headline) would be “Canada is spying on indigenous people.”
IT HAPPENS that I today regard the sudden retraction from Canadian soil of Linda Sobeh Ali, the Palestinian chargé d’affaires, as someone who has spent a number of years working in communications and public relations. In my profession — which has among other things interpolated me between and among differing cultures — I’ve had to pay due attention to protocol. I like to think I’m reasonably good at this delicate work and that I can smell from a distance those who are not. And at this moment I rather detect the aroma of amateurism on the air.
THERE IS a debate these days in the Canadian media over the Harper Government decision to spend a yet-undetermined sum (I’ve come across an amount of twelve or-so million dollars) commemorating the War of 1812. I expect the Americans will overlook this bit of their history, but I’m unable to imagine any Canadian government ignoring the two-hundred-year anniversary of a war that could have converted Upper and Lower Canada into the coldest states of the Union.
I WAS INFORMED of the death earlier this morning of Federal New Democratic Party leader, Jack Layton, by Twitter. There, in an uninterrupted chain of entries numbering in the dozens (and perhaps into the hundreds: I gave up counting) were expressions of sorrow. Never have I seen such universalism of sentiment, such spontaneous participation in a mood which appears to have touched everyone, really everyone, down to a person.
Photo: Rupert’s Land Indian Industrial School / later St. Paul’s Indian Residential School, 1901. Library and Archives Canada PA-182251.
WITH VERY few exceptions, the men and women who created and sustained Canada’s Indian Residential School System believed that the policy of “aggressive assimilation”* was benevolent and forward-looking. The absorption of the Indian into Canadian society, necessary to possess land and resources and to build a nation-state, was the desired outcome of policies and the final solution of the Indian Problem envisioned by Deputy Superintendent General of Indian Affairs, Duncan Campbell Scott. The policy of assimilation neither began nor ended with the Indian Residential School System. The program of assimilation continues to this day, for the simple reason that nation-building, from sea to shining sea, continues.
LOOK OUT the window of my Elgin and Albert Streets office, one block south of Parliament Hill in Canada’s Capital, and you will see before you a building in part reduced to rubble. The reason is that this Government of Canada edifice contains asbestos, or as it is now more commonly known, chrysotile. Across the city and the nation, this poisonous stuff is being extirpated. And, at the same time, the current Prime Minister of Canada is actively abroad promoting its sale, in what are euphemistically termed developing countries. If that in itself is of insufficient force to turn your stomach, please do yourself the favour of reading on, for there’s more.
It appears (to me at least) that the Foreign Affairs Minister, John Baird, is learning about the world and its localized histories in public and in real-time. On the first of June, he admitted as much to Canadian Press journalist Bruce Cheadle, saying he was “hazy on the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
I discovered some days ago that my passport wasn’t where I was certain I’d put it. I had just moved one and-a-half miles, crossing the border between Hull, Quebec and Ottawa, Ontario. I needed that passport to transfer my life (car registration, driver’s licence, and other various bits of ID) to my new-old place of residence. No ticket, no laundry. Thus begins what is for me a too-familiar recurring scene, in which yours truly is cast into the leading role of the identification theatre’s latest production.
It’s been more than a few years now since my afternoon Calgary chat with a Kainai (Blood) acquaintance, but I do remember a bit of the history lesson I received that day. One thing I recall above all else is a sensation of correspondence: the Haudenosaunee have the largest population within Canada’s borders, the Kainai the largest land base; the Haudenosaunee are known to be of an independent cast of mind, so too I gathered from my interlocutor the Kainai. (The name is pronounced “Ken-Eye,” and fittingly means something like Many Chiefs.) I left the conversation that day rather feeling a sense of kinship, which is unusual for me in most any social encounter.
I now have unchallengeable objective proof that I’ve lived too long in Ottawa, and it’s this: I caught myself today wondering how the bureaucrats are going to say the new acronym AANDC, the stand-in for Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada. For over a century, the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development (known also as the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs) was Diane or Diand, or even at times Diana. Now I imagine it will be Andy or Andick, both of which lead me unavoidably to the conclusion that gender reassignment has taken place and The Man now really is that.
In an astute article of today’s (April 23) National Post, “Liberal remedy to Layton is to look in the mirror,” Kelly McParland writes,
In 21 elections between 1921 and 1993, when the Liberals won it was because of Quebec. They took the overwhelming majority of Quebec seats in every winning campaign, and only once were they popular enough in the rest of the country to have won without Quebec (and even then, in 1935, it would have been iffy). The Liberal party was about keeping Quebec happy; that’s where power lay. It all changed when the Bloc Quebecois came along and stole their meal ticket. Since 1993, when the Liberals win it’s because of Ontario, yet the party has never put the effort into pleasing Ontario that it did into Quebec.
One of the very few politically insignificant legacies of the Sponsorship Scandal is that ever since I have been of a sympathetic disposition toward the then Minister of Human Resources Development, Jane Stewart. She more than any politician — and here I include Paul Martin, who clearly was designated by the early-retiring Jean Chrétien as the bag holder — was bespattered by the ill-will which finally brought to an end what seemed the inevitability of Liberal rule in Canada.
There was a time when Aboriginal peoples and Europeans newly-arrived to this land conducted affairs between them with mutual respect. There’s no need to romanticize the character of these relations. It was an era of alliances, political intrigue, war, and nastiness. But even warfare indicates respect. It bears an implicit acknowledgement of a foe’s strength and independence. In the initial phase of contact between Europeans and the indigenous peoples of this land, indigenous peoples had the advantages. They knew how to live on the land and how to navigate the rivers and the forests, and in battle there were more of them. Perhaps this is why mutual respect characterized the early relationship. Continue reading “The Continuing Story Of A Continuing Relationship”
THE FIRST public act of Canada’s Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, John Duncan, came today in the form of an apology to the nineteen Inuit families of Inukjuak and the three of Pond Inlet relocated to the barren landscapes of Resolute Bay and Grise Fiord, on Cornwallis and Ellesmere Islands, respectively, in 1953.
One today commonly refers to this region as “the northernmost inhabited part of Canada,” Cape Columbia being the northernmost point on the map of Canada. However, during the Cold War, when these eighty-nine Inuit were taken on a 2,000 km journey (the trip was shorter for the Pond Inlet residents, relocated to assist the southern Inuit in adjusting to their new life) and then unceremoniously divided up and abandoned to an entirely foreign ecosystem in their ill-adapted clothing, the United States and Greenland had at least as much substantive claim to the territory, if not more.
This detail matters because since the 1980s, when the Inuit initiated their claim against the Canadian government, a stumbling block of negotiations toward a proper settlement has been the suggestion that the relocation was part of an effort to assert Canada’s sovereignty over the “High Arctic.” Arctic Sovereignty is a pressing matter for the Canadian government of our own day, and would have been in the 1950s, when the menacing prospect of Soviet encroachment in the North constituted something beyond a political and economic challenge. It was the Communists after all that drove the Canadian military north in the first place, and many Inuit living today went from tundra to TV, and caribou to cash, within a decade — most never having seen a white man or a dollar bill until the trucks rolled in. Few are the Canadians who have even tried to imagine the trauma doubtless brought on by this sort of encounter, and the truth in any case is that they couldn’t do it.
Canada’s position has always been that the 1953/’55 relocations were a well-intentioned solution to over-crowding, the decline of hunting, and welfare dependency in Inukjuak. (It’s odd to think a place named Giant in Inuktitut would be overcrowded.) Today’s Government apology reiterates the official position that the move had nothing to do with concerns over Arctic Sovereignty, hedging the matter by stating that the “Government of Canada recognizes that these communities have contributed to a strong Canadian presence in the High Arctic.” Those relocated however believe that, in addition to the physical and emotional suffering brought upon them by a poorly conceived and badly executed policy, lies the ironic insult of having been exploited by a Government eager to claim an uninhabited region of the North as its Sovereign Domain. If the claim is true, then the blows do fall rather below the belt. It means that the pointless and avoidable suffering of these individuals was all for the benefit of a colonizing power contemptuous of “its” indigenous people.
The Government’s claims raise many objections, among them the odd choice of destination and the all-too-convenient coincidence of the timing and geographical placement of the families with the evident Government agenda at the time. At the very least, Government officials would have been aware of the nice convenience of having preemptively populated contested land with individuals they could claim belong there anyway. The for-your-own-good line is a familiar convention, a self-serving trope brought out for public consumption on those frequent occasions when Government wants to enjoy the exquisite pleasure of having it both ways. Those who pay careful attention to language will notice that even the name of the department, “Indian Affairs and Northern Development,” is a contradiction as well as a confession.
I have further cause to doubt the Government’s position. The relocation is portrayed in two films, Marquise Lepage’s “Martha of the North” and Zacharias Kunuk’s “Exile.” As it happens, I know the Martha in question, and I knew her when only a few years ago she learned herself the reason why her family had been chosen to be among those moved across a continent. (Around that time I had lunch with her and Zacharias Kunuk in Iqaluit.) You will have to wait for the book she is writing to learn that, but let it suffice that her own relocation was not for the reasons given by Government. And so in at least one case I am certain the official version is wrong, from which it follows that today at least one person has received no more than one-half an apology.