(This article was previously published in the Sri Lankan Anchorman newspaper – July edition)
I remember the slick reports in magazines like Macleans that first made me want to immigrate to this country. “Canada voted best country in the world to live in” said the United Nations Human Development Index and other global surveys throughout the 1980s and 90’s, year after year. Things have slipped a bit since, but Canada still shows up consistently in the Top 5 of these snob-country rankings. My 34 years of residence here has seen that claim live up to its promise, more or less, and Canada has been a far better deal than the oppressive countries I lived in before.
Then, last month, we read the news reports of the dead children, and although this news was expected, for these kids had gone missing years ago, the stark reality of a brutal and segregationist past hit us in the face. Parallels were drawn between the Indigenous Reserve system and the townships of Apartheid, some even coined the term “cultural genocide.” Treaties had been negotiated in bad faith, it seemed, some fraudulently. This news too had lurked in the wings of our minds from past reports of Indigenous land claims and from the findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee, but now it was back on centre stage.
I felt like an interloper too, and delved into further reading about the Royal Proclamation of 1763; the dreaded Indian Act of 1876 and its revisions in subsequent years; the role of the all-powerful Indian Agent and his ability to wangle deals for his friends; the various treaties where land exchanged hands and the Indigenous shrunk into smaller habitats with every deal they signed (why the heck did they sign, if there hadn’t been mutual gain in sight?); the system of Enfranchisement and the residential schooling system established to eradicate the native from within the native. A starker picture began to emerge. The Indigenous had become wards of a state that was looking to assimilate them and discontinue this two-tier system that had arisen due to settler encroachment. Assimilation seemed a practical solution, far better than a war of conquest where blood is usually spilled; and a workable one if the incumbents would only agree, but a thorny one if they didn’t. However, blood was indirectly spilled through this peaceful approach, or at least, it was not allowed to flow, as those unmarked graves attested.
To throw a spanner into the works of the government’s assimilation plans, the Indigenous began fighting back, asking for a restoration of their former life and land from a nation that had evolved around them and attained “best country in the world to live in” status in the eyes of the international community. Thus, my reading revealed, this land, the true north strong and free, was standing on very shaky ground indeed, when you lifted its kimono.
And then to complicate matters, at some point “settler” changed to “immigrant” when new arrivals had to qualify to enter this country; they came by choice now and paid market prices for land, and were not gifted anything any more from the Crown for past services rendered. These immigrants in turn bought and sold, and the land changed hands many times over since its initial usurpation via treaty. These immigrants also toiled and paid taxes and did their share to make Canada the best place in the world to live, beyond that what the original settlers and Indigenous had been able to do on their own. As an immigrant to this country in the late 1980’s, I too bought (and later sold) a parcel of this disputed land. How does one untangle ownership from this scale of multi-layering?
So let’s face it. No amount of navel gazing and statements like “let’s dismantle Canada” will do the trick. You can never go back. Nor will those hollow land-acknowledgement statements that begin and end every public gathering or event help untangle this pickle. In fact, I sometimes find the speakers who rattle off these acknowledgements get their Indigenous names all wrong, and are in a hurry to get it over with and move on. Instead of this tokenism, it would be better to acknowledge that this country, like any country, is an evolved mechanism. We cannot always be proud of our past, and we can’t be proud of this one, but we can acknowledge and learn from it. Reparations and apologies, where warranted, must be made – quickly, and not be dragged out for another hundred years.
Every country has had a tortuous past. Humanity has had a tortuous evolution. We should not be ashamed to look back at where we came from, because if we do feel bad about those things today, then we have progressed. When WWII ended, “Never Again” was the rallying cry upon which institutions like the United Nations were founded to provide global harmony and cooperation. These organizations are not always successful in their efforts, but their intentions are clear. So too in Canada, “Never Again” should be the driving motto now. Never again to systemic racism, never again to marginalization, never again to one person being more equal than the other (and this cuts both ways), never again to fraudulent land deals, and never again having to say “oops, sorry” although Canadian’s are the masters of that expression, sometimes for the wrong reasons.
There is something good in this country that makes others view it as the best place in the world to live – Canada’s physical beauty, the expanse of its land, its resources, the industry of its people, its civic tolerance, even its navel gazing, chest pounding, and muddling in the middle. So let’s build on that. The new Governor General being Indigenous is a good first sign – no more “them” and “us,” we’re in this mess together, so let’s work it out.
Some have cautioned me not to write this article. “The wounds are still too raw,” they say, “you’ll come out a loser either way.” We need to bleed more, they say, beat our chests more, atone and grieve for terrible acts committed before many of us were born. But when is enough, enough? Who rings the bell for the end of play?
Sanction notwithstanding, I’d like to see us move on, even as the sins of the past are still being dug up daily, and reparations become an annual expense item on government budgets. In my opinion, warts and all, we are indeed in the best place in the world to live today, maybe not yesterday when those atrocious deeds were committed. So let’s continue to evolve instead of looking backward.