As is the case with most gifts, the technology that is bringing the world's peoples closer together is a double-edged sword. The more it breaks down the barriers between us, the more it also weakens our cultural distinctiveness.
Just like an eco-system, a culture is a delicate balance of elements that individually may not appear significant, but taken as a whole form something unique and precious. Change or remove one element in that system and you've got something completely different. In the natural world, it's usually the introduction of a foreign species of plant or animal life, or the removal of the same, that changes it irrevocably for the worse.
In cultural matters, it sometimes is only a matter of contact between two peoples for it to happen. Usually it will be that one is technically more sophisticated than the other, and simply overwhelms and absorbs the other. Many countries have tried to take steps to preserve their culture by encouraging its growth while erecting barriers to foreign content.
But there is also another scenario – one that was first put into affect by the British Empire at home and abroad, and has been emulated by other countries through out the world: The deliberate attempt to eliminate a people's culture as a means of subduing them and forcibly assimilating them to be like their conquerors. In Ireland and elsewhere the Empire enacted official policies forbidding the native languages in the hopes of cutting people off from their heritage.
But the most insidious practice was carried out in North America by post-colonial governments, with the assistance of the Catholic and Anglican Churches in Canada. Residential Schools were established to forcibly turn Indian children against their parents and their heritage.
Each child who entered the system was forbidden to speak the language of their nation and was told that all they had been taught up until that point was evil and a lie. They were given haircuts and forced to take new names. Anybody caught speaking their language or using their old name was severely punished.
This wasn't even an attempt to teach the children how to get ahead in society. Half their days were spent learning unskilled trades preparing them for a life of service to their "betters". The boys were taught janitorial skills and yard work, while the young girls were taught how to be either scullery maids or other forms of household drudges.
It was bad enough that they were ripped away from their families and emotionally, mentally, and physically abused by the staff of these institutions during the day. What went on at night in the dormitories is the stuff of nightmares. Many of the students, male and female, were sexually abused on a continual basis for their entire stay in these prisons.
The end result of these schools was the creation of a generation of people who were almost completely cut off from their own culture and not capable of existing in the one they were supposedly "trained" to take part in: A lost generation of scared, hurt, and, lonely people, damaged far beyond anything most of us can understand.
By the year 2005 the federal government of Canada under the Liberal party had agreed to certain measures to redress the issue. Various financial packages were offered, and it was promised as part of the deal that the government would offer an official apology for the policy.
But now the current administration, the Conservative Party of Canada has reneged on that promise. In fact from comments made by the Indian Affairs Minister, Jim Prentice, lead one to believe that the government is trying to whitewash what exactly the schools did.
The most he will say is that the residential schools involved a difficult time in our history, but – and this is the real killer – "the underlying objective had been to provide aboriginal children with an education". Which means that Jim Prentice is either a professional liar or an ignorant fool who doesn't even read history books.
But then again the Conservative Party already knows that Native Canadians aren't going to vote for them, and neither are people who are sympathetic to their plight. They're playing to their constituents, the people who believe that Native people are welfare drunks who lost the war and are lucky we give them anything.
To say that Native leaders are appalled is to put it mildly. To go from a government which recognised the damage caused by the Residential School System, to one that wants to gloss over the nasty bits of our history and make out that the policy had its heart in the right place, is worse than insulting, and it's obscene. I would like to ask Jim Prentice a question, seeing how he thinks this policy was so benign.
How would he like his children taken away from him and made to change the names he had given them, learn a language that prevented him from talking to them, and be told that all he believed was a lie and evil? Wouldn't he want someone to apologise to him for treating his children like that?
The effects of the Residential Schools are still being felt on reserves today as the children of the people who attended them are now a second generation of lost people. They live out in the middle of nowhere with no running water or electricity much of the time, and with little or no connection to their nation's past, or any connection to the land.
While many countries face a difficult battle these days in trying to preserve their cultural identities in the face of an onslaught of homogenisation, the First Nation people of Canada are dealing with trying to teach two generations of people what was stolen from them by government policy. It's just too bad that our current government doesn't view cultural genocide as something you should apologise for.