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 Indigenous 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 Indigenous 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 tribes 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 Indigenous 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 Indigenous 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 Indigenous 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 Indigenous 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 Indigenous people 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 Indigenous people 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.