Guilty Roots: Owning our Ever-Present Past

guiltyrootsby Terry LeBlanc, Executive Director, Indigenous Pathways

WHEN I WAS A YOUNG BOY, my grandfather, father and I travelled some distance from our home community to go fishing at a spot known only to my grandfather. We soon found ourselves in the middle of deep woods, making our way along a narrow trail. With each passing step, the way ahead and behind became less and less perceptible. Twice I expressed my concern to my grandfather; twice he sought to reassure me. Finally, unable to hold in my anxiety, fearful about what lay ahead of us, I tugged frantically on my grandfather’s arm. “Grandfather, grandfather,” I called. “We’ll be lost, we’ll be lost!”

Sensing the rising fear in me, my grandfather knelt down and, after calming me, taught me a lesson in guidance. He told me that each new trail we take could seem like it leads along an uncertain path; the way back can seem unclear. But, he said, “When you set out on a new trail, if you spend twice as much time looking over your shoulder at where you have come from as you do where you are going – if you fix the landmarks behind you in your mind the way they will appear to you when you turn to take the trail back – you will never become lost, you will always be able to find your way home.” My grandfather gave me the ability that day to find my way to and from all of the various destinations in life that would lie before me; all of which, as I set out on each new trail, were initially unknown.

Contemporary societies – not just North American – are no longer used to looking at where they have come from.

Contemporary societies – not just North American – are no longer used to looking at where they have come from. They are far more fixated on an as yet unknown future – and on the present only inasmuch as it helps them determine what will come next. Rather than use the past to help determine where they are in relation to where they started, they plunge ahead, often blindly, expecting that any mistakes made will be corrected in that unknown future.

As far back as 1973, Dr. Karl Menninger said of North American society that, “We have lost our sense of history…lost our traditional respect for the wisdom of ancestors and the culture of kindred nations…we haunt ourselves with [an] illusory ideal.” It is an observation he could justifiably make concerning Canadian immigrant societies and the unwillingness to take seriously their history with Indigenous peoples, with the multiple generations of injustice to which Indigenous peoples have been subjected. Today, however, it is more likely we would hear this attitude expressed as, “That happened in the past. We are not personally responsible.”

Indigenous people regularly hear these words, or ones to their effect, in discussions about multi-generational prejudicial social policies, treaty rights, wrongs committed against them (over successive generations), and about the possibility of reconciliation from this point forward. These words are, more often than not, offered by people who, while acknowledging past wrongs, want or need to find personal distance from responsibility for having maintained the environment in which these wrongs originally, and now continue to, take place. These are words of personal exoneration, which, while they may seem reasonable and even justifiable, give voice to the idea that while they enjoy privileges provided them by the decisions of their forebears, they hold no personal responsibility for the actions that created those privileges.

On the surface, this way of thinking would appear to be reasonable and understandable. After all, they weren’t alive when this all started. True, true! When we look below the surface, however, we find that the same ideas that gave rise to the original wrongs and injustice still exist today, albeit in modified form. Often, in the day-to-day behaviours these very same people engage in, we continue to find wilful ignorance, and apathy, judgment and stereotyping, expectations of cultural assimilation, and the election and maintenance of governments that at best ignore, at worst further degrade, First Nations peoples’ lives, homes, and communities with policies of assimilation. These ideas about the lack of personal responsibility for decisions made 50, 75, 100, or 150 years ago prevail as the foundation upon which contemporary racial prejudice is maintained.

In order for us to actually make progress on reconciliation, these ideas must be acknowledged, extricated from our policies, and forced out of the legislative isolation that has maintained Canadian Indigenous peoples as third and fourth class citizens for well over 150 years. I say third and fourth because immigrant populations, while often looked upon with varying levels of disdain have, more often than not, been treated better than this land’s original inhabitants.

In 1995, Elijah Harper called for, and then convened, the “Sacred Assembly.” Indigenous leaders and elders, Catholic, mainline, and evangelical leaders of Canada, participated in multiday conversations about what it would take to be reconciled in this land, to live together in peaceful relationship. Together with a representative of the Canadian Conference of Catholic bishops, a member of the Citizens for Public Justice, and the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada’s Bruce Clemenger, I co-authored two documents titled “Principles and Priorities for a New Relationship”, and “Proclamation of Reconciliation.”

Convened on the heels of the release of the RCAP (if you do not recognize this acronym, that says something about why you might feel no responsibility), the Assembly acknowledged the fact that the situation in which Canada found itself – and, to a significant extent, still finds itself today – rests in an unwillingness to stop doing what was done to Indigenous peoples that created the situation in the first place. Hence, the suggestion, “That was then, this is now, therefore I have no responsibility,” is vacuous. The RCAP began 25 years ago; the Sacred Assembly was 20 years ago; all major traditions of the church were invited and/or were participants. Most of you reading this were alive at that time.

Here, in part, is some of what we wrote that was embraced by that Assembly:

We share the recognition
• The sins of injustice which have historically divided Aboriginal and non- Aboriginal peoples remain active in our society today;
• Concrete actions must be taken by Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples alike to overcome these injustices and to bind up the wounds of those who have suffered.

We share an understanding
• While change must take place at all levels of society, it must be rooted most firmly in the communities;
• Relations based on justice will require respect for past treaties, a fair settlement of land rights disputes, the implementation of the inherent right of self-government and the creation of economic development opportunities and other institutions to support it.

If we are to create a new climate of respect and cooperation in Canada, the idea that reconciliation is an event – like the one that was held in 2008 on Parliament Hill presided over by then Prime Minister Stephen Harper – must be set aside in favour of not simply an idea, but the attitudes, activities and policies of reconciliation that recognize the need for an on-going journey. We must also shed the idea that “this did not happen on my watch.” It did – because it still does.

Hence, the suggestion, “That was then, this is now, therefore I have no responsibility,” is vacuous.

 

article in mosaic magazine, spring 2016