In 1967, race riots in Detroit left 43 people dead. President Lyndon B. Johnson was quick to label rioters "criminals" and order 4,700 Federal troops into the heart of Detroit to quell the violence. It was the latest in a series of race riots that swept the United States—Rochester, Harlem and Philadelphia in '64, LA in '65, Ohio, Nebraska, New Jersey—and there was pressure on the president to call a commission.
A year later, the final report of the Kerner Commission came as a shock. It found that the rioting was not the work of hoodlums intent on destabilizing society, but rather an expression of the systemic exclusion of Black Americans from political and economic life. It was not a law-and-order problem, but a racism and poverty problem, rooted in the institution of slavery.
The Kerner Report became an instant bestseller. Marlon Brando went on ABC's late-night talk show The Joey Bishop Show and read aloud from its famous introduction: "Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal." He would later be hounded by hecklers carrying signs calling him a "n*****-loving creep."
Fifty years on, Canadians have just been presented with an equally astounding bombshell of a commission report, and one that deserves to be as widely read.
For seven years, the Truth & Reconciliation Commission did its work, and many wondered how closely it would stick to its mandate of addressing mandatory residential schools in Canada. Some worried that residential schools might be depicted, as Ottawa's Catholic Archbishop Terrence Prendergast described them this week, as a generally well-intentioned but poorly executed policy of social improvement, ultimately spoiled by a few sexually abusive bad apples.
This week we found out that this was not to be the case. The opening paragraph of the TRC Report leaves little room for interpretation:
For over a century, the central goals of Canada's Aboriginal policy were to eliminate Aboriginal governments; ignore Aboriginal rights; terminate the Treaties; and, through a process of assimilation, cause Aboriginal peoples to cease to exist as distinct legal, social, cultural, religious and racial entities in Canada. The establishment and operation of residential schools were a central element of this policy, which can be best described as 'cultural genocide.'
Tasked with investigating the residential school system, the TRC found it to be part of a coherent and systematic campaign to assert control over Aboriginal land and resources. In other words, to build Canada.
Much of the response to the Report has focused on whether residential school policy does or doesn't count as cultural genocide, or wondered why 'cultural.' People have inevitably questioned what this might have to do with the Holocaust. For some Canadians, the word "genocide" is enough to jar them into taking notice. The stories undoubtedly deserve attention—seven generations of children torn from their parents' arms, beaten, shamed, broken, disappeared. Children in residential schools were more likely to die there than Canadian soldiers were in World War II. Look closely, and "genocide" won't seem like too strong a word.
But this is not just a story about residential schools. The Report reminds us what residential schools were intended to achieve. It was not simply a culturally-driven project of Christianizing. Rather, the goal was to destroy the economic, political and legal foundations of Indigenous communities, and make way for the unrestricted exploitation and occupation of their land.
Residential schools were a means to an end. No Indigenous people meant "no reserves, no Treaties, and no Aboriginal rights." Even early colonial administrators and lawmakers knew that these territories weren't terra nullius—weren't empty. This land needed to be emptied, in order that it could be filled with Canada. It didn't work, which is why we are even talking about this.
Today, dealing with the "Indian problem" no longer looks like forcing children into church-run schools. It looks like so-called "tough on crime" legislation that sees our prisons filling with Indigenous people. (Aboriginal women represent four percent of all female Canadians, but one third of the female prison population.) It looks like our Minister of Aboriginal Affairs blaming the disproportionate number of murdered Indigenous women on "a lack of respect for women and girls on reserves." (See here for a guide to the related concept of "black-on-black" crime.) It looks like the federal government strong-arming First Nations' into oil and gas development and, through Bill C-51, criminalizing anyone who threatens to stand in the way.
It's not just that there are still Indigenous people in Canada. It's that their legal, political, economic, spiritual systems persist—and these systems are what continue to be a problem. As Canadians, we imagine that our country covers this land like a blanket. It doesn't, and never has. The history of Canada has been like pulling a too-small sheet onto a bed: where it covers one corner, it pulls from the other, its thin fabric already tattered. Mohawks in Kanesatake take up arms; the Unist'ot'en Camp asserts Wet'suwet'en sovereignty in the path of the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline; the Heiltsuk First Nation shut down a commercial herring harvest, threatening the Department of Fisheries with "a war on the water." These are not examples of tears in the fabric of Canada—they are instances of the pre-existing, Indigenous systems of government showing through.
As a story about our country, the Report challenges non-Indigenous Canadians to see how we all continue to benefit from the residential school system, in the very ease of our existence here. The next step is to, as I heard one TRC participant put it, "quit acting like we own the place."
Many Canadians are afraid of talking about colonialism. "What am I supposed to do," we ask, "go back to where I came from?" This reaction is rooted in insecurity and resentment, as well as what Vanessa Watts and Hayden King describe as "a resistance to sacrificing privilege and sharing power." This is most understandable from racialized people whose own lives are marked by the effects of global imperial projects. Yet as Chris Corrigan wrote this week, "no matter if your family arrived in 1532 or last Tuesday... If you have Canadian citizenship you personally benefit from the treaty relationships that, over time, have made it possible for Canadians to own land, to develop resources, to use water, to hike in the forest, to grow things and make money." As the Report puts it, "We are all Treaty people."
What we have is not a colonial state, but a settler colonial state. In other words, Indigenous people are to some degree stuck with us, and us with them. Luckily, the Report provides a series of exceedingly specific steps we can call on our government to take, and none of them involve deporting anyone.
The TRC calls for the reform of a range of practices and policies—from getting rid of mandatory minimums for certain offences, to reworking museum displays, to specific annual reports on specific health, wellness, and economic development. Some cost money, but not all of them.
Recommendation number 25 calls for a "written policy that reaffirms the independence of the RCMP to investigate crimes in which the government has its own interest." Number 28 asks law schools to introduce a mandatory course on Aboriginal peoples and law. Number 84 calls for the restoration of funding to CBC/Radio-Canada, whose mandate includes serving the Canada's unprofitable and largely Indigenous isolated communities. Number 94 suggests changes to Canada's oath of citizenship that reflect the fact that becoming Canadian means entering into a relationship with Indigenous people. On the other hand, Number 43 demands the full implementation of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which includes the right to self-determination—a huge re-orientation, to say the least.
Change must happen in our heads, but not only there. As TRC Commissioner Justice Sinclair told CBC Radio: "You can get rid of all the racists—in the workplace, in police departments, in the court system—but as long as society continues to do business as it does today, you would continue to have racism."
Unfortunately, our current government seems firmly committed to remaining on the wrong side of history. As the Report points out, "The relationship between the federal government and Aboriginal peoples is deteriorating." Last week, it deteriorated further. On Tuesday, Valcourt remained pointedly seated during a standing ovation at the presentation of the Report, while NDP leader Thomas Mulcair took the opportunity to deliver some demonstrative side-eye. Prime minister Stephen Harper didn't even pretend to give a crap about the Commission—his attendance was limited to an invite-only event at Rideau Hall, at which he said nothing. Meanwhile, a tweet on the PM's official Twitter account was a photo of him drinking a beer. Disregarding Indigenous people may be good politics, after all.
After its release in 1968, the Kerner Report shaped a generation of political activism. It erased the imaginary line between the bad old days of slavery in the past, and the present in which people were supposedly equal. It didn't solve the problem of systemic racism in America, but it provided a vocabulary for speaking about it. It stated the fact which was painfully obvious to so many: race inequality in America was not a coincidence.
The Report of the TRC has pulled off a similar trick. It transforms a commission addressing Aboriginal people and policy into a commission also about the rest of us. It gives us the language for asking the hard but unavoidable question: How are we to live as settlers in what we call Canada?
The TRC has not yet announced plans to publish its final report, but you can read the PDF here.
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