Having a day to honour the people who were here before any European settlers is long overdue. I grew up in Canada learning so little about the people who settlers found here some 500 years ago, that an honest description of what I knew has to be an admission I was totally ignorant. Let’s be honest with ourselves as settlers. Our ancestors came here wanting to believe this land was free for our taking and they convinced themselves it was true.
Most settlers back then, and still some today, eagerly bought the falsehood that the people who had lived here successfully for more than 12,000 years were ‘savages and inferior to them.’ It made the theft of their land not just OK but allowed settlers to cloak themselves in righteousness. They could ‘civilize’ them and lift them out of their ‘paganism’. For the most part, Christian churches left their gospel of love buried and amplified the same immoral beliefs.
While the federal residential school system began around 1883, the origins of the residential school system can be traced to as early as the 1830s — long before Confederation in 1867 — when the Anglican Church established a residential school in Brantford, Ont. Prior to this point, churches had built non-residential schools specifically for Indigenous children since the mid-1600s.
We did not shed much of those racist beliefs in the ensuing 500 years. When you steal a people’s land you must cling to the justification. When you cloak your actions with racist and religious belief it justifies the use of brute force. In line with those racist beliefs, we did horrendous things. Not only did we steal the land of the indigenous peoples, we compelled them to live on small pieces of their land which we ‘reserved’ for them, except when we decided we wanted some or all of those reserved pieces because they were too valuable.
But that was just the start. We destroyed their families by stealing their children under the guise we would educate them. We stripped those children of their dignity, their language, their culture, and their ability to learn how to parent and how to live in and contribute to their communities. Treating them as inferior made them feel that they were inferior. They were physically punished for even speaking the languages they learned on their parent’s knees.
Those children whom we forcibly tore from their families and communities were often physically abused and sexually abused. Too often the food, living conditions, and poor health care led to the deaths of the school inmates. The racism made such treatment seem justifiable or at least not so bad. It was deemed less immoral to abuse people not seen as fully human. But deep down there was shame. There were people in government and the churches who knew this was evil. Governments and churches protected themselves by burying the truth. Hide, redact, and destroy. These were not thoughtless acts.
Being treated as a sub-human makes people feel subhuman and see themselves as inferior. Racist behaviour does not produce happy, healthy individuals, families or functioning communities. It warps and erodes them. Settler racism took comfort from observing the damage that had been done and seeing the dysfunctional families and the substance abuse as proof that their racism was justified. It is easier to blame the victim than wear the mantle of the oppressor.
To complicate matters, our funding of indigenous health care, education, housing, economic development, clean water, social services – our funding of all the foundations of indigenous life has been significantly substandard and racist. We have foisted our governance structures on them using them to threaten, intimidate and sometimes corrupt the leaders we insisted be chosen our way. When push comes to shove we call in the police or the army to show them who is boss on the lands they still own. We are using nicer words lately but the relationship is still deeply tinged with the old superior racist beliefs. The value of the land we stole could have paid for the best care and services.
Comfortable in our supposed superiority we ignored enormous realities. As we went about the destruction of the beautiful stolen land, poisoning of the water, polluting of the air, destroying the forests and bulldozing for minerals. We never looked back to admit that after 13,000+ years on this land indigenous peoples had made hardly a dent in its pristine beauty. We showed our contempt for the beautiful world we said our God had created, and we derided indigenous beliefs about respecting the work of the Creator as a sacred duty. As we stagger toward climate change, dying oceans and the sixth great extinction of species on the planet, we are just now, just sometimes but perhaps a bit more every day, beginning to recognize the wisdom that we once ridiculed.
The traditional settler view of the natural world is that we as the dominant species have dominion or control over all of the natural world to do whatever might benefit us in some way. We have believed humans are above nature, not a part of it but some sort of ‘demi-gods’. At the risk, as a non-indigenous person, of over simplifying, indigenous cultures treasure nature as a gift of the Creator, see themselves as part of nature, as interdependent with all life, the earth and the universe.[i] This way of seeing the world is at the heart of what we used the residential schools to destroy.
It is also what a growing number of settler scientists are rediscovering to be true. Martin A Nowak, a world expert on evolution, in his book Super Co-operators: Altruism, Evolution and Why We Need Each Other to Succeed, shines light on the reality that it is not hyper individualism and competition that were the main drivers of the evolution of life from single cells to super complex life forms, but co-operation that played a far greater role. What evolution demonstrates most often is the survival of the most co-operative life forms. For more than a hundred years the science of ecology has taught us about the interdependence of all life on our planet, but our business and government leaders have not listened.
More recently, UBC Professor Suzanne Simard in the Department of Forest and Conservation Sciences, has taught us about the intricate web of sharing and communication that exists between trees both above and below the ground, a symbiosis of roots, fungi and myriad forms of life that supports healthy forests.
The task of reconciliation involves stopping hiding from the truth, abandoning myths of racial superiority and accepting that we need new ways of thinking about nature and our place in it that respects indigenous understanding, their science and beliefs. We need to stop organizing human society and using nature regardless of the damage to serve and maximize returns to capital. We need to begin working with nature, respecting the interdependence of life and the dignity of all people.
And what of the future?
When people are caught stealing, the first healing usually comes from giving back what was stolen. Giving the land back – well that is not going to happen is it? What can we do given that our own courts recognize, and more and more of the descendants of the settlers now acknowledge, we are living on indigenous land? What does it mean beyond lip service?
Let’s consider a bold solution. If we live on land that belongs to another person or company we pay rent. Let’s settle for a rental relationship. We rent their land with a very long term lease. We can settle on an annual rental at a price that reflects a combination of the value of the land, and provides more than enough income for indigenous people to look after their own governance, education, health services, housing, economic development, social services, water – the essentials they need to live.
It may be that some will say things like: ‘But they will waste it. They do not have the experience to develop the good judgement needed to make these complex decisions.” Some of their leaders who are wounded people (remember the enormous damage settlers and our governments and churches did) may make bad decisions. They too are human. But they will have a hard time catching up to the horrendous decisions made by settlers, churches and governments – our wounded people. Indigenous leaders will learn from their mistakes hopefully much faster than our churches and governments and businesses have learned from their mistakes.
Indigenous peoples will not likely become the drivers of the sixth great extinction, climate change or exploding income inequality. They will not likely bury thousands of their children in unmarked graves. When it comes to governing their lives it is surely their turn.