Appeared in Business in Vancouver – June 3, 2014
One man’s attempt to reconcile truth with reconciliation, regarding the Truth and Reconciliation Commission:
Truth 1: The arrival of white Europeans destroyed ancient Indian certainties. (Note: “Indian” used mostly here, not “aboriginal,” which reeks of an anthropologist’s word, or “First Nations,” a PR term.)
Truth 2: The native people suffered an irreparable loss. The noun is serious but the adjective is decisive.
Truth 3: In the 19th century the Indian economy collapsed. (Canada’s first depression occurred when stylish beaver hats went out of fashion in London.) The ancient economy supported few, Indian or white.
Truth 4: Government had an obligation to heal what it could. It mandated residential schools and turned native education over to the churches, to their future regret.
Truth 5: Children of all ages and sizes, used to the panoply of sky and the classroom of the great wilderness, were forced to sit in straight rows, keep quiet and learn white knowledge and language.
Truth 6: Almost all current Indian leaders attended residential schools. It is impermissible to ask where they would be today otherwise. None of which excuses real, contemptible abuses, but “genocide” is not among them.
I asked Saul Terry, then a bitter North Vancouver native leader, if he attributed any good to his residential experience. He reluctantly replied: “I learned Latin.” Not bad grounding for native lawyers who can now swing a mutatis mutandis with the best of them. No stereotypes here: Vina Starr, second native female lawyer in B.C., smart, charming and humorous, was perhaps the most liked and admired interviewee I’ve experienced. Chief Bill Wilson, a lawyer who proclaimed his only intellectual equal was Pierre Elliott Trudeau – and who made headlines wishing that the “smelly white men” would repair to their boats and return whence they came (leaving B.C. to 200-odd bands that would congenially settle their overlapping claims to more than 100% of the province?) – takes pride that his mother wouldn’t let authorities seize him for residential school.
Truth 7: It is a truth universally avoided that the only way an aggrieved people starting from a simple economy can grapple with a powerful people in a complex economy is to become more like them. This is happening. So, though assimilation is angrily vilified, it has gone on anyway.
Truth 8: In the mid-1950s I was sent to report on a raging dispute on the Six Nations reserve – Canada’s biggest, proudest, most historic native confederacy, now centre of the poisonous Caledonia turmoil – between Ottawa’s mandated elected council and the aristocratic (by any name) council of chiefs, who ruled by inherited power.
Almost 60 years later this continues.
Truth 9: The chiefs will never voluntarily yield power. The Canadian government has a duty to consult, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled, and went to tea, or whatever. This vagueness – how long is a piece of string? – licensed a native veto over any development or measure.
Truth 10: The status quo of the annual $7 billion aboriginal industry – fruitless treaty negotiations, endless conferences, a cornucopia for lawyers, consultants, bureaucrats, welfare dispensers – will continue. Why disturb it?
So Canada’s solution: a permanent non-solution. I call as witness, as I have before, Voltaire: “A long dispute means that both parties are wrong.” Or are they, even more intractably, equally right?
The optimistic take, from the man who said that Canada doesn’t work in theory, it just works in practice.
© Copyright Trevor Lautens, 2014