Ibbitson: Why should Sir John A. take all the blame for Canada’s injustices to Indigenous peoples?

Valid points:

In the latest indignity visited upon the memory of Canada’s first prime minister, Ottawa’s National Capital Commission has announced plansto substitute an Indigenous name for what is now the Sir John A. Macdonald Parkway.

Why does everyone pick on Sir John A. and not Sir Wilfrid?

Wilfrid Laurier, one of Canada’s most beloved prime ministers, expanded the residential-school system and suppressed a 1907 report that revealed the schools were cruel and unsafe. His interior minister, Clifford Sifton, dispossessed First Nations of their lands in order to promote settlement in the Prairies. His governments also blocked Black and Chinese immigrants from entering Canada.

But although Ryerson University has been renamed Toronto Metropolitan University on the grounds that Egerton Ryerson helped establish the residential-school system, Wilfrid Laurier University has no plans to change its name. Laurier streets across the nation remain untouched. Renaming Ottawa’s Chateau Laurier hotel is unthinkable.

Macdonald’s likeness has been banished from the 10-dollar bill, replaced by Viola Desmond. Laurier remains on the five.

Macdonald statues have been toppled or removed in Charlottetown, Montreal, Kingston, Hamilton, Regina, Victoria and elsewhere. But I can find no record of a Laurier statue being carted off to storage.

Tearing Indigenous children from their parents and forcing them to attend schools far from their communities, where they were subjected to disease, abuse and efforts at assimilation, and where some died, was an act of cultural genocide by our lights. But by the lights of both Macdonald and of Laurier – and, for that matter, of Robert Borden, Mackenzie King, R.B. Bennett, Louis St. Laurent, John Diefenbaker and Lester Pearson – it was sound policy. And newspapers across the land, including this one, agreed.

King’s governments deserve particular scrutiny. Not only did his administration maintain the residential-schools system, the King government in 1923 enacted legislation banning Chinese immigration. The act was rescinded in 1947 but King continued to maintain that “large-scale immigration from the Orient would change the fundamental composition of the Canadian population.” He also turned away Jews fleeing Europe on the St. Louis; an estimated 254 of its passengers later died at the hands of the Nazis. And his government dispossessed more than 21,000 Japanese Canadians during the Second World War.

Pierre Trudeau’s government began phasing out residential schools. But that same government produced a white paper under Indian Affairs minister (and future prime minister) Jean Chrétien that would have eliminated special status for First Nations, converted reserves into private property and wound down treaty rights. The government retreated in the face of First Nations outrage.

Injustice toward Indigenous peoples long predated Confederation and continues to this day. The record of racism toward non-European immigrants is lengthy and sordid. What makes Macdonald more culpable than the rest?

The answer could be that, as the first prime minister and a Father of Confederation, Macdonald personifies Canada. In pulling down his statue, some people are not simply protesting the legacy of residential schools – they are pulling down the symbol of an oppressive, colonizing state.

In that sense, to pull down a Macdonald statue is to pull down the statue of every prime minister and every leader who contributed to oppression of Indigenous peoples. And given what they’ve been put through, who could blame them?

But Macdonald and a handful of others also gave us Canada. They crafted a dominion unique in its balance of powers between federal and provincial, English and French. Immigrants from Britain and Eastern Europe came here. Italians and Portuguese and Chinese and South Asians and Filipinos came here. Muslims and Jews came here. Refugees came here, the latest from Afghanistan and Ukraine.

Canada is far from perfect, but it is arguably the least imperfect country on Earth, if the embrace of diversity is your measure.

There are lots of John A. Macdonald things in Ottawa. Replacing one of them with an Indigenous name won’t hurt anyone. Reconciliation will take time and be hard, but we must reach for it.

Let’s be careful, though. Sir John A. is part of who we are, good and bad. Let’s talk to each other about that. Talking is always better than tearing down.

Source: Why should Sir John A. take all the blame for Canada’s injustices to Indigenous peoples?

Coates: Condemning historical figures like Ryerson and John A. Macdonald must not distract us from true reconciliation

Condemnation and renaming are easy compared to addressing the substantive issues, where action is more needed, not to mention the regrettable lack of nuance in understanding history and context:

With the decision to rename itself Toronto Metropolitan University, the former Ryerson University — known briefly as “University X” — fumbled the opportunity to use public criticism of Egerton Ryerson as a learning opportunity, instead bowing to the passionate protests of activists who believe that condemning a handful of historical figures is one way to address generations of discrimination and paternalism. 

Attacking the reputation of Ryerson, one of the most effective educational reformers in Canadian history, requires a narrow reading of his career. Regardless, he is now a dead letter in Canadian public life, and efforts to expunge his name from schools, monuments and other public facilities will no doubt continue apace. 

The number one target in the country is now Canada’s first Prime Minister, John A. Macdonald — like Ryerson, singled out for his role in Indigenous residential schools. Across the country, statues in Macdonald’s honour have been removed or doused in red paint, and public bodies are having earnest discussions about removing his name from schools and other facilities. 

There is nothing wrong with calling out or re-examining the public memory of historical figures for their actions. However, reading history reductively, losing sight of context, and misreading personal responsibility do not help us to understand the past. 

Right now, for good reason, the country is focused on a specific policy — residential schools — with the belief that by removing the tributes to the architects of the school movement we can turn a page. This approach is seriously misguided. 

Residential school education was horrific, its multi-generational negative effects still not fully understood. A system purportedly designed to provide personal opportunity to Indigenous students was instead used to attack Indigenous cultures, undermine centuries-old languages, destroy Indigenous families, and assimilate Aboriginal peoples. Dealing with the long-term impact of the residential schools has rightly become a national priority. 

We must, however, remember that the residential school concept was not foisted on an unwilling nation by its government. Virtually all non-Indigenous Canadians of that time, led by the Christian churches and supported by non-Indigenous advocates for Indigenous peoples, favoured residential schools. As late as the 1960s and 1970s, many non-Indigenous Canadians still defended the schools as clearly being a “good thing” and a sign of the benevolent state. 

Most Canadians did not know — or did not want to know — what happened in the schools. They neither expected nor countenanced the violence and brutality, but encouraged teachers and principals to undermine Indigenous language and culture, believing this was in Indigenous people’s best interests.

In today’s efforts to assign accountability for wrongs of the past, the tendency to focus on individuals — whatever their roles in establishing the institutions — simply misses the point. It was racism and a nationwide sense of cultural superiority that backstopped all of Canada’s aggressive actions against Indigenous peoples. If dismantling a statue or renaming a school (or university) serves some, it also deflects attention from where responsibility properly rests: with society at large. 

Criticizing early promoters of residential schools misses the historical mark. 

With Ryerson’s name now removed from a campus, and Macdonald’s image being assailed across Canada, where next? There are thousands of targets, including the political leaders, government and church officials, and public supporters who expanded the residential school system, including its rapid acceleration after the Second World War. 

Let’s consider two potential targets, modern-era political leaders who espoused simple ideas of potentially destructive impact on Indigenous peoples. They wanted to eliminate the Indian Act and Indian status, break up the reserves, abandon treaties, and integrate Indigenous peoples into the Canadian mainstream. Their stated goal sounded honourable to some — producing “real” equality among all Canadians — and there had been consultations, of a sort, with Indigenous groups. 

The 1969 White Paper was one of the most aggressive Indigenous policy initiatives in Canadian history, designed to remove barriers between peoples and overcome decades of discrimination and state paternalism. The response from First Nations was ferocious. Indigenous leaders organized protests and demanded the federal government retract its policy. The government did so, to the dismay of many non-Indigenous Canadians who wanted to remove the “special status” afforded Indigenous peoples. The contemporary Indigenous rights movement in Canada owes a great deal to the reaction to this ill-conceived and assimilationist strategy. 

The Prime Minister was Pierre Elliott Trudeau. His minister of Indian and Northern Affairs was future prime minister Jean Chrétien. They were the architects of the White Paper of 1969. Trudeau believed “no society can be built on historical might-have-beens,” and opposed Indigenous land claim negotiations, modern treaties, and the concept of historical redress. 

The Trudeau government’s much-touted “Just Society” had a blind spot when it came to Indigenous peoples. The government’s preference for state intervention and the inherent paternalism of federal policy in the 1960s and 70s arguably accelerated the decline of Indigenous language and culture, fostering a culture of welfare dependency in Indigenous communities. 

Would it be appropriate for critics of government policy to focus their anger on Trudeau and Chrétien, leading to more monument destruction and renaming? Absolutely not; we can use our time and effort much better. Besides, when faced with sustained Indigenous anger, the Liberal government backed down. Unlike residential schools, which had major effects across generations, the White Paper brought to the surface the core ideas and values of the government of the day.

The past is a complicated place. It should not be reduced to memes and social-media messages. Historical leaders are people, with personal foibles, living in and reflecting their places and times. Democracies hold leaders accountable during their political lives. Historians and the public determine their legacy. Attitudes toward the leaders and their actions change over time, as the debate about John A. Macdonald demonstrates. But these discussions should be handled with caution. 

The piecemeal and reactive redoing of historical nomenclature, however well meaning, produces distortions of history. This said, Canada is desperately overdue for a rethinking of the many people and events we memorialize. 

Names and monuments should not be fixed for all time. New Zealand, now also known as Aotearoa, and Australia have both ventured down this road, with considerable achievement. New Zealanders are increasingly comfortable with both Maori names and cultural references in public affairs; Australia’s newly elected prime minister, Anthony Albanese, was introduced on a stage where the Australian flag shared pride of place with the flags of Aboriginal Peoples and Torres Strait Islanders.

There is so much to recognize and celebrate in Indigenous cultures that Canada should get on with it. Indigenous peoples, cultures and knowledge need to be more prominently recognized across Canada. The same holds for women, minority groups, and events either poorly or inaccurately represented in our historical nomenclature. A cautious renaming process in Canada could actually produce the most thoughtful and comprehensive historical and cultural reuniting in the nation’s history. 

Reconciliation with Indigenous peoples requires thoughtful and engaged reflection. Changing the names of institutions and tearing down monuments might gratify some, but there is a better way. Toronto Metropolitan University will hardly provide a rallying cry for a nation seeking real healing with Indigenous peoples. 

If Canada is to find common ground with First Nations, Métis and Inuit people, the country must reverse the lens, begin to view history from Indigenous perspectives and listen respectfully to elders and knowledge keepers. 

This reckoning will take more than attacks on historical figures. The problem rests not with a few individuals but with the profound sense of racial superiority that animated public policy for generations, underpinning a suite of government initiatives that marginalized and overwhelmed Indigenous peoples. For all of our condemnation of historical decisions that are now seen as egregious and destructive, Canadians remain largely oblivious to the paternalism and discrimination toward Indigenous people that is part of our national reality.

Canada is, by international standards, a remarkably successful country, even if it is built significantly on the displacement and domination of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit peoples. They were sacrificed in the interests of the nation, with most non-Indigenous peoples truly believing that assimilation and cultural domination was the only legitimate path forward. This position, dangerously and tragically wrong, animated the government for a century and a half, to be replaced in our time by a more evolved but still paternalistic approach to Indigenous affairs. 

This country needs to devote a great deal of effort to improving relationships with Indigenous communities. To Canada’s collective good fortune, Indigenous peoples remain open to such discussions and to rebuilding Confederation, despite the painful destruction of the past. 

We can do much more than try to eliminate historical guilt by changing a few names and sloshing paint on some statues. Instead, the country needs to listen closely to First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples and build a policy agenda inspired by Indigenous priorities, a deep understanding of the multi-generational impacts of racism, and a real commitment to lasting reconciliation. 

Ken Coates is a Distinguished Fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, and a professor and Canada Research Chair at the University of Saskatchewan.

Source: Condemning historical figures like Ryerson and John A. Macdonald must not distract us from true reconciliation

Glavin: Weaponizing the term ‘reconciliation’ doesn’t help anyone

Needed commentary:

“Reconciliation is dead.”

Those were the words emblazoned on a mock Canadian flag that went up in flames atop a bonfire blocking the Morice River Service Road, 66 kilometres into the bush from Highway 16, just west of Houston, British Columbia, at a place in Wet’suwet’en country that has come to be called the Unis’tot’en camp. It was Monday, Feb. 10.

For four days running, the RCMP had been making arrests at checkpoints and camps along the road in aid of enforcing an injunction aimed at allowing access to crews working on the right of way for the disputed Coastal GasLink pipeline, which is intended to carry natural gas from the Treaty 8 territory in the Peace River country to a massive new refinery near the town of Kitimat in Haisla territory on the coast.

The pipeline’s transit through the 22,000-sq.-km. traditional territory of the Wet’suwet’en people is opposed by most of the nation’s hereditary chiefs, but the project is supported to one extent or another by the elected Wet’suwet’en councils, and by all the other First Nation communities from Dawson Creek, east of the Rockies, to the Pacific Ocean. The $40-billion megaproject promises construction work for 10,000 people and as many as 950 full-time permanent jobs, and it comes with a variety of job training and benefits packages for the First Nations communities along the route.

There’s really no point in asking whether this vaguely comprehended public good is alive or dead if reconciliation means anything you might want it to mean.

Nevertheless, the call that went out from the Unis’tot’en camp on Feb. 10 was clear and plain. The declaration: Reconciliation is dead. The admonition: Shut down Canada. Circulated and broadcast and replicated on placards and in hashtags and headlines, it was all very melodramatic, and there have been freight train blockades and sit-ins and commuter-rail blockades and highway blockades and on and on, all across the country. Splendid.

At the moment, things have gone a bit quiet while a hastily concluded, confidential and tangentially related concordat between Ottawa, Victoria and the dissenting hereditary chiefs is put to the Wet’suwet’en people for their consideration. So it’s worth taking the opportunity of the interregnum to ask a question or two, in light of all this:

A Toronto Star headline: “RCMP’s dastardly defiling of reconciliation on Wet’suwet’en lands cannot be undone.” The CBC: “’Reconciliation is dead and it was never really alive.” The Globe and Mail: “Reconciliation isn’t dead. It never truly existed.” The National Post: “There isn’t any reason to declare reconciliation dead. Maybe the opposite.” A random placard: “Reconciliation was never alive.”

There’s really no point in asking whether this vaguely comprehended public good is alive or dead if reconciliation means anything you might want it to mean. If that’s the way things are going to be, the term can be weaponized for any old rhetorical purpose you like. Fat lot of good that will do anyone.

But the term does have what you might call objective meaning. The Concise Oxford Dictionary has “reconcile” as “make friendly after estrangement,” which has a nice ring to it, as do its subsidiary meanings. To purify, by special service after profanation or desecration. To make acquiescent or contentedly submissive. To heal, to settle, to harmonize, to make compatible. That kind of thing.

More importantly, and of direct relevance to the current unpleasantness, we have several decisions of the Supreme Court of Canada to draw upon, each of which addresses this business of reconciliation as it relates to aboriginal rights and title. Most useful is the case of Delgamuukw versus the Queen, which – conveniently for our purposes here – involves the hereditary chiefs of the Gitxsan and the Wet’suwet’en.

The whole point of aboriginal rights in Canada – the whole purpose of Section 35.1 of the Constitution Act, which explicitly recognizes and affirms the aboriginal and treaty rights of Canada’s indigenous peoples – is “the reconciliation of the pre-existence of aboriginal societies with the sovereignty of the Crown,” as the Supremes’ Chief Justice Antonio Lamer put it.

And reconciliation doesn’t at all mean that the will of the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs must necessarily prevail over the rights of all those other First Nation communities who want the Coastal GasLink pipeline built. And whatever you or I might want, the very real and enforceable rights of those Wet’suwet’en chiefs are not inviolable.

As for consent, in all dealings where aboriginal rights or aboriginal title might in some way be trespassed upon, a First Nation’s fully free and informed consent should be the overriding objective of the Crown’s good-faith negotiations. That’s been the law for a quarter of a century now.

The Crown can’t outright extinguish aboriginal rights without consent. But the Supreme Court in Delgamuukw was unambiguous: “Constitutionally recognized aboriginal rights are not absolute and may be infringed by the federal and provincial governments,” and there are massive hurdles that the Crown has to surmount in order to infringe upon those rights. But they’re by no means insurmountable. Any infringement of aboriginal rights and title must be constrained by a clear and valid justification. Among the justifications the Supreme Court judges in Delgamuukw identified as being available to the Crown are “the development of agriculture, forestry, mining, and hydroelectric power, the general economic development of the interior of British Columbia, protection of the environment or endangered species, the building of infrastructure and the settlement of foreign populations to support those aims.”

The whole point of aboriginal rights and title is reconciliation, and the whole point of reconciliation is to bridge Crown sovereignty with the ancient and complex laws, customs and traditions of Indigenous communities who have persisted in what is now Canada from time out of mind. Put another way, the point is to simply muddle through. There’s nothing stirring or glamorous or especially exciting about it. As Justice Lamer put it, so succinctly and eloquently: “Let us face it, we are all here to stay.”

So do let us face it, then. The rumpus out at Kilometre 66 on the Morice River Forest Service Road has provided all kinds of thrilling opportunities to shout ourselves hoarse about how reconciliation is dead and Canada is a disgusting racist colonial settler state, or to alternatively make spectacles of ourselves yelling that reconciliation is a hustle and aboriginal rights are “rights based on race.” Either way, it’s vulgar and stupid, it won’t get you a leg to stand on in a court of law, or a ride back into Houston from the Hagwilget Bridge, or even the price of a cup of coffee at the Two Sisters Café in Smithers.

Source: Glavin: Weaponizing the term ‘reconciliation’ doesn’t help anyone

How a family was built on the basis of forgiveness – The Globe and Mail

Powerful family story of forgiveness and reconciliation, in the shadows of Japanese-Canadian wartime internment:

While Mark Sakamoto and his younger brother, Daniel, were still children, their mother became an alcoholic. She left their father. She moved in with a violent man. She drank herself to death in the basement of a skid-row hotel in Medicine Hat while Mr. Sakamoto was in university.

The “gift” from his grandparents was that he brought himself to forgive his mother, to cleanse his heart of the resentment, hurt and sadness he felt toward her.

“I felt that with my daughter when she was born,” Mr. Sakamoto says, “when I was holding Miya, and I was angry because my mum wasn’t there.

“That’s where I started with the link, that my heart was that little daughter’s home, her emotional home, just like my grandparents understood that their heart was their children’s emotional home, and if it was clouded with anger at the Canadian government, at the Japanese forces that captured my grandfather and starved him and beat him, and if they dwelt on those injurious years and passed them on, that would be the real transgression.”

“I didn’t want my daughter to feel what I was feeling,” Mr. Sakamoto says. “And forgiveness is the only escape hatch we have in that regard.”

How a family was built on the basis of forgiveness – The Globe and Mail.