Reconciling the Past
Canada’s Very Own Long Nineteenth Century, 1837–2021
Please note: This post deals with Canada’s Indian Residential Schools, including related historical contexts and sequelae. It is written by a non-Indigenous author from a non-Indigenous perspective in the spirit of Truth and Reconciliation. Readers may experience a range of feelings by engaging with this post. Survivors and their family members may call the Indian Residential School Crisis Line for any needed support or assistance at 1-866-925-4419.
Canada’s Very Own Long Nineteenth Century may finally be at an end.
In the lead-up to Canada Day 2021, the unmarked graves of nearly 1000 children were found at the sites of the Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia and the Marieval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan. Amid calls to officially cancel the national holiday, Indigenous and non-Indigenous allies across the country challenged the Government of Canada to answer to the charge of genocide.
When Canada Day finally arrived on 1 July, instead of the typical celebrations, there were marches and rallies nation-wide. The usual red-and-white flag-theme was replaced by the orange t-shirt, which, since 2013, has been worn in recognition of the horrific phenomenon of Indian Residential Schools. A wave of orange, expressing grief, outrage, protest, survival, resilience, and change, swept the country.
As the wave of orange reached the Manitoba Legislature in the City of Winnipeg, the national cry, “No pride in genocide! No pride in genocide!”, morphed into a targeted command: “Bring her down! Bring her down!”. At these words, the imperious and imposing bronze statue of Victoria, Queen of Great Britain and Ireland, Empress of India, lord of legislative lawns, whose rule dominated the nineteenth century, toppled over and bit the turf.
With that gesture, the orange-clad Winnipeg crowd symbolically released the country from the grips of Canada’s Very Own Long Nineteenth Century. Or, as it should be known, The Century That Never Actually Ended.
Art historian Arnold Hauser once declared that it wasn’t until 1920 that the twentieth century began, “just as the ‘nineteenth century’ did not begin until about 1830.”1 This readjustment of Western historical timing hints at the fact that something more than pure chronology ought to govern our recognition and understanding of the past. In 2021, the artificiality of historical epochs is now well understood—at least in theory—by many who use them to contextualize people, places, and events in time and space. Like many conveniences, they are a contrivance. Their adoption and use is ultimately predicated on an underlying ideology of chronological time as equal to progress and evolution, an equation largely derived from techno-scientific biases. This ideology also happens to be characteristic of the “Victorian Age.” An organized view of history after this manner tells us that there is such a thing as “Antiquity,” the “Middle Ages,” the “Renaissance,” the “Enlightenment,” “Modernity,” and so on. We name our centuries as though by naming them we also set definitive parameters for their beginnings and their ends. It is with supreme confidence and authority we say the “eighteenth century,” or the “nineteenth century,” believing that we know what they are. It is also by these yardsticks of history that we measure our contemporaneity, our arrival at the now. Conceptually, they provide neat boundaries from which we can distance ourselves—usually with an air of superiority—from the past, as though we personally had something to do with the passage of time.
To the Western mind, time is synonymous with spatiality.2 It is often associated with a linear sequence of achievements, of goals reached—particularly as these achievements and goals serve and reflect what we mean by the notion of ‘civilization.’ As a consequence, people, places, and events are diagnosed and categorized along these lines. Even contemporaries can speak of each other as occupying different positions on the historical progress yardstick. Talk about social distancing.
Think of the word ‘medieval’ as a descriptor for punishment (‘harsh,’ ‘violent’), a belief system (‘backward,’ ‘superstitious,’ ‘ignorant’), or a preposterously large and diffuse blob of ‘premodern’ stuff (mostly not to do with princesses, elves, green knights, crusades, Beowulf, or Chaucer) that no one really cares about simply because it’s not ‘modern.’ Whatever ‘medieval’ is, it’s not us. It’s almost ‘primitive.’ We quite confidently heave the past into convenient containers and, even better, sweep what we don’t like into the dustbin. History of this type is a kind of pseudo-domestication process whereby we decomplexify life in its wild form, give it a pet name, some disciplinary treatment, and make it behave. This process usually has the added benefit of disabling self-recognition and self-reflection at the group or individual level.
But the story-view of history—the experiential, generational, and embodied living-out of human being on planet earth—does not fit into this neat scenario of measurement and containment. We know this, but still we try to force it into such shapes. The impossibility of it is given away by the fact that we routinely break our own rules: over two decades in, we still refer to “The Twenty-First Century” as though it were yet to come. This grasping after a future that has been named but whose arrival has not yet been felt, tells the lie of our belief in progress and evolution. The idea of The Twenty-First Century, like The Twentieth Century before it, is only a promise we have made to ourselves that we are now fully emancipated from the past, fully and finally civilized, occupying an ideal future, with the best of humanity now before us and the worst of it behind us. This promise is, of course, utterly delusional.
By contrast, the storyteller, who uses experience—rather than artificial labels or evolutionary zeal—to tell the time, understands the lie quite perfectly: “but if the future did not arrive, the present did extend itself.”3
In Canada, the present that extends itself is traditionally known as The Nineteenth Century. If we follow Hauser, it began sometime in the 1830s, coincidental with Queen Victoria’s succession to the throne of a global England. But the reality is that The Nineteenth Century, notable for the forcible coercion, if not wholesale destruction, of entire environments and peoples in a world-wide rampage of European imperialism, industrialism, and capitalism, did not end with the ringing-in of the New Year 1900, nor the death of Queen Victoria etc. etc. etc. in 1901.
Official Indigenous identity in Canada and Canadian-Indigenous relations are still largely defined by the Government of Canada’s 1876 Indian Act and its subsequent amendments. The 1884 amendment to the Act, which set in motion the Indian Residential Schools, caused over 150,000 Indigenous children to be separated from their families, their ways of life, their environments, their spiritual and cultural practices, and their languages. This colonial program of “civilization” and “assimilation” of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit children did not end until 1996, when the last residence closed. In the eyes of non-Indigenous Canadians and the Canadian government, the historical yardstick of progress by which Indigenous were measured became ever longer over time.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC), which concluded in 2015, characterized this colonial program of “civilization” and “assimilation” and its fallout as cultural genocide. The TRC, in its reports, was not speaking of a distant past. Nor were the Survivors who told their stories to the Commission and all Canadians.4 What the TRC and the Survivors made clear was that the genocidal campaign, typified by the Indian Residential Schools, continues today in ways that are often less obvious, but just as devastating to Indigenous peoples.
One of the important outcomes of the TRC was the release of its 94 Calls to Action.5 These Calls to Action are not based solely on objective historical facts, but on lived experience—the real stories—of real people who, as individuals and as groups, are still dealing the harmful and devastating realities of Canada’s Very Own Long Nineteenth Century.
That children who died as a result of the Indian Residential School experience are being found at all is, in part, due to the recommendations of the TRC and the 94 Calls to Action. While the number of the dead speaks to the popular understanding of ‘genocide,’ the thousands of such children in unmarked graves waiting to be found and reclaimed for their families are no surprise to Indigenous across Canada. It must be understood that these bodies and their number are not the full measure of Canada’s genocidal interaction with Indigenous peoples. They do, however, force a confrontation with the inadequate way in which the 94 Calls to Action have been addressed, and how unwilling Canadians have been to engage in meaningful reconciliation. That is to say, meaningful encounter.
Although ‘Land Acknowledgement’ statements are now ubiquitous, they are not, in fact, one of the TRC’s 94 Calls to Action. While a well-intended and often genuine gesture, they are, nonetheless, an admission of “business as usual” for the institutions and private enterprises that broadcast them (to polite audiences of tolerant Canadians) before moving forward with the usual assimilationist activities and raking in the fees. Land Acknowledgements are, in practice, spatiotemporal statements of cultural dominance, importance, presence, and permanence. There is a reason why they are not called ‘Land Divestiture’ statements. There is an obvious incongruity between what they ask us to remember and the reality of what they represent. Kind of like statuary.
The quest for Canada in The Twenty-First Century may well have begun on Canada Day 2021, with a crowd in Winnipeg knocking Queen Victoria off her throne. But only time will tell whether this act remains at the level of a gesture. Will we put an end to Canada’s Very Own Long Nineteenth Century? Will we make the future arrive at last . . . or will we default to extending the present? How we answer these questions will be the yardstick by which Canadians are measured in history.