Historically Illiterate

One of the pet peeves I have as an educator is the wilful ignorance many people have when it comes to their own country’s history. Stereotypes and tropes are allowed to survive, indeed thrive, largely due to propagating lies. These lies then disseminate within the popular discourse and result in further ignorance. It’s not uncommon to find those who have the greatest access to information choose to remain ignorant, and be on the wrong side of history.

I’ve written before on how important critical thinking skills are, and how essential it is for educators to foster them in their students. This is particularly true for students when they are wading through the media’s torrential output. Students will need to examine the message, which often includes reading between lines, and the agenda of the messenger.

A piece, which recently caught my eye, was published by the National Post, and written by Conrad Black. In it, Black laments how Canadians are being made to grovel to Indigenous demands, and how that is entirely unfair. It is rife with historical inaccuracies, and tired racist tropes. It is all very much part of a system of disinformation that has long plagued Indigenous peoples, and contributed to systemic abuse through generations. Why this was chosen to see print in a 21st century newspaper is beyond me, but I’m an educator, not a publisher.

To adequately demonstrate how problematic the article is, I have decided to pick it apart to the best of my abilities.

[Please note that I do not pretend to be a grand purveyor of the TRUTH, nor do I know everything. I am still very much learning, and my knowledge will continue to evolve]

Black states:

Despite the fact that many hundreds of billions of public dollars have been spent with constructive intent in Canada in this field since the Second World War, and for decades Canadian courts have generally been very sympathetic to the petitions and legal demands of native groups and individuals, it is not discernible that their condition, quality of life, or socio-economic levels of achievement have progressed much.

This paragraph, the third in the article, is where the train completely leaves the tracks. It demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of Treaty Rights that were negotiated between the British Crown, the Canadian Government, and Indigenous peoples. He decries the amount of money that has been earmarked for people who are legally entitled to it. Despite being legally entitled to these funds, it is not unusual for this money to simply not make it to its intended target. That does not even address the fact that there is a funding gap between Indigenous students and non-Indigenous students. It’s somewhat difficult to achieve what you want achieved when you are chronically underfunded, or not funded at all.

As for the final sentence of the above quote, it is unimaginable that someone would completely invalidate the effect the Indian Residential School System had on people. This isn’t ancient history; the last Residential School closed in 1996. The trauma inflicted on students in this system is inter-generational, and has had a profound impact on quality of life.

Everyone regrets this and very few people claim to have much idea of what to do about it. It is a highly sensitive issue and any discussion of it is fraught with the explosive danger of being construed as racist, reactionary or misanthropic. I am none of those and I think that most people can agree that any analysis of this subject must begin with a recitation of facts, some of which conflict with conventional wisdom and the habitual case advanced by nativist militants.

Here we get into revisionist history to better fit Black’s agenda. The facts he chooses to prop up his arguments are biased and leave glaring holes due to their imbalance. It’s a prime example of how History curriculum has failed many. By providing a distorted view, and leaving out key elements, students like Black are offered a highly nationalistic takeaway. This is a problem area as it is exclusionary of important voices.

Most of the Indigenous were nomads. They did not occupy this country in the conventional sense, though it is easy to think otherwise when almost every ceremonious official begins all public remarks with a reference to the native group that was traditionally, in pre-European times, at or near the place where they are speaking. They did not build many structures intended to be durable, and mainly lived in tents which they moved frequently (or igloos). The exceptions were fairly rudimentary wooden structures, which is why the location of unsuspected burial grounds creates such controversy when raised as evidence of an ancient settlement. The natives were themselves immigrants, across the Bering Straits between Siberia and Alaska, more than 40,000 years ago.

First off, they did not occupy this country, they occupied this land. What we recognize as countries wouldn’t exist for tens of thousands of years. Different First Nations, like the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois), existed in what would become the USA and Canada, before colonizers drew imaginary lines. Many of the Haudenosaunee had permanent communities. The Wendat (Hurons) also had a location Champlain visited in 1615, that comprised of eighteen villages with 30,000 inhabitants, called Wendake by the Wendat and Huronia by the French. The tent trope Black mentions is perhaps a reference to First Nations in the West, but more likely stems from old Hollywood cowboy films that contributed to his education.

The original inhabitants were not “immigrants”. Words have meaning, and the definition for immigrant is: “a person who comes to live permanently in a foreign country“. When the First Peoples came to this land, countries did not exist. They spread out across the continent, but they didn’t go through any sort of immigration process. This is another tired trope many will use to delegitimize Indigenous land claims. By making Indigenous people immigrants, it’s easier to take land they weren’t entitled to.

The Indigenous people were extremely skilled in various handicrafts, and as woodsmen, hunters, and warriors; they were physically remarkably strong and nimble and had a life expectancy approximately equal to Western Europeans at the time of contact. But the claim that the civilization the Europeans found in what is now Canada was in any other sense competitive with that of Western Europe is nonsense. For all its failings, this was the Europe of Shakespeare, Descartes, Galileo, Michelangelo and Leonardo. Many of the things we think of as touchstones of an advanced technological society — agriculture, written languages, metallurgy and knitted fabrics and materials — were largely or entirely absent. Even the wheel was not to be found.

This paragraph speaks for itself, and makes a mockery of his prior claim of not being racist. The Indigenous people indeed had agriculture, and farmed the land when it was suitable to do so. It is incredibly disingenuous to say otherwise. For all the supposed advancements of the Europeans at point of contact, they would have died during their first winters had it not been for Indigenous ingenuity. Indigenous knowledge of medicine literally saved lives. The quality of the European knitted fabrics didn’t account for much in the harsh climate they encountered. Inuit clothing has stood the test of time for millenia, and if European explorers had been similarly garbed perhaps more of them would have survived.

Settlers drove entire civilizations to extinction, like the Beothuk. How many notable figures were lost to the sands of time as a result? Oral tradition was how knowledge was passed down from generation to generation, and if Black knew more about Canadian history he would know how Indigenous students were physically abused for speaking their languages at Residential Schools. This effect resulted in languages being forgotten, and knowledge lost. That was a calculated move by the Canadian government, and was akin to setting the Royal Library of Alexandria alight. Inuit oral tradition was certainly accurate enough to contribute to the discovery of Franklin’s ships, after the Government sank millions into its scavenger hunt.

As for the wheel, many of the Indigenous peoples used waterways for much more efficient, and practical, methods of transportation. I seem to recall the European voyageurs opting to use Indigenous technology to traverse the land, rather than the supposedly more “advanced” European wheel.

It is also bunk that the Europeans invaded and usurped an Indigenous “nation” or group of nations, in the manner that is now often implied, similar to how Nazi Germany invaded Poland or the Netherlands. The country was very sparsely populated and no native group or authority purported to govern anything larger than mainly itinerant bands or tribes, or to have borders or any concept of national space and jurisdiction. Europeans and those from other continents who immigrated legally to Canada and their descendants, have a right to live here equal to that of any Indigenous person.

The country wasn’t sparsely populated, because the country didn’t exist. Instead you had hundreds of different First Nations who had individual claims to the territory they were using. The British Crown understood this, which is why it attempted to get many of them to sign treaties. Peace and Friendship treaties did not cede any land to Britain and the resulting country of Canada (as is the case in Nova Scotia). Other territories were never covered by a treaty, like the majority of Eastern Ontario. Ottawa sits on the traditional unceded lands of the Anishinaabe people, and by law, the Anishinaabe have every right to it. Canada is supposed to respect the rule of law, and finds itself beholden to laws the majority of its citizens don’t understand.

Could the Europeans have found isolated pockets of territory no Indigenous societies had claim to? It’s conceivable. However, that isn’t what happened. Swaths of an entire continent were scooped up by kings across the ocean, and treaties were drawn up after the fact. It’s also not bunk that Indigenous lands were invaded by an occupying force. Ottawa is literally on territory that was not given or surrendered. For 20th century examples of an occupying force evicting Indigenous inhabitants, perhaps he could look towards Rooster Town, or the High Arctic Relocation.

Frequently made allegations of attempted genocide against Indigenous people by Canadian governments rest on one written command by the agitated British general Jeffery Amherst during the Seven Years’ War that perhaps a communicable disease could be put in some blankets distributed to rebellious Indians, but nothing came of it, and the incident did not occur in and has nothing to do with Canada. The claim of cultural genocide, an attempted transposition of the concept of physical extermination, as in Nazi death camps, to education, is also fraudulent. As I have written here and elsewhere before, it is scandalous that the present federal chief justice would fasten the prestige of her position to such a monstrous defamation.

Black seems to be unaware how complicit his first Prime Minister was in intentionally starving First Nations out in the West. Perhaps Black needs a reminder of what ethnic cleansing constitutes: “the mass expulsion or killing of members of an unwanted ethnic or religious group in a society“. The entire point of the Indian Residential Schools was to “kill the Indian in the child“. There is nothing fraudulent about such quotes, and Black is being willfully ignorant. If he wants to make Nazi comparisons, perhaps he should learn that the Residential Schools also performed medical experiments on the children entrusted to their “care”. It was also well known tuberculosis was rampant in these schools, but the government did nothing. Thousands died and many were dumped into unmarked graves.

This is an apt demonstration of how History teachers in Canada need to do a better job at presenting the subject. The amount of resulting ignorance has contributed to domestic policy causing further harm. Ignorance of this magnitude is inexcusable in the Information Age.

It was misconceived and unevenly administered and much horror and great sadness resulted. But the alleged desire of Justin Trudeau to ask Pope Francis for an apology is an outrage. The churches involved were carrying out government policy. And the national inquiry into missing and murdered Aboriginal women is itself another flawed exercise. There are 164 missing Aboriginal women, and there have been, since 1980, about 1,100 Aboriginal women murdered, and about 90 per cent of those murders have been solved — a similar proportion to the success of homicide investigations for non-Indigenous women. The plight of Aboriginal women is tragic and distressing, but we already know many of the reasons behind it, and could begin meaningfully addressing them today while sparing us the expense and delay of an inquiry that has been dysfunctional from the very outset.

The churches were complicit in the forced conversion of thousands of children. The priests who were meant to look after the children were complicit in horrendous physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. That isn’t debatable. It happened. The tired excuse of “I was merely following orders” no longer carries weight. Adolf Eichmann made sure that line of defence can no longer be used. Black is neither woman, nor Indigenous, so his qualms concerning the missing and murdered Indigenous women bear little weight on the matter.

This federal government should stop truckling to this Anglo-French-Canadian self-hate, which is a blood libel on French and English-speaking Canadians. It should restore the Accountability Act of the Harper government and impose a reasonable standard of conduct on the most autocratic native leaders. A referendum should be held among native people offering a series of generously funded options, from assisted integration in the society of the whole country to continued separateness, but with assurances of responsible local government and meaningful employment, even if in useful forms of workfare. And there must be some theory of eminent domain for the national interest in matters like the Kinder-Morgan pipeline, with equitable compensation where appropriate.

Again, Black demonstrates a lack of knowledge concerning Treaty Rights. He doesn’t get to dictate his wishes. He has to abide by the Treaty that governs the land he lives on, and/or the wishes of the Indigenous peoples if he is on unceded territory. If he doesn’t like that, perhaps he could find another location to live. Alternatively, he could try to take it up with the Supreme Court or the United Nations.

The fact that he would willfully obscure Canada’s history with his revisionist nonsense is a glaring reminder of how vigilant historians need to be. History teachers in particular need to ensure the curriculum they are teaching students is balanced and inclusive. It has nothing to do with perpetuating self-hate. Rather it’s about reconciling past wrongs, and learning to move forward together.

There are many splendidly motivated and very qualified experts in this field, native and non-native. The governments should avail themselves of them and end this long slide into deepening victimhood unjustly laid at the door of the whole population of Canada. Almost all Canadians are altruistic and want treaties that have been violated to be honoured with compensation. But they are tired of grovelling to complainants, many who are not blameless in their own condition, and of courts even accepting to hear such nonsense as the claim that Ktunaxa Nation of 800 people would suffer religious persecution by the departure of the spirit of the grizzly bear from a mountain in the Kootenays if a ski area were built on part of that mountain, and that they had been inadequately consulted under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms after 25 years of intense good faith negotiation.

Teachers also need to keep a watch for ugly vocabulary like “victimhood” and “grovelling”. Racist tropes that have no place in current debates need to be examined for what they are. Treaty education should also be standard in social studies classes so students can understand the significance of their rights, and the rights of the land’s Indigenous inhabitants. Teachers should be given professional development opportunities so they are adequately trained to teach the subject.

The fact that a man who exists outside of an Indigenous culture feels he has the right to criticise the spirituality of that culture should not be lost. This behaviour has eroded Indigenous rights for generations. Those of us who hail from settler families do not get to decide what is or isn’t nonsense to a culture. This is what Imperialism looks like, and students need to be trained to identify it (what they later choose to do with that knowledge is ultimately up to them).

In this as in some other matters, Canada must behave as the mature and well-motivated country that it is, and condemn efforts to portray John A. Macdonald, chief founder of the country and a great statesman even in the era of Lincoln, Bismarck, Disraeli, and Gladstone, as an evil racist. As Michael Ignatieff used to say (rather ineffectually): “Rise up Canada;” generously but firmly.

MacDonald was racist, and many of his actions were demonstrably evil. This is not a matter of hindsight being 20/20 and looking at the past through a modern lens. His attitudes towards Asian immigrants made many people of the time uncomfortable, including his own supporters. If such attitudes shocked people in the 1800s, it is entirely justifiable to call them for what they are in 2017.

I agree that people need to rise up, but not for the reasons outlined by Black. There needs to be a pushback. Historical illiteracy of this magnitude is frankly unacceptable and such historical revisionism has no place in popular discourse. This isn’t an attack on free speech (I’m not saying Black should return to jail for what he said), nor is this a call for censorship. It’s a derision of outdated attitudes that are enabled through lies.

Posted in Canada, Critical Thinking, Race, Social Issues, Society, Teaching and tagged , , .