A small group visits a makeshift memorial on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in Kamloops, British Columbia. CNS photo/Jennifer Gauthier, Reuters

Peter Stockland: Sadness and anger are long overdue

By 
  • July 3, 2021

Forgive me for regarding with a somewhat dry eye my fellow Canadians’ umbrage gusting to apoplexy over the infamy of Indian Residential Schools, and Catholic blame for same.

To be absolutely clear, that’s not to say I don’t take with whole-hearted seriousness the issue or the responsibility. I’ve long argued that it is decades past time for us to move Indigenous issues from talk and incremental action to full scale restructuring of the First Nations-Canada relationship. 

I was a child in Vancouver’s Empire Stadium during the country’s centennial year when Chief Dan George reduced the packed audience to shamed silence with his evisceration of the historic wrongs perpetrated by the Canada we were there to gleefully celebrate. I still have the cold shock of that silence within my skin. It has been amplified over the years by the equal and opposite silence that met his words: a silence of continued injustice, neglect, refusal to repent, much less seek vital reconciliation.

Indeed, within two years of that Empire Stadium shaking awake, the first Trudeau government issued its infamous White Paper on Indian Policy. It called for overt assimilation of Indigenous people in language that, read now, echoes the historic thinking that created the residential schools in the first place.

Perhaps you have to have been a kid in small town Canada to grasp the atrocity of such ideas coming from your own federal government. Maybe you have to have been immersed in a culture where Indigenous people were routinely stereotyped as drunks, disparaged as lazy and stupid, sneered at as shiftless and worthless.

Or something had to happen to you such as leaving your church after Mass and witnessing a little Indigenous child run toward his foster father to be picked up, only to have the man physically push him aside and take up his own white child, leaving you with a sickness in your stomach that found its voice in your mother’s explosion of outrage and snarls of “hypocrite, hypocrite” in the car going home.

To have lived that prompts, in me at least, skepticism with what The Catholic Register’s Michael Swan recently called the “emotional storm” in which Canadians are now swept up. Its cause, of course, is the recent residential school “revelations” from Kamloops and elsewhere. Revelations? Hello? Are my compatriots unclear what country they live in? Worse, could they possibly think that expressing sadness and anger in 2021 gets us all off the historic hook?

According to Swan’s reportage on an Abacus Data survey of 3,000 Canadians, 72 per cent do describe themselves as “sad,” 51 per cent are “angry” and 48 per cent hold the Catholic Church “a great deal responsible” for the abuses and horrors of residential schools.

How can it be true this “storm” is only rising now? Because of the remains of up to 215 children found in Kamloops? But the Truth and Reconciliation Commission told us years ago that thousands of Indigenous children died in residential schools. Indeed, the TRC ascribed the specific figure of 51 deaths to the Kamloops school. Where was the sadness and lamentation? Weren’t 51 children enough? Did we not believe? Or, perish the thought, did we not care and so push the fact of them away?

Oh, but we do now care now. Or at least nearly three-quarters of us care enough to say we’re sad. So it’s all good, right? Well, yes, if it actually prompts concrete action instead of transient sentiment and a few weeks of handwringing.

As one highly practical possibility, perhaps the 51 per cent who are “angry” and the 48 per cent blaming the Catholic Church could instead press to provide the 40 per cent of First Nations without reliable Internet such a basic element of Canadian economic and social life in 2021. Better yet, they could turn their weathered eyes on Ottawa and pressure it to make sure every First Nation has clean drinking water.

Neither effort for change, and there is a staggeringly long list of others, downplays the horror of residential schools or diminishes the responsibility the Church has already owned as its own. But living history into the present is infinitely preferable to shedding crocodile tears.

(Stockland is publisher of Convivium.ca and a senior fellow with Cardus.)

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