Truth and Reconciliation

Two very controversial and emotional words in Canada today: Truth and Reconciliation.

 

Canadians have not suffered the same trauma over the word ‘racist’ as our southern friends, possibly because systemic racism never took hold as deeply in our past. However, reconciliation with Native Canadians has endured with the same emotional charge and unresolved issues as slavery. Pursuit of truth, likewise, is fraught with unending differences of opinion; lots of opinions and fewer agreed upon facts.

 

Like most people, I have tried over many years to follow the media accounts and positions put forward on complex land rights and obligation issues. I’m also fortunate to have personal experiences to juxtaposition against the cacophony of shouting. One experience from 54 years ago stands out. My father grew up in backwoods Manitoba. A Polish immigrant at a young age, his closest friends were Native children. His family were second class ‘bohunks’, poor immigrants not welcomed by the children from more established, ‘proper English speaking’, families.

 

My dad liked to fish, a lot! It brought out the child in him. We would drive from homes in suburban Ontario to the North Country at least two times a year. It was heaven for him.

 

On one trip, as we were driving through a Native Reserve on Manitoulin Island, I was appalled as an innocent teen at the level of poverty, mile after mile. Finally, I ask my dad, “how could this situation exist?” It was one of the few times I saw my hardened, WWII veteran father tear up. He replied, ‘son, it was like this when I was a child and it’ll be like this long after you’re my age.”

 

He was right. Not much has changed for many Native people despite many billions of dollars being spent by our government. Dad opened up more during that trip and told me of different times the government during his years tried to advance the state of Native housing and infrastructure and how it always ended in misused resources and unmaintained structures.

 

Part of the reason I wrote my first book, XNOR, was to explore some of the roots for the seemingly unending legal challenges by Native tribes and our Quebecois brothers and sisters. Neither group has fully embraced being equal Canadians with the same legal rights and privileges and only the same ones as other Canadians. How did this start? Was there a certain historical period where legal precedents were set, and each challenge and ‘settlement’ thereafter only complicated the problem without any reconciliation being achieved?

 

My research led me to the period of 1759 to 1763. I was astounded by the brutality of that era. All parties exercised a meanness and viciousness that is hard to appreciate 260 years later. There were few good actors. Another discovery in my quest was the large turnover of land usage and claims between various Native tribes beginning long before Europeans arrived. Their culture lacked the complex legal structure of the Europeans. The winning tribes did not ‘compensate’ the former occupants of a conquered area. There was no idea of land ownership in the sense that we understand it.

 

Slavery amongst Natives was as blatant and common as any seen throughout the world. Eighteen-century Native stories of one particularly grotesque takeover had the victors eating parts of their captured men while they were still alive, a fear inducing tactic meant to end any hopes of retaliation from the vanquished tribe. Scalping and torture were ubiquitous.

 

In this setting, British people claimed ownership of the land we call Canada. They were less than civilized by our standards and certainly made a lot of mistakes, many due to greed and arrogance. Yet, I’m in awe of how they managed to cobble together an increasingly prosperous and egalitarian society from a ragtag set of infighting groups.

 

These early governors and entrepreneurs are often portrayed as having a large, superior force capability and using it to bring the other groups to heel. My research indicates they were much less powerful and constantly prone to losing their governing control. I imagine it must have been very frustrating, constantly trying to bring disparate people together with limited resources available to appease their needs and demands. Canada was still a poor land compared to Europe and even the States until only three generations ago.

 

Today, we find the same conflicted groups demanding special treatment. Truth and reconciliation demand past sins be absolved, somehow. Truth must be brought forward!

 

Unfortunately, there will not be any truth agreed upon. My dad was right, this will go on for possibly a few more generations. I believe this is mostly because we lack the ability or interest to put ourselves into the shoes of those who came before us. They were flawed but probably did the best they could with the hand they were dealt. Could we have done better in the same situation?

 

I don’t have a solution. Instead, I imagined an historical fantasy where a group of scientists, engineers, teachers and medical people suddenly found themselves transported to Atlantic Canada in 1759. I tried to make the story as real as possible. It undoubtedly has many flaws, but the intent is to generate ideas and discussion that might shed some light on our current problems and how to improve them.

 

I hope you will join the discussion.

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