Earlier last week, someone quoted their daughter who had asked, ‘mommy do I look too Muslim?’ The post below is about the long history we have in Canada of reminding the indigenous people who came long before we settlers did, and later, the ‘newcomers’, that it works best here, if they all try really hard to be like the rest of us. The post comes out of the EMC Church in MacGregor, Manitoba. It’s speaks into this long history and it’s important to read. I’m posting it with permission.
By: Shannon Doerksen
Originally published June 10, 2021, on MacGregorEMC.com.
I was ten years old in 1996 when the last residential schools in Canada were closed. I don’t think at that point I had even heard of them.
I remember that the Canadian history I learned in school was very centred on European settlers – one could be forgiven for coming away from those lessons believing that the history of this land and its people only began once white people were there to see it – ‘if a tree falls in a forest and there is no white man there to see it, did it really fall?’ We were told that indigenous people were traded blankets infected with smallpox, but we didn’t have to sit with any discomfort about that for long because we were assured that the Americans had done worse. This was echoed when we learned about Japanese internment camps, about turning away Jewish refugees fleeing Nazism. There’s always someone, somewhere, worse, so we can feel better about ourselves in comparison. We don’t need to feel uncomfortable.
If we thought about indigenous populations at all, it was to decry their “inability to let the past go” and prescribe solutions for any problems they experienced that would make them more like us. We couldn’t acknowledge that what we characterized as the past was actually very present and ongoing. We didn’t believe that they had anything of value to offer us beyond a carte-blanche to use their land however we wished, with no discussion, pushback, or need to listen. We were nice white people, and we were here to ‘help.’
Lord, have mercy.
Recently, 215 bodies were found on the site of a residential school in British Columbia. They say some are as young as three years old. I have a child that age. I try to imagine her being taken away without my consent to be educated in a culture and language not only not my own, but with the express purpose of instilling hatred and shame of my culture and language in her. I try to imagine her not coming home and never knowing why or where she is, or her coming home to find we can no longer communicate and I am a source of embarrassment and shame to her. I can hardly breathe.
Christ, have mercy.
It is interesting that this has come to the fore during a pandemic where we have heard, over and over again, from small groups of people loudly insisting that the restrictions contradict their freedom of religion by insisting they gather remotely, or their freedom of mobility by putting limits on shopping or recreation. It was not so long ago that indigenous people in this country were barred from practicing their spirituality at all. It was not so long ago that their mobility was at the mercy of a government agent’s whims.
We settler Canadians love to think of this country as a bastion of peace and freedom. For us, it often is. We have schools and health care and clean drinking water and passable roads in our communities. That’s not the case for many indigenous people. A high school education is not locally available in some communities so children have to be billeted in an unfamiliar city far from their families and communities just to access basic education. Expectant mothers in some communities can’t access the health care they need and have to spend the last bit of their pregnancy in an unfamiliar city far from home. Safe potable water is not present in every community. These deficits are a cruel kind of insult added to injury – we want to relegate residential schools to an unfortunate dark chapter of this country’s past, but we won’t ensure that children won’t have to travel far from their families to complete high school? We will deprive women of their family and community support for pregnancy and childbirth? We will not ensure safe drinking water for every community?
I am aware that I am not personally responsible for residential schools or the Sixties Scoop or smallpox. I didn’t personally preside over the Indian Act, but here I am in a country that has afforded me a comfortable life and many opportunities because I follow, whether directly or indirectly, the people and policies responsible for those things.
Generation after generation of settlers running things and here we are: I am not afraid that I won’t be taken seriously in the ER. I am not afraid of mistreatment, or worse, at the hands of police. I am not afraid that I will go missing and that law enforcement and the media will either ignore my disappearance or construct a narrative around it that insists it was my own fault. I am not afraid of Child and Family Services. I am not afraid that someone’s private property will be valued more highly than my life. No one should be afraid of those things, but as things are, indigenous people in this country have good reason to be.
I don’t know how to fix things, but the point of this post is to lament. That is something of importance too because it’s by lamenting that we can begin to see the scope of a problem. Maybe right now, grieving and learning is what needs to be done. Maybe then, by paying attention to the injustices suffered wave upon wave by indigenous people in this country, in some small way, we can figure out how to accomplish something in the direction of reconciliation and reparation.
Lord, have mercy.