Skip to main content

Gerald Caplan is an Africa scholar, former NDP national director and a regular panelist on CBC's Power and Politics.

It's a very long way from peacekeepers to perpetrators of genocide, but Canadians must come to grips with their distressing new reality.

Some decades ago, with the United States still mired in its ugly aggression in south-east Asia, historian William Kilbourn edited a well-received book called Canada: A Guide to the Peaceable Kingdom. The conceit was of the sharing, caring Canada that a majority of its citizens proudly embraced, whose beloved Mounties settled the west without America's violence and lawlessness, a nation that joined international peacekeeping missions to bring peace to a benighted world. Call it Canada's fairy tale.

The last residential school in Canada for aboriginal peoples closed its doors exactly a quarter of a century after Mr. Kilbourn's self-congratulatory book appeared. Indeed, for more than a century of our existence as a nation, a major public policy was the annihilation of the country's First Nations as a separate people, a policy concocted by politicians and public servants and executed by church officials.

There was never any ambiguity in the purpose of residential schools. Children were forcibly removed from their families in order, quite explicitly, "to kill the Indian in the child". Most scholars of genocide have little doubt that these schools fall under Article 2, clause (e), of the 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide: "Forcibly transferring children of the [national, ethnical, racial or religious] group to another group."

In any case, residential schools were only one manifestation of the commonplace Canadian certainty that aboriginals were inferior. What racist Canada has always wanted from First Nations, then as now, is their land and natural resources. Our first prime minister, John A. Macdonald, the founder of the nation, was a man of his times in his unambiguous view of indigenous people: they were simply "savages." Macdonald stopped at nothing, from deliberately induced famine to reneging on solemn treaty obligations, to take over the territory the new Dominion needed. It is typical of Stephen Harper that he chose to spend significant public resources publicizing the War of 1812 instead of the war against Canada's First Nations.

Of course much of this indictment, especially regarding residential schools, has been well-known for years, and little was done. But now that we know even more, Canadians must finally come to grips with the fact that we are not the caring sharing people, or the peaceable nation, we once smugly believed we were. How do we conjure with the fact that so many of the Christians who actually ran residential schools were sadists, perverts and murderers – and that they got away with it?

Nor is this ancient history. The last school, near Regina, only closed in 1996. That means that we're not like Turks or Germans, none or few of whom were alive during the genocides of the Armenians and Jews. Most of us were born before 1996. Most of us were grown up when residential schools were still victimizing their helpless boarders. Pierre Trudeau was in power for fifteen years while residential schools operated, Brian Mulroney for nine. That last school closed three years after Jean Chrétien became prime Minister. Is it possible none of them knew?

Among the traumatic consequences of residential schools is the Third World condition in which many indigenous people live today and the huge disparities in education, health, income and imprisonment. This too is well-know by all, yet astonishingly, the Harper government failed to spend a billion dollars in the past five years that had been budgeted for aboriginal programs. Racism, open or not, still describes the views of many Canadians towards First Nations people, as they are well aware even if we pretend otherwise.

So as Justice Murray Sinclair says: "We must remember that this is a Canadian story, not an indigenous one." This is about the entire story of Canada, from first to now. What does that tell us about ourselves? What kind of people are we really? And are we prepared to change?

Reconciliation is a deeply complicated process. Now that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has reported, it seems to me that reconciliation must mainly be for us non-aboriginal Canadians. It's up to us to reconcile ourselves to the real history of Canada and to the deeds that have been carried out in our name.

We need to recognize the justice of the TRC recommendations and to press our politicians to implement them. The proposition that Canada and its First Peoples must now recognize each other as equal nations through a new proclamation is central here, far and away the most exciting and transformational of all their 98 recommendations. It's probable that the scars we have caused can be healed in no other way. But I recognize that the implications are mind-bogglingly complex, disruptive and, yes, expensive. How could atonement for 150 years of criminality be otherwise?

Yet most Canadians are unlikely to accept the necessary changes without unwavering leadership. We know this will not come from the Prime Minister, whose eerie silence all week has been inadvertently eloquent. Who then will emerge to justify the reputation of ourselves that we Canadians once greatly cherished?