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Saturday, April 19, 2014

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Canadian: insulin, the telephone, residential schools

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The Canadian personality is in some ways immature.  

Canadians embrace Canadian things we’re proud of, such as the invention of the telephone by Alexander Graham Bell in 1876, Banting and Best’s discovery of insulin in 1922, and the creation of Trivial Pursuit in 1979 by Chris Haney and Scott Abbott. 

But Canadians – our own Jewish community included – generally don’t take ownership of the atrocities committed in 132 Canadian residential schools from 1840 to 1996, when Canadian racism was at its peak and many of our government officials, security forces and church “leaders” terrorized our aboriginal peoples.

“O Canada, our home and native land”?

We celebrate the good chapters in our history, but respond to the bad things with, “Well, I wasn’t there.” But residential schools are as much part of our peoplehood as Stalinism was to Russia’s, and our failure to accept this fact reflects our compartmentalized relationship to our own history.

Residential schools were established by the federal government to show our native peoples the “superiority” of European-Canadian society – “to kill the Indian in the child.” Children were taken from their parents and sent away to schools that were often run by sexually abusive teachers. Native children, including Inuit and Métis, weren’t allowed to speak their languages or practise their religion. The book A Stranger at Home reveals the terror a child felt upon returning home from a residential school and hearing her mother yell, “She’s not my daughter,” a statement that reflected the distance created between the two. 

It’s not clear how many aboriginal children died or were killed in residential schools by our Canadian ancestors, but documentation by Dr. Peter Bryce, general medical superintendent for the Department of Indian Affairs in the early 20th century, reported to the ministry that from 1894 to 1908, the mortality rate in Western Canadian residential Schools was between 35 and 60 per cent, representing about 50,000 of our children over that time (see http://bit.ly/peKha).

“True patriot love”?

As a Canadian, as a Jew, I’m sickened to share with you that in 1928, Alberta’s Sexual Sterilization Act was passed, allowing students of a residential school to be sterilized with the principal’s approval At least 3,500 young native females were sterilized this way. Knowing this, I can understand the feelings of young Germans today when dealing with aspects of their country’s past.

“The True North strong and free”!?

We know native children were murdered in Canada because of a cultural genocide orchestrated by our government. (Prime Minister Stephen Harper has apologized for this.) We know Ojibwa mothers had their hearts torn out while RCMP officers, following orders, tore their kids away from them as their fathers stood by, emasculated. Yet you won’t find any of this in most board of education history books. You have to squint to find a memorial to our native children. You won’t find a Jewish-native committee.

“We stand on guard for thee”?

Just as we were present in spirit when Banting and Best discovered a serum that would save the lives of our family members, we were equally represented when 132 residential schools operated across Canada and systematically destroyed the lives of our aboriginal people. Canadian history – blemished and glowing – is ours.

To be Canadian is to be compassionate. To be Canadian is to be destructive. But it’s also to be much more. Either way, pledge “Never again” to residential schools. Embrace our history in its entirety and ensure a better future for our native people.  

“With glowing hearts”?  Not entirely.

Avrum@veahavta.org

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