Category Archives: White Supremacy

Facing the Uncomfortable Truth

 

Whenever I want to learn something important about race I turn to James Baldwin or Toni Morrison.  James Baldwin said this among, his many significant pronouncements about race:  “People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster.

 

In the US and Canada conservatives are doing to the best they can to help their followers avoid looking at the truth. In the US they do this in many ways, including their opposition to any criticism of their beloved country by people of color. For example, they have launched a concerted campaign against something they refer to as “critical race theory.”  That is nothing else than a technique that permits interested people to look behind the facades and  myths surrounding race. That can reveal some ugly truths that people in power–in the comfortable pews–don’t want revealed. Such people also do it by decrying what they feel is a negative view of their country promulgated by the New York Times 1609 project which again attempted to look at slavery in particular and race in general based on actual history, and not just the comfortable legends of white supremacy.

In Canada conservatives, among others, try to avoid looking at the truth by curtailing any criticism of people considered by them to be sacred, as evidenced by monuments around the country. The sacred include John A. MacDonald, Queen Victoria, and Queen Elizabeth. By definition, conservatives like things the way they are. Many of them are people of privilege who have benefited from the status quo.

 

Recently, in Manitoba, Conservative Premier Brian Pallister, fell into this trap when we ignored the sins of European settlers and concentrated instead solely on their ability to “build.” Here is what he said,

“The people who came to this country, before it was a country and since, didn’t come here to destroy anything. They came to build. They came to build better. To build, they did. They built farms, and they built businesses. They built communities, and churches too. And they built these things for themselves, and for one another, and they built them with dedication and with pride.”

 

Later the Premier claimed that he was complementing both settlers and indigenous people, but I don’t see that in his statement.  It might have been in his imagination.  When he later “apologized” for his statement, he did so in a clumsy fashion. He said, at a news conference he called, “I feel awful about the reaction and the misunderstanding I created with my comments.” He never admitted his statements were wrong because of what they ignored.  Pallister did not catch on that people did not think they misunderstood him. They heard him and were insulted at his casual dismissal of the offences committed by the settlers and only saw what they had built without paying attention to what they destroyed. Pallister was blinded by his own privilege in failing to understand this.

His statements made in the context of current discussions of the horrific abuse at Canada’s Indian Residential Schools is a sad reflection of white ignorance about their own white supremacy and privilege which for more than a century in Canada has given them a pass. They have been blinded to their own privilege.  Their current conservative supporters want to continue that pass. They want to ignore the truth.

Truth can set you free, but ignoring it, as Baldwin said, can turn you into a monster without you realizing it.

 

Moving On

 

Like Manitoba’s Judge Brian Giesbrecht, many non-indigenous people urge Indigenous people to move on. I am sure many would like to do that. But we need to move on to serious action. We need to move away from white privilege. We have to stop being bystanders. Not many of us can be a hero, but we can stop acquiescing to racism. And Indigenous people need to move on to important current issues, but the rest of us need to get out of their way. As well, I think it is up to us who have benefitted from this system for decades that must move on first.

Not many of us are up to being heroes. I know I am not. But we can speak up. We should not let racist comments from people we know pass without challenge. We need to speak truth to ignorant privilege. We might have to pay a price for that. After all, many people don’t want to hear such messages. It could cost us. But we at least have to do that. Dissenters  may pay a price while bystanders can be comfortable.

Spiritual Violence

 

As I have said earlier, the entire system of residential schools had a rotten foundation. That foundation was the unjustified assumption that Europeans were superior to the savages of the North American continent. Nothing built on such a foundation could stand. And it didn’t. In a nutshell that is white supremacy.

The Christian religion was an important part of this system and when it came to the residential schools of Canada it got pretty ugly. As the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (‘TRC’) reported,

“Christian teachings were a fundamental aspect of residential schools. Aboriginal children were taught to reject the spiritual ways of their parents and ancestors in favour of the religions that predominated among settler societies. As their traditional ways of worshipping the Creator were disparaged and rejected, so too were the children devalued. They were not respected as human beings who were equally loved by the Creator just as they were, as First Nations, Inuit, or Métis peoples. Rather their Christian teachers saw them as inferior human beings in need of being ‘raised up’ through Christianity and tried to mould them into models of Christianity according to the racist ideals that prevailed at the time. The impact of such treatment was amplified by the federal laws and policies that banned traditional Indigenous spiritual practices in the children’s home communities for much of the residential school era.”

 

In this way religion was weaponized by Canada against the Indigenous people of Canada. The TRC went so far as to call this “spiritual violence.” The TRC defined spiritual violence as follows:

“Spiritual violence occurs when

  • a person is not permitted to follow her or his preferred spiritual or religious tradition;
  • a different spiritual or religious path or practice is forced on a person;
  • a person’s spiritual or religious tradition, beliefs, or practices are demeaned or belittled; or
  • a person is made to feel shame for practicing his or her traditional or family beliefs.

There is plenty of evidence to support our conclusion that spiritual violence was common in residential schools.”

 

It is also interesting to note how often that violence was effective. Many Indigenous children became good Christians for life. Many of them “lost” their own spirituality. I think that was a profound harm inflicted on Indigenous peoples by Canada. The effects of this violence were deep. Often it did not end in schools. For example, residential school survivor Theodore (Ted) Fontaine from Manitoba told the TRC, “I went through sexual abuse. I went through physical abuse, mental, spiritual. And I’ll tell you…the one thing we suffered [from] the most is the mental and spiritual abuse that we carried for the rest of our lives.”

All of this in turn has led to intergenerational impacts on Indigenous people that continues to have profound effect on them. The conclusion is clear, as the TRC said, “That Christians in Canada, in the name of their religion, inflicted serious harms on Aboriginal children, their families, and communities was in fundamental contradiction to their core beliefs.”

That is a mighty sad conclusion.

The Poisonous Fruit of White Supremacy

 

As I have already said, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (‘TRC’) found that the entire residential school systems that Canada imposed on indigenous people without their consent, was based on the clear assumption, entirely belied by the facts, that European civilization and culture, and the Christian religion were superior to indigenous culture. The Canadians inherited from the Europeans they succeeded, an attitude in which they assumed that the indigenous culture and religion was savage and brutal. European countries, like France, England, and Spain, were the original colonizers and with the advent of settler colonialism that position was taken over by Canadians of European descent.  This was the ideology of  white supremacy.

 

As a result, the TRC reached a devastating conclusion:

“Colonization was undertaken to meet the perceived needs of the imperial powers. The justification offered for colonialism—the need to bring Christianity and civilization to the Indigenous peoples of the world—may have been a sincerely and firmly held belief, but as justification for intervening in the lives of other peoples, it does not stand up to legal, moral, or even logical scrutiny.  The papacy had no authority to give away lands that belonged to Indigenous people. The Doctrine of Discovery cannot serve as the basis for a legitimate to the lands that were colonized, if for no other reason that the so-called discovered lands were already well known  to the Indigenous peoples who had inhabited them for thousands of years. The wars of conquest that took place to strip Indigenous peoples were not morally just wars; Indigenous peoples were not, as colonists often claimed subhuman, and neither were they living in violation of any agreed-upon set of values. There was no moral imperative to impose Christianity on the Indigenous peoples of the world. They did not need to be ‘civilized’; indeed, there is no hierarchy of societies. Indigenous peoples had systems that were complete unto themselves and met their needs. Those systems were dynamic; they changed over time and were capable of continued change. Taken as a whole, the colonial process relied on for its justification on the sheer presumption of taking a specific set of European beliefs and values and proclaiming them to be universal values that could be imposed upon the peoples of the world. This universalizing of European values—so central to the colonial project—that was extended to North America served as the prime justification and rationale for the imposition of the residential peoples of Canada.”

 

White supremacy in other words, including a belief, in most cases sincerely held, that white Europeans were superior to Indigenous people and their religion, had the same element of superiority, was the justification for European dominance over Indigenous people, and that included imposing their religion on Indigenous people no matter the costs. That fundamental belief was the fundamental problem, and the legacy of that belief continues into present times. It was and is, toxic. It is the basis for much that went wrong with residential schools, and the imperial project of doing as we please with Indigenous people.

 

Nothing that comes from eating that poisonous fruit is worth saving.

Predatory Religion

 

The Christian churches and their missionaries played very important roles in the campaign to ban indigenous spiritual practices and replace them with Christian ones. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (‘TRC’) described the process this way:

“The Christian Churches not only provided the moral justification for the colonization of other peoples’ lands, but they also dispatched missionaries to the colonized nations in order to convert ‘the heathen.’  From the fifteenth century on, the Indigenous peoples of the world were the objects of a strategy of spiritual and cultural conquest that had its origins in Europe.  While they often worked in isolation and under difficult conditions, missionaries were representatives of worldwide organizations that enjoyed the backing of influential individuals in some of the most powerful nations of the world, and which to amass considerable experience transforming different cultures. Residential schools figured prominently in missionary work, not only in Canada, but also around the world.”

 

As a result I do not think it is an exaggeration to describe these religious organizations as predatory.  That is precisely what they were—predatory religions. Their prey was indigenous people around the world.  The TRC explained their workings as follows:

“Christian missionaries played a complex, but central role in the European colonial project. Their presence helped justify the extension of empires, since they were visibly spreading the word of God to the heathen. If their efforts were unsuccessful, the missionaries might conclude that those who refused the Christian message could not expect the protection of the Christian church or the law, thus clearing the way for their destruction. Although the missionaries often attempted to soften the impact of imperialism, they were also committed to making the greatest changes in the culture and psychology of colonized. They might, for example, seek to have traders give fair prices and to have governments officials  provide relief in times of need, but they also worked to undermine relationships to the land, language, religion, family, educational practices, morality, and social customs.”

 

The missionaries disparaged indigenous spirituality with complete contempt. Later I intend to show how mistaken they were. The people of the New World had a new religion that the people from the old world could not fathom because it was so foreign to their assumptions. They also saw such spirituality as a competitor. They believed that the goal of cultural transformation could not be obtained without stamping out all indigenous religion and culture. As a result it is hardly surprising that they worked tirelessly to separate children from their parents, families, and communities. In the circumstances I think the word “predatory” is entirely justified.

As Blaise Pascal so well put it:  “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.”

Terra nullius, the Doctrine of Discovery, and a lot of Bull

 

Residential schools were not established in a vacuum or what the Europeans referred to as terra nullius.  At least since the 15th century, though probably much earlier, the Roman Catholic Church, which was then the “universal” Christian Church saw itself as the vanguard of white Christian hegemony. As the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (‘TRC’) concluded,

“In the fifteenth century, the Roman Catholic Church, building on the traditions of the Roman Empire, conceived of itself as the guardian of a universal world order. The adoption of Christianity within the Roman Empire (which defined itself as ‘civilized’) reinforced the view that to be civilized was to be Christian.”

 

Everyone else of course was a barbarian. The papacy led the charge here. In 1493 Pope Alexander VI issued a papal bull (I love that expression in this case because it is so appropriate) in which he granted most of North and South America to Spain, without, of course, consulting the people that lived there.  That Bull helped to establish what was later referred to as the “Doctrine of Discovery” which gave the intellectual foundation for western colonialism. According to this doctrine, Catholics were allowed to own what they “discovered” in the New World, notwithstanding that it had been discovered thousands of years  before that. North and South America were far from empty of people. Of course, in return for granting these rights first to Spain and later to other European kingdoms, those kings were expected to assist in the conversion of indigenous peoples to Christianity.

The Doctrine of Discovery was based on a second false doctrine, namely, terra nullius—no man’s land—which falsely asserted that such land belonged to no one so could be claimed by Europeans. As a result, Europeans could take what they pleased in the New World and they had theological justification to do exactly that.

White supremacy was the justification of these dubious doctrines. As the TRC said,

“Underlying these arguments was the belief that the colonizers were bringing civilization to savage people who could never civilize themselves. The ‘civilizing mission’ rested on a belief of racial and cultural superiority.”

In the Canadian Parliament in 1883 the federal Minister of Public Works Hector Langevin stated the government position on residential schools:

“If you wish to educate these children you must separate them from their parents during the time that they are being educated. If you leave them in the family they may know how to read and write, but they remain savages, whereas by separating them in the way proposed they acquire the habits and tastes—it is to be hoped only the good tastes—of civilized people.”

 

The federal government of Canada was engaged in colonizing western Canada at the time that it began the residential schooling system. It did so in order to secure claims to the land that could not be assailed successfully. It saw that in the United States engaging in attempts to conquer the indigenous people was extremely expensive. In some years the American federal government spent as much as 25% of its budget fighting these wars and it was questionable how legitimate the claims to the indigenous land would be even after such huge expense.  Canada tried a different route—treaties. The federal government in Canada also recognized that on account of the treaties it was making and the dispossession of indigenous people from their traditional territories the indigenous people might need help to prevent starvation.  This problem was only exacerbated when the government forced some First Nations, such as the Peguis people of Manitoba from prime farmland they occupied and were very successfully farming in favour of European settlers. The government wanted to give the indigenous people the skills they would need to support themselves, but they also had the important goal of furthering their assimilation. As the TRC pointed out, “the schools were seen as engines of cultural and spiritual change: ‘savages were to emerge as Christian ‘white men.’”

Acknowledging this desire, Duncan Campbell Scott Canada’s highest civil servant with jurisdiction over “Indians” as they were called at the time, summarize Canadian government goals as follows:

“It includes not only a scholastic education, but instruction in the means of gaining a livelihood from the soil as a member of an industrial or mercantile community, and the substitution of Christian ideals of conduct and morals for aboriginal concepts of both.”

 

Residential schools were not just about education. In fact, they were much more important for the government’s goal of assimilation. And the churches were the instruments it chose to embark on this process.  And the rest is history. Ugly history at that.

 

 

“It’s time to Move On”

 

Retired Manitoba Provincial Court Judge recently wrote an article in the Winnipeg Sun recently in which he advised as follows

“The dead should be appropriately honoured, but we should be mindful that some opportunists will exploit these dead children for financial and political gain. The residential school story has now been exhaustively told. Canadians have heard it — and we get it. We have sympathized, and billions of dollars have been paid by people, most of whom weren’t alive then, to people who mostly weren’t either.  It is time to move on.”

 

This is wrong in so many ways it is difficult to count them. First, he is wrong. Canadians don’t “get it.” That is the problem. If they did get it, then we would not be in a situation where so many of the calls to action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (‘TRC’) would have gone unheeded.

It depends on how you count. According to the National Post:

“In June 2015, members of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) presented 94 Calls to Action that would help “redress the legacy of residential schools and advance the process of Canadian reconciliation” with Indigenous peoples. Months later, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau confirmed his government’s commitment to implement every single one. Six years later, how many of those Calls to Action have been fully implemented? Based on information in government documents, CBC’s Beyond 94 and research done by the Yellowhead Institute of Ryerson University, the National Post’s Christopher Nardi compiled a list of all the recommendations that have been completely enacted (13), those for which the government has taken some steps (60) and those where no real steps have been made.”

 

In the opinion of others, the total is much lower. How many people have you talked to about how Canada is doing? Or me? I suspect not many. Why? Let’s be honest. Few care. Contrary to what Judge Giesbrecht says, few have sympathized. If they did, the government would have acted.

What is most egregious about these remarks from Judge Giesbrecht is the statement, “It is time to move on.”  That is the one I have heard over and over again. That is because it such an easy comment for those insulated from the harms to make. It costs them or us nothing. Judges from their lofty benches or comfortable pews far from the pain and suffering don’t see the hurt. It is not real to them.

It is time for white male privilege to move on.  White male privilege blinds even people like Judge Giesbrecht. As a result of undeniable residential school trauma indigenous people have suffered effects that have cascaded through the generations. For privileged white men to suggest they should “get over it” or “move on”, is either incredibly wooden-headed, or wooden-hearted. Or both!

The Blindness of Privilege

 

Recently a person I know, the daughter of a friend of mine, said that she just could not understand “Indians.”  Why didn’t they just get over it? Why didn’t they forget about past wrongs? She said, “If our family could get over being cheated by a scam artist and robbed of hundreds of thousands of dollars, why can’t they get over residential schools?” I did not hear this first hand, so unfortunately I did not have an opportunity  to challenge her statements.

First of all, I know a little bit about the losses of my friend’s family. They lost a lot of money.  No one would like to lose all that money.  But the fact is that they were still left with lots of money after it happened. The family is still wealthy. They are just a little less wealthy than they could have been and or should have been.

This is actually a common attitude among white people. I have heard similar statements many times.

Frankly, though my white friends are much better off than most indigenous families. None of them were taken away from their homes and made to live in shabby schools with predatory teachers and religious scoundrels while they ate poorly, spent half of each day working literally like slaves, and all the while were taught that their parents were worthless, their culture was worthless, and they were worthless. Then the children that survived (and thousands did not!) were robbed of the opportunity to learn how to take care of children, which they could have learned from their parents. Instead, they were dumped in schools where no one wanted to teach them things like that, they wanted to teach them religion and the benefits of the white ways. Many of those children were then physically, mentally, emotionally, and sexually abused. They grew up thinking that they and their families and their race were all worthless. This happened for generations and the effects have cascaded through the generations. Then as adults these former children were subjected to pervasive systemic racism. The trauma of losing some money hardly compares.

Who do you think was better off? Who should get over it? I think these children of wealthy whites should get over it. They should get over their privilege. They don’t even see their own privilege.  And they don’t even see the gross exploitation of others. There is nothing more blind than privilege. And nothing more ignorant. There is nothing so hard to see as one’s own privilege, because it seems so natural and right.

Good Intentions?

 

This week (May 2021)  the southern B.C. First Nation of Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc near Kamloops B.C. announced that the remains of 215 children were found on the grounds of what used to be the site of Canada’s largest residential school. The school was closed in 1969 the year I attended first and second year university at the University of Manitoba. I just want to put this into context for me. I don’t think I am that old and this was not that long ago.

What I want to emphasize right now is that these were children taken from their homes to be “educated.”  We Canadians often think of ourselves as a kinder gentler version of our more powerful neighbours to the south. Many of us think that we took these children from their homes and into these schools to be educated for their own good. Sometimes white people say that we sent indigenous children to residential schools for good reasons. We had good intentions we say and sometimes even believe. We wanted them to get a good education. We wanted them to become like us because we were better than them. Assimilation we called it. White supremacy was what it was all about.

 

Children shouldn’t often die in schools should they? My wife Christiane had a very wise question for me when we heard this news. When we now learn that this Indian residential school had 215 bodies of children buried outside it, what possible explanation is consistent with a good intention? I could not think of one. Can you? Those who think our intentions are good must answer that.