Irreconcilable? Indigenous Peoples and Canada at 150



August 18, 2017

by Colin Postma

Despite all the talk of reconciliation with Canada’s aboriginal population over the years, all is still not well in the minds of many Canadians.

Canada recently celebrated its 150th Birthday. Canadian flags, parades, and fireworks were the staple in every Canadian city, town, and village. In my home town of Ottawa, thousands waited in line for hours in heavy rain just to be a part of the events on Parliament Hill.

But many Canadians felt differently. One of my Facebook friends posted a picture of himself wearing a shirt with the Canadian flag upside down, symbolizing that Canada’s history of colonization, human rights abuses, and ongoing imperialism are not worthy of celebrating, and implying that Canadians really ought to be ashamed of themselves. Some people at protest events across the country carried “Canada 150 Years of Colonization” signs, or “Canada, Our Home ON Native Land” or “Canada, 150 Years of Indigenous Genocide”.

Why is there this ongoing tension around Indigenous or Aboriginal policy and how do we work toward reconciliation?

Reconciliation by Confession?

I recently attended a Ravi Zacharias International Ministries conference in Winnipeg. Dr. Anna Robbins of Acadia University spoke on ‘Getting our House Right.’ Dr. Robbins began by acknowledging that the conference was taking place on historically Indigenous lands under Canada’s “Treaty 1”. She called on everyone of white European background to seriously consider their part in the abuses that occurred.

Robbins concluded by speaking on what she called a ‘new way forward’ through truth and reconciliation. Dr. Robbins explained how she had wrestled with her responsibility towards Indigenous peoples. First, she told herself that residential schools didn’t exist in her home of Halifax, Nova Scotia and thus she had no responsibility. When she discovered that residential schools had existed in Nova Scotia, she tried to shift responsibility by telling herself that these evils were done in the name of the Roman Catholic Church and she wasn’t Catholic. After hearing of abuses by Baptist churches, she finally admitted that she was personally responsible for atrocities committed in the name of Canada and of God. Robbins called on Canadian Christians to “own responsibility for violations of human rights in Canada.”

Robbins then went on to defend her understanding of collective responsibility from the Bible. She argued that God held the sins of David against the whole nation of Israel. She raised other examples of the people of Israel being held responsible for the sins of their fathers, their leaders, and their fellow Israelites. The defeat of Israel at the siege of Ai in the book of Judges was direct punishment after Achan had stolen plunder from the city of Jericho.

Conversing with other attendees after Dr. Robbins’ speech, it was clear there was some confusion. At what level should this call to apology be taken? Are all white people responsible, or just Catholics, or just clergy, or only Canadian citizens, or only those whose bloodlines descend from the United Kingdom or France, or some combination of these? Are my grandparents implicated, even though they immigrated from the Netherlands in the 1960s? What about more recent immigrants? You can see the fundamental problem with this mindset. Where does collective guilt begin and end in a multi-cultural society?

Dr. Robbins’ approach is popular today – asking forgiveness, self-shaming, apologizing for the actions of our forefathers and confessing one’s responsibility as white Canadians. While I have no doubt about her sincerity and desire for real improvement in the situation of the Indigenous people, I fear Dr. Robbins’ approach will only perpetuate the problems that exist.

In apologizing for the sins of others, we hold no actual responsibility and we feel no guilt. Such apologies will not right wrongs or undo harm. Might it be so easy to apologize because in doing so we can feel a smug sense of self-satisfaction at our own humility, without anything further being required?

Direct or Indirect Responsibility?

Much evil has been done in Canadian history against ethnic minorities. The continuing treatment of the Indigenous peoples as second-class citizens, the Indian Residential Schools, the abuse of those of Jewish and Japanese descent in World War II, and the expulsion of the Acadians by the British are a few examples. Apologies have been made by the Canadian government to ask forgiveness for these wrongs.

In operating residential schools, churches were carrying out government policy. It makes sense for specific churches and for the government, as institutions, to issue apologies for wrongdoing. People who were directly involved in abuses should of course also apologize. It even makes sense for those citizens not directly involved but who did not do what they ought to have done to prevent abuses to apologize. There is such a thing as collective responsibility. We have a responsibility to see to it that our churches and our government act rightly. What is doubtful, however, is that individuals bear responsibility for the sins of others based solely on shared race, ethnicity, or religion. There is a difference between the responsibility that our governments or even churches have as institutions and the individual responsibility that I have as a fellow Canadian, or even as a white person, for the residential schools.

Direct responsibility is clearly identifiable when there is a direct and formal relationship. Those individuals and institutions who caused or allowed these crimes to occur are personally, individually, and institutionally responsible. Apologies and restitution can be made, and may be expected. But what about less formal and indirect relationships? That of friends, colleagues, fellow citizens, or even fellow human beings?

Upon discovery of the Nazi death camps American soldiers forced German citizens to take part in digging up the corpses and identifying the victims. These citizens were not directly responsible for the actions of their government, nor did they necessarily cause the atrocities to occur. Still, they were responsible for turning a blind eye and ignoring the plight of their fellow human beings.

Less talk, more action

Jesus called us to love our neighbour as ourselves. The parable of the Good Samaritan makes this abundantly clear in a practical way. I am thus responsible, not out of some form of collective guilt, but rather out of love to do for my fellow human beings made in the image of God as Christ has called me to. It gives us pause to think, are we really doing all we are called to do, and are we really being the hands and feet of Christ as we ought?

If all we are willing to do is apologize for our forefathers and do nothing else to solve the problems that we see, how are we any better than those we condemn so theatrically? Are you willing to actively step into the lives of Canada’s Indigenous people and offer them your hands, your time, and your money? If not, then apologies for the historical deeds of other people who share your nationality, ethnicity, or faith are nothing more than a noisy gong and a clanging cymbal.

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