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September-October 2016

Canadians must acknowledge Indigenous history

It may be hard to hear, but we have to hear it

Susan Crean

ThisMagazine50_coverLores-minFor our special 50th anniversary issue, Canada’s brightest, boldest, and most rebellious thinkers, doers, and creators share their best big ideas. Through ideas macro and micro, radical and everyday, we present 50 essays, think pieces, and calls to action. Picture: plans for sustainable food systems, radical legislation, revolutionary health care, a greener planet, Indigenous self-government, vibrant cities, safe spaces, peaceful collaboration, and more—we encouraged our writers to dream big, to hope, and to courageously share their ideas and wish lists for our collective better future. Here’s to another 50 years!


The theme of remembering runs through the 94 recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). It is behind the suggestion that Indigenous curricula be mandatory and in Justice Murray Sinclair’s insistence that non-Indigenous Canadians learn about residential schools and Indigenous history. In the context of reconciliation, how do we do this? How do we respond to the harrowing disclosures of survivors if not with equal candour?

This means personalizing the non-Indigenous part. It means doing something more than acknowledging horrific things happened and identifying them as cultural genocide. The idea of acculturating a generation of Indigenous children by removing them from their families and forcing them to live in the language and culture of the invading settlers happened by design. It required institutions, memos, and individuals to pull off. Remembering means putting names, faces, and language to the non-Indigenous side of the narrative. D.C. Scott, the bureaucrat behind the residential school scheme, and Deputy Superintendent General of Indian Affairs for 19 years, is well known. There are many others, though, there to be found in the records, as well as in living memory.

Candid remembering also requires re-remembering at times. Take Trutch Street in Vancouver. I walked it many times before I wondered why Joseph Trutch—who was instrumental in the imposition of a reserve system—was memorialized in a Kitsalano neighbourhood where all the other streets are named after trees or British naval battles. In Victoria, Trutch had successfully campaigned for the removal of the Songhee people in 1911. He was a man who noted for the record that he was “not about to allow a few red vagrants to prevent industrious settlers from settling unoccupied land.” In 1913, the Kitsilano living on the south shore of the Burrard Inlet were similarly removed, herded from their homes (later burned to the ground), loaded onto barges and relocated to North Vancouver.

History gives us villains, but it’s also worth remembering dissenters. Louis Riel was double-damned for betraying his non-Indigenous ancestry as well as the state. Emily Carr understood artistry and a powerful spirituality informed the carvings of the Coast Salish and Haida, yet helped bring about the notion they were “a dying race.” Arthur O’Meara, on the other hand, was vilified in his day. A lawyer and Anglican lay-minister who ardently supported land claims and the inherent rights of Aboriginal peoples, he appeared as counsel to the Allied Indian Tribes of B.C before the 1927 Joint Parliamentary Commission. In the end, the committee declared there was no such thing as Aboriginal title, laying blame for the fruitless appeal on “designing white men” by whom “the Indians are deceived and led to expect benefits from claims more or less fictitious.” By fall, the Indian Act was amended to prohibit the raising of monies to pursue Aboriginal land claims.

Remembering actively means keeping track of promises, especially government ones—like the infamous clause of the Indian Act that stripped women of their status when they married non-status men. Mulroney’s Conservatives removed it in 1985 after years of protest, but replaced it with a two-tiered system that has since denied status to 40,000 children whose fathers are unidentified or unknown. Let this act, and others, remind us that remembering lies at the heart of reconciliation. We all need to do it. Learn our history, and say these things out loud, in person and in the present tense.

Susan Crean is a writer and activist. This piece is based on an essay for the TRC, featured in Response, Responsibility and Renewal, published by the Aboriginal Healing Foundation, 2009.

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