Monday, June 15, 2015

TRC, part 1

In order for me to find out what I think of a complicated issue, I have to write it out. Sometimes I've surprised myself. Some of this is tough and complicated and nuanced, but stick with me and I'll play you out with music.

A couple weeks ago Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission released it's final report, after years of testimony. I've heard some of the stories on radio and they're heart breaking. I've skimmed through the report, and it's tough reading. Not that it's buried in typical committee-ese, no. On that front it's well done. But wow, it's hard to read the details of what was done. Necessary, but hard. I'll be slugging through it.

The issue has been bouncing around in my head for a bit, and a tweet today twigged me to write, and not just 140 characters minus addressing.

So I will. First off, I've no objection at all to a discussion about renaming the bridge. Just so that's clear.

Let's start by wondering a month ago, how many Calgarians including those of native heritage knew that the Langevin Bridge was named after Sir Hector Langevin, one of the father's of Confederation? Not me, it's just a name. Not you either, I'm pretty sure. Ok, Harry the Historian did. Maybe some history buffs too.

Now the harder question, how many knew he was instrumental in setting up the residential school system? Quoting from the report, Langevin argued "...if you wish to educate these children you must separate them from their parents during the time that they are being educated. If you leave them in the family they may know how to read and write, but they still remain savages, whereas by separating them in the way proposed, they acquire the habits and tastes—it is to be hoped only the good tastes—of civilized people."

By today's standards that's a horrible racist thing to say. By the standards of his day, the 1880's, that was run of the mill talk for Victorian England and their Empire builders. Many of them honestly believed they were doing Native peoples a favour by educating them and introducing them to Christianity. We see now the results of their works, and have to clean up after them.

Historians argue about how to judge the actions and motivations of historical figures. Do we recognize them for the good they did (by today's standards) and overlook their baggage? Do we judge that baggage by today's standards, or in the context of their time? Does it count if they carry less baggage than their contemporaries? Is a little bit of baggage ok if you did great things? What about more baggage, and semi-great things? Where's the line?

As for Mayor Nenshi wanting a meaningful symbol of reconciliation, this is complicated. I can appreciate that he wants to do something, and wants to prod the City into doing something. My problem with symbols is that all too often they are an empty substitute for something actual. Look at the many solemn treaties that were signed, actual legal documents all of them, and how they were ignored.

Let's imagine for the sake of discussion that Calgary opens talks with the various nearby Native groups. Let's further imagine the talks are fruitful, there is a proposal for a change, and it sails through whatever process the City has to go through to change the name of the bridge. (It only took most of a human lifetime to sort out a roadway, but let's be optimistic.) There is a renaming ceremony with all the appropriate people involved. Yay us!

What then? If there are other named structures with names discovered to be offensive, we will have a dandy process for consultation and changing it. But the name change itself is essentially meaningless.  Some people will still call it the Langevin bridge out of habit or bloody-mindedness. Some will make a point of using the new name, appreciating the symbolism. Many, I suspect, will use the name with no further awareness beyond, "oh yeah, something Native," exactly the way they describe traffic on Deerfoot Trail.

At best it's a start. In that sense, I agree you have to start somewhere. They say when you're stuck in a pit, the way to start is to stop digging. Fair enough, but we're talking an awfully deep pit here. It's going to take more than renaming a bridge to rebuild trust.

At worst, well, I'd rather not go there. I'd like to believe that things can't get worse.

There was a newspaper cartoon from many years ago. I believe it was Rodewalt, but I'm not sure. The occasion was handing back land to the Tsuu T'ina nation, that had been used by the military for training purposes . The cartoon shows a frowning chief in ceremonial headdress looking out over a war torn landscape. An enlisted man is saluting, saying "General, sir, the chief here says we aren't gonna get our damage deposit back."

I've said this before, but to me the key to the whole issue is how to move forward in such a way that we aren't just doing it to Natives all over again. The report is full of what Canada and Canadians should do. How do we make amends without burying them in paternalism? How do we get to a point where it isn't "us" doing something for or to "them", but rather us all doing something for all of ourselves?

I'm a business process analyst. I build maps, processes, and look for gaps. We are here, in this situation, call it "as-is". We want to be over there, in a situation described this way, call it "to-be". There is a new technology with these features, to be used in the new process like this. We start this way, then do these steps. Training. Change management. Milestones.

Maybe it's in part of the report I haven't read thoroughly yet. I want to see practical steps that leads to Native kids educated in their own culture, and learning the skills necessary to get along in the modern world. I want to see the number of Native people in jails and homeless shelters be in proportion to their proportion of the overall population. (That's while such places still exist, I'd love to see homeless shelters as they exist today be shut down for lack of homeless people.) I want to see a Canada that fully and wonderfully reflects our unique founding heritage, Native, French, and English.

Maybe it's a failure of imagination on my part that I can't see how to get there. Maybe Nenshi is right, going through a process to rename a bridge is a first step, leading to a better place. Maybe inviting the Federal MP's to the ceremony will light a fire under their butts and get them doing something productive, rather than the shameful silence Harper has imposed on them.

I said I'll play you out with music. This is my favourite version of Oh Canada. Sung by Asani.

1 comment:

  1. A wonderfully thoughtful piece, Keith. Thank you.


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