June Op-Ed for the Bridge River Lillooet News
The Truth and Reconciliation commission just ended and now the government must follow through with its recommendations. Top of the list should be making it mandatory that the history of residential schools is taught in grade school curriculum.
Two weeks ago I was in a Fraser Valley classroom and the teacher asked the students (all non-Native), whose ages ranged from 19 to 25, if the history of residential schools should be taught in schools. Of the ten students, two said yes, eight said variations of no. “They get enough handouts already,” one student said and the rest agreed, parroting what they’ve heard many times before from people just as ignorant. Further discussion revealed the students had little or no actual knowledge of residential schools, let alone the horrors that occurred inside them or the terrible repercussions that ensued.
Without education and awareness, it’s a rare human being who can connect to the suffering of others. Once when I was traveling in Asia in the early 90s I met a white man from South Africa who hadn’t been home in years. He said he was so ashamed of his country’s treatment of blacks that he couldn’t be a part of his homeland. In later years, all through that country’s truth and reconciliation proceedings, I thought about him. He was only one man but he was the conscience of an entire nation.
Many other nations have had to come to terms with horrors in their past. In Germany they don’t avoid the Holocaust, instead they have created vivid reminders for all people to see, out of respect to Jews and a public commitment that skinheads or other radical haters will not be allowed to flourish again. In Mexico City’s National Palace there’s a massive mural by the world-renowned painter Diego Rivera depicting the suffering of indigenous peoples. The mural is hard to look at, the way it grabs you and does not flinch from the facts.
Here in Canada, what happens next? Do we move forward without meaningful change or appropriate healing? Do we allow the racists to continue being ignorant, insensitive bullies? Will we trade reconciliation for more cowardice?
This country must acknowledge First Nations suffering, understand its historical roots and the consequences to the social fabric. Residential schools were not schools, they were prisons. Children were stolen from their families and turned into slaves for indentured labour. They were treated like animals and an estimated 6,000 died. The whole ugly brutality lasted well over a hundred years and resulted in cultural genocide.
Candidates vying for election in this fall’s federal election would be wise to include a commitment to the Truth and Reconciliation commission’s recommendations. Many people are fed up with the political dithering and avoidance that does not reflect how they feel. It’s high time this country grew up. No nation on earth gets to call itself a progressive, multicultural nation just by uttering the words. We only get to call ourselves great when we’ve made ourselves humble before the truth.