The Residential School abuse settlement was a massive legal undertaking, involving over thirty seven thousand thousand individual applications to the Independent Assessment Process for compensation amounting to billions. Continue reading “Your records, your choice”
your correspondent’s peripatetic rambling on the BC coast continued this fall, nosing into fog shrouded nooks and crannies, looking for the faint moss covered traces of the first nations communities that once populated the now empty coast.
Along with barely discernible depressions in the forest marking the sites of ancient long houses and the occasional standing house pole, are stone fish traps, canoe runs, and shell middens, and sometimes, in more recently abandoned sites the hulks of crumbling cabins choked by salal. One can also find faint echoes of modern war; the foundation of a gun emplacement on Spring island, a concrete look-lookout tower atop Radar Hill, or the decaying remains of the coastal fort at Yorke Island, still guarding Johnson Strait.
In past remembrance day blogs I’ve celebrated some of the unique memorial sites found along the coast, such as the poignant plaque overlooking Wickaninnish beach, or Shearwater’s flying boat memorial, but these celebrate the sacrifices of the newcomers, the settlers, loggers and fishermen who have discovered the coast in recent history.
But what of the indigenous people of the coast? Did they also serve? Did they fall, and where and how are they remembered? this year in the spirit of the recently released Truth and Reconciliation Report, I decided to find out.
It turns out that our indigenous people made impressive contributions to the war effort of the First and Second World Wars and the Korean conflict. Indeed, proportionately, a higher percentage of the first Nations population (over 35%) enlisted than any other identifiable ethnic group. At least 7,000 and possibly as many as 12,000 indigenous people served in the armed forces during those wars ( due to sloppy record-keeping Métis and Inuit and non-status natives did not have their ethnicity recorded.)
That they enlisted at all is somewhat remarkable, given the shabby treatment they received. Initially, at the start of the First World War the recruitment of “red Indians” was prohibited, in part out of a fear that they might revert to their old ways and start scalping enemy soldiers! As the carnage in the trenches grew however, the demand for cannon fodder forced a relaxation of the band, and in due course two primarily indigenous battalions, the 107th “Timber wolves” and Brock’s Raiders, the 117th Battalion, were formed,and served with distinction.
In truth it seems that our indigenous peoples gave our nation far more loyalty than our nation gave in return, since after both wars returning first-nations veterans found themselves falling between the cracks- were they the responsibility of Veterans Affairs or of Indian Affairs? Racism was the order of the day, and First Nations Vets were denied access to the postwar benefits that accrued to other veterans, while their families were often ill treated at home while they were fighting overseas.
Incredibly it wasn’t till the year 2000,threatened by a lawsuit, that the federal government finally apologized for its treatment of Aboriginal Vets.
So is it any wonder that a movement has been slowly growing since the 1990’s,to honor indigenous veterans separately from the rest of our Armed Forces. Aboriginal Remembrance Day is celebrated each year on 8 November, rather than the 11th. it has been celebrated annually since 1994, and the centerpiece of the remembrance ceremonies is the National Aboriginal Veterans Memorial.
I confess to some ambivalence about the growth of two separate memorial days, as it seems to me that all veterans, regardless of race or creed, shared the same hardships and made the same sacrifice, and when we pause to remember we should be remembering all, but still I’m glad I took the time to learn something of the contribution made by our indigenous veterans and would not want to stand in the way of their desire to forge a separate remembrance if such is more meaningful to the indigenous community.
lest we forget
I blogged a while ago to protest the Law Society’s decision to bury the legacy of our first chief justice, Sir Matthew Bailie Begbie, and more recently about the tide of political correctness that was targeting Sir John A. McDonald. Now that Victoria city council has also been swept up in the craze and toppled Sir John A.’s statue from its perch outside City Hall, I thought it time to re-visit the issue.
I confess that my knee-jerk reaction remains the same. You cannot simply erase the past, and the actions of historical figures such as Sir Matthew and Sir John A. towards First Nations people is only a small part of their overall legacy. Devoid of context, the decisions to remove their statutes seems, quite frankly, just plain silly.
Although both the Law Society and Victoria City Council have ample capacity to make silly decisions, I have to remind myself that these are serious bodies populated by intelligent and thoughtful people, so one ought to take some time to understand the context of the decisions before ridiculing them. they are of course responding to the report of the truth and reconciliation commission, which urged to Canadians to begin a reset of relations with our indigenous people, by becoming aware of the truth of the past, acknowledging the harm that has been inflicted, atoning for the causes of the harm in taking action to change our behavior.
I suppose I can understand how figures such as Sir Matthew and Sir John A. may be viewed negatively by our First Nations and how glorifying them with public statutes could be viewed as hurtful; in much the same way that blacks in the US must react to statutes of Confederate war heroes.
I can even understand the needs for some powerful symbolic gestures, like the toppling of the odd statute to force us to take a fresh look at the past in the context of the harm done to our indigenous people. And, I suppose it will take a bit of discomfort on our part in order to signal that we are indeed starting to”get it” when it comes to the historic abuse of First Nations and ready to take some meaningful steps towards improving the situation.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission process was an extraordinary undertaking, taking some six years to hear testimony and document the sordid history of our residential school system. One cannot read the Commission’s final report without feeling thoroughly ashamed of the treatment of our First Nations by our government for almost 100 years.
The problem I think, is that few have actually read it. Certainly I came late to the party, notwithstanding that while the Commission was active I was employed by a law firm that was making millions from settling residential school claims. The reporting on the work of the Commission was, for the most part, very earnest, very respectful, and and very dull. It was left to bodies like the Law Society of BC and Victoria City Council, to actually read the full report, thoughtfully consider the 94 calls to action which resulted from the report, and contemplate what concrete action they could take towards implementing them. The process was simply too long and too somber to engage the attention of most Canadians, so little wonder that they are now reacting negatively to efforts to implement the report
I’m left with the uneasy feeling that possibly removal of the statutes was the right thing to do, but at the same time with the absolute certainty that the reasons for the removals have been badly communicated to the public. If you’re going to kick to the curb our first Chief Justice and our first Prime Minister you need to be able to explain your reasons why. It isn’t much of a symbolic gesture, if nobody understands the symbolism.
Our public institutions are going to have to get an awful lot better at explaining themselves if they are to have any hope of effectively educating their constituents about the need to take action towards implementing the Truth and Reconciliation Report’s calls to action, otherwise they will continue to be met with derision, when, without context, they topple a father of confederation.