Truth and Reconciliation is the most black and white concept imaginable in our flimsy and ephemeral epoch of tweets and twists and turns as the political correctness wagon lurches ever onward. We all know that what our cultural forefathers (and mothers) condoned and carried out with regard to Indigenous children sent to residential schools was dead wrong. The idea now is to come to terms with the realities left in the wake of past errors. As the government site aptly puts it, “the day honours the children who never returned home and survivors of residential schools, as well as their families and communities. Public commemoration of the tragic and painful history and ongoing impacts of residential schools is a vital component of the reconciliation process.” Maybe the only valid question we can ask is how can we abet this process with our academic abilities here at AU?
The first answer is that it’s not down to us to add anything other than our sense of burning remorse. Not every topic needs an answer or a debate or even more research. Sometimes just pausing and paying our respects to victims (as we do at Remembrance Day) is the key meaning in the message.
To be sure, each of us who’s non-Indigenous in Canada must hang our head in shame to be associated with such brutality, especially given that we’ve hitherto tended, as a culture, to feel a certain smug superiority over our slave-owning neighbours to the south. When Neil Young (from the shores of the Red River, in Manitoba) sang “southern man, don’t forget what your Good Book said” we sang along in our well-meaning canuck hearts. But nowadays not so much. That’s because our government, acting at the behest of post-colonial voters whose idea of Indigenous dress and culture was more the stuff of Hallowe’en costumes than respect or understanding, historically made mistakes in policy that deprived dignity and humanity from innumerable Indigenous children. It’s cut and dried that what, at the time, seemed like humanitarian social work amounted to the devastation of a generation (and more) of young Indigenous people in our country. We can only hope that present day social work and child protection workers are seen in the future in a better light; surely they will, but you never know.
So, the task academically is not to find some big but or yet to ponder, like that those involved acted within their racist ideologies with what they believed to be the best of intentions, but how we as a united nation can move forward. To truly ennoble our future as the true North strong and free requires us as students and thinkers to imagine what a more equitable and just Canada will look like. In, say, one hundred years,g what will our descendants say about our valiant sanctimony? Examples of inequalities don’t stop at the relative inequality facing Indigenous people across the land; housing is unaffordable and the influx of more new Canadians than there are places for everyone to live reveals the most crucial infrastructure, beds, to be in a dire situation as though at some level our country were one big, over-crowded institution run by our good friends the 1%. But even that is small fry compared to what Indigenous students faced under the tyranny of residential schools.
Talk minus action means little, and we know this as we don our orange shirts. Talk plus perspective, meanwhile, can further our resources as we evolve toward a better future. In the first place, those of us with contact with the social work industry know that many families tragically are beset by poor parenting, misguided policy-makers, or both. The way our Tim Horton’s middle class norms view items like cigarette butts on a doorstop or a few beer bottles lying in a laundry room leads us to view some parents in a darker light than others. And then there’s adults who, choosing to avail themselves of the gametophyte possibilities available to mammals ranging from tiny shrews to epic humpback whales, follow up their reproductive success with a marked lack of care and respect for the dignity of their offspring. Historically, when adults couldn’t or wouldn’t (and not always due to their own choice, poverty is the great grinder and crusher of even the most glowing of hearts) care for their children orphanages stepped in to provide somewhere for innocent young ones to lay their heads. There used to be a nasty children’s ditty that went “one, two, three, four, five little Indians” and it is with such parochial viewpoints that residential schools were somehow seen as a solution to a post-war baby boom on reservations. Meanwhile, in countries far away children outstripped the adult ability to care for them in ways deemed proper by the ruling class.
Back in the late 1970s a Broadway musical about an orphanage took the thespian world by storm: Annie. It was about orphanage life, as imagined for the stage anyway. As kids we’d play the LP record; dancing and singing with glee we’d mouth along the hit track’s catchy hook. “It’s a hard knock life, for us!” We’d sing it not out of much understanding for the plight of the real Annie’s in history but out of a sense that life can be tough in some instances and that singing about it makes it feel a bit better. Only much later, upon viewing movies based on Charles Dickens’ books about Victorian squalor did we get a truer sense of what poverty and misery occurred in orphanages. Fast track forward to today and as a culture we are getting lurid tales of residential schools and the ways they coerced and prodded parents to give up their children and, all too often, took the kids without even a modicum of consent. It’s all a bit depressing but there’s no sense in indulging such a self-oriented sensation.
At AU our job is to put each event into the magical machine, if we’re social science students, known as the Sociological Imagination. That is, we must place private and individual troubles into the broader societal spectrum where the machinations of structures beyond our puny powers take hold. Like tides, only managed by unseen movers and shakers who typically only pop their prairie gopher heads up when they want to appear as magnanimous givers to charity and anecdotal aiders of the downtrodden.
As it turns out, just before the revelations about the unmarked graves in Kamloops were taking our news feeds and consciences by storm, an eerily similar event was unfurling its bloody flag over in the Emerald Isle. Galway, Ireland, to many known most for exquisite shrimp dishes, was home to a massive orphanage where foundlings were turned in by strangers. Also, many an impoverished, and no doubt heartbroken, young mother left their little Moses-to-Be at the doorstep after dark. In Galway a full 800 tiny and emaciated corpses were uncovered via technology, amounting to what would be a Stephen King novel to-be if it weren’t so horrifically real. “Findings provided the first proof after decades of suspicions that the vast majority of children who died at the home had been interred on the site in unmarked graves. That was a common, but ill-documented practice at such Catholic-run facilities amid high child mortality rates in early 20th century Ireland.
‘Everything pointed to this area being a mass grave,” said Corless, who recalled how local boys playing in the field had reported seeing a pile of bones in a hidden underground chamber there in the mid-1970s’”.
Meanwhile, over in blarney Scotland, at least four hundred youngsters died and were buried in similar fashion at an orphanage: “It opened in 1864 and provided care for orphans or children from broken homes. It closed in 1981, having looked after 11,600 children. A burial plot, containing the bodies of a number of children, was uncovered by two former residents of Smyllum in 2003.”
What we see, then, is that not so long ago other countries made the same callous decisions in terms of respect for the human freedom and dignity of children. Knowing this doesn’t improve the standing of Canada in our patriotic hearts one iota yet it does at least provide some context. And if there’s one thing about history that rings true even amidst the tears it’s that, as the guru Georg Santayana famously claimed, “those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it.” Seeing just how other countries had similar, if not identical, instances of desecrating human remains after the forced incarceration of minors, reminds us that, whenever groupthink policy hold sway, the fragile vase of human dignity inches far too close to the edge of the mantelpiece of civilized behavior. Let us hope that as a nation we will always remain on guard against a willingness to couch or forgive negligent behaviour by those tasked with protecting the most innocent among us. Or those with the power to do better for their countries.