Saturday, February 20, 2016

Never again

“Evil begins when you begin to treat people as things.”
– Terry Pratchett

When we think of the atrocities of WWII - the concentration camps, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, the internment camps where Japanese North Americans were imprisoned - two words come to mind: NEVER AGAIN. I was reading yesterday of an atrocity that spanned several decades in our own country, in the words of those who had survived it: the First Nations people. In the residential school system, generations of First Nations children were ripped from their parents (some of them without the parents' knowledge or consent, some at the threat of their parents going to jail) and treated shamefully, in an effort to assimilate them ... to make them into white people.

What if some military or political power were to give police the authority to come into your home, take you and the things you hold dear from it, and give you to prison wardens who stripped you down, called you filthy, washed your hair with kerosene, shaved your head, took your clothes and gave you ill-fitting shoes, burned all of your sports equipment, took your phone, your musical instruments, your credit cards, your jewelry, everything that distinguished you as a person, gave you a number and called you by nothing but that number, fed you substandard food and made you eat it, and beat you if you spoke your mother tongue? What if this went on for years before you were allowed to return to your family? The equivalent of that is only the beginning of what happened to these wonderful, peaceful people.
Reading the accounts of what happened in the victims' own words powerfully reminded me of reading Viktor Frankl's book, Man's Search for Meaning (you can look it up and read it free online) where he described what he went through in the Nazi death camps upon arrival, and then on a daily basis.  He spoke for millions who could not, whose voices were silenced.  He helped to expose the atrocities motivated by fear and hatred.

Isn't that what racism is: fear and hatred gone wild?  That it happened here ... that the spirits of those children were sucked out of them - their way of life and even their own language called demonic - this is Canada's shame. 
I'm sorry, folks, but an official apology from the government, nearly a hundred years after the fact, just does not make up for the thousands of lives, families and communities that were destroyed, the very fabric of their way of life (family, connection with nature, traditions) unraveled.  It does not give the stolen spirits of those people back to them.  It does not restore their lost heritage, nor the way of life they were brainwashed into rejecting. 
Photo "Dreamcatcher" courtesy
of Serge Bertasius Photography at
The nightmare isn't over for First Nations people just because some white man in a three-piece suit said, "Sorry." The way we silence the monsters is to let people know how horrific those attitudes are: the ones that led to daily spiritual and cultural atrocities. The attitude that "white makes right." The attitude that "Christian values are the only ones worth espousing" and "these people are savages."  And oh, my favourite (not): "It's for their own good." It was wrong. It was wrong then and it's still wrong now.

There, I've said it.  I'm a white, Christian, "civilized" (whatever that means) person and I KNOW that what happened was wrong.  I KNOW that every day for multiple generations, there are adults who wake in cold sweats from nightmares about "that place." There are grown men who question every move they make: am I allowed to sit here, am I allowed to go to that place, am I allowed to talk to this person?

Knowledge is power.  I freely admit that I was ignorant.  I didn't know that I didn't know.  And although it was painful, I had to educate myself.  I went to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada website and I started reading one of the many documents available there  (link).  I confess that I was only able to get through half of it - it was very emotional for me.  The language is easy enough to understand, but the stories themselves - first of how life used to be, and then of how life changed forever - broke my heart. 
Perhaps the reason that some Canadians have a hard time with immigrants coming into our country is because our own ancestors carried out the very thing that they fear the newcomers will do: destroy our way of life, take over our land and make us into second-class citizens.  The difference is that we whites hold a position of privilege ... and we therefore have a responsibility to use our power for good.  Not evil.

Never again.

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