Friday, July 04, 2008

Atoning for the sins of the parents: Thoughts on living with colonial legacies

[This article was originally published in the June/July 2008 issue of Briarpatch magazine]

You’ve surely heard some variation of the saying: the children should not be punished for the sins of the parents. This maxim often surfaces when discussing Canada's colonial legacy or whenever people raise the issue of outstanding indigenous land claims or disputes over rights. What are we to make of this statement? It has two implications. First, that current settlers are innocent of the sins of the past, and second, that they cannot be held responsible, be required to pay too much, or otherwise be inconvenienced by the resolution of indigenous claims or disputes. Native people, rather, have a responsibility to “get over it” and “move on.”

But is the current generation of non-indigenous Canadians innocent of the crimes committed in the colonization of this land? Viewed through the rubric of liberalism, this view certainly seems fair. Citizens, the argument goes, are individually responsible for our own actions, nothing more. But despite the hegemony of liberal ideals, which enshrine private property, the free market and individual liberty, the sins of the mothers and fathers—or more correctly, of the Canadian state—have left us with an inescapable colonial legacy that all inhabitants of this land – indigenous and non-indigenous - bear a moral responsibility to rectify.

Approaching the question in terms of individual guilt or innocence is problematic, but it strikes me that the legal principle that’s generally applied to those who benefit from the “avails of crime” is relevant: when criminals are brought to justice, neither they nor their families are permitted to continue benefiting from the profits of their criminal enterprises. Yes, I am suggesting that what happened in Canada was—and remains—a crime. And settlers, for the most part, have benefited and continue to benefit from this crime.

Canadian history books don’t tell it that bluntly. They speak of brave explorers red coat-wearing do-gooders bringing law, order and opportunity to sparsely populated lands and primitive indigenous peoples. Motivations such as colonial greed are sidelined in these narratives. When such motivations are acknowledged, Canadian often dismiss these injustices as mistakes that have been overcome with time and reason. This is accepted as “progress,” a cornerstone of Western political thought. We are better than we used to be, the thinking goes. Bad things may have been done in the past, but we no longer do those things. Today, everyone can join the multicultural Canadian dream; never mind the fact that many Western democracies were built on the backs of dispossessed indigenous peoples and slaves, and that these states continue to benefit from ongoing neo-colonial relationships.

So what are the responsibilities of Canadian settler society, and of individual settlers? I recently heard a refreshing perspective on this. A university professor shared his reflections upon working with an indigenous community to negotiate various land claims, self-government agreements, and economic development projects. He saw that what was really being presented to the community was a choice between bad and worse. What Canadians are saying through their government and their own complicity, he realized, is this: be like us or perish. Surrender or die. Indigenous populations have been decimated by disease, our ways of life marginalized or destroyed, our beliefs ridiculed, and today we are invited to assimilate in order to enjoy the privilege of joining the modern world.

Gee thanks. Vine Deloria, Jr. expressed it best in his book, Custer Died for Your Sins when he stated that what indigenous people really need from settler society is a “leave us alone” law.

Indigenous people often speak of “decolonization.” For us, this concept involves the shedding of colonial ways of thinking and acting, and a revitalization of indigenous languages and ways. But what does decolonization mean for Canadian settlers? The professor laid it out like this: settlers, despite popular mythology, are visitors here, not yet justly rooted. Canadian society is built upon a foundation of theft and genocide, and the past continues to shape present realities. In order for genuine reconciliation to occur, Canadians must humble themselves and ask permission to stay and be prepared to deal with the consequences should indigenous people say, “No.”

Now, you and I know that this may never happen, but at some point the dialogue must consider such possibilities if truth and justice are to prevail over the pragmatic forces of liberalism and capitalism.

For non-indigenous people to root themselves in this country legitimately and justly, they must be prepared to move beyond Canadian mythology and the multicultural politics of recognition and deal with their debt to indigenous people honourably. This means moving beyond the arguments that “might makes right” and majority rules. Colonial stains do not wash out easily. New relationships must be built upon trust and respect. Anything else is just a more form of neocolonialism - and a lie.