There are many stories that Canadians do not regularly learn in school. Its history is littered with forgotten events, either deliberately overlooked, or rationalised away somehow.
This lacuna in our collective knowledge is not limited to events which impacted indigenous peoples. You might reach adulthood without ever once being aware that in 1918, twelve ‘enemy languages’ were banned in Canada, including Ukrainian and German, and that there were periods of sharp repression even after this ban was lifted. You might not know that 4000 Canadian citizens of Ukrainian decent were interned along with other ‘enemy aliens’ from 1914 – 1920 while 80,000 others were forced to ‘check in’ with police from time to time.
You might have no idea that in 2005, a Bill was passed to acknowledge these historical wrongs, only a few years before the last survivors of interment died. You might not know that a $10 million fund was set up to commemorate these events and to raise awareness. You might not know any of this unless it is a part of your family’s history (and perhaps not even then), because it was never talked about officially until so very recently.
I bring this all up, because I am often faced with incredulity when I talk about the things that indigenous peoples in Canada have experienced. People are shocked that they were not aware of these things. Perhaps they think that it is strange such things have been kept quiet.
I submit that this is not strange at all. I too was raised within a system that lauded Canada’s achievements at home and especially internationally. We celebrate the good stories and occasionally mention some of the bad things in a ‘those were different times’ sense. The overriding narrative is that Canada has always tried its best. It is a good country that has sometimes done bad things.
I am not here to say the opposite is true. But our collective national history is not yet complete. I have lived through the recognition of Japanese internment, an apology for the Chinese Head Tax. I learned in University and at Holocaust museums that Jewish refugees were turned away from Canada in the 1930s, and how many of those people died in the Holocaust as a result. These things are slowly coming to the surface. Bubbling up and becoming part of our national narrative in an official way.
Canada’s history is littered with abuses. If we want Canada to live up to a reputation as a nation that respects human rights, we have to face the horrors of the past, head on. We have to acknowledge what was done, and how people managed to justify these things. We are only beginning this journey of self-discovery.
This is not just the history of individual Sikh and Muslim and Hindu families, of individual Chinese families, of only Jews and Japanese and Ukrainians and Germans and Blacks. This is Canada’s history, and we do not fully acknowledge it. In its glories and triumphs, in its failures and repressions. It is no weakness to admit these things and learn about them. It is considered a truism we must learn from our mistakes, yet we still seem to shy away from talking about them and teaching them.
I have had people say they feel I do not sympathise with the plight of others. Actually, that’s not entirely accurate. I have had people say that I minimise ‘white’ settler experiences, as I have yet to have someone from another group make this claim.
In fact, I strongly believe that all of Canada’s closets need cleaning. I speak from my perspective as a Métis woman struggling to recover her own history, a history that was denied even while it was whispered about in kitchens, around fires. I freely acknowledge that our story is not the only story, but I cannot bear the burden of speaking for all people. I cannot even speak for all Métis.
When I reach out, and explain our history to those who do not yet know it, I am rediscovering it too. When I reach out this way, I am not telling you that your history is irrelevant. I cannot spend time prefacing my articles with proof that I understand a great deal of the oppression that has been faced by non-natives in Canada before I tackle the oppression native peoples have, and continue to face. I can only keep learning the histories. All of them.
This is all I am asking of Canadians. I ask that you learn all the histories. That you learn our history too. If somehow, this seems like an unreasonable request, or you feel that I am not asking ‘politely enough’, then that is your choice. kiyam.
Please do not tell me I am wrong in my approach. That if only I did things the way you want me to, I would be more ‘successful’. Do not expect me to become an expert in your history before I am allowed to tell you about mine. Do not assume I know nothing of your history merely because I am speaking about mine.
The fact is, I am not alienating every settler out there, because I have had incredible responses from ‘white’ people which have been very heartening. If you are not among that group, and feel slighted somehow, I am sorry. It is not my intention. But I cannot please everyone, and I do not aspire to such.
And sometimes we need to agree to disagree, because communication can become hopelessly convoluted and eventually impossible at times. That’s okay too. After all, I am asking for there to be even more variety in experiences discussed at the national level, not less.
I’ll be over here, sweeping out this closet. Perhaps when we clean out all the skeletons, we can pack those closets with sweeter smelling things.