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When an official story is a monstrous lie: The textbook history of Canada’s indigenous people

In 1986, a cinematic gem La Historia Official (The Official Story) from Argentina, won the Academy Award for best foreign film. It dealt with Argentina's Dirty War, during which thousands of political dissidents "disappeared" at the hands of the ruling military junta.

The central character of the film is a teacher named Alecia, who teaches history at a high school in Buenos Aires. One day, after delivering a lesson on the civil war, based on the government text book, Alecia is confronted by some students, who challenge her for repeating government propaganda. Alecia is astounded, for she is an apolitical individual who has lived a comfortable middle-class life, and has never given much thought to the government's official story. The rest of the film is about the moral evolution of Alecia, and how she gradually discovers the monstrous lie behind the official story – at great personal cost – because she cannot, and will not, compromise her conscience.

Instead of continuing to repeat the official story, Alecia writes her own story. Her transformation from a passive consumer of a narrative created by others, to an active author of her own story, is powerful. And, the potential for such a transformation lies within each and every one of us.

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At some point, each of us has been provided by an official story on how to view the world, and our place in it. It may be from an individual, a group of people, or a government. The provider of the official story often has an agenda, and needs a captive audience to buy into that narrative, in order to fulfill that agenda.

We should be armed with healthy skepticism toward an agenda-driven official story concocted by others. More importantly, writing our own story speaks to our individuality, our independence, and integrity. It speaks to our humanity.

With this year's launch of the TRC Report and the Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women, there is a pressing need to confront the official story about the indigenous people of this land.

I still remember passages in my Grade 9 Quebec history textbook that described the colonization of "les sauvages" by French settlers. Our first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald also referred to the aboriginal peoples as "savages." I didn't have the moral courage to confront my history teacher about the offensive language, or the sanitized version of history taught in government-issued textbooks.

I am ashamed to admit that for decades, I remained ignorant about the rich history, traditions, culture or contributions of our aboriginal brothers and sisters. I also had no knowledge of the terrible injustices inflicted upon them.

One day, my friend wrote a scathing post of the treatment of indigenous peoples in a chat group to which I belonged. Broken treaties, land theft, deplorable conditions on reserves, institutionalized racism – the list went on. It was shocking. More importantly, it was an eye-opener.

The official story was a monstrous lie. What actually transpired was cultural genocide – the very goal of successive, elected, Canadian governments. Generations were destroyed, for example, when children were forcibly removed from their homes and placed in residential schools where they suffered psychological, physical and sexual trauma. Many spirits were too broken to continue. Today, many spirits are wounded and in pain.

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One redeeming feature of writing your own story is that there is no deadline. Imagine, if each of us writes a new chapter, in which we pledge to listen respectfully to the life experiences of our indigenous brothers and sisters, and ask with humility, how we can help toward reparation, reconciliation and healing.

Using the pens of our conscience, we can collectively write a new chapter in the moral evolution of this nation.

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