Dear readers – this post is definitely outside my normal fare, however, I felt the need to comment in some way on Canada’s recently released Truth and Reconciliation Commission report, a damning examination of my country’s treatment of aboriginal peoples and something that the Chief Justice of our supreme court, Beverley Mclachlan, called ‘cultural genocide’.
The Commission defines cultural genocide in its introductory remarks:
Cultural genocide is the destruction of those structures and practices that allow the group to continue as a group. States that engage in cultural genocide set out to destroy the political and social institutions of the targeted group. Land is seized, and populations are forcibly transferred and their movement is restricted. Languages are banned. Spiritual leaders are persecuted, spiritual practices are forbidden, and objects of spiritual value are confiscated and destroyed. And, most significantly to the issue at hand, families are disrupted to prevent the transmission of cultural values and identity from one generation to the next.
In its dealing with Aboriginal people, Canada did all these things.
Erna Paris wrote Long Shadows: Truth, Lies and History in 2001 and in 2003 my book club read and discussed it. Quill & Quire states that Long Shadows is “a monumental study of the schism between real and ‘official’ national histories” while Michael Ignatieff (author, academic and former leader of the Liberal Party of Canada) calls it a “tenacious and intelligent investigation of the way nations lie to themselves, and how these lies scar national identities”.
Paris’s book examines what occurred in Germany (the holocaust), France (the Vichy regime’s participation in the holocaust), Japan (the Rape of Nanking), the US (slavery), South Africa (Apartheid), the former Yugoslavia (long-standing hatreds squashed by communist rule) and how these countries dealt with their reprehensible actions.
When the Truth and Reconciliation report was released two weeks ago , politicians, journalists, members of aboriginal communities and ordinary citizens spoke out and wrote about their outrage. And truly, what happened in our residential schools and beyond was profoundly outrageous.
What I remember of our book club discussion was not just the heartfelt condemnation of the nations Erna Paris examined, but also the smug sense that Canada had little to be ashamed of. Perhaps our incarceration of Japanese Canadians during WWII and our refusal to admit Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis deserved black marks, but we are basically good, kind Canadians, always ready to lend a helping hand, open to people from around the world, and supportive of international peace-keeping efforts.
Not so fast. Wipe that smug smile off our collective faces, Canada. Every one of us should read (or in my case, re-read) Erna Paris’s compelling account of what happens when proper reconciliation does not occur. (The Armenian genocide comes to mind as a very recent commemorative event. Turkey continues to deny what happened.)
Erna Paris explains that ordinary people will remember even when they are ordered not to. Victims (and the descendants of victims) will not disappear. An environment of impunity and public apathy encourages evil behaviour. Impunity legitimized by amnesty is unjust to the victims and to society.
Based on her in-depth examinations, Paris concludes that truth and reconciliation alone do not add up to justice. Perhaps Canada’s commission is the beginning of a long path to setting the record straight, embedding public accountability and instituting fairness as we move forward. The past can only be managed with remembrance, with accountability and with justice.
What are you going to do?
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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE is set in WWI France and is available from Amazon, Nook, Kobo, Google Play and iTunes. Her debut novel, UNRAVELLED: Two wars. Two affairs. One marriage. is also available from these retailers.