Tuesday, September 16, 2014
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Canada's history awash with crimes against First Nations



The CBC National News began one evening last week with these words from anchor Paul Hunter: "It's the kind of revelation that makes you shudder, shake your head, wonder how it could ever happen in Canada." I was transfixed. What could possibly lead to such subjectivity, such raw emotion, from the always cool, detached, neutral public broadcaster? Had the Prime Minister added Prince George Alexander Louis to his enemies' list?

What an anti-climax. All it was was another scandalous injustice that Canada had perpetrated against its aboriginal people since Confederation, this time the cold-blooded deprivation of food and medicine to kids at residential schools in the name of nutritional experiments. Seriously, people, if the media were going to go ballistic every time a new atrocity against Native peoples was revealed, there'd never be anything else on the news.

Anyway, as we were reminded by Bernard Valcourt, Canada's Aboriginal Affairs Minister, Prime Mr. Harper's eloquent apology to the victims of residential schools in 2008 was intended to cover all past injustices, even those we didn't yet know about. That may even have meant Mr. Harper's own decision to cancel Paul Martin's Kelowna Accord, a deal that might have broken the vicious circle that's trapped native peoples for 150 years. But being Paul Martin's baby, naturally it had to be terminated. That's why Idle No More has organized a series of Honour The Apology demos this summer.

If you ask Thomas King, author of The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People In North America, Harper's apology was little more than PR anyway, since his government's real preoccupation is trying to get as much native land as possible for resource exploitation. But what's the big deal about that? As King puts it: "Whites want land…The issue that came ashore with the French and the English and the Spanish, the issue that was the raison d'être for each of the colonies, the issue that has made its way from coast to coast to coast and is with us today, is the issue of land. The issue has always been land."

There's been a lot of talk recently of Canada being guilty of genocidal policies against its Indian population. One Globe and Mail op-ed. gave several shake-your-heads examples of these, concluding with "the uncomfortable truth that modern Canada is founded upon ethnic cleansing and genocide." I teach about the 1948 UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide, and even a quick glance at the document reveals that such accusations are by no means reckless hyperbole. Since we began as a nation, as the Assembly of First Nations said last week, we have treated aboriginals as "less than human." That's precisely what allows genocidal policies to be pursued.

Heavy stuff, for sure. And extremely un-Canadian. Aboriginal-wise, I'm afraid, the conceit of Canada as the caring-sharing peaceable kingdom has been plain old malarkey from Day One. As the record makes only too clear, the right words would actually include racist, cruel and hypocritical.

But look, we need a perspective here. Before we wallow too much in knee-jerk Canadian guilt, remember that this is simply how white settlers treated "less than human" aboriginals wherever in the world they chose to intrude, from Australia to South Africa, South America, Central America, the Caribbean, the USA and right here in Canada. Altogether, as scholars will tell you, it's the chronicle of the worst genocides in human history.

So really, on any day of the year the CBC could easily lead with yet another shudder-inducing horror story of an Indian reserve with all the amenities of a third world country or perhaps of the lifelong pain inflicted by white society on some aboriginal group or other. But really, friends, it just ain't news. In the simple words of the Assembly of First Nations: "Canada, this is your country."

So those with power keep repeating century-old mistakes, mostly because they refuse to change the basic relationship between whites and Indians (to use Tom King's terms) to one of respectful partnerships between equals. That's what should make us shudder and shake our heads, but it hardly counts as new news.And yet, besides the monotonous horror stories, there are all the many positive initiatives across the country that rarely make the news at all, accounts of First Nations people who are fighting back thoughtfully, peacefully, creatively. They're mad as hell and clever as hell and won't take it any more. Now all they need is for the rest of us to join in putting pressure on a government that's devoted to the rights of energy and mining companies instead of the rights of our founding peoples. Maybe we can still even get the PM to agree to a public inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women, one of this country's greatest scandals. Now that would be a genuine news story.

Gerald Caplan has an MA in Canadian history and a Ph.D. in African history from the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. He is an author, teacher, media commentator, and social and political activist with a lifelong commitment to African development. He is preoccupied with genocide and genocide prevention, particularly the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, about which he has frequently written. He has been a consultant on African development issues to many United Nations agencies as well as to the African Union. His latest book is called The Betrayal of Africa. He writes a weekly online column for the Globe and Mail.

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