I am a teacher. Regardless of subject area, respect has always been important to me. Sometimes I have succeeded in role modeling that key characteristic, and sometimes I have failed. I have observed so many times, teachers (myself included) talking with students about “taking responsibility for our own actions.” But our education system has failed to do this itself. This leaves me being a big believer in education, but a skeptic of our education system. Education has no limits. Until we (Canada as a country) accept responsibility for the way Aboriginal people were and are treated, there is a limit on what our education system can achieve. These limits are seen today in the disproportionate number of Aboriginal students who leave school before graduation. The treatment of aAoriginal people (e.g. assimilation, torture, residential schools) is a sad and shameful part of our history. It is a broken piece of the foundation on which our country is built. Pretending otherwise is an act of self-deception.
We must first admit the truth. We must educate ourselves about the truth. In order to know how to go about the long and expensive process of reinforcing our cracked foundation, we must examine it. We must admit that white people in Canada had and continue to have unearned advantage. We must admit that Canada tried to kill Native culture. This was no accident or oversight. This was an intentional and deliberate process, as can be proven by historical documents. We must admit that people were forced from their home, that parents were forced to separate from their children. We must admit that clothing and other cultural belongings were stolen. We must admit that young children were left crying and confused. We must admit that there was abuse (physical, sexual, and emotional). We must admit that children had needles stuck through their tongues to encourage them not to speak the language they learned as babies. We must admit that kids died from abuse. We must admit that abuse and sadness and anger caused many children to commit suicide. At the closest residential school, Eugene Mission, the children who committed suicide were not even buried within the school cemetery due to the church’s belief that suicide is a sin. Instead, you can see the crosses that mark their remains on the outside of the cemetery fences.
These are not easy things to admit. They are shameful and disgusting, and embarrassing. But until we admit them, we cannot fix our foundation. We cannot write meaningful policy until we admit we have a scary crack in our foundation. Painting the exterior walls does not fix the cracks in the cement blocks upon which our house stands.
I can admit that our education system built residential schools with the purpose of killing Native culture. I can admit that I am racist when it comes to Native people. This does not mean that I think First Nations people are inferior. By racist, I mean I treat people unfairly due to their race. For instance, if I see a white man stumbling down the street, I am more likely to attribute it to some medical reason. If I see a First Nations man stumbling down the street, I am more likely to attribute the stumbling to alcohol or other drugs. That is unfair. I know that this bias is due in part to my life experiences, and to media portrayal of Aboriginal people, and due to living in a society that is systemically racist. Still, despite all the excuses and justifications, I also know that my assumptions, correct or incorrect, are unfair.
Our present is a product of our past. We can do things to begin righting our country’s wrongs, but we cannot undo what has been done. We can only learn about and from our past, and decide to make a better future. Let us educate ourselves about and from our mistakes.
It is time for Canada to find the strength to accept responsibility for our actions and to move forward.