A season of historical reckoning
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 12/07/2021 (573 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
WHEN the location of 215 unmarked graves outside of the Kamloops Indian Residential School was announced in late May of this year, many Canadians expressed shock and horror, claiming that they had never known. Still others claimed — some very publicly — that these children had died of natural causes and had simply been buried on the grounds.
Since then, we have received confirmation of another 725 unmarked graves on the site of the Merivale residential school on Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan, and another 182 unmarked graves outside the St. Eugene mission school near Cranbrook, B.C. Through stories in the international news, the wider world has shared in this difficult moment in Canadian history.
Canada’s reckoning is not an entirely new phenomenon. In the decades following German defeat in the Second World War, for instance, a significant number of Germans originally saw the Nuremberg trials as “victor’s justice.” It wasn’t until the 1960s, when the post-war generation came of age and began to confront their parents’ pasts, did many start to undertake a broader historical reckoning, which accelerated in the 1990s.
This, according to author Susan Nieman, is German “vergangenheitsaufarbeitung” or “vergangenheitsbewältigung,” both postwar words for “working through the past.” For the Germans, working through the past involved achieving a coherent and widely accepted national narrative, and reinforcing that narrative with symbols and memorials that are consistent with it — recognizing those affected, not those who perpetrated. It also meant enshrining the new narrative in action.
Canada, and Canadians, will need to do the same. The response to news of Kamloops and Cowessess indicates how a serious reckoning with Indigenous history can shift and unseat comfortable and familiar ways of understanding Canada’s past.
This is true for countless non-Indigenous people who have chosen to wear orange, to march in solidarity for the children, to abstain from Canada Day celebrations, or to learn something about residential schooling and its relationship to issues of child welfare, incapacitation and justice, or racism in health care. It is also true for those whose careers are devoted to researching, writing and teaching about the past.
Historians have encountered archives, both written and oral, that tell very different stories of Canada and Indigenous people. Indigenous historians remain underrepresented, but they have challenged long-standing scholarly conversations and will continue to do so. On July 1, the Canadian Historical Association — a professional organization representing more than 600 history professionals — issued a statement explaining that Canadian history “fully warrants our use of the term genocide.”
The reasoning is grounded in a careful and faithful reading the definition of genocide in international law, formalized in 1948 with the support of Canada.
There is much more to do. We continue to see characterizations of Canada’s past that isolate and minimize histories of dispossession, loss and genocide as unfortunate moments, sidenotes, or “dark chapters” from a history of the Canadian nation that remains largely if not entirely unchanged.
The histories we have relearned in the last weeks demand something different. They make clear that residential schooling was part of a wider network of policies, practices and histories that meet the definition of genocide. When we do not attend seriously to these histories, we will badly understand Canada’s past and present.
We are still in a time of violence; Indigenous people know this, as much as they knew there were babies buried on the grounds of the residential schools; as much as they know that they are targets for state violence; and as much as they know the systems within which we live are designed to diminish and destroy them.
Those who took down the statue of Queen Victoria at the Manitoba legislature last week were characterized by some as lawless vandals, as criminals. But legality does not dictate morality, or justice. At different points in time, Chinese exclusion was legal, Japanese internment was legal, marital rape was legal, and so was the seizing of Indigenous children, a practice that continues to this day.
This is a season of historical reckoning. There is more change to come. Working to reconcile Canada’s and Canadians’ complicity in genocide is an undertaking that should and that will fundamentally change Canada’s character — but only if we learn the truths of the past and of the present, and if we refuse to be distracted and gaslighted into ignoring them.
Karine Duhamel is a historian who served as director of research for the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls; Adele Perry is a distinguished professor of history and women’s and gender studies, director of the Centre for Human Rights Research and a senior fellow at St. John’s College, University of Manitoba.