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Remembering the Tragic Parts of our History (Ovtober 26, 2018)

The last couple of weeks, I’ve written about two important parts of Canada’s history, particularly as it impacts on our ongoing relationship with Indigenous Peoples. The Doctrine of Discovery (1493) instilled an attitude among European settlers that we could travel around the world and do as we pleased with any land we “discovered”. It was arrogant and presumptuous beyond belief.

On the other hand, the Royal Proclamation of 1763 declared that Indigenous Peoples held aboriginal title to the land on which they had lived since time immemorial, and directly contradicted the Doctrine of Discovery.

We are settler–Canadians, and it’s a difficult time for us. Settler–Canadians is the language which is being used more frequently for those of us who are not indigenous to this land. Our ancestors came to these lands as settlers, and we are their heirs.

We many not have done anything personally … but we have certainly inherited the benefits of those who came to this land centuries before. And, as a people in Canada, we are all culpable for the actions of the governments whom we have elected to govern.

The reality is that settler–Canadians did great damage to the indigenous peoples who lived here. It is a tragic and shameful part of Canada’s history, and it led to much abuse, including the Indian Residential Schools crisis.

One of the questions that settler–Canadians ask is, “Why do we need to remember? After all, I had nothing to do with any of this. Why can’t you just get over it and move on?”

In a panel on the CBC radio show “The Current” at a public forum in Ottawa in March 2017, Senator Justice Murray Sinclair provided one of the best answers I have ever heard. Sinclair chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which heard thousands of stories told by survivors of residential school. The TRC reported to the government of Canada—our government—with 94 recommendations for action by Canadians.

Sinclair responded this way: “My answer has always been, why can’t you always remember this? Because this is about memorializing those people who have been the victims of a great wrong. Why don’t you tell the United States to get over 9/11? Why don’t you tell this country to get over all the veterans who died in the Second World War instead of honouring them once a year? Why don’t you tell your families to stop thinking about all your ancestors who died? Why don’t you turn down and burn down all those headstones that you put up for all of your friends and relatives over the years?

“It’s because it’s important for us to remember. We learn from it. And until people show that they have learned from this, we will never forget. And we should never forget even once they have learned from it, because this is a part of who we are. It’s not just a part of who we are as survivors and children of survivors and relatives of survivors, but as part of who we are as a nation. And this nation must never forget what it once did to its most vulnerable people.”

There is a deep and profound answer. Gandhi once said, “The measure of a civilization is how it treats its weakest members.”

We remember what we did. We remember what our ancestors did. We note that we benefit from the actions of those who came here before us.

Every year on November 11, we intone, “Lest we forget. Lest we forget.” We remind ourselves that we must remember in order not to repeat the tragedies of the past. It’s a warning to us that if we forget the past, we become rootless. Indeed, a people without a past, without knowledge of their past, of their history and their origin and their culture is very much like a tree without roots.

We remember what we have done so that we may move into a new future with a real hope of reconciliation. We remember so that we might live together in more whole and healthier ways in the future.

In this way, we owe a depth of gratitude to the Indigenous Peoples who remember and tell their stories. We need to be grateful to them for helping us to remember so that we might resolve to live together in new ways.

It strikes me as ironic in the extreme that the people who ask why residential school survivors can’t simply move on with their lives are also the very same people who are adamant that we must restore the statues of past figures who were directly complicit in the residential school system. They claim that we can’t erase history when it comes to statues of John A. MacDonald and General Cornwallis, or rename the building originally named after Langevin.

As we remember those leaders from our past, so we must also remember the tragic dimensions of their decisions in our history as a people.

We are settlers in a land which our ancestors stole without honouring treaty rights where treaties were signed. We also know that in some parts of Canada, and in much of BC, no trearies were ever signed, and the land was simply taken.

We must remember, so that we can move forward into a new and healthier future.

Rev. Yme Woensdregt