Stephen Maher wrote here Thursday that (apart from those that were already extinct), “aboriginal people across Canada have attacked (me) for writing that ‘even the First Nations should be grateful that the Europeans came here’” and “for rejecting the idea that they were the victims of attempted cultural genocide.” Maher disputed my point that the “Europeans have made vastly more of this continent than the original inhabitants could have done.” He accused me of exaggerating the “gulf” he admits existed between the European and aboriginal civilizations and dilated on the accomplishments of the Aztecs, Incas, and Mayans (which are not at issue and are not relevant here).
Nothing remotely close to the 50 million native people he claims could have perished in North America from European-carried diseases, as that is about 10 times the native population at the time the Europeans arrived. There was a tragic and unknown vulnerability to these diseases, but there was never a policy to infect natives with diseases, other than possibly in the one incident in 1763 that Maher mentions, that which was the act of British authorities in what soon became American territory (and was unsuccessful if it was really attempted — all that is known is that it was discussed).
Maher implies that the natives of North America lived largely in permanent, constructed dwellings, cultivated crops, had serious political institutions that were more democratic than those of France and inspired Karl Marx and James Madison, and that they were no more violent warriors and captors than the French and British.
They were wonderfully adept and admirable in many ways, but they had not discovered the wheel, metal tools, or the knitting or sewing of fabrics, were mainly nomads and often compulsively belligerent and routinely tortured female and child prisoners to death. France had no democratic institutions until the Revolution (one of its principal causes), but the British and Dutch did. The Iroquois claim to democracy Maher makes is an acrobatic stretch.
The natives may have been hardier than the more urban Europeans, but both populations had approximately equal life expectancies, leaving out the native propensity to kill each other in large numbers at premature ages. Both sides share responsibility for the sad history of aboriginal-white relations, but it is not the tear-jerking myth that has been endlessly portrayed of a barbarous European onslaught against the pure idyll of a bucolic native paradise. None of the first 300 years of the relationship is Canada’s responsibility.
Yet Canada is afflicted by a pandemic of defective moralizing. There was a prolonged official attempt to assimilate native people to the Euro-majority in Canada, but it was not motivated by hate or malice, but by the common misconception in Victorian times and for some while afterwards, that the world would be better if minorities in English-speaking countries were relieved of the burden of not being Anglo-Christians. As I wrote here last week, assimilation was insanely proposed by Lord Durham, the British governor-general, as the cure to French Canadian grievances and was the reason for the unification of Quebec and Ontario in 1840. Instead of eliminating them, it led to the recognition, finally, of French Canada’s co-equal status in the new Confederation that was founded and has served us well these 148 years.
Assimilation was an extension of the Canadian and American practice of integrating newly arrived people in the majority cultures. However mistakenly and patronizingly conceived and at times barbarously executed, the authors of the residential schools program, starting with John A. Macdonald, imagined they would be benignly solving the problems of the native people.
We are now in danger of being overwhelmed by an unholy coalition of the charlatans of the victimhood industry, the corrupt elements of the native leadership, and those officials who seek an expanded jurisdiction or political advantage in national moral self-flagellation. Let there be no dispute that the residential schools program was in large measure a tragic and cruel failure, as it wrenched children from their families and subjected them often to physical and sexual abuse as well as severe emotional neglect. But in most cases the conditions from which these children were plucked were unsanitary, penurious, sociopathic, and hopeless.
Between the 1880s and 1996, there were about 150,000 students in the native residential schools, which was too narrow an echelon of the aboriginals to qualify as the attempted assimilation of the whole population. Allegedly five to seven per cent of the students in these schools died in the schools, but we have no way of measuring those appalling figures against what would have happened had they been left where they were, or would have happened to students of other sociological origins sent to schools in isolated locations where there were not adequate medical facilities. It was a time of frequent epidemics and aboriginals were still vulnerable to a number of diseases inadvertently transmitted by Europeans.
There was a great deal of severe physical punishment in most of these schools, and doubtless much of it was outright savagery. But it was a culture that didn’t spare the rod anywhere. While few schools would bear comparison with the failings of these residential schools, a glance at Dickens and other authors, even my classmate John Fraser’s Telling Tales, confirms that a huge number of students in the 19th and first half of the 20th century, in the British world at least, were subjected to a good deal of sadistic and deviant authority. This is context, not mitigation. Almost half of the approximately 80,000 residential school alumni alive now have filed complaints of sexual abuse, which include many acts of excessive force that may not have been explicitly sexual. It is unlikely that all these claims are well-founded, but many of them must be.
What is enormously divisive is the attempt to aggregate the failings of aboriginal policy into “cultural genocide.” I don’t really fault advocates like Maher or my generally cordial acquaintance of many years John Saul for pushing on an open door for a good cause. But the main promoter of the complex of unearned collective guilt is the chief justice of Canada, Beverley McLachlin, within her long-running constitutional putsch based on the claim that the Charter of Rights and Freedoms has made the courts the “arbiter between the legislatures and the people.”
In her “Pluralism Lecture” on May 28 in Toronto, she referred to “the buzzword of the (19th Century), ‘assimilation,’ in the language of the 21st Century, ‘cultural genocide.’ ” That was the leap from fair allegations against bad Victorian policy to a charge of Satanic modern crimes, and she must not be allowed to take the rest of us with her. Assimilation was never a buzzword; like acculturation and deracination, it was an objective for some and a fear for others throughout Europe’s irredentist communities and in native communities in much of the new world and colonial world. It is still a concern with some Quebec nationalists, though it can only be kept alive at all because of the collapsed French Canadian birthrate. Peoples that don’t have the energy to procreate will be assimilated eventually.
“Genocide” means physical extermination, and the argument that it has been broadened is based on the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide of 1948. That Convention refers to various assaults on a “national, ethnical, racial, or religious group.” It says precisely nothing about culture. There is no evidence that John A. Macdonald and his collaborators could be accused even of seeking culturicide, as they only wanted native children to be assimilable in one of Canada’s official cultures, whatever interest they retained in their own traditions.
The chief justice’s address had the air of a banal and unrigorous stitch-up. Various portentously invoked sources were cited in favour of pluralist tolerance, such as John Milton, a sublime poet, but, as Dr. Johnson said, “a surly and acrimonious” regicide who was tolerant of all Protestants but intolerant of everyone else, especially Jews, Roman Catholics, atheists and Muslims (i.e. most of Europe and the world and a large percentage of his countrymen). It was here that the chief justice invented the “concentration camps” in which Japanese Canadians were supposedly confined in Second World War. (Their detention was an outrage but it did not occur in concentration camps.)
Truth and Reconciliation trumpeted the same war cry of “cultural genocide.” Liberal leader Justin Trudeau embraced all of the 94 recommendations instantly and before he could have seriously read them: the final report won’t be out for months. Thomas Mulcair rushed to the head of the teeming, piping, counter-genocidists by demanding that Stephen Harper ask Pope Francis for an apology over the residential schools when they met this week. (The Prime Minister made no such request.) Only about two thirds of the schools were Roman Catholic and they were carrying out federal education policies, not operating in the separate school system. The party of Tommy Douglas, David Lewis, Ed Broadbent, and Jack Layton, in its febrile ambition not to seem lacking in self-hate, wants to assist the first Canadians by pillorying Canada’s largest religious denomination.
All people of goodwill will support an approach that is respectful of native tradition, makes good on treaty violations, and makes the country fully accessible to the native people. But the great majority of Canadians will not tolerate any theory that this country or its chief founder practised or countenanced any plausible definition of genocide ever or anywhere. The natives and their champions are making a terrible mistake if they think that Canadians, indulgent as they are, will roll over for any charge of genocide. The premeditated enthusiasm of the chief justice to inflict this blood libel on English and French Canada, and the reflexive falling in with it of the federal opposition leaders, is a disgrace. Stephen Harper, by contrast, has handled this issue with comparative distinction.
First published in the National Post.
I thank Conrad Black for so effectively articulating what many Canadians feel. We know that Aboriginal people suffered extremely but to lay that suffering at the feet of one single villain is unfair. The many contextual nuances which he cites are never addressed in these discussions and the average Canadian is reduced to guilty silence, not daring to raise any objection to being the unwitting beneficiaries of past genocidal policies and abusive religious institutions.