A step towards reconciliation, but we still await the truth

Glad to see the apology to Canadians of Chinese origin for the treatment afforded their ancestors so many years ago when the fear of “the yellow peril” was at its height in British Columbia.

Not that I think spoken apologies are worth much; and not that I feel Chinese immigrants, so harshly treated a hundred years ago with crippling head taxes and brutal working conditions, deserve a priority position on the apology list.

Much has been made of the years of feeding frenzy in “penny dreadful” newspapers as they reported on the tribulations of Chinese immigrants with ever wilder, blatant, racist rhetoric. One local columnist even offered an apology for the shameful, hateful, bias of long dead scribes as though they were the first and only news reporters to forget the basic tenets of their trade which is to report facts and only facts. Today’s reporters show the same forgetfulness as they weave editorial comment into their “only the facts stories.”And editors permit it.

Certainly the conduct of reporters and editors a hundred years ago was shameful but only because, as so much reporting by many of our supposedly enlightened 21st century journalists does today, their language reflected what was being said in public and echoed by politicians. The belief was firm on the street, in parliaments and in newsrooms that the white man was a supreme being and the Chinese were a threat to the gospel of manifest destiny.

Politicians, federal and provincial, waited – as they still wait today – to hear what the electorate was shouting, then rushed to the head of the mob to be its leader. Then together politicians and press fed off each other in the attempt to crush their self created imaginary monster – the yellow peril which existed only in their over-zealous imaginations.

Chinese immigrants are not the only, or even primary, example of politicians and press forming an unholy alliance to crush what they perceive as a threat to white supremacy. At the top of the list from coast to coast in Canada are our native people who have yet to receive adequate answers or understanding for the way they were robbed of the country they had owned by inheritance for centuries. Owned until white discoverers quickly became aware land and newly discovered rich resources were owned by an easy to exploit native population.

When the natives grew restless as their once inherited lands were taken from them, government federal and provincial decided to bring them to heel by forcing them to accept a new, Christian, civilized way of life.

The procedure would be simple. Native children would be taken from their parents and placed in boarding schools where they would be “educated” to white man’s standards and over a few generations assimilated into the general population. To make sure everything was done properly, leading Christian organizations were asked to run the newly formed residential schools.

The press in general supported the idea, or remained silent until the shocking revelations in recent years of that failed attempt to destroy an ancient culture. The sordid stories of rape, brutality, cruelty beyond belief, and even murder, all great circulation boosters, eventually became  headline material without the need for exaggerated language.

In 1998 the federal government acknowledged Ottawa had played the lead role in establishing residential schools and issued a “Statement of Reconciliation”. It hoped to close the book on the matter by saying:”To  those of you who suffered this tragedy at residential schools we are truly sorry.”

In  May 2006 Ottawa approved a final Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement which included funding of $60 million over five years to establish a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It recently completed its hearings during which it heard the testimony of several thousand former residential school victims – but for unknown reasons did not call for questioning any perpetrators of the evils reported.

In 2008 Prime Minister Stephen Harper offered a ”full apology” to the victims of “this sad chapter in our history” during which over 150.000 Aboriginal children “were separated from their families and their communities.”  The target for the 132 schools scattered across Canada was “to kill the Indian in the child.”

An estimated 80,000 survived that bid and while saying sorry to them with a handful of compensation dollars maybe a conciliatory step, it shouldn’t be enough. The victims – and the rest of us – need full disclosure from the Anglican, Catholic, Presbyterian and United Churches as to what they were thinking and how they let it happen.

I think that’s what Truth and Reconciliation should mean. So far we’ve only got half the story.

 

[Edited for minor typos at 2215hrs on May 21, 2014]

3 comments

  1. The replicated apologies at the Museum of Anthropology (UBC) are telling. The Anglican one sounds heartfelt while the other church statements are not at all. It’s a quiet, understated exhibit, and moving in its simplicity.

  2. Very well said, Mr. Hume. Apologies are words — knowledge and action leading to answers are needed. It is beyond time that the devastation of the residential schools and the on going suffering of First Nations is taught in schools. Thank you for this informative column.

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