BY DANIEL PHANNENHOUR
The greatest nation-building project of our generation is not a pipeline or a refugee sponsorship effort. It is the telling of truth and seeking of reconciliation with the aboriginal peoples who live among us — people who have occupied and cared for this land long before anyone else’s ancestors claimed to have “discovered” something new.
Regrettably, aboriginal contributions to our common life have been denied, ignored, and forgotten. The hospitality that they rendered to early settlers has been devalued. Their sacrifice in defence of our nation in times of war has been betrayed, and they have had to endure countless revisions of, and failures to honour, promises made in times of national crisis. Canada may be a wonderful place for many to settle, live, and build legacies, but it will never be a great nation until we repent of our past history, and seek a new, healthy, and inclusive relationship with aboriginal peoples.
Thankfully, our federal government, which bears the constitutional responsibility for this relationship, has begun to recognize the importance of making change for the sake of our nation’s health. The Conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper offered an apology to aboriginal people for the attempt at cultural genocide through assimilation that was embodied in the residential school system that existed from 1884 to 1996. The Harper government then instituted a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to document as much of the suffering as possible on the public record, and to offer recommendations for a new relationship.
Prime Minister Trudeau’s Liberal government seems intent on continuing on this road to reconciliation by involving aboriginal people in an inquiry into the death and disappearance of substantial numbers of aboriginal girls and women. The Prime Minister has also offered his commitment, as well as that of his government, to building a new relationship of dignity and partnership with aboriginal peoples. He seems eager to make up for the mistakes of his father who, as Prime Minister in the 1960’s, continued to pursue a policy of assimilation.
Many Prime Ministers and governments have promised change to aboriginal peoples over the years, promises that were often sacrificed to political expediency. The problem facing successive governments since Confederation is that the political and financial costs of keeping such promises yield such disproportionately small rewards. Aboriginal people are too few in number and too dispersed across the country to make their votes count in support of a government that seeks to treat them favourably. As a result, aboriginal priorities are first to be compromised when difficult decisions need to be made to preserve more popular initiatives.
A deeper political culture, however, appears to be emerging that recognizes the importance of a just relationship with aboriginal people. One such initiative involves implementing a recommendation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to revise the history curriculum taught in our public schools to reflect the contributions made by, and the injustices against aboriginal people throughout colonial and Canadian history. After all, we cannot begin to build a new relationship for the future without facing and acknowledging the wrongs of the past.
Much of the history taught in our schools is based on the now discredited doctrine of discovery which states that North America was an empty wilderness waiting to be discovered by intrepid European explorers. Pockets of aboriginal settlements were scattered here and there across the landscape, but the land was generally available for the taking, which the settlers did.
Between the period of initial settlement and that of nationhood, the aboriginal peoples went from being cultural curiosities (noble savages) and valued military allies to being problems that needed to be solved by assimilating them gradually, but forcefully, into European lifestyles and values. Since then they have been regarded by many as a burden on the resources of our society with little to offer in return.
The 62nd recommendation from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission calls for a rewrite of this distorted historical narrative in order to provide a viewpoint balanced by aboriginal perspective and experience. The goal is to change the history curricula in public schools to tell the story of aboriginal people as people with a coherent and sustainable culture who have been, and continue to be, partners in the development of Canada, offering insights, values, and perspectives that have helped to shape our public life.
Canadian churches through their social justice coalition, KAIROS, and other support groups have launched a petition drive asking the Ontario government to make the changes in this province’s history curricula necessary to fulfill recommendation 62. Reassessing the past is how we begin to make things right in the present so that we can all have a better future together.
Daniel Phannenhour (Pastor Dan) is an unretired Lutheran pastor and father to three lovely young women. He currently lives with his wife in the Oakville parsonage, and is exploring new ways of embodying the Christian faith while celebrating the multicultural and multifaith diversity of our community and nation.