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Mar 07 2012

Yesterday, tomorrow, today

The central thesis of my series on black history this year was focussed on the importance of understanding the whole truth of our history as a nation. This is not only relevant to Canada, mind you – it is universally true that understanding where we came from tells us how we got where we are. Furthermore, it gives us an indication of how we can move into the future intelligently, avoiding the same pitfalls that had waylaid us before. The reason why I thought black history was particularly useful for this task is that a) it has not been well-explored and is not well-understood, and b) it is a particularly egregiously bad slice of our history that we must learn to confront honestly if we are to glean anything from it.

That being said, Canada’s abysmal treatment of black people is far from the worst story we have to tell. For that, we have to turn to First Nations Canadians. The original settlers and inhabitants of the land were repeatedly exploited and conned into agreements that worked to their continual disadvantage. It is only recently that we have been willing to confront our national shame in anything other than an entirely token way, and many (myself included) would argue that we are still not doing enough to not simply make up for historical injustices, but to understand how we non-Aboriginal Canadians fit into their historical narrative.

Just as in the case of black history, learning the history of the Nation of Canada and the First Nations of Canada teaches us about ourselves, in ways that we may find uncomfortable but which are critical to moving forward:

The residential school system constituted an assault on aboriginal children, families and culture, and Canadians have been denied a full and proper education about aboriginal societies, according to a copy of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s interim report obtained by CBC News. The interim report was leaked Thursday to CBC News, a day before the three commissioners — chair Murray Sinclair, Wilton Littlechild and Marie Wilson — release the report in Vancouver.

Their 20 recommendations address education, health and commemoration, among other issues. The commission calls for all provinces and territories to develop residential school education materials for public schools. Provinces and territories should hold education campaigns about the history and impact of residential schools in their jurisdictions, the commission says.

Canada’s history with its residential schools is perhaps the most monstrous part of our history. I hesitate to use the term ‘cultural genocide’ because I don’t think that cultures per se have a right to exist, but insofar as it was an intentional effort to eradicate not only a culture but a race of people and an entire way of life, the term applies. Understanding this fact and the repercussions thereof quickly puts the lie to most of the racist and wildly ignorant memes that you can easily find in the comments section of any article about First Nations people and issues.

One of the issues I struggled the most with during black history month was the fact that readership dropped precipitously for my Monday posts. I do not blame anyone for this – I recognize that not everyone is as fired up about this issue as I am. Certainly, even I didn’t really show much enthusiasm until a little while ago. Black history, I must confess, is primarily interesting to black people. However, I see my job here as not simply talking to you about things you’re already interested in, but to impart some of my own enthusiasm and to convince you why these topics are important. To the extent that I was unable to immediately convince everyone to devote their lives to black history scholarship, I was a tad frustrated.

That being said, I don’t think I have to work too hard to convince you that this kind of intervention – putting emphasis on the darker elements of our history rather than retaining the Anglocentric Canadian history lessons I remember from high school – equips us much better to deal with modern-day realities. To the extent that black history, while more interesting to black people, is about all people, teaching the history of Canada’s dealings with its First Nations people is relevant to all Canadians, but there are some who will undoubtedly get more out of it.

They may also simply get more of it:

Federal politicians from all parties have unanimously supported a motion to dramatically improve the funding and quality of First Nations education. Now, all eyes are on the Conservatives to see if they back up their sentiments with real money. ”Today is historic and we are half way there. It is up to the government to live up to the promise they made,” said NDP MP Charlie Angus, who has worked tirelessly for four years to make the Shannen’s Dream campaign a reality.

The campaign is named after Shannen Koostachin, a teenager from the Attawapiskat community near James Bay, in Angus’s northern Ontario riding. Angry about her own quality of elementary education, she spearheaded a student-led drive to improve schooling on reserves across the country. But she died in a car accident in 2010, before seeing major progress.

Part of my particular brand of liberalism is the belief that education is the silver bullet cure for all major social problems. An informed, engaged, and empowered electorate is the lifesblood of a strong democracy. Public education is the key that makes all of that possible. Mind you, education spending and actual education are not the same, but one can certainly make the other a lot easier. It should also be noted that this is a non-binding vote, which means that it comes with the promise of exactly zero dollars (and were I an Aboriginal Canadian, I imagine I’d be even more deeply cynical of any promises from the Canadian federal government), but it does mean that MPs from all parties are on record in support of the idea. What that actually means will only be revealed in time.

For all our repeated downfalls as a nation and as a society, I am still deeply optimistic about our future. As long as we keep making learning and exploring our history a priority, we will continue to find ways to improve. Provided that we have the courage to face up to the mistakes of yesterday, we will have a much easier time making a path forward into a tomorrow that is prosperous and inclusive of all Canadians. That challenge starts today.

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10 comments

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  1. 1
    ischemgeek

    I would like to see a day when history of visible minority populations in Canada is woven into our history curricula. I understand the necessity of Black History Month (and a similar idea for Native history, if it ever comes to pass), but I worry that it further “others” these populations… I’d rather my kid (if/when I ever have kids) go to a school with an inclusive history curriculum more than a curriculum of the history of straight white men, with the history of black people and native people and women and so on tacked on in specific months as afterthoughts.

    Currently, it feels that schools send the message of, “Here’s the history of everything!”

    *pause*

    “oh, yeah, and women and black people were there too. A bit. But only for the civil rights parts. And inventing stuff.”

  2. 2
    m5

    My ‘little’ sister just left a couple weeks ago to teach kindergarten on a reservation out west. I have nebulous, uninformed mixed feelings about the whole thing. I wish I could see the material she’s been given. Of course, she’s only getting 2 or 3 kids out of the 40ish she’s supposed to get.

  3. 3
    Desert Son, OM

    Bumper sticker seen occasionally when I jog in my neighborhood:

    “You can trust the government. Just ask an Indian.”

    I don’t know if the bumper sticker was placed as an anarchist statement, a tea-party-ist statement, a “liberal guilt” statement, or an indigenous empowerment statement (or some combination of those, or perhaps another category I haven’t thought of), and given where in Texas I live, it could actually be any number of things. But at the heart of the statement is the very real historical abuse – coming and going – heaped on native nations and peoples.

    it is a particularly egregiously bad slice of our history that we must learn to confront honestly if we are to glean anything from it.

    History education strikes me as particularly critical in all of this, right alongside science education: from 2010.

    One of my favorite quotes is by the writer/director/producer David Milch about his HBO series Deadwood. I can’t remember it exactly, so I’ll have to paraphrase, but it’s along the lines of:

    “I believe the way that you testify to love is to tell the whole story, the good and the bad. And I love my country, and to do it honor means telling the whole story with the good and the bad.”

    Still learning,

    Robert

  4. 4
    Pen

    Many of the hopes you have for black or First Nations history are similar to the hopes for Holocaust education in Europe: by learning about something we can stop it happening again. As a middle schooler, I found the presentation of the Holocaust more traumatic than I can really express but I believed it was ‘good for me’. By the time I reached high school, I was convinced that it wasn’t actually giving me any understanding of how such a terrible thing happened, no tools for action and that it verged on voyeurism. This is maybe a problem with the presentation, not the idea itself. What is required for the history of humanity’s great mistakes to deliver on its promises?

    Now that I have a daughter who would definitely have been on the Holocaust victim list, I am bothered about all those things and also extremely sensitive about how she learns about the Holocaust and how she relates it to herself and other people (say her close friend who is German). How do we present history to groups of teens with varied ancestries without it becoming divisive, without building victimhood or shame into the fibre of their identities (teens, remember)?

    As a society, we have very little experience of teaching history for this purpose, and we tend to get it wrong by default. It’s like the diversity thing really – just shoving things into the curriculum is mere tokenism. Hopefully, we can learn to do better, but only by serious criticism of the way we teach history.

  5. 5
    VeritasKnight

    The difficult part of forging a Canadian history that deals with the dark parts is creating a narrative that still leaves a lingering, positive Canadian identity. This is absolutely do-able – it is possible to teach the “bad” history along with the “good” – but framing it is difficult, at best.

    The USA is particularly bad at it, especially in the South; but countries like Germany have gone so far in the opposite direction that many of their youth don’t feel particularly “German”. While that’s fine, it also means they don’t have an attachment to the government works over them. In other words, it has helped create a fairly apathetic group of young people who either do not vote or simply do not care.

    I certainly believe it can be done, but I am curious what the final product should look like.

  6. 6
    mynameischeese

    November is First Nations History Month. I’m planning on celebrating by reading more First Nations authors, but a Monday series here would certainly be a bonus.

  7. 7
    Crommunist

    I will seriously consider it. I am loath to try to tell the First Nations story, especially as an outsider. However, given the amount of overlap between black Canadians and First Nations Canadians (wrt Anglo Canadians) there may be many interesting parallels to draw.

  8. 8
    darius

    I don’t know much about Canada’s First Nations peoples, but I imagine a lot of the early abuses were similar to what happened here in the USA. I try not to engage in feeling “white guilt” as it is not particularly useful other than to make me hate myself for things that happened (mostly) before I was born, but boy… it sure is tough not to feel depressed and guilty whenever I think about what white people did to the Native Americans.

    I still look forward to your posts on the subject, of course; painful though the truth may be, ignorance is not something I find comforting.

  9. 9
    ischemgeek

    I didn’t know that – my school never observed it growing up, and I’ve been buried in chemistry for the past 6 years. Good to know. Thanks!

    As for aboriginal history month, Crommunist, have you considered contacting aboriginal leaders and asking them to write guest pieces? I know of a few who are desperate for someone who’s willing to listen to their history before they lose it.

  10. 10
    ischemgeek

    An easy way to frame it is the way my school framed issues of xenophobia w/ regard to immigration (one of the few areas my school did well at in teaching history, I’ll give it that much): This is how bad it used to be, this is how it is now, here is where we want to be in the future, and here’s what we’re doing to get there.

    I ended up with a good understanding of the past, a firm knowledge that progress had been made, but that there was still a lot of work to be done. It didn’t leave me with the feeling that Canada is a horrible country, and did leave me happy that the province felt it necessary to be honest about the issues and problems.

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