Albert Einstein is said to have counseled us to “simplify as far as possible—but no farther.”
As a reasonably well-informed Canadian of some years, I confess to being absolutely stymied when it comes to the nest of problems surrounding our First Nations and those of us who came later.
Why? Because here’s what I think I know. And it’s a mess.
Missionaries were bad, and native people were good. That seemed to be what every student “knew” who had taken even one course in Native Studies and then took my course on Religion in Canada when I taught at the University of Manitoba in the 1990s. And this was before we all came to know about the residential schools, those seething dens of physical, sexual, and cultural abuse.
What no one has made clear to me yet, however, was what the alternative was supposed to be, as modernity, in the form of Anglophone power and later globalization, was encroaching on tribal peoples all around the world, as it was in Canada. Of course the abuses were terribly wrong in those schools, as abuse is wrong in any boarding school anywhere. But the project of bringing together kids from remote locations to train them in modern ways and particularly in the lingua franca of English—why was that so bad?
What, realistically, should have been done instead? Just leave native people alone to perpetuate the old ways on rapidly shrinking territorial islands of traditionalism?
Moreover, if the “white man’s religion” was merely an instrument of “cultural genocide,” why do more than 80 per cent of indigenous people in Canada still claim Christianity as their religion—a higher proportion, in fact, than the rest of the country? No one has forced them to be Christians for decades, and yet they still choose this faith.
Here’s what else I think I know. White people brought deceit and death to this continent, making and breaking treaties at will, pressing aboriginal people into service (or slavery) while driving them out of their homes and lands—when they weren’t addicting them to alcohol and trading them blankets full of smallpox. Why couldn’t the invaders have left the native people in peace?
But what peace? There’s plenty of evidence of savage warfare among native peoples that resulted in, yes, slavery, burned-out villages, torture, and death. Those lovely native ceremonies we sometimes see nowadays also included the Sun Dance of Plains tribes that required men to dance around a pole to which they were fastened by rawhide thongs pegged through the skin of their chests. Eventually the dancing would become more frenzied and the thongs ripped out.
The Sun Dance was outlawed by colonial authorities, as was the Potlatch on the west coast, a charming festival of communal gift-giving, a bit like Christmas…except that it became pathological, with whole villages becoming destitute to feed the competition for glory between rival chiefs.
I think I know about white tourists callously shooting bison from train windows, leaving the poor animals to die lingering deaths from wounds and infection. But I also know about First Nations, also impressed by the abundance of bison, who killed them merely for their tongues and hides, leaving the rest of the animal behind to rot.
In our own day, I think I know about police forces and reserves in such a reinforcing spiral of distrust and deceit that criminal investigations are seen by both sides to be hopeless. Indigenous people don’t trust the cops to be industrious and fair, so they don’t cooperate fully, prompting the cops to despair since they can’t get testimony they can trust, and the mutual finger-pointing continues.
Which brings us to Colten Boushie and Gerald Stanley and the rest of us. Here’s what I think I know.
Young Mr. Boushie came from the Cree Red Pheasant First Nation and was in the company of young people from the families of chiefs of that nation who are notorious for a long string of assaults, thefts, and corruption. He and his mates had already committed property crime that day, were driving drunk at high speed in an SUV with a tire gone, and when they fetched up at Mr. Stanley’s farm, they attempted to steal an ATV while packing a loaded rifle.
Mr. Stanley, for his part, fired a handgun (note: not a farmer’s shotgun or hunting rifle) twice into the air, and then got into an altercation while brandishing his gun sufficiently close to Mr. Boushie’s head that when it went off again, it killed him. Yet the jury convicted Mr. Stanley of nothing, not even manslaughter.
This is what I know. The Bible says, “There is none that is righteous; no, not one” (Romans 3:10). But to listen to the activists and apologists, Canada today is populated entirely by nothing but innocent, gentle First Nations people, brave, honest police officers, sincere, hardworking politicians, and kind, justice-loving white folk.
We cannot have reconciliation until we have truth—at least, a lot more truth than we’ve been getting…from every side, and particularly from lawyers, judges, cops, witnesses, activists, politicians, journalists, and professors.
No one has figured out an easy solution. The Australians have at least as much turmoil on their hands as we do. The Americans seem perpetually preoccupied with the historically more recent problems regarding Latinx immigrants and descendants of black slaves, with native Americans kept perpetually at the back of the line. And the New Zealanders had it easier with a single treaty at Waitangi that covered the whole land, instead of the crazy quilt of paper we have across this vast country, and even they wouldn’t claim to live in a perpetual Happy Valley.
We cannot have reconciliation until we have truth. The TRC was a welcome start. But as long as we retain simplistic categories of “good guys” and “bad guys” along racial lines, there will always be an “on the other hand” to consider.
And paralyze us.