The central thesis of my series on black history this year was focussed on the importance of understanding the whole truth of our history as a nation. This is not only relevant to Canada, mind you – it is universally true that understanding where we came from tells us how we got where we are. Furthermore, it gives us an indication of how we can move into the future intelligently, avoiding the same pitfalls that had waylaid us before. The reason why I thought black history was particularly useful for this task is that a) it has not been well-explored and is not well-understood, and b) it is a particularly egregiously bad slice of our history that we must learn to confront honestly if we are to glean anything from it.
That being said, Canada’s abysmal treatment of black people is far from the worst story we have to tell. For that, we have to turn to First Nations Canadians. The original settlers and inhabitants of the land were repeatedly exploited and conned into agreements that worked to their continual disadvantage. It is only recently that we have been willing to confront our national shame in anything other than an entirely token way, and many (myself included) would argue that we are still not doing enough to not simply make up for historical injustices, but to understand how we non-Aboriginal Canadians fit into their historical narrative.
Just as in the case of black history, learning the history of the Nation of Canada and the First Nations of Canada teaches us about ourselves, in ways that we may find uncomfortable but which are critical to moving forward:
The residential school system constituted an assault on aboriginal children, families and culture, and Canadians have been denied a full and proper education about aboriginal societies, according to a copy of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s interim report obtained by CBC News. The interim report was leaked Thursday to CBC News, a day before the three commissioners — chair Murray Sinclair, Wilton Littlechild and Marie Wilson — release the report in Vancouver.
Their 20 recommendations address education, health and commemoration, among other issues. The commission calls for all provinces and territories to develop residential school education materials for public schools. Provinces and territories should hold education campaigns about the history and impact of residential schools in their jurisdictions, the commission says.
Canada’s history with its residential schools is perhaps the most monstrous part of our history. I hesitate to use the term ‘cultural genocide’ because I don’t think that cultures per se have a right to exist, but insofar as it was an intentional effort to eradicate not only a culture but a race of people and an entire way of life, the term applies. Understanding this fact and the repercussions thereof quickly puts the lie to most of the racist and wildly ignorant memes that you can easily find in the comments section of any article about First Nations people and issues.
One of the issues I struggled the most with during black history month was the fact that readership dropped precipitously for my Monday posts. I do not blame anyone for this – I recognize that not everyone is as fired up about this issue as I am. Certainly, even I didn’t really show much enthusiasm until a little while ago. Black history, I must confess, is primarily interesting to black people. However, I see my job here as not simply talking to you about things you’re already interested in, but to impart some of my own enthusiasm and to convince you why these topics are important. To the extent that I was unable to immediately convince everyone to devote their lives to black history scholarship, I was a tad frustrated.
That being said, I don’t think I have to work too hard to convince you that this kind of intervention – putting emphasis on the darker elements of our history rather than retaining the Anglocentric Canadian history lessons I remember from high school – equips us much better to deal with modern-day realities. To the extent that black history, while more interesting to black people, is about all people, teaching the history of Canada’s dealings with its First Nations people is relevant to all Canadians, but there are some who will undoubtedly get more out of it.
They may also simply get more of it:
Federal politicians from all parties have unanimously supported a motion to dramatically improve the funding and quality of First Nations education. Now, all eyes are on the Conservatives to see if they back up their sentiments with real money. “Today is historic and we are half way there. It is up to the government to live up to the promise they made,” said NDP MP Charlie Angus, who has worked tirelessly for four years to make the Shannen’s Dream campaign a reality.
The campaign is named after Shannen Koostachin, a teenager from the Attawapiskat community near James Bay, in Angus’s northern Ontario riding. Angry about her own quality of elementary education, she spearheaded a student-led drive to improve schooling on reserves across the country. But she died in a car accident in 2010, before seeing major progress.
Part of my particular brand of liberalism is the belief that education is the silver bullet cure for all major social problems. An informed, engaged, and empowered electorate is the lifesblood of a strong democracy. Public education is the key that makes all of that possible. Mind you, education spending and actual education are not the same, but one can certainly make the other a lot easier. It should also be noted that this is a non-binding vote, which means that it comes with the promise of exactly zero dollars (and were I an Aboriginal Canadian, I imagine I’d be even more deeply cynical of any promises from the Canadian federal government), but it does mean that MPs from all parties are on record in support of the idea. What that actually means will only be revealed in time.
For all our repeated downfalls as a nation and as a society, I am still deeply optimistic about our future. As long as we keep making learning and exploring our history a priority, we will continue to find ways to improve. Provided that we have the courage to face up to the mistakes of yesterday, we will have a much easier time making a path forward into a tomorrow that is prosperous and inclusive of all Canadians. That challenge starts today.
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