Words and Silences
Why can’t Indigenous people in Canada just get over Indian Residential Schools? Why can’t they just get on with their lives? Indigenous elder, residential school survivor, and author Theodore Fontaine argues that behind these demands to “just move on” is a widespread “societal denial of five centuries of colonization.”
But despite growing evidence of the destructive nature of the colonization process, and against the growing protests of the Indigenous Peoples and many of their allies, some continue to deny Canada’s violent and painful past.
Many examples could be cited of what Fontaine calls societal denial. Indeed, until very recently, many textbooks largely ignored the presence of the Indigenous Peoples encountered by Europeans in North America or treated them as a nuisance they could easily bribe or subdue.
The leading idea behind these denialist statements was that Canada was “discovered” by Europeans who encountered a vast and empty territory. The authors of the Report of the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry of Manitoba explain:
The basic premise is that the first state to “discover” an uninhabited region with no other claims to it automatically acquires territorial sovereignty. Originally, the doctrine was limited to terra nullius—literally, a barren and deserted area—as reflected by the noted English scholar of the common law. . . . The concept of terra nullius was expanded later . . . to include any area devoid of “civilized” society. In order to reflect colonial desires, the New World . . . [then fell] within this expanded definition.
This guide is about these issues: the positive and negative power of words and silences to shape the social and natural landscape, to displace identities or create new ones, and to write histories that serve some and dehumanize others. Ideas such as terra nullius serve to show the power of words to erase past events and peoples and to reshape the memory of European colonialism.
“Words and silences are powerful things. They hunt together, feeding off each other,” writes South African scholar Sven Ouzman. “The power of words is great but the power of silences is greater. Silences are enemies of memory.”
Moreover, “words and silences are seldom neutral,” Ouzman contends, and those who experienced the interaction with European colonizers often “knew the power of words and silences to exclude,” assign identities, and write a version of history that serves the powerful.
Perhaps the first act of colonialism was indeed a linguistic one: by calling the Indigenous Peoples in North America Indian, Westerners displaced them to another continent altogether, while at the same time denying them their identity as members of specific nations.
We are reminded by Métis scholar Tricia E. Logan that national narratives are neatly connected to national identities—that national stories create common memories, which in turn shape a nation’s understanding of its collective self, its identity. Furthermore, Logan and many others insist that changing Canada’s perceived history is imperative not just because that version is untrue but also because introducing Indigenous voices can help reshape and correct Canada’s national identity.
These advocates argue that if Indigenous Peoples are truly to be part of Canada, their story must be included in a new and comprehensive narrative.
So for Indigenous individuals and communities, bygones can’t be bygones: many have a very different version of Canada’s history. This version includes a vision of the Indigenous groups as nations first and Canadian second. The demand to be regarded as separate nations is not simply a reflection of how Indigenous Peoples experience their identity but is instead based on a series of agreements starting with the Royal Proclamation of 1763, where the Crown declared them independent nations.
Sites of Unlearning
Many scholars recognize that parts of the colonial destruction of Indigenous lands and livelihood were not officially planned. The development of global commerce, industrialization and urbanization, and new crops and animals, among many other factors, destroyed the fur trade and rendered the Indigenous social and economic structures ineffective.
At least some of these factors were part of what Alfred W. Crosby years ago called the Columbian Exchange. This exchange between the Indigenous population and the Europeans extended to almost every aspect of life (foods, livestock, language, and instruments and technology, to name a few) and profoundly and negatively altered the ecology of the Americas. More catastrophic, according to Crosby, were diseases such as smallpox, measles, malaria, and yellow fever to which the Indigenous population of the Americas had never been exposed. As a result, they had no immunological resistance to these diseases. When the Europeans brought the pathogens ashore, millions were infected and in short order perished.
Of the estimated 50 to 100 million non-European people who lived in the Americas before contact, only about 5% survived by the beginning of the twentieth century.
But it is wrong to ignore the settlers’ choices and their catastrophic consequences for the Indigenous Peoples of Canada. As Christopher Powell and Julia Peristerakis argue, many of these destructive processes were part of well-documented policies whose ultimate goal was to destroy the Indigenous Peoples and make room for European settlers. To give just the most obvious examples, there was the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway in the 1880s, which led to the removal of thousands of people and the destruction of their hunting grounds; the intentional killing of the bison in their millions, which destroyed the key element in the survival of many Indigenous Peoples; and the removal of successful Métis farmers from land coveted by European settlers.
Almost all Indigenous communities, whether nomadic or sedentary, were displaced, their traditional way of life destroyed, and their centuries-old religious beliefs, customs, and social systems nearly obliterated. Daniel Paul reminds us that “it should be noted that the [colonial] destruction was universally successful: of the hundreds of robust civilizations that existed in the Americas in 1492, not one survives intact today.”
The mass slaughter of the buffalo, the expansive settlement of the West, the forced removal in the Prairies and later in the Arctic regions, bans on traditional ceremonies, the replacement of traditional governance with Western forms, the degradation of women’s status, discrimination and segregation, and a second-rate and traumatizing education were all part of official policies. After the second half of the nineteenth century, those policies were clearly and systematically designed first to remove Indigenous communities as an obstacle for European conquests and settlements and then to destroy the Indigenous cultures and remake them after themselves— Western, Christianized, and civilized peoples. So it is safe to say that the near physical destruction of Indigenous Peoples was the direct effect of diseases brought by the Europeans but was also intentional, since successive governments were well aware of the consequences of their policies.
The persistent resistance to dealing with the past ignores, in particular, the history of the Indian Residential Schools. Those schools, even by the settlers’ own admission, can be regarded as a deliberate campaign aimed at facilitating settlement of the land as well as moulding Indigenous minds after Western ways and destroying, roots and branches, any links to indigenous nations, cultures, and traditions. In 1938, at the peak of the Indian Residential Schools’ operation, school principal Rev. A. E. Caldwell wrote to Indian agent P. D. Ashbridge from Ahousat, BC. In that letter, he declared:
The problem with the Indians is one of morality and religion. They lack the basic fundamentals of civilized thought and spirit, which explains their childlike nature and behaviour. At our school we strive to turn them into mature Christians who will learn how to behave in the world and surrender their barbaric way of life and their treaty rights, which keep them trapped on their land and in a primitive existence. Only then will the Indian problem in our country be solved.
Caldwell, like many Europeans of his time, suggested that the “Indian problem” would be solved only when the Indigenous Peoples in Canada were “liberated” from the shackles of what he called their primitive ways. This perverse idea was the publicly acknowledged rationale for the Indian Residential Schools: civilize, Christianize, liberate. The Royal Commission of 1996 summarized the Indian Residential Schools project in the following way:
Put simply, the residential school system was an attempt by successive governments to determine the fate of Aboriginal people in Canada by appropriating and reshaping their future in the form of thousands of children who were removed from their homes and communities and placed in the care of strangers. Those strangers, the teachers and staff, were, according to Hayter Reed, a senior member of the department in the 1890s, to employ “every effort . . . against anything calculated to keep fresh in the memories of the children habits and associations which it is one of the main objects of industrial education to obliterate.” Marching out from the schools, the children, effectively re-socialized, imbued with the values of European culture, would be the vanguard of a magnificent metamorphosis: the “savage” was to be made “civilized,” made fit to take up the privileges and responsibilities of citizenship. Tragically, the future that was created is now a lamentable heritage for those children and the generations that came after, for Aboriginal communities and, indeed, for all Canadians.
In other words, the Indian Residential Schools were not learning places. They were, as hundreds of testimonies tell us, sites of unlearning: the forcible unlearning and destruction of mother tongues, communities’ values, traditional beliefs, spiritual practices, and group identities. Rosa Bell, a survivor of Port Alberni Residential School in BC, talks about the deliberate destruction of language:
The government wanted to turn us into white people. Our cultural family units were broken apart. Also, part of becoming “white” was to speak English. Because my parents also attended Residential School they didn’t see the value in teaching us our language. The Indian Agent told them not to speak to their children in Haida because it would not help them in school. My parents spoke Haida with other adults but didn’t make much effort to teach me. My grandma always spoke Haida to me and I tried to understand but it was foreign.
According to the 2011 Canadian census, of the 60 Indigenous languages that survived colonialism, now only Cree, Ojibway, and the Inuit languages stand a chance of being spoken by future generations.
Of course, language alone is not a culture or a worldview. People who speak different languages can share the same worldview. For example, the French and British settlers spoke different European languages but entertained very similar worldviews. Similarly, people who speak the same language—Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians, for example—can have radically different worldviews, views on whether or not Indigenous Peoples are Canadians. Some Indigenous Peoples see themselves primarily as members of their First Nation.
But language is an important part of a culture; it can embody and convey the worldview of the people who speak that language. As thousands of Indigenous persons’ testimonies suggest, the death of a language heralds the death of a culture and the ways in which the speakers of this language interacted with others and interpreted their world.
In the 1990s, residential schools scholars such as James R. Miller and many Indigenous leaders began to argue that the efforts of the Canadian government to assimilate the Indigenous Peoples in the residential schools embodied the principle of cultural genocide: the intent to destroy the Indigenous Peoples of Canada as a culturally distinct group.
Other scholars pushed back, noting that the cultural destruction of a group is not included in the final version of the United Nations Genocide Convention as genocide.
This debate has continued and, if anything, has picked up pace since. What is the proper way to address the near destruction of Indigenous Peoples, their languages, and their cultures? Natural causes aside, what is the government’s culpability in this process? And what would the Indigenous Peoples gain by having Canada include cultural genocide among those genocides it officially recognizes? (For more on this debate, see Chapter 7.)
The Western-style clothing and hairstyles of these children (c.a. 1900), which residential school students were required to wear, contrast starkly with the traditional dress of their father. Government officials most likely staged this photo to portray the assimilation of younger generations into Canadian culture.
For Raphael Lemkin, the Polish Jewish jurist who coined the term genocide, the cultural destruction of a group was as important as the physical annihilation of its members. Early in the 1930s, Lemkin went to great lengths to extend his definition of the crime he later called genocide beyond the physical destruction of human beings. “Our whole heritage is a product of the contributions of all nations,” he argued in a 1933 paper. For him, the destruction of cultural groups was, in fact, an assault on humanity itself if, indeed, humanity is the sum total of cultures of the world. So he added another element to his notion of a group’s destruction: the “systematic and organized destruction of the art and cultural heritage in which the unique genius and achievement of a collectivity are revealed in fields of science, art and literature.” He called this cultural devastation “vandalism.” (Lemkin coupled the term with the crime of barbarism, the physical destruction of groups.)
He continued to use the same argument in his Axis Rule in Occupied Europe:
The world represents only so much culture and intellectual vigor as are created by its component national groups. Essentially the idea of a nation signifies constructive cooperation and original contributions, based upon genuine traditions, genuine culture, and well-developed national psychology. The destruction of a nation, therefore, results in the loss of its future contribution to the world. . . . Among the basic features which have marked progress in civilization are the respect for and appreciation of the national characteristics and qualities contributed to world culture by different nations—characteristics and qualities which . . . are not to be measured in terms of national power or wealth.
One of the themes of this guide is the power of language. In the passion of Lemkin’s argument, we are reminded once again that words matter. The debate about genocide sometimes gets technical and complex, but that should not obscure the urgency of the debate. Why is this a topic that must concern all of us? What does it mean to all of us, indigenous and non-indigenous?
Jumping forward to 2015, the federally mandated Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report declared the work of the residential schools genocide:
For over a century, the central goals of Canada’s Aboriginal policy were to eliminate Aboriginal governments; ignore Aboriginal rights; terminate the Treaties; and, through a process of assimilation, cause Aboriginal peoples to cease to exist as distinct legal, social, cultural, religious, and racial entities in Canada. The establishment and operation of residential schools were a central element of this policy, which can best be described as “cultural genocide” . . . Cultural genocide is the destruction of those structures and practices that allow the group to continue as a group. States that engage in cultural genocide set out to destroy the political and social institutions of the targeted group. . . . Languages are banned. Spiritual leaders are persecuted, spiritual practices are forbidden, and objects of spiritual value are confiscated and destroyed. And, most significantly to the issue at hand, families are disrupted to prevent the transmission of cultural values and identity from one generation to the next.
“In its dealing with Aboriginal people, Canada did all these things,” the report’s summary concludes.
In Lemkin’s understanding, the destruction of traditional Indigenous ways of life was a crime against everybody: against the diversity of human societies, and against humanity as a whole. Theodore Fontaine’s powerful words illustrate the terrible loss: “Canada . . . lost forever the rich resources and generations of its First Peoples. The ingenuity and creativity of young minds were extinguished, the extreme amount of potential talent was never nurtured or allowed to flourish, and the character and integrity of Indigenous society founded on prized value and principle were almost destroyed.”
This is why this issue must concern us all.