I am reading a lot of reports from inquiries and royal commissions lately. The subjects are Canada’s native residential schools, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s apology to the survivors of those schools, and the truth and reconciliation commission that is part of the deal struck by Aboriginal organizations, the federal government, and some survivors; not all but some or even most of the survivors.
Unlike the trc, I am not restricting myself to only residential schools in my research. So I pore over documents. As I flip through pages, I find my dander rise whenever certain phrases pop up. One is “in the best interests of..” and the other is “not racist given society’s attitudes at the time.” These two phrases, I’ve become convinced, are flip sides of the same coin.
The first phrase is often used as an excuse. Government officials or authorities use it to intrude, intervene, impose or intercede into the lives of Aboriginal peoples, their communities, their families. It has been used since before Canadian Confederation to “encourage” or force people off the land, from independence to lives similar to the old “fort Indians” who hung about hoping for scraps from the white man’s tables for survival because the buffalo herds had been hunted into near extinction.
This phrase also pops up regularly in various other invasions by government officials or cultural technology, like waves of armoured assault, one after another. The residential schools were only one wave, followed by social workers from the 1950s onward, to the police and the justice system close behind, to television and now the Internet. Each has either grabbed by force generation after generation of children, or enticed with promises of a better life. The result has been the same though – the loss of these children.
Today, whole Aboriginal communities are populated by shell-shocked, institutionalized people; parents who never had the chance to learn how to parent; adults who only learned how to abuse themselves and others. The prisons are full of them, but still churn out more year after year. The child welfare system is especially productive in creating damaged souls. TV and the Internet have replaced the residential schools; both achieve the same result with less fuss as languages wither and cultural norms are confused by foreign images and fleeting promises of instant fame or fortune.
The other phrase (“not racist given society’s attitudes at the time”) is trotted out to explain why the “father of public education” in Canada was not a racist. It is used to explain why the policies of forced assimilation that made the residential schools possible was not racist at all – but a humane act of kindness that went terribly wrong “with the best of intentions” (another one of those lame excuses). It is used to rationalize why a crime was not a crime at all; just the world working as it did in another time.
I don’t buy it.
So many writers, too many to quote here, speak of the architects of these monstrous machines with something akin to pity, excusing racist attitudes, sentiments and public statements with forgiving phrases like “not racist given society’s attitudes at the time.” As though they really weren’t racist at all, and that this really does explain and absolve.
It does not excuse hundreds of years of racism, and countless acts of racist cruelty, in the southern United States by saying they weren’t really racist because most people held similar views at the time. It does not excuse the rise of Nazism in 1930s Germany or the Holocaust that followed? It cannot let really nasty people off the hook, such as those who planned and executed the genocide in Rwanda.
So why do Canadians, and Canadian writers, routinely defend people like Egerton Ryerson, Duncan Campbell Scott, or a host of others that represented the cream of Canadian society, the best and brightest of their generations? Why do they argue that these folks were not racist? One would think that Ryerson and the others would have the benefit of superior intellect and Christian upbringing, and this would have taught them the difference between right and what was clearly wrong?
It didn’t. They truly believed they were superior to those of other races. They truly believed that the Indigenous peoples of this land were inferior. This is the dictionary definition of a racist.
So why do Canadian writers find it so difficult to face the truth? Why must they pretend otherwise?