This discussion's necessary - Keith Roulston Editorial
The Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario set off a national debate last week when it approved a resolution that called for the name of Sir John A. Macdonald to be removed from all schools.
The teachers felt that honouring the prime minister who oversaw the creation of the residential school system was a hurtful insult to any Indigenous student who had to attend a school bearing that name. That view has sparked lots of push-back and debate about our history.
The fiery discussion has probably made more Canadians think about their history than at any time in recent years. Probably very few had ever thought about the origins of the system that forcefully took Indigenous students from their families and homes and took them many miles away to residential schools where they were forbidden to use their own languages. They knew Sir. John A. Macdonald as the first prime minister of the political union known today as Canada but they hadn’t thought that, as leader of the government, he was responsible for beginning that system that many label today as cultural genocide.
Acknowledging the harm perpetrated on generations of Indigenous students and the ongoing problems created by this abuse is the first step needed in the truth and reconciliation process. Recognizing the part played in the creation of this abusive system by our political leaders must be part of the painful process of accepting the truth of our country’s guilt. There will be pain involved in re-evaluating our sense of the justness of our society.
This recognition was the first goal of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, which operated from 2008 to 2015 and heard stories from thousands of victims of the system and the ongoing ramifications of the harm done to them.
The commission was inspired by the Truth and Reconciliation process instituted in South Africa after Nelson Mandela became the first black president of the country following the overthrow of the murderous apartheid system of separating races. The wise Mandela realized that, tempting as it was, blacks gaining revenge on their white oppressors (and in some cases murderers and torturers), would not move South Africa ahead. He needed a process to heal his country as quickly as possible and move on to get the different races working together.
His government adopted a process of public hearings for people to tell their stories of the abuse they had suffered under apartheid, in some cases facing their abusers. These perpetrators of violence could also give testimony, admit their guilt and request amnesty from both civil and criminal prosecution.
The process in South Africa occurred after the black Africans had assumed power and were in a position to grant forgiveness. In Canada, the victims of residential school abuse have little power. Many still live in poverty, often without even clean drinking water. Finding work on isolated reserves is often impossible. Too few resources are devoted to schools and housing. The rest of Canadian society has a lot of work to do before the “reconciliation” part of truth and reconciliation can take place.
But it must happen as some point if our country is to become whole. We cannot undo the last 400 years and send all the “settlers” back to Europe and Africa and Asia. As in Nelson Mandela’s vision, we must find ways for all people to work together so we can utilize all of our individual potentials and maximize our personal fulfillment.
And at some point, that’s going to require forgiveness of figures like Sir John A. Macdonald. We can see now that the residential school system was wrong-
headed and trying to strip people of their language and culture was cruel but we may be attributing evil intentions to a man who was trying to find a solution as to how to find a future for Indigenous people within a dominant society far different than their traditional world.
If we can’t forgive our ancestors, while fully recognizing their faults, we’re not going to have many statues or honour many people for the good things they’ve done. I’m currently reading a memoir by Nelly McClung, a feminist hero who is portrayed in the Famous Five statue on Parliament Hill for her part in the historic “persons” case. But she also believed in the compulsory sterilization of the mentally challenged so they couldn’t reproduce, something for which, someday, someone may demand her statue’s removal.
The truth and reconciliation process must begin with admitting the truth about people like Macdonald and about “settler” society’s abuses of Indigenous peoples. It must continue with righting as many of these wrongs as possible. Eventually, it must also include the granting of forgiveness for past wrongs.