Thank-you to my guests this week: Chelsea Vowel, Brooke Torgerson, Carey Newman, Conrad Saulis, Doug Jarvis, Karen Lawford, and Nahnda Garlow
Thank-you to my guests this week: Chelsea Vowel, Brooke Torgerson, Carey Newman, Conrad Saulis, Doug Jarvis, Karen Lawford, and Nahnda Garlow
✎ Wayne K. Spear | January 25, 2018 • Current Events
A page from the TRC report, “The Survivors Speak.”
SENATOR LYNN BEYAK laments that the histories of Indian residential school focus on the negative, and she has a point. A story about the abuse of a child does tend to capture one’s attention. So far as I’m aware, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission never once intervened mid-testimony to change the subject. “Yes, yes, we get it. But tell us about the knitting and the maths—you know, the good stuff.”
The topic of whether or not good things happened in the Indian residential schools, and whether they are sufficiently documented, is a mischaracterization of the debate we are now seeing. But while I’m on the subject, let me state once again that good things happened in the residential schools. Most scholarly sources describe them, including the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, whose reports include warm tributes to beloved teachers. (Every time residential school apologists claim that the TRC tells only the negative stories, they reveal their ignorance.) My own book, Residential Schools: With the Words and Images of Survivors, has entire chapters on movie and dance night, laughter, friendship, hijinks, and so on. My co-author, Larry Loyie, fondly recalled the teacher who encouraged him to write, and he had some fond and funny stories about his residential school days. He was however a writer of books, not of payroll ledgers, and never indulged the question of whether the arithmetic of good and bad arrived at a sum which could please critics like Beyak. We presented the whole truth, as best we could.
Well, you can’t please everyone, but it’s useful to understand the character of a disagreement. The Indian residential school debate is and has always been about the right of one ethnic or cultural group to dominate and absorb another, and by doing so to appropriate and benefit from land and resources. The children, put into residential schools, often hundreds or even thousands of miles from home, could have learned English and grammar and grown up knowing the love of their mothers and fathers and grandparents. They could have got hockey lessons and a normal childhood. But the whole point of the Indian Residential School System as a system was to sever the bonds of family, so Indians could be turned into Christian Canadians free of the influence of their kin. Did Canada have the moral right, and moral obligation even, to do this? Does it have it now? Welcome to the real debate, ladies and gentleman.
The Let’s Focus On The Positive history of Indian residential schools was written, many times over, by women’s church auxiliaries, missionary societies, school administrators, Indian Agents, and government bureaucrats. Indian Affairs wrote it every year, in their annual reports. The folks who ran and oversaw the schools knew much, much more about them than today’s armchair apologists. When they declared the system a wise and benevolent success, math had nothing to do with it. Duncan Campbell Scott was aware that children were dying unnecessarily in the schools, of diseases caused by overcrowding and insufficient nutrition. The math was not on his side, and he knew it. “But this alone,” he wrote to an Indian Agent, in 1910, “does not justify a change in the policy of this Department, which is geared towards a final solution of our Indian Problem.” These folks knew what the debate was really about, and they made no effort to hide it. They were after a final solution of the Indian Problem, and no amount of bad news was going to make a difference.
I didn’t write this article to change anyone’s mind, because I’m not delusional. I wrote it to clarify. It was my day job for well over a decade to educate the public about the Indian Residential School System, and when I started, in the 1990s, most Canadians hadn’t even heard of it. Today there’s a consensus that the Indian Residential School System was not good, but a chunk of Canadian society can be depended upon to never take up that view. There are at present some thousands and maybe even millions of Duncan Campbell Scotts, looking forward to a day when there are no Indians in Canada and, as a consequence of this, no Indian Problem. There are also folks pained by the lost prestige of Mother Church, or by blemishes on the noble project of Empire. There are professional contrarians, skeptical of every affront to the status quo, a bag of human sand stubbornly anchoring the Old Order. I can’t explain the motives of every person who insists the residential schools were good, but I can ask them if they think Canada was right to attempt a wholesale assimilation of Indigenous people, and if they think Canada should stay on that course.
✎ Wayne K. Spear | October 26, 2017 ◈ Essays
THE ODDS ARE you’re not old enough to remember what it was like to be bored and lonely before the days of Facebook, so let me set the scene. In those days I watched Friends and reruns of The Rockford Files on cable television and I drank and I smoked cigarettes in my living room, or I walked the streets of my city for hours in search of diversions. One night, in my 20s, I drove to a singles party on the edge of town, circled the building twice, and went home, unable to summon the nerve to go inside. I was in a PhD program at the time and I spent my days in libraries or in front of a computer that was not connected to the world of distractions that we call the Internet. It was a good life when it was good, and when it wasn’t good it was an empty howling wilderness that I filled with words that no one else would ever read.
Many of us were already experts on isolation when Robert Putnam wrote his book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. A book like that wouldn’t have been written or read otherwise. In my 30s I had a family, well after my contemporaries had done the same, and I became fully absorbed in my work and responsibilities. But your world can shrink as a parent, especially if your extended family is far away. My partner and I didn’t go out for a movie or a restaurant meal for years, and even if we had tried to arrange a social outing it would have been an ordeal. To this day a drink in the neighbourhood with a friend can require weeks of negotiation. A get-together with someone from another city (and most of my friends live in another city) requires months, and often there are cancellations and deferments. The reality of post-college life for most of us is that we’ll rarely meet face-to-face with the few friends we have. The reality is that you’ll spend a good deal of time alone. Maybe that’s why Friends was such a big hit. We all want that life, and few of us have it.
I almost didn’t write this essay because I decided instead to spend my scheduled writing time at a Meetup for writers in my neighbourhood. Five minutes was all I could stomach. I sat at the table with a dozen strangers and one of them immediately took control of the group, setting down what she believed should be the terms and conditions of the meeting. I felt as if I was at an inaugural Bolshevik congress, when all I wanted was an intelligent conversation. We should have a closed Facebook group, the woman said. We should submit our writing for critique as an attachment and not in a post, she said. And on and on, we should do this and that and not these and those. I’m allergic to the word should, so I went outside, lit a cigar, walked home, and wrote this.
People have smells and loud irritating voices and ways of laughing that get under your skin like a nasty insect bite. But people can’t quite do entirely without people. When I was young I dreamed of writing for the magazines and newspapers. I fantasized about the smart dinner parties and the witty conversations that would be the collateral of my life of letters. My many writer friends would be creative and interesting and bold, and my nights would be filled with the feast of reason and the flow of soul. A bohemian life. The reality is another thing entirely, as everyone soon enough knows. The labour of writing is tedious and isolating, and for most of us it doesn’t lead to glamorous diners or even friendships. Instead, there are inboxes with messages like this:
Your a horrible writer, you dont even know what your talking about. Give your head a shake. This is the stupidest thing I have ever read. You should go back to working as a carnival barker.
Life is the same for people of all professions. Few of us bowl or join clubs or social organizations anymore, if we ever did. Less of us go to church or spend our weekends at the Legion than our parents’ generation did. We don’t drive to the singles’ dance, we look for love on Tindr. We have Meetups and Facebook and Twitter and Instagram. We go to the Internet for conversation and camaraderie and connection. There, we smell the virtual smells of other people, and it isn’t always pleasant or pretty. But it’s human, and we’re lying to ourselves if we think we can do without human connection.
By the time I have finished this little essay of mine, the Twitter storm which is its occasion will have passed, and a new and equally useless storm will be underway. Only a fraction of people take notice of Twitter, and only a fraction of the fraction treat it as more than a frivolity. The chief utility of Twitter, as any self-aware user knows, is to pass some time as tiny bursts of whatnot stimulate your vision, like roman candles.
A recent vote of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario has put forward the motion to remove the name Sir John A. Macdonald from all public schools in Ontario. Needless to say the idea was met with horror and outrage on Twitter, as all such proposals are. There is however a swelling of the call for such undertakings, and from a broader segment of the population than would have been likely even a decade ago.
Here are the more common arguments I have found against the motion:
– The Slippery Slope, Erasure Argument: No one is safe once the principle of removing names of the objectionable takes hold; soon all names from the past will be erased and forgotten, and Canadian history will disappear
– The Presentist Argument: Of course Sir John A. Macdonald was a racist, etc., but only by the standards of the present. By the standards of his day he was unremarkable, everyone at that time being a racist, etc.
– The Balance of Good Argument: Sir John A. Macdonald is a founding father whose positive achievements outweigh whatever ill he may have done
– The Revisionist Argument: It is wrong to re-create history to suit the tastes of the moment.
It is worth noting that, with few exceptions, the arguments against retracting the name of Sir John A. Macdonald concede that he “bears responsibility for the Indian Act and for residential schools” and for associated views “that are repugnant by today’s standards” — these are John Ivison’s words, from the August 24, 2017 edition of the National Post. I say “worth noting” because only twenty years ago it was common to find defences of this very same Indian residential school system in the pages of the National Post and elsewhere. It would be a matter of small trouble to produce a dozen examples, but one will I think suffice:
The common opinion-editorial view of only twenty years ago—that surely these well-intentioned residential schools couldn’t have been all that bad—is not without its present advocates, but there is no doubting that opinion on this issue has shifted. Today even the most reactionary commentator (Conrad Black comes to mind) will as a rule clear his throat with a qualifying phrase such as “of course there were some bad apples” or “although it’s true that terrible crimes were committed” before launching a defence. Few writers are willing to take the position that the Indian residential school system was on balance a good idea, with respect both to intentions as well as to execution. What has brought about this change? Above all else it is the result of a vigorous and sustained campaign led by the people who knew these institutions from the inside and who in many cases left them broken and diminished. In the 1990s and early 2000s, when I was working at the Aboriginal Healing Foundation, the fear was not of the erasure of Canada’s history but rather of its restoration. Against this effort of abuse survivors, to restore the historical record, stood the government and church lawyers and a good deal of the media.
Some unpleasant truths follow from the preceding. The first is that there is no getting around the fact that history is forever being re-written, that (as Auden put it) the words of a dead man are modified in the guts of the living, and that “erasure” at one time or another is our universal fate. It is unlikely that a majority of Canadians know more about Sir John A. Macdonald than could be written on a Dentyne wrapper, and that even this small amount of knowledge would contain errors. No amount of statuary or school naming is likely going to help. Furthermore it is as easy to purge oneself entirely of inherited values and prejudices, and to apprehend the past in its purity, as it is to stare at the back of your own eyeballs. We celebrate heroic men and women of the past precisely because they did something exceptional: they defied the standards of their time (often suffering for it) and remained mostly unsullied of the gewgaw and falderal all around them.
We are living through a time when the very notion of objective truth is under obvious and stunning attack, but anyone who has studied the past knows that there is always some degree of war going on against truth, particularly against unpleasant and inconvenient truth. Thirty years ago I had bitter arguments with university professors over matters that would be uncontroversial today. Often the argument bogged down in banal human factors like aesthetic tastes. For example, I recall taking the position that Duncan Campbell Scott’s poetry should not be isolated from his work as a senior bureaucrat, a proposition that threatened to sully the enjoyment of his work. It is the case however that very few artists would come out of a thorough scrutiny of their lives with their reputation enhanced, and the same is true of politicians and editorialists and activists and of homo sapiens in general. The effort to suppress truth is often a rational effort, but in the interest of preventing dangerous lies to take root it ought to be resisted and repudiated.
The truth about Sir John A. Macdonald contains a good many unpleasant facts, but it happens that the facts are more unpleasant for some than they are for others. For some the unpleasantness of a history is abstract, and for others it is Uncle Roy, who never came home from the war. Or it is your mother, who got on a train in Łódź never to be seen again. Sir John A. Macdonald is not regarded, even by his defenders, as a man of the heroic mode, but he is regarded as an abstraction, and a powerful abstraction at that: he is “the father of Confederation,” the man who made Canada, and likely this is why the call to remove his name invoked the wrath that it did. He is bound up in an Anglo-Canadian nationalism which walks softly but carries a big hockey stick. I am tempted to say that no Indigenous person can feel in her bones what many Canadians feel about their symbols, but doubtless there are some who can. In any case, for a great many Indigenous people, Sir John A. Macdonald is a man who caused the suffering of our dead and living relatives, a man who described people not unlike us as barbarians and savages. Yes, by the standards of his day he was morally unremarkable, and that is precisely why we find him so hard to take.
As we saw in an earlier instalment, the episode with Ozymandias has left our hero in a state of unrest. The orange menace paces his realm of marble-and-gold as his mind searches for an outlet through which the pent-up emotions might soar. Soon, so soon, he will have the resources of the world’s most powerful nation at his disposal. Yes, in only days his hands will be upon the levers. For now, however, he must settle on less grand arrangements.
Before the mass adoption of video home systems (VHS) in the early 1980s, the only place you’d see a movie was in the theatre, and the only time you’d see it was at the time of its release. Sure, you could go back to the theatre during the two weeks it was playing, and see it again and again. If the movie was unusually popular, it might be held over for as long as a month. Eventually the screening would end, and the movie would disappear into a black hole with no plan or expectation of a re-release. There was no option of renting or streaming. And since sequels (and prequels) have become commonplace only in the last couple of decades, chances are there would be no revisiting of the story, ever. You’d move on to the next movie, and your recollections would be the only thing you’d have.
OKAY, first of all. So I joined the Twitter around February, nine months ago. That means I’ve been on it long enough to make a baby. Which I guess means that I have made a tweets baby, or maybe it’s a Twitter baby, because premise-conclusion is how logic works and you can’t argue with it. Because it’s logic. Anyways, I’m thinking that when my baby grows up, all the other kids are going to call her “twit,” which is so wrong. But that’s for another post.
IN THE LATEST Roundtable Toronto Podcast, episode 65, Mandy, Greg, Andy and I discussed the social media. We talked about who was using what, how the respective media differ, and the contrasting uses and limitations of each. The consensus at the table, so far as I could infer one, was that some media are more social than others: if you’re looking for engagement and conversation, you’ve found that media are not created alike.
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.
Were you to find me by chance at the local pub, I’d be in the dark corner with a scotch and, at most, two or three friends. This may seem an odd way to begin an article headlined in part by the phrase Social Media. The point is I’m not much a practitioner of the social. I don’t “do” small talk well, I don’t care for crowds, and rarely do I think my personal life (which in any case is no one’s damn business) of interest to my interlocutors. So it may seem a contradiction to you that I have had accounts at MySpace, Twitter, Flickr, Facebook, and other such social media websites. I know of people more anti-social than I who can say the same. What is it that draws us, the sub-social, to these improbable places? Continue reading Scrapping The Social Media