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What Do Canada’s Native Residential Schools And Barack Obama Have In Common?

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At first glance there might not appear to be much in common between the Canadian government's announcement of who will be heading the Truth and Reconciliation Committee looking into the history of the Residential School System in Canada and the presidential aspirations of Barack Obama and the controversy surrounding the pastor of his church, Jeremiah Wright. Yet both stories reflect deep divisions that exist in both Canadian and American society. Even a cursory look at the history behind both stories reveals the similarities, while also making a telling statement about both countries and their approaches to similar problems.

In Canada, as in other areas of North America, after the government was unable to commit actual genocide against the Native population they decided to settle on the next best thing and try for cultural genocide. Towards that end they enlisted the aid of both the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches in establishing the Residential School system. A generation of Native Canadian children were taken from their families and placed in this school system in order to drive the "Indianness" out of them.

To that end they had their identities stripped from them through changing their names, forbidding them to speak their languages and practice their religions, and teaching them that the ways of their parents were evil. They were forced to speak in either only English or French, depending on what part of Canada the school was in, and given training in the most menial of professions. The girls were put to work in the school kitchens and laundries so they could learn how to be scullery maids and the boys were put to work as janitorial staff and given basic training in unskilled labour.

Aside from having to cope with the terror of being away from home and family, they were also subjected to physical and emotional abuse as punishment for attempting to use their own language or attempting to follow their traditions. On top of that, large numbers of both the boys and the girls were sexually abused on a regular basis by the staff of the facilities. As a result of the Residential Schools – the last one was closed in the 1970s – generations of Native Canadians found themselves unable to fit in either the White world or the world of their parents.

The colour of their skin named them as second class citizens within society at large, and they didn't have the skills sufficient to find steady employment. On the other hand they no longer had the traditions of their own people to turn to for solace, and they couldn't even talk to their parents any more as they no longer spoke the same language. With their identities stripped away, suffering the effects of sexual, emotional, and physical abuse, and having no means to earn a living, is it any wonder that they and subsequent generations should feel as if they have no future?

When the African National Congress became the first majority rule government in South Africa's history, one of the first things they established was a Truth and Reconciliation Committee whose mandate was to travel around the country hearing from people about their experiences under apartheid. Headed by Bishop Desmond Tutu, their mission wasn't simply about apportioning blame, but to try and find a way out of the hate of the past by facing up to the the truth and accepting it. You can't undo the past, but you can come to terms with it so it no longer controls you. The Canadian government hopes that under the guidance of Native Canadian judge Harry LaForme, Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Committee will be able to begin that process in Canada.

Although slavery was outlawed in the United States with the defeat of the Southern states in their Civil War, segregation of Black and White exists to this day. Up until the 1960s it was common to see signs in restaurants, swimming pools, and public washrooms forbidding service to people of colour. In the 1970s white communities were still protesting the forced integration of their schools. Although circumstances have obviously improved, there is still a sizable economic and social gap between the two races.

While Barack Obama claims to be running for President of the United States because he says he was convinced that people no longer wanted to be divided by race, religion or what region of the country they live in, he doesn't have to look any further than the pastor of his own church to see that sharp divisions still exist between black and white. Rev. Jeremiah Wright has given speeches damning the Untied States for its history of racism and accusing the American government of using AIDS as a weapon against the Black community.

Memories of Hurricane Katrina and tens of thousands of poor Black people seemingly abandoned by their government as they were dying of starvation and dehydration in the Super Dome are still fresh in plenty of peoples' minds. When that's combined with the continual foot dragging by all levels of government when it's come to rebuilding the homes that these same people lost when the waters flooded the Ninth Ward, and the obscenely quick way in which residences were bulldozed after the waters retreated before there was chance to see if they could be salvaged, you can see why even people more moderate than Wright might be having trust issues.

America has a tendency to look at the past through rose-coloured glasses and gloss over the negative. Why do White police officers still stop Black men driving expensive cars more often than they stop White men driving the same cars? Why is the American prison population predominately Black? Why do more Black people live in poverty and have less access to health insurance and education than White people? The answers to those questions can only be found if you are willing to look the past directly in the eye and accept it and its consequences.

Saying that people don't want to be separated by the divide of race any more is all very well and good, but they are empty words when the reality is that people are divided by race and nothing is being done to rectify it. There are very real fears on both sides of this divide that can't just be glossed over by cheery words and optimism. You can't just wish away history or whisk it under the rug as if it never happened.

For the next five years Justice Harry LaForme will be traveling across Canada and examining over a hundred years of Canadian history in the hopes of finding a way to resolve the anger and recriminations that exist on both sides of the issue when it comes to the history of the Residential Schools in Canada. It's not going to be an easy task for many reasons, and it will open a lot of old wounds that some people might have preferred left alone. But when there is still rot in a wound the only way to prevent it from festering is to air it out.

You might want to think about giving Justice LaForme a call one of these days, Mr. Obama, and find out what kind of work it takes to bridge these divides of yours. America might be ready for you as a President, but are you ready for America's history?

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.
  • Zedd

    Richard,

    How human of you. Thank you.

    Obama knows exactly what Wright is saying, he just cant acknowledge it, not in a land where there has never been a TRC or ever will be one, just over acted Hollywood approximations of simple minded theatrical Negros whaling about their mama and babies; no depth and no humanity revealed.

  • Malloumi

    It’s a wonderful insight into what was done in both Canada and the United States to their own citizens. The TRC is timely welcomed to heal past wounds. And I believe also it takes a person like Obama at the White House Office to bring about this sort of TRC.

  • Honour

    Mr. Marcus: While I am very heartened and glad to read about the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee, I feel a huge let-down when I see you have (unwittingly?) omitted the Native Peoples of the U.S. from your article. It would have been a natural, and obviously long-overdue, step to carry your picture of the experiences of Canada’s Indians over into at least a token accounting of those of our original tribes here in America, and to include their needs for Truth and Reconciliation (I like to say those words – I think they should remain capitalized) alongside those of our black brothers and sisters.

    I am so weary of this continuing widespread absentmindedness regarding those red people who have suffered every bit as much of deceipt, abuse and neglect at the hands of European invaders as have other minorities. Actually, their plight is still the most overlooked of serious problems among our citizens, in every state of the union – and continues today much as it has for hundreds of years. Please remember them as you (hopefully) expand your purview in future articles.

    I feel compelled to add that there seems, herein, to be an undertone of judgement toward Mr. Obama that is unfair and undeserved; unfair in that no one should be held accountable for the choices of another (Wright), and undeserved because Mr. Obama has worked for twenty years for the betterment of minorities and the underpriveleged in community organizing and legislation in the areas of civil liberties, education, food programs, ethics reform, healthcare for kids, earned income-tax credit, etc., etc.. He has promised to create a position of Native American Advisor in his cabinet, and also to host an annual national Council of Tribal Leaders. Of course, it is ridiculous to assume that he would not also include African Americans in every aspect of his administration’s program of healing and change. Why do you make this presumption? What are you in judgement of here? What are you afraid of?

    Please be fair, help us to support the first real light of hope to come into the presidential election process in 40 years. We desperately need him. If, in your writing, you are truly invested in helping to create positive change in the world, then you must recognize this – and rather than project your fears – lend your support. I thank you.