Bristow on CANADA DAY

For most of my life I have been a proud Canadian, proud of how much we give to other nations in famine and war, proud of all the help we provide them in their own countries, as I did in the 1960s, and proud, too, of our openness for immigrants and refugees to come here.

I grew up in Lachine, across the river from the Mohawk reserve of Caugnawaga, I attended high school with a number of the kids from that reserve, and my biggest crush was on someone from there. As a writer, I always wondered why we did not learn more about the aboriginal people who were here long before us, and whose land we took. I was more ignorant of them than I was of the tribes of Nigeria, where I lived for a while. The only thing I remember hearing about the residential schools was the motivation behind them: the USA had a ‘melting pot’ philosophy, and we, as a nation, apparently aimed to blend all Canadians together in a similar way. I have learned through the media over the years that our jails and inner-city streets are full of men and women from first nations, many of them alcoholics or drug users, and I wondered what had gone so wrong for them.

In recent years, as the stories of the residential schools have come out, I have begun to understand. Like most of us, I have been surprised and scandalized by the horror stories that Canadian media are now reporting on. I have also grown sadder and wiser about the idealism and cleanness of our national history. No longer will I be able to travel abroad and feel cocky as a Canadian. The whole world now knows that our big and welcoming heart did not protect the first people to occupy this beautiful country. Yes, I understand the rationale for the founding of the residential schools, and yes, I know that the government approached churches to run them because they felt that the people of the first nations had more respect for them than they did for the government itself, but no, I cannot accept the cruelty and animus that seems to have governed the behaviour of some of the teachers and administrators who ran these schools, nor the apathy of those in the broader society who felt that the end justified the means. I am ashamed and embarrassed by what my ancestors allowed to happen, and upset that both the media and the education system allowed this to go unnoticed and unknown for so long. As a Canadian, I own that now, and so do my children and grandchildren. I can no longer point at the average German who denied knowledge of the atrocities in the Nazi death camps during the 1940’s and say, “Canadians are better than that.” And that makes me sad.

So this Canada Day will be a little different for me. On June 30th I will take some time to listen to the stories of our native population, whether I want to hear them or not, and on Canada Day I will be joining a nationwide prayer conference on zoom which will be led by representatives from across Canada, including some first nations Christians. I still love this country, but I am more wary now, and much less likely to assume that what seems like a good idea at first glance is indeed ‘good’. If we have learned anything from this exposure to our own national shame, it has to be that!

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