Last post I dealt with friend Xerxes’s charge that Canada was a “white supremacist nation.” But I left out his main point, which was, inevitably, Canada’s relations with its “First Nations” and/or indigenous people. His comment was ultimately prompted by the recent report of the Commission on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women.
He laments, as so many do, including the recent Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the supposed historical attempt to assimilate Indians into the Canadian mainstream. That, supposedly, is the root of all aboriginal problems, and amounts, says this latest commission report, to “genocide.” Xerxes was dutifully agreeing.
In fact, however, the problem with government policies towards Canada’s Indians has always been the opposite. The problem is segregation, never an attempt, to use Xerxes’s term, to “homogenize.”
This is obvious: who else since the fall of old apartheid-regime South Africa is kept apart, as if quarantined, on “reserves”? Other, perhaps, than wild animals.
And yet this apartheid approach is just what our government commissions are aggressively pushing for more of. We are headed with all deliberate speed downhill.
Nor is this previous or present segregation primarily the fault of the elected Canadian government or the “white man.” The Canadian government or “the white man” cannot unilaterally abrogate the treaties. And the Indian leadership insists they remain. Forever.
It is obvious too that, contrary to the familiar talking point, the old Indian residential schools were never an attempt to either erase Indian culture or assimilate Indians. Self-evidently, the way to do that would not be to segregate Indians in their own schools, with a separate curriculum. Ask Martin Luther King Jr. It would be to send them to the same schools as other Canadians. Captain Richard H. Pratt, the founder of the American residential school system, himself pointed this out: “Indian schools,” he warned, “are … well calculated to keep the Indians intact as Indians.” The Indian residential schools systematically preserved a distinct Indian culture, although not the authentic Indian culture, for whatever it might have been worth. They deliberately taught students only the skills they supposedly needed so long as they stayed on the reserves, and discouraged any ambitions to assimilate. Egerton Ryerson wrote, in advising the Canadian system, “such institutions should not give instruction in ‘white man's trades,’ but should concentrate instead on ‘common school learnings and the acquisition of agricultural skills and knowledge’.”
“It would be not merely useless,” wrote another bureaucrat of the day, “but mischievous, to try to give a taste for the town life of the Palefaces to those who are destined to go back to the wigwam, to travel on snow shoes, and to use no other implement than the fishing net and the gun.”
And so the schools, although apparently with good if paternalistic intentions, deliberately kept Indians from assimilation and held them on the reserves.
Xerxes quotes a familiar figure: a supposed 50% death rate among residential school pupils. This shocking number has entered the popular consciousness. It seems to have been simply invented by one author, Thomas King, who gave no source. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission could not come up with a figure higher than 2%, despite their best efforts; they were mandated from the start to make the residential schools out to be as bad as possible. This was worse than the general Canadian population at the time—tuberculosis was the problem—but still better than on the reserves the schools took them from. The schools were their best chance of treatment.
Along with many others, including many Indians, Xerxes quite rightly blames the Indian Act: “The Indian Act, despite several amendments, still treats Indigenous people as semi-competent children, who need wiser adults to make decisions on their behalf.”
But the Canadian government has wanted to ditch the Indian Act for generations. Ask Jean Chretien about his 1969 “White Paper.” Even when the Act was passed, and the original treaties signed, the government’s intent was that the need for special treatment for Indians would only last for a generation or so. You cannot, at the same time, as Xerxes does here, blame the government for wanting to assimilate, and for not wanting to assimilate. That is simply, and obviously, scapegoating the government and the “white man.”
The problem is that, by framing it as treaties, they left it up to the Indians; or rather, to a bureaucracy the Act and the treaties set up, both Indian and non-Indian. They were determined from the start not to force the Indians into anything. They foolishly did not foresee the iron determination of any bureaucracy, once established, whether Indian or “white,” to self-perpetuate, and never surrender power once acquired. And in this case, the bureaucracy was, by treaty, allowed to write their own ticket, outside the usual democratic control.
This has been demonstrably to the detriment of ordinary Indians, and ridiculously expensive to Canada in general, but to the ongoing profit of Indian and no doubt also federal government bureaucrats. It is the reserve system and the Indian Act that keeps Indians in a state of permanent wardship, as though not responsible adults. And it is the “Indian leadership,” a system set up by the treaties and by the federal bureaucracy, that demands it.
The best way to foster and perpetuate that cycle of dependency is to continue to blame everything on the “white man” and the government. It is always up to the white man and the government to do more for the Indians. And everything they do is wrong. This assumes and demands Indian helplessness. It assumes government and “white” omniscience.
The perils faced by young indigenous women, the supposed subject of this latest of endless Royal Commissions, are obviously the direct result of the failure or incapacity of the Indian family. It is because they have no functioning family that these adolescent girls are vagrants on the highways and sometimes in the cities. Often they are fleeing abuse. So too the high incarceration rate among indigenous young men, who most often commit the violence: these are abandoned, derelict, abused, or fleeing kids; kids with no effective adult supervision or guidance. The two problems are the same problem.
And the root of the problem is that the Indian family often does not function. This may have been an existing problem in Indian culture, before the treaties or the Indian Act, but it can only have been exacerbated by the passing of all responsibility, authority, initiative, and income from the individual and the family unit to the band council and the government.
The residential aspect of the residential schools was an extremely well-meaning attempt to solve this problem. Over 50% of the attendees were there because they had no other functioning or viable home. The schools were orphanages. The “Sixties scoop” was another good-faith attempt.
For both of these attempts to help, the schools and the adoption program, the government and the “white man” is now scapegoated.
They will be scapegoated again for whatever they do now.
In the meantime, these kids are trapped. It is for many a vicious spiral, ending in suicide, drug dependency, or death by violence. And it cannot be broken out of as long as the solution must come from government and the “white man.” Government and dependency has been the problem, not the solution.
Doubling down on that, as these commissions are forever doing, demanding more government and more aid from the evil “white man,” will make it worse. Indians must be treated as equals, and that means Indians must take matters into their own hands.
Passing more powers and money to “band leadership,” as these commissions demand, is the worst of it. The “band leadership,” a concept alien to Indian culture, has done more than anything to crush individual initiative. And it is further removed from any democratic control than is the government bureaucracy. Band leaderships are usually now nominally elected. But a democracy cannot function when the government controls all income, and owns everything. They can buy votes, and any opposition can be crushed or driven out before it can organize. It does not work in the Third World, it did not work in Eastern Europe, and it cannot work on the shores of Hudson Bay.
For more, see my book Playing the Indian Card. Available from Amazon and Smashwords, and soon from other outlets.