After some protesters tore down statues of British queens on the Manitoba legislative grounds some political leaders, like Premier Brian Pallister got quite upset. Here is part of 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.”
At first glance this has a ring of truth to it. But much is hidden below the surface.
Pallister said such actions on the part of protesters would stand in the way of reconciliation. Melissa Martin, a national award winning Winnipeg Free Press commentator understands these issues much better than Premier Pallister. Unlike Premier Pallister who outright ignored the pain and suffering of the indigenous people, in his haste to attack the vandals while praising the settlers, Martin had some empathy for the indigenous people. She didn’t excuse them; she didn’t have to do that. She did attack Pallister’s unthinking praise for the European settlers who came to this province “to build better,” according to the Premier. Frankly, that is the settler myth that ignores a lot of Manitoba’s history. That history is not just one of building. It was also a history of destruction foisted on the people Pallister seems intent on ignoring. These are people that Pallister just does not see.
Martin pointed out, the flaw in the Premiers claims:
“This idea about the things settlers built for themselves, serving as an example to us today, does make a point, but not the one the premier intended. Because Canada did build itself many things. But never when it came to Indigenous people did it build “together,” and what it built was certainly not without destruction.
When the settlers built, they did so not only without the indigenous people, often then they did so with the specific design of destroying their culture, their families, their society, and even, their children.”
It was not building better when about 140 years ago the settlers filled with jealousy, influenced Canadian politicians to give to them farm land around Selkirk that indigenous people had been given, because they saw how successful the indigenous farmers there were. For many years the indigenous people there thrived in their farming enterprises in that region.
In 1885 a federal official pointed out that the indigenous farmers were every bit as successful as the best Ontario farmers so they pressured the Canadian government to turn that rich farm land over to them instead and to push the indigenous farmers 200 km farther north where the land was much less fertile much less suitable for farming. The white settlers claimed the land and a white judge upheld their claims. The Judge supported the effort to have the indigenous people evicted and moved. A Canadian politician did not call this “building” as Premier Pallister did. He admitted in Parliament it was “a barefaced swindle.” More than a hundred years later the Canadian federal government admitted as much when it settled the law suit against it by the displaced First Nation for $126 million.
Again, in 1903 the Roseau River Anishinaabe First Nation was pressured to surrender its also fertile farming land in favour of white settlers. More than a 100 years later the injustice was finally acknowledged, when the First Nation was finally able to secure a measure of justice when the federal government settled with it by making a payment of $80 million to it. Again, the federal government admitted it had not just been “building”, but was destroying the way of life of the indigenous people.
Martin also reported how the federal government burned 35 Métis homes in the community of Ste. Madeline. Again, not a case of building but rather a case of destroying.
In fact, these acts of destruction by the Canadian government at the behest of white settlers were much more egregious than toppling statues of English queens.
Premier Pallister also ignored the things that indigenous people had built in this land long before Europeans arrived. As Martin said,
“Indigenous peoples built things too, on lands that sustained their nations since time immemorial. They built homes, and communities, and cultures. They built trade networks that stretched to every corner of the continent.
And they built deep knowledge of the land and how to live on it, strategies that allowed them to thrive from the deserts to the tundra. They built families that passed all this knowledge from one generation to another. When Canada came to these lands, none of these things Indigenous people had built was seen to matter.”
Not only that, but in many respects, the indigenous people were barred from “building.” The Indian Act and the Indian agents appointed pursuant to it, who controlled the reserves, made sure that indigenous people would always be dependent on the whites. Indigenous people could not even leave the reserve without a pass issued by the Indian agent under the pass system so admired by the white supremacists of South Africa. As Martin said, that system, made the reserves “into open-air prisons.” Others called them concentration camps, Canadian style.
Martin described the real world of Canadian settlers and indigenous people this way:
“It takes a negative will to tear down,” Pallister said. “It takes a positive will to build up.”
Here, he was talking about statues. The words would better apply to residential schools, which for over a century deliberately tore down Indigenous cultures, families and lives. They would better apply to policies that denied full participation in the nation’s economic life and sought to sever Indigenous peoples’ self-determination.
This is the history from where we have come. It cannot now be undone.
But when Indigenous people stand up to call for an end to celebrating the figures and events that, by design, so damaged their communities, this is not an act of tearing down. It is, in fact, an invitation to consider a new future, one where, for the first time in this country’s history, we actually can build something better together.
Canada is a construction project, Pallister said, and in a way he’s right. Those who came here built many things, supported by a government and a system that prioritized their chance at affluence, their place on the land and their rights. And that construction came at a heavy cost to Indigenous health, and Indigenous life.”
This history of Canada is uncomfortable for many Canadians. They prefer the more comfortable “history” encapsulated in statues of English monarch. They prefer the settler version of the truth that ignores the privileges the settlers were granted at the expense of the indigenous people who were moved away to allow the settlers to benefit from those privileges. The settler version of the truth is much more attractive to many Canadians because it hides the ugly truth. But reconciliation will never be possible until those comfortable and untrue myths are set aside the real truth is faced. As Martin said,
“Reconciliation, in part, requires understanding that to go forward, to build better, then we must see the pain and that is part of that story too. In this way, a couple of toppled statues don’t stand in the way of reconciliation; what might is if we make so much noise about statues, that we close our ears to hearing the truth.”