by Darren Clarke, June 28, 2021
“Gord and I, we knew so little about residential schools,” Mike says. “I really didn’t know anything about them, to my shame. And I think at that time our feeling was, if we knew so little about something like this, like wow, there must be millions of Canadians who have no idea.”
Mike Downie to CBC News, 2018
What to do with, “Canada Day,” 2021?
Given the news of the past few weeks leading up to Canada Day has been defined by the horrifying discoveries of thousands of mass, unmarked, graves at former residential schools in Saskatchewan and British Columbia many of us have wondered- What to do with Canada Day? And that sentence leaves so much to unpack- horrifying doesn’t feel like it captures the depth of the reality does it? Heartbreaking, shocking… they don’t seem to fit the moment either. Perhaps there simply isn’t the quantity or quality of verbiage to do the discoveries justice. Discoveries is another word at issue- these are only discoveries to a certain segment of the population of Canada. They certainly aren’t discoveries to many Indigenous people in Canada.
There’s also the matter of how in the hell does any school have a graveyard? How? If a school around here had a grave site of one white kid I cannot imagine the commotion. And we’re not talking one kid, we’re talking hundreds at a single school.
So what to do about Canada Day? Well, first, it shouldn’t be our primary concern. Finding out more information about the history of residential schools, listening to Indigenous people’s perspective, looking to be part of meaningful, sustained, change. Those are the matters at hand. But July 1st will come, Canada Day, will arrive. While some cities and organizations have thoughtfully taken it upon themselves to cancel Canada Day celebrations many of us will wrestle with what Canada is, has been, nonetheless. And wrestle we should.
The news of cancelled Canada Day celebrations on social media of course was met with a host of reactions- from sober acceptance of a reasonable symbol of national mourning, to confusion, to, of course (because it’s kind of social media’s specialty) anger and denial.
The fact people would be angry and in denial of our countries responsibility for all these deaths didn’t surprise me. It disappointed me but it didn’t surprise me. Why were so many Canadians shocked by the news? Because we weren’t taught it. Because we have consciously or subconsciously accepted that the realities of Indigenous people are separate from the Canada we know. Because too often we chose posturing and false pride as our national narratives over truth telling.
Whether there’s a Canada Day or not it does leave us with what to make of our identity. I have always held nationalism, pride, borders, with a dim view. The amount of carnage and barbaric practices enacted and allowed in the name of nationalism is epic in scope across the globe. Pride, nationalism, tells you honest acknowledgement of failure is weakness. But we are a community. Our actions, be they generated by government, military, policing, bureaucracy, religion, business, art, community groups- they define who we are. Honest examination of our history, of shared behaviour, is a complicated but important endeavour if we are to evolve into a more kind and compassionate community.
I was struck when viewing the angry comments about the idea of cancelling Canada Day that likely most of the commentators, “proud Canadians,” were Tragically Hip fans. The Tragically Hip having long been considered the ideal in joyously celebrating all things Canadiana. Indeed the Hip’s abundant catalogue of songs frequently name drops Canadian icons like- Bill Barilko, Hugh Maclennan, Bobby Orr, Bobcaygeon, etc. along the way to creating the soundtrack for many Canada Day barbecues and parties. The Tragically Hip, particularly its charismatic singer, Gord Downie (who passed away in 2017), actually does have something to offer to all of us in the context of the Residential School discoveries.
In October 2016 Tragically Hip Gord Downie released an album, accompanied by a graphic novel, entitled Secret Path. The Secret Path website has a statement from Gord Downie on what inspired the last work of his lifetime. A work he completed while suffering the ravages of brain cancer-
STATEMENT BY GORD DOWNIE
Ogoki Post, Ontario
September 9, 2016
Mike Downie introduced me to Chanie Wenjack; he gave me the story from Ian Adam’s Maclean’s magazine story dating back to February 6, 1967, “The Lonely Death of Charlie Wenjack.”
Chanie was a young boy who died on October 22, 1966, walking the railroad tracks, trying to escape from the Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School to walk home. Chanie’s home was 400 miles away. He didn’t know that. He didn’t know where it was, nor know how to find it, but, like so many kids – more than anyone will be able to imagine – he tried. I never knew Chanie, the child his teachers misnamed Charlie, but I will always love him.
Chanie haunts me. His story is Canada’s story. This is about Canada. We are not the country we thought we were. History will be re-written. We are all accountable, but this begins in the late 1800s and goes to 1996. “White” Canada knew – on somebody’s purpose – nothing about this. We weren’t taught it; it was hardly ever mentioned.
All of those Governments, and all of those Churches, for all of those years, misused themselves. They hurt many children. They broke up many families. They erased entire communities. It will take seven generations to fix this. Seven. Seven is not arbitrary. This is far from over. Things up north have never been harder. Canada is not Canada. We are not the country we think we are.
I am trying in this small way to help spread what Murray Sinclair said, “This is not an aboriginal problem. This is a Canadian problem. Because at the same time that aboriginal people were being demeaned in the schools and their culture and language were being taken away from them and they were being told that they were inferior, they were pagans, that they were heathens and savages and that they were unworthy of being respected — that very same message was being given to the non-aboriginal children in the public schools as well…They need to know that history includes them.” (Murray Sinclair, Ottawa Citizen, May 24, 2015)
I have always wondered why, even as a kid, I never thought of Canada as a country – It’s not a popular thought; you keep it to yourself – I never wrote of it as so. The next hundred years are going to be painful as we come to know Chanie Wenjack and thousands like him – as we find out about ourselves, about all of us – but only when we do can we truly call ourselves, “Canada.”
“Do we want to live in a haunted house the rest of our lives?” – Joseph Boyden
Now, it’s notable that there has been some criticism of Downie’s Secret Path. Beyond the true story of Chenie Wenjeck the story telling elected to use fictionalized accounts to create context for the story instead of tapping into the abundance of real stories available. Beyond that there was the matter of Downie being included amongst 29 people awarded the Order of Canada in June of 2017 for their outstanding work on Indigenous issues. A CBC article on the ceremony noted, “Thomas-Müller, a member of the Mathias Colomb Cree Nation, says at a time of reconciliation the most visible face in the discourse around residential schools and reconciliation should not have been a white rock star.”
Muller expressed further, “If I’ve learned one thing as an activist it’s that we don’t need white people to translate our narrative to the mainstream.”
The criticism is fair. Too often white people have hijacked the story telling of the challenges faced by Indigenous people. It’s also fair though to state that the disconnect between Indigenous Canadians and non-Indigenous Canadians has too often been predicated upon the fact non-Indigenous Canadians have been unaware of Indigenous historical and present day realities. Additionally, even when aware, non-Indigenous Canadians have not communicated with each other urgently enough the need for us to seek out Indigenous voices and push our leaders for change. However imperfect the reality was, Downie using his voice, his position, to try and connect non-Indigenous Canadians to an important part of our country was significant.
While I appreciate the thought behind cancelling Canada Day celebrations at a larger level I don’t pretend to have the answers here for what to do with Canada Day on an individual level. Maybe the answer though is in considering Canada Day as we always should have- our best, our worst, all points in between. So maybe on Canada Day I’ll consider Canada’s great artists, musicians, writers, our desire for democracy and freedom, our social programs, including the fact that a landslide portion of our population supports something as noble as Public Healthcare. I will also however recognize the worst. I will think of individual military sacrifices and noble peacekeeping efforts abroad but I will also remember that the Canadian military and police have committed war crime violations and too often been used as a weapon against indigenous people in Canada. I’ll think of the destructive behaviours of Canadian companies abroad (see Sudan and Eritrea), the takeover of our newspapers by American hedge funds that seek to sow discord and prevent communication, our gutting of the environment and consistent support for a Conservative party whose actions indicate a willingness to dismantle our healthcare system and our public broadcaster (at a time where it was never more needed), to further diminish environmental regulations and important social infrastructure while utilizing division and prejudice to galvanize a base that will, via the ballot box, allow the Conservative party to continue to forward the interests of those whose only concern is to take from us without supplying anything in return. The Conservative Party has also actively opposed, in both the House of Commons and the Senate, Canada adopting the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
So why a playlist? Because I have to think that no matter the magnitude of good and bad, we always have time as individuals to remember that art, music, the curiosity and passion to share that it is born of, can elevate us. That’s trite I know but it is also kind of true.
Late in life the writer Patrick Leigh Fermor wrote of a trip he took as a young man on foot from England to Constantinople. The trip took him through places like Austria and Germany during the buildup to World War II. Walking through lost kingdoms, vast forests, along winding river banks, sleeping in an eclectic collection of spots- barns, wilderness, sprawling abodes of hospitable counts and barons Fermor rarely tapped into the zeitgeist of the rumblings of war. Why would a super intelligent, insightful, young man not recognize the indicators of the Great War that Europe was on the brink of? Probably because the world of a traveller does not tune into that channel, probably because when met with genuine curiosity and openness to different views, people rarely want to do battle and instead choose to share with you what is best about who they are. Thus the book is filled with moments of wonder, generosity, kindness, sharing of perspectives, careful consideration and almost entirely bereft of chilly standoffs, anger, war.
Maybe, some of the answers start there. In how different perspectives approach each other.
In 1883, in a report to the House of Commons, Canada’s first Prime Minister, John A MacDonald, spoke of assimilating, “Indians.” He spoke of teaching them the white man’s way. “When the school is on the reserve the child lives with its parents, who are savages; he is surrounded by savages, and though he may learn to read and write his habits, and training and mode of thought are Indian. He is simply a savage who can read and write. It has been strongly pressed on myself, as the head of the Department, that Indian children should be withdrawn as much as possible from the parental influence, and the only way to do that would be to put them in central training industrial schools where they will acquire the habits and modes of thought of white men.”
If white people are going to speak at all on this topic this is what we must address- How we chose to force our worst inclinations upon indigenous peoples instead of trying to share what is best about us. How we never gave genuine consideration to their perspectives and ways of life. How we were awful travellers and worse roommates. We need to talk about how when faced with people with different sensibilities we chose not to try and respect that, to appreciate it, to recognize any basic common denominators like curiosity and kindness, and instead chose to forcefully attempt to assimilate them via disenfranchisement, abuse and as we are seeing, death.
We did this for over 100 years.
And if you’re thinking, “Hey, what John A MacDonald said was in 1883!” Consider that the last residential school didn’t close until 1996 and that the Conservative party of Canada’s resistance to meaningful engaging in reconciliation has been accompanied by verbiage not so far off from John A. MacDonald’s. For instance prominent, federal, Conservative Pierre Poilivre following up his 2008 statement that Canada wasn’t, “getting value for all this money,” being extended to survivors of Residential Schools with, “My view is that we need to engender the values of hard work and independence and self-reliance. That’s the solution in the long run — more money will not solve it.” While inflammatory views like Poilivre’s (from the Harper regime) are not currently governing federally, they are in many provinces where examples of Conservative denial are rampant with Maclean’s noting in 2018 that the newly elected Ontario Conservatives, “dismissed a plan to revise the province’s social studies and history curriculums to add Indigenous content.” Meanwhile the ruling federal Liberal Party has seemed long on symbolic gestures but short on meaningful action (i.e. delays in providing clean drinking water for First Nations).
The problem then is a problem now.
So, again, why a playlist? Not because it directly solves the issue because of course it doesn’t. Rather it’s simply a reminder that on an individual level we can’t consider important things if we don’t tap into what is best about us. Music, joy, compassion, conscience, a desire to share the things that move us as individuals- love, humour and that whole gamut of the individual experience of trying to connect positively with the world around us.
This playlist begins, ends, is centred by, songs from Gord Downie’s Secret path album.
And hey, maybe while you are listening you can use this link to check out these books on the Canadian Residential School System- https://www.ictinc.ca/blog/reading-for-reconciliation-6-books-on-residential-schools
This is a link to the THE GORD DOWNIE & CHANIE WENJACK FUND if you’d like to contribute- https://downiewenjack.ca/?fbclid=IwAR0NyoGa4K0Sxxcn-SzkHi3cjW-oeQiWXkTlX9eOu_F6ypc9JS5vlYQ_mQI
Here’s also a link to the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission website- https://nctr.ca/records/reports/
And a link to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous people- https://www.un.org/development/desa/indigenouspeoples/declaration-on-the-rights-of-indigenous-peoples.html