Genocide in the Best Country in the World

Red Dress Project

Art installation inspired by Métis artist Jaime Black at Seaforth Peace Park, Vancouver. Edna Winti (3.October 2016)

The end of Canada would be nothing less than the end of a dream. The end of a country that has made us the envy of the world. Canada is not just any country. It is unique. It is the best country in the world.

-Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, 1995

A few years ago, when the federal election was underway and “Canadian Values” suddenly became the cultural battlefield, it struck me how much this vision of the good Canada was strangely without a coherent history. There is no great unifying revolution or rebellion or political struggle that moves the story from a collection of resource-extraction colonies working for a global empire to a post-national multicultural paradise. Modern Canada sort of emerges from the ether as a fully formed entity, while the unfortunate parts of the Old Canada disappeared: the Chinese Exclusion Act, Duplessis Orphans, the policy of sending Jews fleeing Europe in the 1930s back to their certain deaths at the hands of the Nazis. All of that is another era somehow irrelevant to ours today. It’s what occurred in Canada, and committed by the Canadian state, but Canada did not do it. It is now history. It is past.

The problem is that the Old Canada never really went away, it just receded into the background for the majority. The Canadian government doesn’t issue small-pox blankets, actively try to starve native populations, or forcibly relocate them like during the 60s Scoop. It no longer takes children from parents to put them in institutions to forcibly wipe out Native culture. That was all long ago in history. The last residential school closed in 1996. I was thirteen.

Robert Pickton started murdering women in 1983. The same year I was born. He was only arrested when I was 19 and sitting at university learning about how Natives were trying to rebrand to get more money out of the Canadian government. He was charged with killing 26 women, but he likely killed many more. Many of his victims were aboriginal women. One of the reasons he could get away with killing so many for so long was that police didn’t really care that native women went missing. When the news broke, it was sad, it was a tragedy.

What does it mean when you live in a state which cares so little for your welfare that a serial killer can operate for nearly two decades with impunity because he targets the right demographic? What does it mean if when he is caught, no one is really sure if he’s the only one because so many other Native women are missing? At what point does neglect become intent?

The National Inquiry into Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls found that there are “serious reasons to believe that Canada’s past and current policies, omissions, and actions towards First Nations Peoples, Inuit and Métis amount to genocide, in breach of Canada’s international obligations, triggering its responsibility under international law.”

Of course, the debate in the media has mostly centered around the appropriateness of the word genocide. It was quickly declared to be unfair – not incorrect from a legal standpoint mind you – but impolite and uncivil, even hurtful. One more chapter in Natives playing word games for money (our money) and trying to make us feel bad for things we didn’t do. I didn’t hand out smallpox blankets or drag children from their families or put a bag of gas in the hand of an Innu child. How are we expected to have reconciliation with this sort of discourse?

Because it’s not our tragedy. These things don’t happen in Canada. They happen over there – far away where people are different. Where they don’t have Canadian Values. They don’t happen in the Best Country in the World.

****

The summer camp I went to in middle Ontario didn’t have any First Nations kids, but we spent plenty of time play acting as Indians. The image of native life was one of idyllic primitivism, coexistence with nature, rugged masculine skills. We competed against each other as members of opposing “tribes.” We wore loincloths made from beach towels and clotheslines. Some figured out ways to make mohawks with paint. In my last year as a camper, I was elected chief, which meant for the last competition it was my job to make a fire faster than the chief of the other tribe. We lost.

The founder of the camp was originally from Czechoslovakia and only after moving to Germany did I discover that my image of Native Canadian life owed more to the dime novels of Karl May – a long-dead German writer who never came to North America – than they did to any kind of lived reality. May wrote about a German engineer, Old Shatterhand, who moved to the American West and became friends with Winnetou – a classic noble savage. His Natives were the essence of how Germans romanticized the simplicity of the pre-modern North America and his work has been beloved for decades. It’s rare that an author has fans in both Albert Einstein and Adolf Hitler. The most recent TV adaptation came out in 2016 with Winnetou played by an Albanian.

****

By the end of the 1990s, it was a matter of political faith in Canada that it was the best country in the world. Jean Chrétien made a point of mentioning it in basically every speech. This was no mere American jingoism, it was fact. The United Nations had said so. Well, not really, he was paraphrasing, but he believed it. It was a nice thing to think at the end of a decade during which Quebec had nearly separated and sliced the country in two. Our national nightmare was over. Order had been restored and with it came greatness. The low-key Canadian version that wasn’t too great (can’t be like the Yanks). The kind you of greatness conveyed by a Heritage Minute or winning at the World Juniors in hockey.

But through the 90s, there was always the other plotline moving along in the background, throwing up bouts of cognitive dissonance. I didn’t really understand the Oka Crisis when it happened, aside from knowing there were soldiers on one side and natives on the other. That was happening in Quebec (a strangely foreign part of the country where people were always agitated about all things political, not like civil Ontario). Like the conflict in Yugoslavia, it was something about race (or ethnicity?) or boundaries and there was something about a golf course. I was 7 and it was something I knew was important but beyond my realm of comprehension.

The Innu children in Labrador sniffing gas too. That one I remember watching and not really understanding. Why sniff gas? Why did they live in this remote place that seems so terrible? Why not just move? How do you live in a home without water? Mostly questions that I didn’t ask because it was clear this was one of those tragic things that just happen. It was sad that it was happening to them. And they were very clearly them. These things didn’t happen to us. But it was very sad.

The same when Dudley George was shot at Ipperwash. Natives were protesting something. There was a conflict. It was tragic that he was shot and naturally bad. But then again, they were disruptive, violating property rights, getting in the way of things. The police were just doing their job. Sad, but not our tragedy.

Best country in the world. The United Nations says so.

At university in Montréal, there was scant correction for this. In an intro to Canadian studies class we read a book about how Natives have been portrayed. The tropes and the problematic assumptions and the narratives. But nothing about realities. We never had to read anything by a Native author. This was a Canadian studies class, so it was the white settler perspective that mattered. Studying Canada meant studying Canadians.

In a class on Canadian public policy, however, we got to the topic via a book by a political scientist which opened with a long discussion of terminology. Natives used to call themselves tribes and now they say they are nations. All part of the general trickery of native politics. This made sense with the general impression I had by then of Canadian politics. Native groups were living in poor conditions, but their politicians were all woefully corrupt. Reservations were sinkholes of our money, chiseled out of the federal government through blackmail (well, technically “treaties” but ones that were terribly out of date and not really appropriate to these modern times). They hung onto wordplay as a way to keep the faucet turned on. Wouldn’t it just be better, for them of course, to close the spigot and get them standing on their own two feet? Culture of poverty and all that. For their sake, not ours.

When the author of the book came to the class to speak, there were protests. Real live native protestors in our class. We were only 16km from the closest reservation and you could get to where the Oka Crisis occurred in less than an hour. But it was a shock that a Native protester would actually appear. And have opinions of their own. And what they wanted to tell us, was that the speaker supported a policy of cultural genocide.

****

I was at the Museum of Emigration in Bremerhaven, Germany, and one of the exhibits was a collection of 19th century phrase books. One line that stuck out: “I would like to purchase land in Manitoba.” A hundred and fifty years ago, it really did seem like good idea to pack up and find your way to central Canada from the middle of Europe. As the aristocracy cleared out the peasantry from the land, you could move to some urban slum and figure out how to work a textile machine before you were replaced by your own children working for 1/10 your wage, join a military to get shot and die of gangrene far from home over a minor sphere of influence border dispute – or jump on a ship across the Atlantic. In North America they were practically giving land away. Sometimes even literally.

In all the recent debates about why some countries went fascist in the 20th century and others became good liberal democracies, that question of land always pops up. When the entrenched powers that owned most of everything started to lose their positions, did they decide to cede some power and accept elections, or did they clamp down and rule by force? As much as the landed aristocracy thought Hitler and the Nazis were jumped-up ruffians, in the end, they preferred them to Social Democrats or Communists. Safer bet for keeping the lower orders in line in the long run. Most of those Prussians great estates ended up becoming collective farms after the Red Army rolled through – but no one ever has said the aristocracy played a good long game. Much more effective to just find a lot of land elsewhere and give it away. Maybe some other place where there is a surplus of open territory for some reason.

****

I was in the emergency room in Berlin, but the doctor was making the usual small talk, and my German accent isn’t the most convincing after a round of what turned out to be a norovirus. When I said I came from Canada, he was puzzled. See, for Germans, Canada is one of the few places people can imagine emigrating to. Another time, I was in Leipzig at a conference and going into a hotel there was a giant cardboard Mountie advertising a travel fair, with one booth asking you to “Discover the Adventure of Saskatchewan.” I seemed to be the only person there who found that incongruous. A colleague told me he had an uncle who moved to Winnipeg and works there as a dentist. Maybe he had the same phrase book I saw in the museum. Canada was the country you went to when you wanted the freedom of big wide-open spaces. Practically free land. “Shame about the Indians, though…”

****

The Indian – Asian sub-continent, not Native – philosopher Upendra Baxi argued that most people tend to understand human rights not as a list of actual rights, but as a set of mental geographies. You have the civilized world where human rights are generally respected, the places where they’re moving in the right direction, and then you have the backwards hellscapes where they aren’t respected at all. For Canadians, it’s an important distinction that Canada is the good place – the countries where people emigrate from aren’t necessarily the bad places, but there’s a good chance. More often than not, the story of migration and Canada is that transition from the bad place to the good place. Hope after hatred; freedom after tyranny.

The implicit lesson of the 1990s in Canada was that this status brought certain obligations. The phrase didn’t exist yet, but the ethos was already there: “The World Needs More Canada.” The uniquely Canadian exceptionalism that sees the country as the preeminent good place was already there before it became the title of a book for the 150th anniversary of Confederation two years ago. You only had to look south of the border with its gun crime, extremism, and lack of health care. And they are the globe-striding superpower that thinks it’s a city on a hill! The world needing more Canada wasn’t so much an assertion as a casual fact. Except of course for Celine Dion’s entry in the book, where she makes sure to mention she’s actually Québécois-Canadian – that distinction is important to her. Normally, that would get some pushback, but she sang “My Heart Will Go On,” so she is allowed to do that sort of thing.

But then genocide is one of those things that happens in the bad places, far away in time and space. When I was growing up, it was Rwanda and Srebrenica. If you cared about women’s rights, it was the Taliban in some country called Afghanistan. Canada was where we had human rights and it was our job to bring them elsewhere as though we had a strategic stockpile that could be shared around. I worked for a stint at an organization devoted to free expression rights around the world and we regularly wrote letters of protest, asking the Canadian government to bring its moral weight to bear on the evils of the world. When it came to problems at home, however, it all got more complicated. How to regulate hate speech in Canada seemed a much thornier issue that how the Uzbek government regulated blogs. While they had to abide by the rules, when it came to us, context was required. Flexibility due to local circumstances. You have to understand. It’s complicated.

****

The National Inquiry into Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls found that there are “serious reasons to believe that Canada’s past and current policies, omissions, and actions towards First Nations Peoples, Inuit and Métis amount to genocide, in breach of Canada’s international obligations, triggering its responsibility under international law.”

Of course, the debate in the media has mostly centered around the appropriateness of the word genocide. It was quickly declared to be unfair – not incorrect from a legal standpoint mind you – but impolite and uncivil, even hurtful. One more chapter in Natives playing word games for money (our money) and trying to make us feel bad for things we didn’t do. I didn’t hand out smallpox blankets or drag children from their families or put a bag of gas in the hand of an Innu child. How are we expected to have reconciliation with this sort of discourse?

Because it’s not our tragedy. These things don’t happen in Canada. They happen over there – far away where people are different. Where they don’t have Canadian Values. They don’t happen in the Best Country in the World.

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