Walking through a Building on Fire

NDP MP Mumilaaq Qaqqaq Globe and Mail, Thursday June 17th

On June 17th, two articles were published that really struck me. A third piece, written in the winter of 2019/20 by Dr. Timothy Stanley about the removal of Sir John A. Macdonald’s statue in Victoria in 2018 acts as an important piece that links these two events. They all have to do with belonging – who belongs here and who is honoured and respected. Who feels like the ‘other’ and whose history do we understand.

It seems to me that we are going through a radical transformation right now in Canada. The first article about Mumilaaq Qaqqaq’s decision not to run again in the next election doesn’t seem to have received too much attention, but I think it is really important. She talks about the House of Parliament as being an ‘uneasy place’

It’s a place where they make laws that result in Indigenous death and result in turmoil for a lot of our communities. I feel that.

Globe and Mail June 17, 2021

There is a connection to this very brave declaration by this Inuit lawmaker and the movement to roll back the symbols of racism and genocide from our places of honour and prominence. To me, it is intolerable that a young woman who represents all of Nunavut should be stopped by security guards while in the Parliament Buildings and questioned whether she really belonged.

The statues of John A. MacDonald really do not belong – if there is a lingering spirit of the man circling around the statues and buildings with his name on it, it is this spirit who should feel like it does not belong.

The CBC article – Kingston to move Sir John A. Macdonald statue from City Park is significant because Kingston is seen as the home of Macdonald and many people feel that the removal of the statue offends their sense of community. Plans seem to be in play to move the statue to his gravesite also in Kingston. I have a better idea (not my own), but more about that later.

The article by Dr. Stanley is really important here. This statue removal he writes about took place in 2018 so we have gained a bit of perspective on what the removal means in Victoria, the community where it stood. His article Commemorating John A. Macdonald: Collective Remembering and the Structure of Settler Colonialism in British Columbia ( BC studies, no. 204, Winter 2019/20), available here, it an important read especially now.

There are so many issues circulating around Macdonald and the central role he has played developing the institution of Residential Schools in Canada. You would think that we could all get behind a rethinking of his place in our history, but we are a nation in conflict. We seem unwilling to understand the implications of colonial politicians like Macdonald.

It is not as simple as the removal of the statues of Confederate Generals from sites in the United States – even though this is not all that simple. MacDonald never made war on Canada, but you could easily say he did make war on the different Indigenous and Metis populations his government encountered.

One idea that Dr. Stanley explores is the whole notion that by removing statues of Macdonald we are somehow erasing history. This is usually said by people who really have a really poor notion of what history really is.

What we emphasize and retell changes over time. The history we look to tells us much more about the messages governments want put out there at a particular time. It has little to do with faithfully rendering a clear narrative.

The statue of former Canadian prime minister Sir John A. Macdonald is covered by a red sheet in Kingston, Ont. on June 11, 2021. On Wednesday, Kingston’s city council voted to move the monument to Cataraqui Cemetery. The city will also spend $80,000 for the transportation and installation of the statue. (Lars Hagberg/The Canadian Press)

There are so many interesting ideas in Dr. Stanley’s article I encourage you to take some time to go through this. He does sum up early in the article the idea of ‘settler colonialism’ a label used to describe the opposition to challenging the traditional narrative that Macdonald, Ryerson, Cornwallis or Langevin were simply good public stewards doing the best they could with the resources at hand.

This form of colonialism exists today in Canada and is manifest in all those who are currently opposing the removal of Macdonald’s statues.

While the structure of settler colonialism is all too real for Indigenous peoples, for most settlers it is largely invisible until such time as monuments get taken away or dominant systems of representation get challenged. 

Stanley p. 2

The council debate in Kingston illustrates how far apart Indigenous voices are from those espousing a colonial settler mindset. Delegates against the removal used arguments including ‘two wrongs don’t make a right’ and that the removal of the statue was a harsh judgment of a historical figure, and that such a move would constitute “cancel culture.” (Kingston Whig Standard, June 16).

For sure there will be more of this type of talk as the statue is scheduled to come down this Friday ( June 25). It was the same in Victoria as Dr. Stanley quotes from a CBC report:

Matthew Breeden, reported as having travelled from Vancouver to protest, told CBC: “It’s part of our history I feel is being ripped right out and gutted down. I think that’s just terrible.” He continued: “They just pushed it right through – the public wasn’t allowed to have a say.”

John A. Macdonald Statue Removed from Victoria City Hall,” CBC News, 11 August 2018, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/john-a-macdonald-statue-victoria-city-hall-lisa-helps-1.4782065.  

An interesting side note, Doug Ford, then the newly elected Premier of Ontario called on Vistoria to send the statue to Ontario. In their official request they noted:

As a Father of Confederation and our first Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald holds a significant place in the hearts of many Canadians and should be honoured accordingly

Globe and Mail August 14, 2018

These reactions, especially about not having ‘our say’, really shows the state we are still in as a country. When we talk about ‘our’ we are still talking about colonial settler mentality. When we think again about Mumilaaq Qaqqaq , it becomes clearer how alienated she must feel being at the center of colonial power in Canada. The lack of any noticeable reaction to this story is telling. Our House of Parliament is not inclusive, it does not speak for all; it still speaks, as it did in the days of Macdonald for the colonial settler.

Sir John A. Macdonald’s grave, located in Cataraqui Cemetery in Kingston, seen here on Thursday. PHOTO BY JULIA MCKAY /The Whig-Standard

The new resting spot for the Kingston statue is supposed to be at his grave site at the Cataraqui Cemetery just outside of Kingston. There was no consultation with Indigenous groups about this, just a last-minute vote of council to move it to another place of honour.

This is not the right decision on what to do with the Macdonald statue. If we want to develop a holistic historical narrative, one where a young Inuit MP feels like she belongs, we need to do some radical retelling of the story of this land. First, when it comes to honouring people responsible for genocide, Dr. Stanley has a suggestion to pass along:

In this respect, the controversy over Macdonald shows that there is much work to be done in encouraging Canadians to come to terms with their own complicity in settler colonialisms and racisms. Here are two suggestions regarding what to do with Macdonald monuments. One comes from a man from the Muskeg Lake Cree Nation in Saskatchewan who has the unfortunate name of John A. McDonald. He suggests melting the statues down and making medals to give to residential school survivors: “He stole a piece of you, here’s a piece of him … you survived, and he didn’t, and let’s give it to every survivor of residential schools, everybody that survived the cultural genocide that he attempted.”

Stanley p.25

We are a building on fire, but many of the occupants are not smelling the smoke. We need to start with a new idea about what ‘our history’ is and at the same time stop honouring the men of power who have so much to answer for.

A moment of reckoning in Canada

Parliament Hill Monday, June 7th, 2021

There are times in our collective story when something really stops people in their tracks. The story of the 215 unmarked graves beside a residential school in Kamloops is one of these instances. Even though the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report has been out since 2015, it seems to take the pictures of 215 little pairs of shoes on Parliament Hill to bring all this home to us.

We have known about the appalling death count in residential schools since at least 1907. That year, Dr. Peter Henderson Bryce produced a report on the state of health in Canada’s residential schools. The conclusions of the report were astounding:

“It suffices for us to know, however, that of a total of 1,537 pupils reported upon nearly 25 per cent are dead, of one school with an absolutely accurate statement, 69 per cent of ex-pupils are dead, and that everywhere the almost invariable cause of death given is tuberculosis.”

The Bryce Report, 1907 p.18
One of the tables from the report. What is striking is that many schools did not report at all or said their records were incomplete, records that Archbishop Collins now says are available to all. The Bryce Report p. 18-19

Bryce focused on one particular school where the results were particularly heart wrenching:

Thus, of a total of 31 discharged from the File Hills school, 9 died at the school, of 6 others there is no record of condition on discharge, but all are reported to be dead, 7 others died from within a few months to three years after discharge and 9 are reported as in good health,

The Bryce Report, 1907 p. 18

The reason for this very high death rate was well understood. Scientific medicine had made great strides in the past 40 years and the health effects of good and proper ventilation were well understood. In many of the schools however, there was a criminal inattention to what was needed to keep kids well and protected. Bryce continues:

in the absence of regular and sufficient ventilation, extremely inadequate; that for at least 7 months in the long winter of the west, double sashes are on the windows in order to save fuel and maintain warmth and that for some 10 continuous hours children are confined in dormitories, the air of which, if pure to start with, has within 15 minutes become polluted, so as to be capable of detection by ordinary chemical tests. It is apparent that general ill health from the continued inspiration of an air of increasing foulness is inevitable; but when sometimes consumptive pupils and, very frequently, others with discharging scrofulous glands, are present to add an infective quality to the atmosphere, we have created a situation so dangerous to health that I was often surprised that the results were not even worse than they have been shown statistically to be.

The Bryce Report p. 19

The report goes on to talk about a general inadequate level of physical activity provided for the students and the absolute disregard for daily health and sanitation in the schools.

Such a report could have been a clarion call for action. These children were the responsibility of the state and it was clearly the state’s responsibility along with the various churches to make amends and vastly improve every aspect of the residential learning environment.

But here is where the story get sinister. Dr. Bryce reported to Duncan Campbell Scott, federal Deputy Superintendent of the Department of Indian Affairs and Scott suppressed the report. It was leaked to the media causing a public outcry, but very little was done to follow through on Bryce’s recommendations that included “the handing over of the school system to the Chief Medical Officer and be made in its first essentials a sanitorium system rather than an educational one: That each child must be primarily considered an “individual case of probably tuberculosis.”
That improvements be made in the buildings so that open air work-rooms and dormitories shall be provided.
That increased expenditure for extra clothing be provided for, also a special dietary. Also improved water
supply for bathing &.” Indian Residential Schools & Reconciliation

In fact, the report was seen as an irritation:

It will be obvious at once that Dr. Boyce’s recommendations while they may be scientific are quite inapplicable

to the system under which these schools are conducted. Even were the Department prepared to take the schools

over from the Churches, it is self evident that the Churches would not be willing to give up their share of the

joint control. These preliminary examinations by Dr. Lafferty and Dr. Bryce have already caused considerable

irritation and brought protests from the Roman Catholic authorities who have the larger number of pupils under

their charge

Department of Indian Affairs File 140,754-1 “Correspondence relating to tuberculous among the Indians in the various agencies across Canada 1908-1910” (c10167)

Daily Colonist November 16, 1907

Scott continued to block Bryce at every turn. In 1913, he denied him the funding he needed to continue his work. Bryce was not allowed to present his findings at conferences. He was denied positions in the Federal Public Service that he was certainly qualified and by 1921 he was forced into retirement (First Nations Child and Family Caring Society). All techniques used by large institutions that have no need for the truth.

But we still don’t seem to get it. Decades after the suppression of The Bryce Report by Duncan Campbell Scott and the Canadian Government, there is still no willingness to call the acts of our churches and governments genocide.

The interview with Rosemary Barton and Cardinal Collins is just a rehashing of past wrongs. Would Scott have said anything really different than the platitudes Collins offered this past Sunday?

Collins is a smooth operator and he brushed aside any thought that there are records that have yet to be disclosed, even as the head of the Oblate order, Rev. Ken Thorson, is in the process of digitizing the records from their Kamloops school (CBC, June 6, 2021).

It is the smug arrogance of church leaders like Collins that will really make the struggle for reconciliation so much harder. No need for apologies, no grand gestures, just a little bit of work here and there.

Full interview with Cardinal Collins

When the mighty fall, they fall hard. Trite statements and interviews by complacent, comfortable men do not help. Yesterday Egerton Ryerson’s statue in Toronto came tumbling down and it has been announced it will not be reinstated.

A photo of the Egerton Ryerson statue at Ryerson University in Toronto after being pulled to the ground. Credit: Global News. Global News

Ryerson was responsible for the early design of the residential school model in Canada. He believed that white and indigenous students should not be taught in the same schools due to their different cultural backgrounds. He was also responsible for developing the separate school system in Ontario – another outmoded idea that might also soon face the chopping block.

As we reexamine our history, who do we still honour? Who do we now comdemn?

All history is relative and the judgement of current times will have to be meted out on people like Scott, MacDonald and Ryerson. These are Canadian icons no more and they must all be toppled from their ridiculous pedestals so we can move on.