I am John A. Macdonald. He is known as one of the fathers of confederation in 1867, the first prime minister of Canada, and the primary political motivator behind the completion of the transcontinental railway in 1885. He is a Canadian hero. But this is not why we should identify with John A. Macdonald. I am presently reading a copy of the first volume of the “Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada: Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future.” I believe this report highlights the most important issue facing all Canadians today.
All Canadians of European origin have something in common with our first prime minister—we are settlers on this continent. All settlers in Canada have been beneficiaries of government policies which can best be described as “cultural genocide.” The establishment of residential schools for Aboriginal children were a central element of this policy. These schools were not in existence to educate children, but primarily to break their link to their culture and identity. In justifying the government’s residential school policy, John A. Macdonald told the House of Commons in 1883:
“When the school is on the reserve the child lives with his parent, who are savages; he is surrounded by savages, and though he may learn to read and write his habits, and training and mode of thought are Indian. He is simply a savage who can read and write. It has been strongly pressed on myself, as the head of the Department, that Indian children should be withdrawn as much as possible from the parental influence, and the only way to do that would be to put them in central industrial schools where they will acquire the habits and modes of thought of white men.”
Instead of distancing ourselves from quotes and policies such as this let us acknowledge the truth of this sad chapter in Canadian history. As I said, “white men” have all benefitted from these cruel policies for the past 150 years. This sad chapter only closed in 1996 and we now have the opportunity to write the next chapter. Guilt on behalf of our ancestors might be our first response but I’m not sure it is particularly helpful. I think our first response should be to hear and understand the truth—this is one of the reasons I went to the commission for a day when it was held in Vancouver and one of the reasons I am reading the report. Even though I feel I am reasonably educated, I am finding I still have a lot to learn before I know the whole truth. I am also finding that it is not always a pleasant truth to hear about but perhaps necessary for genuine reconciliation. Only then we can move on to the many steps of respectful reconciliation with our indigenous hosts and neighbours.
Two recent events—the shooting at LaLoche, SK and the landmark court ruling regarding the discrimination against indigenous families who often had to choose between putting their children into foster care so they could receive the care they needed or keeping their children at home with the family where they would not receive funding for care—only increase the gravity and urgency of the work ahead of us as a nation. The beginning of this work is to identify ourselves as settlers welcomed by host nations whom we then subjected to cultural genocide.