Canada’s Whitewashing of Indigenous History & Refusal to Understand Current Issues

Leaving huge pieces of history unspoken does nobody any justice in the end, and more often than not, ignorance is not bliss.

When I was growing up, our curriculum wasn’t at all geared toward aboriginal study in school. Native people were either non-existent or placed in roles supporting the more important white people we were learning about. I recall briefly learning about the homes that the first nations built, what kind of clothes they wore, maybe what they ate. I think it was part of the same chapter on the Inuit. They weren’t spoken of in any significant way, and their history and culture were certainly never touched upon. And why would we learn any of that? It’s a shameful piece of our history in Canada. Better to just pretend it didn’t happen, so we can feel better about ourselves.

The problem with that train of thought is that it lets us feel better at the expense of the very indigenous people that we wronged in the first place. We erase everything they went through as if it doesn’t matter. We feel like it’s ancient history, we aren’t personally to blame, and we don’t understand what they’re carrying on about.

The end result is generations of people who grow up thinking that we are being blamed for the things people did long before us, that native people are given more than we are, that it isn’t fair. I thought the race card was overused, that I was treated worse than first nations people, that they squandered what they were unfairly given. I resented them. I saw all the drunk, homeless, drug addicted native people and that allowed me to paint them all with that brush – lazy, entitled, thieving addicts. It let me feel superior, in this day and age. And I wasn’t remotely alone in that, for anyone who says racism isn’t alive and well. It was fueled by all the other white people around me who felt exactly the same way. The natives who were our friends, they were the exception. They weren’t representative of indigenous people to us; the dirty, shameless drunks downtown in the gutter were what we thought of first and foremost when we thought of aboriginals. And so, purely anecdotally, I did feel superior.

I wish that I could say those opinions are long in the past for me, but they really aren’t. I moved from resentment to indifference, and only in the past few years have I actually took the time to try to educate myself on all of the history I was never, ever taught. And the more I look, the more disheartened I am that nobody knows about so much of this. That it’s left to each person’s own initiative to not only realize that their preconceived notions may be wrong, but to actually make the effort to find out the truth.

I touched on the pipeline/aboriginal issue here in Northern BC here, but the issues carry on, and there’s more to be said. This pipeline debacle has been the real catalyst that’s made me reexamine so much of what I thought I knew, and even then, only because a dear friend of mine has family involved and she has very bravely stepped out of her comfort zone to try to educate those around her. I know this has been incredibly stressful for her, to put herself out there and risk the arguments and insults not just from strangers, but from people who she thought were friends. Because she and her family are Wetʼsuwetʼen, she made this personal to me – she gave it a face and that’s what made me care. It wasn’t an abstract concept anymore, something that didn’t matter to my life, it was something affecting my friend and the people she loves. As a largely non-confrontational person, it’s been overwhelming for her, but I really have to applaud her for doing it because she makes it real, she makes it a human issue. By presenting herself as one of those affected, she forces people to understand that those protesting are people, not villains, who are more alike to us than they are different from us.

Still, the longer I live, the more disappointed I am about people’s resistance to learn and grow. Cognitive bias is a powerful thing, and I have seen so much of it since these pipeline protests began.

I know full well that there are people who will not change their opinions even when presented with new evidence, and I know that that’s a very common thing.

I still think my favourite thing that's ever happened on the internet is the time a guy said "people change their minds when you show them facts" and I said "actually studies show that's not true" and linked TWO sources and he said "yeah well I still think it works"

But I still hope that some might be willing to learn, because like so much in life, this isn’t stark black and white.

Myth: Aboriginals keep needlessly bringing up ancient history.

The last residential school operated by the Canadian government, Gordon Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan, was closed in 1996. Allow me to put that into perspective – my not-quite middle-aged ass was 15 years old in 1996. That’s right. Halfway through high school. That is 24-year-old history. If that history were my child, it could still legally be on my extended medical benefits.

These were schools that took children from their homes, abused and deprived them, and forced them to deny their own culture. Some families never saw their children again. Many, many children died. Some were sold to white families as “live-in help” which sounds remarkably like slavery, doesn’t it? Slavery that was sanctioned and encouraged by our government, because these weren’t “people” under the law.

Another friend of mine wrote this bit, which is brilliant:

With respect to laws and governance in this time, the words of a Kwakwak’wakw chief in the nineteenth century come to mind: “It is a strict law which bids us dance. It is a strict law that bids us distribute our property among our friends and neighbours. It is a good law.” Both dancing and feasting, based on laws far older than those of the post 1867 Canadian reality, were criminalized under the Indian Act. Many Kwakwak’wakw people, including Chief Dan Cranmer who hosted a potlatch on Village Island in 1921, paid a considerable price for breaking those laws. Invaluable goods and regalia were confiscated, with many items making their way into both private and public collections. In the case of the latter, some were displayed without permission of their owners. Among these were coppers. Participants, including the highest ranking chiefs and their wives, went to the reward of jail time at Oakalla Prison farm in Burnaby. For dancing and for giving and receiving gifts. Those were and remain foundational and complicated key elements of a law that is at least as old as the Law of Hammurabi, let alone Magna Carta. In the case of the Kwakwak’wakw it has never been extinguished as is the case throughout most of the province.

In 1963, American anthropologist Elman Service published an article (in his book Profiles in Ethnology) on the Nootka (sic) based on material gathered by Philiip Drucker and Franz Boas*. At the end of the article, Service states, “… Canadian laws against potlatching have resulted in many changes. In the main, the surviving Nootka (sic) are on their way toward complete cultural absorption.” That, of course, was the goal of the state. Yet, because of fierce resistance and resilience, in the 21st century a renaissance is underway, one feature of which Canadians are witnessing right now. Like it nor not, that renaissance and the manifestations that many find uncomfortable and inconvenient have been brewing for many decades.

In 1956, when the barriers to Indigenous academic achievement in BC were daunting to say the least, a daughter of Chief Dan Cranmer, Gloria Cranmer Webster (b 1931) graduated with a BA in Anthropology from UBC. I had the privilege of meeting her in 1989 when with two SFU colleagues, I visited Alert Bay to see a site-based Indigenous Teacher Education program. Her list of publications, initiatives, curations, and accomplishments is considerable. In her article “From Colonization to Repatriation” in Indigena: Contemporary Native Perspectives,’ (1992, edited by McMaster and Martin) she closes with the following:
“To paraphrase the challenge made to Franz Boas in 1886 by Chief O’waxlogglia, {also quoted above} “Let the white man observe his celebrations. We shall observe ours. … And now, if you are come to forbid us to dance, be gone; if not, you will be welcome to us.”

*I must note that Franz Boas, often called ‘the father of American anthropology,’ made his ethnographic reputation on the basis of his work in the Pacific Northwest Coast, and without over 40 years of active collaboration with Fort Rupert’s George Hunt, Xawe / ‘Maxwalagalis / K’ixitasu / Nolq’olala (English and Tlingit, father of Kwakwak’wakw chiefs) would have achieved nothing.

The NFB’s film, directed by Tom Shandel, called “Potlatch, A Strict Law Bids Us Dance,” I think is viewable on You Tube. …it is well worth the 53 minute watch.

M’lady Marcy Toms

You may think this is all ancient history too, but all of my grandparents had already been born in 1921 and in the grand scheme of all things, it is very recent.

More recently, a 1997 Supreme Court of Canada ruling affirmed Wet’suwet’en land rights, including that the hereditary chiefs are the title holders.

A court case brought by the houses (not just band councils) of the Wet’suwet’en and Gitxsan resulted in a hugely significant decision. Over more than 300 days, Elders and hereditary chiefs presented evidence, oral histories and ceremonial songs. The decision, Delgamuukw v. British Columbia, confirmed the validity of oral histories as  evidence and recognized the chiefs’ hereditary governance and Indigenous Nations’ land interests.

I had to really shift my thinking to understand what was going on with regards to the pipeline and the indigenous people opposed to it. While those who are pro-pipeline are seeing the issue through their own narrow lense, they miss the fact that the first nations opposed are largely not anti-pipeline, they are anti-pipeline through their land. Land that was awarded to them by the Supreme Court, not so very long ago.

I see a lot of “You better not turn on your heat or use your gas range if you’re in agreement with these protesters…” comments. This is where it is very easy to comprehend. I understand the need for garbage dumps, but I don’t want one in my backyard. Following this logic, I better stop all garbage collection to my house, or else I’m hypocritical, right? How can I send stuff to the dump when I’m actively against having a dump on my land? It sounds ridiculous. It is ridiculous.

The fact of the matter is, Hereditary Chiefs are not against the pipeline. Like most other Canadians, they understand the need for it. They don’t want it in their backyard. They were never even consulted, which is frankly quite disrespectful. The government is upholding the rights of foreign business (…shareholders of the project, which are subsidiaries of five international companies: Royal Dutch Shell Plc. (40%, lead partner), of the UK and Holland; PETRONAS (25%), of Malaysia; PetroChina Co. Ltd. (15%), of China; Mitsubishi Corp. (15%), of Japan; and Korea Gas Corporation (5%) of Korea) over the rights of the land’s title holders, by way of RCMP interference in peaceful protests.

The hereditary chiefs also offered Coastal GasLink an alternative route, which they dismissed. According to their website, they found that the alternative proposed route problematic for a number of reasons, and then state that “Coastal GasLink continues to believe that dialogue with the Hereditary Chiefs of the Office of the Wet’suwet’en and the Unist’ot’en is the best approach to ensure the concerns of the Chiefs are addressed while ensuring the benefits of Coastal GasLink are delivered to Wet’suwet’en people. We look forward to further engagement with the Hereditary Chiefs and Unist’ot’en and remain ready to meet at their convenience.”

Whether or not that’s a spin, I don’t know. I feel that all things considered, if Hereditary Chiefs were respectfully consulted, they would be open to discussion – to refuse to do so would hurt their cause. Honestly, I feel that if there were some homework done and they were consulted in the first place, this whole headache could have been avoided. But hell, what do I know, I didn’t even know Hereditary Chiefs existed before this debacle. Thanks again for the education, Canadian curriculum.

We cannot resign disrespect to ancient history if we continue to heap it on. Let that sink in. I have seen some of the most vile comments lately, in my little part of the world – talking about shooting natives on sight, mowing them down, insulting them, insisting they are part of a larger scheme and/or are paid protestors. Talking as if they are just out to make things hard for us, via the railroad blockades, rather than trying to make a point about helplessness the best way they know how.

Meaningful reconciliation begins with understanding. To once again quote the wise Ms. Toms, “We live our lives in the midst of an ancient and, in both material and social terms, highly successful culture and most of us lack even the most basic appreciation of it.” We need to make the effort to understand what has been lost, what our culture sought to destroy, what trauma that brought. We need to understand and appreciate their culture for what it is and encourage its revival and continuation. We need to stop being so divisive. Because if we pay lip service, or we give land that we then want back when it’s useful, or we act resentful or superior, we will never see that proper reconciliation. A little understanding would go a long way.

Do the best you can until you know better. 
Then when you know better, do better.
-Maya Angelou

Learn.

Grow.

Chase knowledge.

Try to understand.

Assess your biases.

Do better.

NOTE: For the follow up to this post, click here.

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