Reconciliation or Conciliation?

I’ve been pondering this issue for some time and it seems clear to me that reconciliation is not the word we should be using to describe the relationship the Canadian governments, and we as a whole, have with indigenous peoples in Canada today.

Miriam-Webster Dictionary defines reconciliation as “the act of causing two people or groups to become friendly again after an argument or disagreement.” Well, that’s all fine and dandy, but the reality is that the Canadian Government has never been particularly friendly towards indigenous people in this country. How can the Canadian government then make friends with indigenous people when they never were friends in the first place?

There was never a ‘disagreement’ between the Canadian Government and the hundreds of indigenous nations on this land we call Canada, which also extend into one of the other colonial countries on  this continent. During the French regime, there was some coöperation between the colonial administration and some of the indigenous nations on the north shore of the St.Laurence river. However, there was no doubt that the values of the colonial administrators and indigenous leaders often clashed. Indigenous people were quite understandably taken with copper pots after having to cook their food by throwing hot rocks into cedar containers filled with water and victuals. They were happy to trade beaver pelts for them and for firearms. Nevertheless, it wasn’t long before the colonial administrators undermined the indigenous way of life using the Recollet and Jesuit clergy who promised the indigenous people trade goods if they were to convert to Catholicism. Many did.

Of course, events and circumstances in the French Regime were not ‘Canadian’ events. The British took over from the French what we now call Canada in 1763. They let the colony govern itself after 1867 but had by then instituted an Indian Affairs Department which was perpetuated by the colonial Canadian administration of John A. Macdonald and his cronies after Confederation. By 1876 they passed the Indian Act to clearly cement the master/slave relationship that has lasted ever since.

Obviously, many indigenous people as individuals have often succeeded in their chosen endeavours as lawyers, fishers, business people, university professors, administrators, elected officials, carpenters, plumbers, social workers, etc., but individual success does not deny the collective degradation that colonial powers have consistently tried to burden them with historically. The fact that reserves exist and are legally owned by the federal government, the fact that the statistics on poverty, mental illness, suicide, etc., demonstrate that as a group, indigenous people have suffered immense harm over the course of Canadian history. You would have to be a hardcore bigot to argue that collectively indigenous people are inferior to white folk as a means of explaining their poor statistical profile. Unfortunately, our culture, our societies, our political structures including our cities, police forces, and courts are built on the tacit assumption of indigenous inferiority.

Over the last 150 years, indigenous leaders have challenged the colonial arrangement that governed their lives. They signed treaties, fought battles with firearms and resisted in many ways. Every time the government felt the least bit threatened by ‘uppity Indians’ it passed amendments to the Indian Act further restricting the movements and activities of indigenous peoples. The potlatch ban, pass laws and the overarching presence of the Indian agent made for difficult times for indigenous people. Still, they never gave up. They faced racism and discrimination, marginalization and exploitation of the worst kind. There were exceptions, of course. There always are.

Now, indigenous leaders, most of them using great restraint and patience, are looking for recognition of traditional culture and ways of life and the revitalization of their languages, but they’re also looking for a better economic deal than they’ve ever had, and its working. New treaties are being signed and new relationships with the federal government are being forged with indigenous people no longer willing to take whatever crumbs the Canadian government offers. They are no longer interested in tokenism and false promises and they have lawyers.

What this amounts to is ‘conciliation’ not ‘reconciliation’. It’s a tribute to indigenous communities all over this country that their preferred way of negotiating is respectful and patient. We need to learn from them. What really strikes me is that indigenous success in business and other ventures will enrich us all.

Conciliation is a process that is slowly happening now. Reconciliation was never possible and is not even realistic given the colonial history of this country. The word implies a past where we all got along splendidly and for some reason grew apart. Anybody who believes that has been living in a dream world or in Tierra Del Fuego. We need to talk about conciliation, not reconciliation. More than that, we have to live conciliation with patience and love.

 

Rushing to print is often a mistake.

Rushing to print is often a mistake and I do believe I rushed to print with my last couple of posts. I think that was a mistake. Research can often turn up evidence from the past that makes a lie out of what we thought was true. Does this really matter? Maybe. Not certainly. It depends on what we want to depict, on what we want to understand and have understood.  I could write fiction, drawn from my imagination, enriched by my experience. How would that be different than what I am doing here? The ‘truth’ of fiction is in how believable it is, how sympathetic the characters are and how ‘realistic’ the scenes. In turning my gaze on my family, I enter a very different realm than I would occupy writing fiction. Of necessity, family histories are mostly fiction, the details of lives lived drowned in a sea of unrecorded continuity just as one tree can be made insignificant standing in a forest. Moments that stand out get into the history books.  Sometimes, they are recorded in a photograph.  More often not. When writing about family, the truth sometimes comes out slowly, not always in one go.  Even the ‘truth’ of a photograph, objective as it might seem, can be revealed more fully in all its complexity when the past, present and future of the depicted scene are entertained.

When I look at the picture I analyze in my last post, I am struck by the innocence of the scene, the mundane aspect of it.  The full impact and relevance of the scene cannot be appreciated at first glance. The scene is nothing outside of its living context. The people depicted in the photograph have no idea what awaits them in the near future, the death, panic and sorrow that they will suffer, as well as the love and sacrifice that will energize life and make it livable for them. What can I see in their faces? Nothing that belies their future. My mother would never have dreamed when this picture was taken that within 3 years she would be having a baby with the man standing next to her in this picture, a man married to the woman who stood just on the other side of him, both of whom had been her family’s close friends for years.

Now, I must make a correction to my previous post where I suggest that Yvonne died on June 22nd, 1945, because it was rumoured my father couldn’t afford a transfusion which would have saved Yvonne’s life. That may still be true, but I now know that my father had asked my mother and aunts to give blood to save his wife. Cecile donated blood sometime after midnight on June 22nd, but it was too little too late.   I learned this by looking through calendars my sister Claudette created for us over the years which contain pages from a diary my mother kept for a few years during the 1940s. It may be that my father had to find blood donors himself because he didn’t have the money to buy blood from the usual sources.  I find this difficult to believe because St. Mary’s was a Catholic hospital and I can’t imagine they would let someone die who couldn’t afford a blood transfusion, but no one lives who can set the record straight.  That makes the photo I introduce in my last post even more compelling to me because now, Cecile, my wonderful older aunt, standing on the far right in this picture, is also intimately involved in the final stages of the drama that was to unfold at St. Mary’s Hospital on June 22nd, 1945.  Death in childbirth was not as common in 1945 as it had been in previous generations but everyone knew that it was a dangerous time.  Yvonne was 29 years old, a mother of five daughters.  Such a tragedy.

It seems my mother and her family were very close to my father and his family for some time before they were married.  There was much socializing between the families starting in Alberta around Bonnyville and continuing in and around New Westminster in British Columbia.  My mother’s diary is full of references to visits to my father’s home in the years leading up to June, 1945.  She writes on Sunday, January 7th, 1945: “My day off [from work at St. Mary’s Hospital]. Went to Zenons for supper and a party.  Stayed until 3 AM.  Had lots of fun…”  On Sunday, March 11th, “I went to Zenons for supper then to a card party. I won $1.50 first prize womens. Zenon won $10.00 door prize…had lunch at Fraser Café with Albert and Gill, Mrs. Lagrange and Zenons.” The close familiarity between the Alberts and Leguerriers is evident in the photograph and it waits patiently, silent in the background to give added meaning to the scene for those who wish to know. The events to unfold in the following few months can only be understood in light of the tight bonds that existed in the community of ‘ex pats’ from Alberta now living in British Columbia.

A photograph can hide as much as it shows.  It can give us the impression of time stopped for an instant, frozen in a way that allows us to return to contemplate the moment, to relive the essence of a snapshot, lingering and maybe meditating on it.  It’s an illusion, of course, but that doesn’t prevent us from taking pictures, from trying to momentarily pause the clock. But clocks are stubborn things.  They stop for no one.

I have another photograph.  This one was probably taken on June 25th, 1945, the day of Yvonne’s funeral. She was buried along with her son, Roger, in St. Peter’s Catholic Cemetery in New Westminster.  It shows my father kneeling before Yvonne’s grave which is covered in flowers, his five daughters by his side.  The same day, my father asked my mother to quit her job at St. Mary’s Hospital, come work for him and look after the girls.

Mental Illness, Homelessness, Drug Addiction: Do These Sound Like Crimes? | BillMoyers.com

Mental Illness, Homelessness, Drug Addiction: Do These Sound Like Crimes? | BillMoyers.com.

Bill Moyers gets it right.  We call it ‘mental’ illness when people display erratic, unusual or abnormal behaviour but most of us don’t believe it’s ‘really’ an illness and our governments act accordingly.  No.  Most of us believe, in our heart of hearts, that mental illness is really a moral failing and if people just got their shit together they would be fine.  Would we tell that to a cancer patient?  Well, yes we would, and we do.  (If you hadn’t smoked, you wouldn’t have lung cancer, so there!) What’s really sick here?  I think our social values are, that’s what.