So many things in life deserve an answer to that question, and others like it.
Whether we are family, colleagues, or fellow citizens, the issue of whether we are pulling on our oars, that we are all rowing in the same direction for a common cause is worthy of introspection.
And worthy of shining a bright light in all the dark corners.
I’ve been hesitant in recent days to publish much about the ghastly news from Kamloops. Everybody is writing about, too many half-witted semi-qualified politicians have mounted their soapboxes to crow or whine about some element of it.
But the reality is, nobody knows much more than small pieces about it yet. And everyone, most of all the families of children who never returned from those residential schools, deserve full, true, and plain disclosure.
No doubt, more shocking details will be brought to light.
Our Prime Minister’s most demonstrative exercise of the power of the Canadian government so far is to ask the Pope to release records. Yes. He’s offered no better solution – perhaps thinking he can wait this one out as he has other scandals, and when July arrives, it will be over.
The timing, the strategy appears to be, about coinciding the Kamloops revelation with this month of June, National Indigenous History Month, which includes National Aboriginal Day on June 21st. Owning the news cycle is every PR professional’s dream – but owning an entire month of the public and political agenda and doing it during a pandemic is a masterstroke of bringing issues to light that cannot be ignored any longer. Kudos to all indigenous people and organizations for focusing their flashlights and international spotlights on more than 100 yr. legacy of ill-considered genocidal programs, but on a shame-filled 450-year history.
The issue of the moment, that burial plots on the sites of many residential schools required investigation is not new – governments have known this for decades, and so have the church-entity operators of those schools who’ve been complicit with governments for decades, keeping the truth hidden from view, from scrutiny, from the truth-exposing light of day.
The truth of who those 215 children were, why their deaths were concealed, why their lives, however those lives were lost, were not treated with dignity, and humane burial boggles the mind. The inhumane treatment of those children compounding the inhumane treatment of the families who had their children stripped away from them had no defence for it then, and those actions and policies can have no excuse in hindsight.
Investigations take time, and they should be thorough, assign responsibility and exact appropriate punishment for crimes committed. But, who did what to whom, when did they do it, why did they do it, and why has it remained a secret for so long?
Fears raised by many imply there will be similar finds across the country. So, yes, somebody should be checking. But, more importantly – aside from questioning why safeguards preventing these horrors weren’t in place decades ago, why were governments not looking long ago?
The past must be redressed, and it will be, but will the remedies address over 400 years of atrocities, indignities, and forms of genocide?
Of course not.
We cannot fix the past.
Nobody has a magic wand; there is no time machine.
And, even if we could go back 400 years or 450, what would we do differently if we were transported back in time and give the power to change things?
Was it the fault of indigenous Canadians and Americans going about their business as they had for thousands of years when Europeans came ashore – should we blame peoples who were welcoming, who were thoughtful guardians of the lands they loved? Without a sense of land ownership, they didn’t feel the impact of the swindle. They gave up territory and rights for guns, blankets, and beads. Those were criminal acts – swindles, frauds, lies, and the treaties they signed were one-way affairs without enforcement teeth. Today, as in recent decades past, our government leaders express shock and horror, apologize, or promise to investigate and do right by the dead, to do right by their families …
Let’s get out that time machine again.
What, in 400 years, would you do differently?
What should churches, citizens, governments, and indigenous peoples have done differently?
I’m not trying to pose impossible questions – I’m wondering aloud how we would have the actors in our history to have done things differently. If for no other reason, we need to think this through to understand the impossibility of any simple fixes. That’s all our governments have been doing for many decades. Minor fixes, money, more fixes, more money, more fixes that have no chance of fixing anything – and how many Liberal and Conservative governments have we had since the invention of water treatment and sewer treatment facilities?
How many reserves still lack safe water?
It’s not that our governments have never owned the problems – as our representatives, both they and we all collectively own these problems – we collectively hold these obligations, but we do not collectively feel committed to solving these problems. We’ve not sufficiently pressured our elected representatives.
Because, if we had, they’d be solved.
North America was a largely safe, empty, and peaceful place before settlers, traders, carpet-baggers, explorers and colonial aspirations descended from Europe. But, as Britain, France, Mexico, and the American colonies battled it out for market share, territory, and wealth, they imprinted their ways on the lives and culture of the people who were here – indigenous and as native to these lands as were the trees and animals.
The legacy has been horrid and what isn’t beyond repair is too often beyond despair. In the last week, the media of every stripe near and far decry the discovery of more evidence of indignity toward children in the care of those who ought to have been their guardians in every sense of that term. What went wrong, who did what, whether or not this was a one-off or a widespread case of crimes against humanity is not yet known. Whether we will know more or ever know the whole truth is for a time down the line after the investigation on a site in Kamloops and no shortage of fear that more than 300 other sites will be found. It’s not a discovery of anything; it is exhuming the known past – gruesome and horribly sad reminders to underscore how badly the past has unfolded.
The existence of any circumstance can appear new and unique.
So when we hear something dramatic or powerful for the first time, it might be ‘new to us,’ rather than entirely new or fresh information for everyone.
Au courant events of every news cycle imply reported problems are new. They rarely are. We often observe leaders doing what they too often do – applying previously failed solutions to those not-at-all-new problems. One need look no further than the chaotic responses of governments near and far to the COVID wave-du-jour, most of which inspires little confidence.
We all collectively believe our future will once again be prosperous, the pandemic will be recorded in history, and most people will return to going about their business. And there will be a new APP, a new service and some new brands du jour.
There will be new things but the messes and principles of the centuries repeat.
We need to read more history and less mystery.
We need to watch more about nature and less about humans recognizing that human nature is only 4 million years old, barely a moment in time. Unfortunately, we behave as poorly toward one another as people ever have, and we probably can’t fix that with wishes or a government policy – but there is no excuse, so we must fix this. But we can’t fix the past, so we must fix the future.
In the last week, we’ve been shocked by the gruesome discovery in Kamloops; and one must remember the history of residential schools and the proverbial rug politicians like to sweep bad, sad and tragic news under. The governments of Canada, going back 450 years, own this problem. Indigenous people are original Canadians, but since Europeans came conquering, they’ve never been equally or fairly regarded. Laws, rights, court decisions – no one fully fixed anything, and history cannot be reversed. Wrongs can be redressed, but lives damaged or lost cannot be undone by an act of parliament or apology or reparations. Real change can’t happen by fiat or policy – an entire society needs to change.
Investigations of 130+ former residential school sites might prove this was the only one, but most thinking people fear far worse. This is tragic, but not new, and we all own the shame and the blame because governments – both Liberal and Conservative – have been our proxy, they’ve managed the country on behalf of citizens, and even if this is the only one, its 215 atrocities. Louise Gallagher wrote a heart-wrenching poem about this yesterday – Did They Search For The Children?
Sadly, today’s front-page news soon escapes the media spotlight, drifts from our consciousness, and the need to get to the bottom of things, hold feet to the fire and allocate responsibility and punishment for crimes is unlikely to have our collective attention very long. We know, for example, that 6 million holocaust deaths led to prosecutions at Nuremberg – and the world still wonders, ‘how could that have happened without governments and churches and society as a whole putting a stop to it?’
In the grand scheme, no government can ignore that or sweep it under the carpet. If we let them, our federal government will have no trouble with 215. We must not let them. We can do more than write to our members of parliamentdemanding a full investigation, but that’s an excellent place to start.
If we want to fix the past, we must realize that’s only a mental exercise – because you can’t fix history, and while you might pay money, apologize or agree to investigate, those words ring hollow atop a legacy of treating our country’s original citizens as less-than, a legacy of unfair play in every corner of the country which continues to treat indigenous descended Canadians as less rather than more, as less rather than equal, as less than proud and worthy humans.
The alternative is not to fix the future, in which case we must share ownership of over 400 years of horrors.
So, are we responsible, accountable, obligated, or committed?
We must fix the future, and we must commit to that. My efforts are focused on education. Education lifts. If you lift a person, you lift a family. If you lift a family, you lift a community. If you lift enough communities, you lift a nation.
Yes, education is a remedy for chronic poverty, for chronic unemployment and underemployment, for abuse, for so many other things – but education lifts spirits, lifts aspirations, lifts values.
And yes, that work is never done …
Canadians are awake, but our governments and politicians are not – because they see this is a news-cycle problem, a “what do they want now?” issue, and fail to recognize the fundamental upheaval of who we are as a country is moving inexorably forward like slow-moving lava; the courts, the court of public opinion, and the need for an entire nation to embrace all of its citizens as equals.
Our governments are happy to have a dust-up over internet policies, climate change and the move to net-zero, pipelines and oil sands – and then an election campaign, while they grit their teeth believing the horrors of a sloppily recorded past will stay under the carpet.
It’s not about one graveyard or 300 graveyards; it’s about fixing the future for all Canadians, most notably for every descendant of our first Canadians, our first nations. It’s not going to take forever. And it will take more than renaming some buildings and streets or hauling down some statues.
No, it’s a necessity for the future of this country, full stop.
The past cannot be fixed, but how can a fair and equitable future be crafted if the past is hidden, obscured, or denied. Unfortunately, the Prime Minister, the Pope, all the churches involved and way too many Canadians continue their failure to recognize that. We cannot tolerate their willful ignorance any longer.
It’s time for their collective waking up, embracing a new narrative and taking part in the future, or be rightly swept aside and left out of inventing the future of our country.
The Prime Minister, it has been reported, is mulling putting an indigenous person in the Governor-General’s role and appointing one to the Supreme Court of Canada.
I’m thinking back to the dissolution of apartheid in Africa a few years ago. In contracts, while it was laudable for Canada to play an active role in ridding that country of multi-generation horrors, we are, as a country, still collectively reluctant to fully recognize the need for fundamental changes here in Canada.
The time has come.
Mr. Trudeau can step up and play a leadership role in fixing the future or choose to see himself and his government relegated to being half-hearted half-noted footnotes at the end of a sad chapter in Canada’s history.