Dr. Dawg

First Nations and their disposable past

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St. Anne's.jpg
It’s a cliche that history is written by the victors. But the triumphalist project that so much history amounts to does require more than obedient clerks to record it. The heavy hand of the state is not infrequently needed to ensure the purity of the narrative.

Two stories this week illustrate how history gets written—as much by deliberate omission as by the selection of details. And they also reveal the ever-present possibility of successful contestation: official accounts are challenged, undermined, even replaced, when the subaltern speaks.

The first is a victory for the suppressed voices of residential school survivors. The Harper government has been equivocal all along about this “dark chapter in our past,” on the one hand forced to acknowledge it, on the other hand, over-eager to bury it. The “past” in such hands serves as a graveyard of inconvenient truths. There is that other “past,” of course, one of living or undead tradition (one thinks of the rather desperate War of 1812 goings-on in the latter case), but when it comes to Canada’s first peoples, the official impulse is to say a few pious words and move on. Hell, Harper said he was sorry, didn’t he?

But part of that apology was to give First Nations a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to poke about and write a report at some point. It was never intended to go very far or very deep: it would record the tortured voices of the survivors of our children’s gulag, and produce an educational archive, but, most importantly, bring what some call “closure” to the whole disgraceful affair—something any Euro-Canadian government would naturally welcome.

The TRC, however, made the mistake of taking its job too seriously. Its members wanted unlimited access to the documents and records of the time, something they foolishly thought had been guaranteed at the start. The monsters that lurked in those papers, however, might thereby be resuscitated and loosed rather than quietly interred, and so the Harper government attempted to deny access, forcing the TRC to divert its limited energies and resources into legal action. About a year ago, a court finally had to order the feds to stop obstructing the Commission.

The victims, too, have encountered this stonewalling directly. This week, however, some of them scored a significant victory against the Harper government. A court ruled that the survivors of one of the worst hellholes in the residential school network, St. Anne’s in Fort Albany, Ontario, must be provided with the records of their incarceration. The Harper government had fought tooth and nail against this, first trying to cover up its possession of these vital materials and then attempting to block access to them.

The second story may seem to be only tangentially related at best to this on-going saga of government cover-ups and legal manoeuvrings. A strong-minded young girl from the Star Blanket Band in southeastern Saskatchewan, Tenelle Star, wore a sweater to school with the slogan, “Got land? Thank an Indian.” The local authorities weren’t about to put up with that sort of insolence, and ordered her to remove it or wear her sweater inside-out. There had been “complaints,” they said. The slogan was considered “racist,” they said. It took a whole series of high-level meetings to resolve the situation—in the young woman’s favour.

In this case, as surely as in the attempts to suppress the written records of the residential school system, a discourse of conquest and dispossession was to be silenced. In both instances, schooling was involved—in a sense, nothing had changed with respect to the deliberate attempt to erase First Nations narratives under the guise of “education.” The fact that the text was actually worn upon the body in a Saskatchewan school was deeply disturbing to those who want to bury such accounts in the “past.” Making the past present—which history itself, of course, purports to do—can be challenging to the official narrative. Better a (forced) silence, like a disappeared photograph.

But people on the ground are resisting, to the point that state control of First Nations narratives can now be successfully pried loose, as we have just seen. These accounts “from below” can no longer be locked up, like children in the residential school system, or forbidden, like their languages. History is being re-written before our eyes by the once-vanquished. They shall be heard. And, if it’s reconciliation we want, we’d better be prepared to listen.

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This page contains a single entry by Dr. Dawg published on January 15, 2014 9:53 AM.

New Frontiers in Foetal Rights was the previous entry in this blog.

Security theatre outtake is the next entry in this blog.

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