Nothing destroys the psyche faster than dependency and being painted as a victim. Both undermine one’s self esteem and over time, one’s ability to help oneself. Victimhood creates a feeling of helplessness and promotes a self-destroying inner anger that eats away at the heart and soul of the “victim”.
Yet both these destructive weapons have been and are still aimed at the hearts of our Indigenous community in the name of “good”, much the same way residential schools were thought to do “good”. Both are clearly wrong.
When Europeans first came to this land, they found proud and independent peoples who had learned to live with their environment in a healthy and sustainable way. The European measurements of civilization were weighed against them but, really, both peoples were primitive in their own spheres. Europeans lived like pigs, often stinking, dirty, rowdy, drunk. King Louis XIV was said to have taken only had three baths in his entire life. Bathing was only done for medicinal purposes and linen underclothes were kept clean because it was thought that they absorbed sweat and dirt. But body washing was not a custom.
Native people, however, understood the benefits of bathing and even tried to convince the pilgrims of this, to no avail. Natives bathed in lakes and streams and used sweat lodges to purify their bodies. So, who was the more “civilized”?
Housing varied. Only nomadic peoples used teepees or wigwams, which were easily moved from place to place when new hunting territory was required. Other groups had substantial homes, often accommodating several families. Iroquois villages had wooden longhouses. Very significant plank houses were built on the West coast. In some cases, on the prairies, sod houses provided accommodation. We have all heard of igloos in the north although the Innu also built some houses partly underground to obtain heat from the earth. These are just a few examples, but these homes provided for the specific needs of specific peoples.
Indigenous people were medically sophisticated with many cures from native plants that have been adapted to the drugs we use today. They understood how to preserve food and they used many herbs and spices to make that food palatable.
The point is that these two peoples were different but equal and, indeed, the indigenous people were superior when it came to living in this land. However, the Europeans had an advantage: metal and metal weaponry. While ancient American societies has once used copper, they abandoned it as too soft and not as effective as stone for tool making, never quite getting to the bronze age. Some historians feel that was because North American copper was of a high grade and it did not lead to the conclusion of mixing it with tin for strength.
This meant that the newcomers had superior weaponry which was effectively used to settle disputes with the native peoples. Added to this was introduction of new diseases by the Europeans to which Indigenous people had no immunity.
Gradually, Europeans prevailed, although not without many cooperative initiatives, some as allies in war, some in community life. The boundless riches of North America improved the lives of Europeans and while imports from overseas were certainly desirable for Indigenous people – metal weapons, woven cloths, and new technologies – those benefits did not keep up with the benefits that their trade lent to the people from across the sea.
Still, right up until the 19th century, Indigenous people largely held their own, being pushed further west and north but clinging to an independent way of life. Starting in the 1700s, many intermarried with the settlers starting a whole new group of people, the Metis, who were neither “Indian” or “white” and who developed their own traditions and way of life over the next 150 years.
During those early years, some Indigenous people concluded that it might be useful for their children to be educated in European ways as they saw that these people were not leaving, and in co-operation with the Jesuits in Quebec, a school system was started as long ago as 1639. Sometimes the schools would take place in the Indigenous communities, but sometimes in residence. It was a cooperative education.
It wasn’t until the mid-19th century that assimilation of Indigenous people became an accepted policy, and this was the beginning of the great evil. You cannot run another people’s lives without enslaving them spiritually and psychologically. And in 1857, even before Confederation, the Gradual Civilization Act was passed. This was the forerunner of the pernicious Indian Act, which, under Duncan Campbell Scott, the superintendent of Indian Affairs of the Department Indian Affairs from 1913 to 1932, was expanded to include compulsory residential school attendance. This senior public servant is worth looking into for those who are interested. He oversaw the management of the residential schools, and he directed an almost religious campaign against our Indigenous population.
There is not enough room here to go into all the wrongs of that system and those wrongs extended far beyond the violence perpetrated against the physical bodies of these children. This trauma is still having awful repercussions. Sadly, the way to deal with it is to not make the same old mistakes all over again.
Indigenous people are smart and canny and not all one homogeneous group. They do not represent a single block of thought or a single political view. Nor are they all downtrodden welfare cases. Many are successful financially and personally and serve as leaders to the wider community. As Leslyn Lewis says in literature for her campaign for the Tory leadership, and it is true of native people as it is of herself, “When people treat minorities as a single block it is a shocking display of identity politics and frankly a kind of racism.” She says, they “don’t need to be rescued because they were “victimized” by a white system and only a progressive leaning white man can rescue them…” She calls this a “disrespect of visible minorities”.
She is right. It is time we accorded our Indigenous citizens the respect of open and frank dialogue. Some political guy telling us what reconciliation means without the dialogue is another top down, Mr./Ms. Do-gooder-knows-best approach that will take us nowhere except more supercilious nonsense.
I have asked several times of my Aboriginal friends on Facebook what reconciliation means to them. How do they see this being accomplished? I never get an answer, because I suspect, the answer is far too simple and yet also too complex. In my mind it is: “Respect us, work with us not on us, give us room to breathe and grow and become whole again.”
We must be ready to do this. They must fix themselves. We cannot do this for them, but we can be beside them as they make this journey, and we can offer an elbow if someone stumbles and expect an elbow from them if we do the same. As the pope said in his recent visit, it is time to move forward in a new atmosphere of understanding, to learn from our past. I believe that together, and only together, can we build the kind of Canada we have always bragged about but which we never quite achieved.
In the true spirit of reconciliation and hope, perhaps we can regain that mutual respect and learn to laugh together, to build together and heal together.