In the wake of Canada Day, we notice the little dust-up in Halifax between the so-called Proud Boys and some native Canadian activists in front of the statue to city founder Edward Cornwallis, notorious for issuing a bounty on Mi’kmaq scalps while governing the young colony of Nova Scotia in the mid-eighteenth century. The Mi’kmaq were resisting English encroachment, in which cause they served as proxies for the French up in Louisbourg, and Cornwallis was responding to this threat.
Or so Cornwallis seems to have thought. And so think the Proud Boys—inasmuch as they have coherent opinions about Cornwallis’s indisputably harsh treatment of native people. (It is not obvious that they do have a coherent political outlook, as a sympathetic Christie Blatchford remarks in the National Post.)
Cornwallis is a curious figure, however, for any proud Canadian, boy or otherwise, to defend. He not only ruthlessly pressed England’s imperial designs on Canada against the Mi’kmaq and Louisbourg, but also feared the Acadians and laid the groundwork for the Deportation of 1755 that cost thousands of mostly neutral Acadians their homes, their lands, and their lives.
The recent civil set-to in Halifax between a few Canadians on one side and a few on the other hardly deserves notice in comparison to the violent confrontations exploding regularly now in the United States, let alone in much more troubled spots around the globe. The incident yet speaks to a crucial problem in the vexed matter of the native-settler relationship in Canada: Who understands it all? And how can we go forward together if we don’t?
When protestors attempted to erect a tipi on Parliament Hill to draw attention to outstanding native claims during the country’s sesquicentennial celebrations, even the Mounties were confused, it seems, as to what was going on and how “peace, order, and good government” should respond.
Our national police force and our armed forces personnel (all five Proud Boys in Halifax are in the military) truly represent a huge number of Canadians who resist what they see to be disrespect to the country’s heritage and institutions, and seem not to know quite what the fuss is about among agitated native peoples.
The protestors likewise truly represent a huge number of Canadians who refuse merely to celebrate the country’s heritage and institutions, founded as so many are on so many broken promises, treaties, and policies involving indigenous peoples.
One thing on which we can all agree is that this is the sore spot of Canadian identity. Canadian politics, trade, leisure, family life, and more can go on quite nicely without paying attention to outstanding grievances and worries of native peoples. But the Canadian conscience cannot.
The prime minister has declared this zone to be of high priority in his government. If so, surely the first crucial task is to explain to the Canadian people, in a way that at least the majority of us, indigenous or immigrant, can find both intelligible and plausible, what are the issues that remain to be resolved.
We can’t be motivated rightly toward justice and generosity if we can’t even get the facts straight as to who did what to whom, and why, and with what consequences.
And then we will need realism from leaders of all concerned parties to help us agree on what can be done, today and tomorrow, to move forward into a common future rather than keep returning, as some of us did on Canada Day, to arguing over mere bits and pieces of the past.
Formal truth and reconciliation processes didn’t turn South Africa into a peaceful, kindly utopia, alas. Only political wisdom that is, yes, informed by the past but also prudently focused on a livable future will help us enjoy a common life.
So kudos to Mr. Trudeau for meeting with the Ottawa protestors and, with their cooperation, turning what could have been ugly into something positive. Kudos to everyone involved in the Halifax confrontation for keeping their cool and merely exchanging views and symbols, however mutually misunderstood.
But after decades of textbook and curricular revision in our schools, pertinent documentaries and dramas on TV, and a full-scale truth and reconciliation commission of our own, most of us still feel we don’t know what’s going on. That’s odd, and that’s troubling.
If Canadians, and particularly those of us who celebrate Canada’s Christian heritage as “His Dominion,” want to keep thinking of Canada as true, strong and free, we had better not wait another 150 years to sort out the accumulated mess of the last several centuries of native-settler encounters.
Those suicidal youth on the reserves can’t wait another 150 days.