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LOEWEN: For what it’s worth: Thoughts on Truth & Reconciliation

Image Credit: Compilation/Jennifer Stahn
June 03, 2015 - 8:03 AM

Callous indifference to, willful ignorance of Canadian history’s catalogue of insult towards, and impatience with Indigenous peoples’ aspirations have pretty much defined Canada’s regard for First Nations people.

And in the words of Stephen Stills’ classic, “For What It’s Worth”:

‘Think it's time we stop
Hey, what's that sound
Everybody look what's going down...'

June 2, 2015 marked the day that, after six excruciating years of hearing from Indian residential school survivors, Justice Murray Sinclair released the Executive Summary on the findings of The Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

As expected, the report reveals the uncomfortable truths that we as a country have been attempting to gloss over for years:

Canada tried to co-opt the Indigenous peoples from our earliest colonial-settler beginnings straight through to the present day. Canada has never been honourable in its dealings with Indigenous signatories to treaties that formed the very concept that has materialized into the country we call Canada. And, although Canada didn’t try to exterminate its Indigenous like our American friends, its assimilationist tactics (witnessed in its erection of an apartheid system all our own and a Church-supported Indian residential school system) amounted to a near-cultural-genocide.

These are the facts, folks. And we’d best acknowledge them, for to not do so will be to our detriment as a democracy. But try telling that to our current government and PM Stephen Harper in particular.

One might charitably call PM Stephen Harper a historical revisionist.

But I prefer to call him a liar. And how can Indigenous folks deal with those who would deny, lie about, their history.

Remember Mr. Harper’s staggering lies when referring to our national “assets” and history at the Pittsburgh G20 Summit in 2009:

"We're so self-effacing as Canadians that we sometimes forget the assets we do have that other people see... We are one of the most stable regimes in history. ... We are unique in that regard... We also have no history of colonialism. So we have all of the things that many people admire about the great powers but none of the things that threaten or bother them."

With seven words, almost as an after-thought, PM Stephen Harper could tell his audience at the time that Canada has no colonialized-blood on its hands to atone for, that we are pure as the driven snow, veritable unmolested choirboys on the international stage.

Well... we’re not.

We’re capitalist bastards that have done what capitalist bastards do historically whenever pesky dark people get in the way of expansionist colonial business interests: We drive the first folks off their lands, steal their resources, and leave ‘em dead or indentured wards of the state.

It’s a hard truth to learn, and too many Canadians haven’t got enough learnin’, it would seem.

We live cheek-to-jowl with Indigenous folks here in the B.C. Interior. And even here there are many who will not concede historical fact for what it is. And sadly enough, when the most viciously ignorant are vile enough to give voice to their racist doggerel, one still sees other folks quick to jump onto those hate-mongering soapboxes to add to the violence and abuse already endured by Indigenous Canadians and become a chorus of hateful harpies.

It is my eternal optimism, however, that believes against the evidence that level heads and the seemingly eternally patient Indigenous amongst us will prevail. In an interview with Peter Mansbridge on The National, Justice Murray Sinclair noted with some accuracy that the current government will not always be in power. That the current government has been particularly tone-deaf to Indigenous realities and concerns and that there is hope that future regimes will see fit to set things right.

And setting things right will not amount to yet another photo op at a pow-wow. The time for mere cultural recognition is definitively over. But I worry that something will be missed, even now that we have Justice Murray’s exhaustive summary before us.

One hears increasingly about the words “cultural genocide” amongst Indigenous folks. So much so, that the term threatens to become hegemonic in the spread of political discourses that surround issues of redress and reconciliation.

My fear in this regard is that something much larger, much more sinister is occluded in the concentration upon the cultural. Namely, the political and the economic.

Because, you see: it’s really the economic and the political injustices resulting from capitalism’s reduction of everything to its own ends that is the real Devil-in-the-details here. And it is an insidious ideology that negatively affects not only the Indigenous, but the vast majority of the rest of Canada’s citizens too.

Until such time comes that we all recognize the imperative to re-envision our collective national future and to start a fundamental dismantling and reformation of our political economy, I suspect we will never arrive at true reconciliation, and equality amongst the many peoples that make up Canada as a whole.

But first comes the time for the initial heavy-lifting. The long road to reimagining equality between Canada’s First Nations and the rest of us (beneficiaries all of their historical debasement), begins now; not only through the politics of cultural recognition, but through a thorough critique of the very structures that have defined our country’s political and colonial-capitalist history.

— Jeffrey Loewen is a Kelowna-based writer who plays music by day and politics by night

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