Counter-memory: Fictions of 150? by Shiraz Dossa
Counter-memory: Fictions of 150?
By Shiraz Dossa
It is a cliché that Canada is damn nice. In fact, its niceness is fabled in the Canadian mind. It seems to be a political principle for us. Indeed, Canadian identity presupposes “niceness”. Yet as the Canadian novelist Richler noted, this sort of fame is “world famous” only in Canada. Its truth is not universally conceded. Richler, to the contrary, discerned “apathy” and “envy”. Canadians, he felt, were conformist and uncritical. (CBC Archives 1961) As the Canada 150 hype increases, there is little dissent. Since 1867, Canada has been ruled by settler tradition and culture. Its archive of Euro memory sustains Canadian lives. Canada 150 celebrates this triumph and implicitly the subjugation of Indigenes.
Some “native” critics have reacted incisively. Kent Monkman (artist) and Pam Palmater (academic) intervened with candid ripostes. Rebuffing the 150 narrative as skewed, they articulated the Indigenes’ counter-memory. Comprising ancient truths, it confirms Indigenes’ sovereignty. It queries the founding of Canada story which authorises Indigenes’ dispossession. This canonical tale is narcissistic and amnesiac. It fully evinces the Canadian “faculty of oblivion” (Nietzsche). As Monkman argues, Canada’s “whole founding mythology is false, exclusive, one-sided”. In his Shame and Prejudice paintings, he slams Canada’s wars on the Indigenes and postulates “a counter-narrative to all the celebration”. As he says: “the polished image of the Canadian Mountie needed to be tarnished a little” (Whyte). Counter- memory exposes the fictions that sanction Indigenes’ debasement.
Settler rule over Indigenes was justified for the “natives” sake. But it elided the “founding fathers” hostility. Scott and Macdonald viewed “natives” with distaste. In fact, they considered Indigenes lesser races. Like fellow settlers they espoused the civilized-savage binary. Consequently, the Indian “savages” swiftly lost their authority and autonomy. Indeed, the “civilized” seized their land, wealth and children at will. The settlers enacted theft and dominance. Settler conduct was neither innocent nor selfless.
The intrinsic logic of a settler colony is erasure of “natives”. It is realized by destroying “native” sovereignty. Apropos “native” education, Macdonald enunciated this logic unashamedly. It was sanitized as the doctrine of assimilation: “When the school is on the Reserve, the child lives with his parents, who are savages, and though he may learn to read and write, his habits and training mode of thought are Indian, he is simply a savage who can read and write”. And as he asserted in Parliament “Indian children should be withdrawn as much as possible from parental influence, and the only way to do that would be to put them in central training industrial schools where they will acquire the habits and modes of thoughts of white men” (Paling). For “native” children, a grammar school education was excluded.
In the 1880s MacDonald fathered the Indian Acts, the Indian Reservations and the Indian Residential Schools that radically destabilized “native” lives, culture and values. Simultaneously, the Conservatives “were merciless in their use of food to control first nation populations”. As MacDonald said, “we cannot allow them to die for want of food …We are doing all we can, by refusing food until the Indians are on the verge of starvation, to reduce expenses”. (Daschuk). The symbiotic link between the Indian Reservations and the Nazi camps is disturbing. Starvation was a tool of control and subjugation in both regimes. Was it coincidence that MacDonald was an aficionado of Aryanism? He “founded” Canada as an “Aryan” nation; he opposed “Asiatic and African” immigration. Such alien infusion, he said, will gut the “Aryan character of the future of North America”. (Stanley)
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission Reports (TRC) 2012 and 2015 fully dissected the terrible abuse, torture and deaths of “native” children in Indian Residential Schools over 150 years. As the last schools closed, the terrible abuse continued in Child Welfare Policies for “native” children initiated in the 1970s and 1980s. In 1982 Manitoba set up an Inquiry Commission chaired by Judge Edwin Kimelman. He concluded that the Child Welfare agencies just “seized” “native” children on false pretexts of abuse and neglect, transferred them to Quebec and the US and placed them with “white families”. The “native” elders and parents were not consulted; nor were they notified about the location of their children.
In 1985 Judge Kimelman “unequivocally” stated that “cultural genocide has been taking place in a systematic, routine manner”. He stressed that the “seizure of native children escalated” as the Residential Schools were closed. The Judge saw a continuation of the Residential School model in the Child Welfare Policies for “native” children. Instead of “providing resources and services to Reserves”, Canada “removed the children from their homes ….[to] fill the market for them in the United States and Eastern Canada”. Judge Kimelman criticised the federal under-funding of “native” children on Indian Reserves (York). Canada rejected appeals by “native” leaders and Child Welfare scholars to equalize the funding for 30 – 40 years.
In 2007 the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society (FNCFCS) and the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) filed a complaint with the Canadian Human Rights Commission, about the inequality in “child welfare services to First Nations children on-reserve” as discriminatory. The case did not begin until 2013 because the federal government “made multiple attempts to have the case thrown out”. It spent $5.3 million to prevent Court hearings. In January 2016, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruled that Canada had “discriminated” against Indigene children on Reserves since 1867. It ordered the federal government to “cease the discriminatory practice and take measures to redress and prevent it”. The Justin Trudeau liberals accepted the Commission decision. Yet Trudeau has yet to fulfil the Commission order (August 2017).
On June 11, 2008, Mohawk female leader and past president of the Quebec Native Women’s Association, (QNWA) Ellen Gabriel, replied to Harper’s “apology” about Residential Schools. Gabriel criticised his elision of Indigenes’ dispossession; his failure to recall that “Canada has established itself as a rich and prosperous country at the expense and blood of Aboriginal peoples”. Since then she has condemned Canada’s “genocide” and pressed for reparations. Needless to say there has been no response by Canada. Fictions of 150?
Shiraz Dossa (Phd – Tor) is a Fellow of Senior College U of T, and Research Professor in Political Science at St. Francis Xavier University, NS
(CBC Archives 1961) (Mordecai Richler)
Daschuk, James. Clearing The Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation and Loss of
Aboriginal Life. Regina: University of Regina Press, Saskatchewan, 2013.
Emma Paling, “Kent Monkman Walks Canada Back Through Time”,
Huffington Post ( 02/01/2017)
Stanley, Timothy, “The Aryan Character of the Future of North America”, in Patrice Dutil and Roger Hall (eds), Macdonald at 200: New Reflections and Legacies. Toronto: Dundurn, 2012.
Whyte, Murray, “Kent Monkman fills in the blanks in Canadian History”,
Toronto Star June 22, 2017
York, Geoffrey, The Dispossessed: Life and Death in Native Canada,
London: Vintage UK 1990