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Brian Bird: To achieve truth and reconciliation, hearts and minds must change

Commentary

The tragic discovery of the remains of 215 Indigenous children buried at the site of a former residential school in Kamloops has shaken and disturbed Canadians. As a law professor and a practising Catholic, this discovery has caused significant turmoil within me.

As a legal scholar, the role of the state and colonial legal systems in the conquest and mistreatment of First Nations weighs heavily on my conscience. As a Catholic, the role of the Church in operating residential schools like the one in Kamloops weighs even heavier.

The shameful error of these schools lies not only in the abuses that were committed within their walls, appalling as they were, but in the decision to create these schools in the first place. The forcible removal of children from their families was indeed an “inherently illiberal and a statist attack on individual rights and the institution of the family.” Any after-the-fact attempt to explain or justify this policy reopens wounds, and creates new ones.

On many levels, these schools betrayed the Catholic faith I profess. The false and harmful notion that Indigenous persons are somehow inferior violates the Christian belief that each and every human being — without exception — is equally a child of God and bears inerasable dignity.

Residential schools ignored this fundamental Christian conviction, along with Church teaching on the status of the family and the role of parents as primary educators of their children. In so doing, these schools not only departed from Christianity but enabled profound and wide-ranging harm that Indigenous persons and communities are still grappling with today.

Amid this darkness, it has been heartening to witness the expression of unreserved regret and sadness from Catholic leaders. The Archbishop of Vancouver, Michael Miller, stated that the Catholic Church was “unquestionably wrong in implementing a government colonialist policy which resulted in devastation for children, families and communities.” The Bishop of Kamloops, Joseph Nguyen, offered his “deepest sorrow and sincere apology to the families and communities that have been devastated” by the discovery of the children.

Many have called on Pope Francis to apologize for the Church’s role in the residential school system. The current Pontiff has expressed his “closeness” to Canadians in the wake of the discovery in Kamloops. In 2009, Pope Benedict XVI conveyed his sorrow and regret for the abuses committed at residential schools to a delegation of Indigenous leaders from Canada.

The necessary ingredients for reconciliation are complex and contested.

If there is a silver lining to the saddening news from Kamloops, we find it in the discussion and reflection that it has sparked across Canada on how to move forward on the path to reconciliation. We must capitalize on this momentum and not let it pass us by.

While the necessary ingredients for reconciliation are complex and contested, we should all be able to agree that much work must be done in the realm of hearts and minds. Stereotypes, prejudice, and racism towards Indigenous persons remain potent and widespread today. It would be no surprise, due to these present sentiments and to past wrongs, if many Indigenous persons view non-Indigenous persons with skepticism and suspicion, and perhaps worse.

These attitudes create and sustain a sizeable gulf — a palpable sense of distance and disconnectedness — between these two communities. They are not merely ships passing in the night. It often feels like they are navigating different oceans, even intentionally so.

It is hard to imagine that removing statues, renaming buildings, or cancelling Canada Day will do much to meaningfully alter this sociological reality, let alone pressing crises that acutely confront Indigenous communities such as lack of running water, overincarceration, unemployment and suicide. First and foremost, interior transformation must occur. Indigenous and non-Indigenous persons must see each other as neighbours, equals and friends. In those cases where they are oceans apart, they must first see each other.

Until these basic conditions for harmonious coexistence are in place, reconciliation, along with improvement on the socioeconomic challenges noted above, will remain elusive. Learning the truth about the experiences of Indigenous persons and communities is a key part of this journey, a lighthouse to which we should set our course.

Many Canadians are unaware — for reasons ranging from animus to wilful blindness to guiltless ignorance — of the hardships that First Nations have endured and their current challenges. Eyes must open for hearts to change.

Calling for change at the level of each and every individual is not to belittle or distract from the crucial work of governments, First Nations, and countless individuals and organizations to achieve truth and reconciliation on a broader scale. But for this work to bear real and lasting fruit, each of us must discern how we need to change internally.

This change, if made, will put the harbour of reconciliation within closer reach. Kamloops has taught me this lesson. I hope and pray that, in this regard, I am far from alone.

Rudyard Griffiths: Instead of reconciliation, we are busy with pointless acts of retribution

Commentary

As national angst over the latest horrors of the residential school system morphs into a physical war on public symbols associated with this ignoble chapter in our history, we are fast approaching a moment of national reckoning.

Do we, in the name of racial justice and reconciliation, strip our public spaces and public observances of the entirety of Canada’s “colonial” past? What would this mean for our national identity and how we imagine our society in the context of a “shared” past?

Answering these types of fraught questions requires getting at essence of history’s role in society. One of the best all time answers to this existential problem must be L.T. Hartley’s famous quote “the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” This brief, seemly flippant phrase, encapsulates beautifully what history is and isn’t and reminds all of us of the enduring utility of the past to the present, now and for all time.

For starters, Hartley’s assertion that the past is a “foreign country” illustrates the objective reality that history is removed from “us,” forever separate from the present and future.

To the point, history is over. It no longer exists. All the millions of Canadians who came before us are dead. Anything we do today to our memory of the past has no effect on previous generations’ perception of their successes and failures or how individual people were lauded or condemned in their own time.

This reality should be comforting in the current context. The current obsession with relitigating the lives of long dead political, military and civic leaders is, at best, a thought exercise. It is about “us” not “them” and the tearing down of statues does nothing to honour or dishonor the actual lives these people lived.

To react to the vandalism of statuary with outrage is pointless. No one is being harmed. This is a victimless crime. It is theatre of the mind (or the street). What matters, if anything, is what these acts of public anger says about who we are as a people today. And, here, serious self-criticism is warranted.

Relitigating the lives of long dead leaders is, at best, a thought exercise.

The subjugation and abuse of generations of First Nations peoples in residential schools is an undeniable and urgent national issue. It demands our attention and more importantly our ongoing, collective commitment to meaningfully make amends. Our response needs to be everything but symbolic. Yet this is largely what has happened in terms of public interpretation of the legacy of residential schools, the appropriating of blame and the righting of past wrongs.

Instead of focusing on the complicated task of reconciliation we are engaged in pointless acts of historical retribution that means nothing to its bronze encased victims and does little for the communities who are still living with the legacy of residential schools.

By attempting to defenestrate from our collective memory everyone from John A. Macdonald to Egerton Ryerson to Henry Dundas we are indulging in selfish, armchair acts of empty contrition. Acts that will ultimately obscure the very historical record that should be uncovered, debated, examined to inform our present-day responsibility and response to our fellow citizens who have been harmed.

This is the culture of narcissism that defines our time. We behave as if the past cares about the present. We invest in purely symbolic, individual acts of vandalism and destruction a public significance that belies their utter pointlessness. We embrace historical amnesia as the foundation of our future collective identity. And it all feels so good, so right, so just.

This narcissism is also at the heart of the current rejection of the truth contained in the second part of Harley’s quote “they do things differently [in the past].” This is not a statement condoning the past and everything contained within it. It is instead an acknowledgement that each historical period, the individual motives and particular events in any one moment of history, is unique.

To assume that any of us today would behave differently in the past, unaware of our future selves, is bizarre, magical thinking. In effect we are judging people in the past as if they are time travelers from our future aware of the full sweep of human history and their place in it relative to ours. This is wonderful science fiction but as a way of capturing the value of history to the present, it is as useful as bag of hammers.

The utility of history is precisely the context it provides or the very thing that we are destroying by purging in the present the visible symbols and observances of a shared past. It is precisely because of the juxtaposition of our present to our past that we know once-condoned social practices like slavery, public executions, and denying women equal rights are immoral.

History informs the present. It fills it with context and resonance anchoring our values to a chain of causality imbued with meaning. Its erasure does the opposite. Its erasure creates a collective amnesia in which the arbiters of the norms and mores of the present are our momentary impulses and desires, a rootless narcissism devoid of context, driven by the mob.

Let’s have a historically rich debate about the origins and consequences of residential schools. Unearth the motivations, beliefs and assumptions of its architects and its critics in the past. Use the tensions within and between historical periods to inform and enrich our own response to this tragedy.

To have any hope of doing this we need to stop the destruction of the public symbols and observances of our history. This is madness. It’s against our most basic interests now and into the future. It runs counter to the reconciliation we need to move forward. Let’s put down the hammers and pick up a history book before we lose our way back to who we are as a people.