Balancing Historical Guilt Over the Aboriginal File

Here is a shortened version of an essay entitled “Another Look At Apologies” published on The Frontier Centre for Public Policy website on June 2, 2018, by my colleague Rodney Clifton and his associate Gerry Bowler.

Rodney is the gentleman who told me years ago, long before the present public moral flagellations over the treatment of aboriginal people took centre stage, that when he worked in a far northern Residential School for a year, many Indian children, often hungry and sick,  were brought to his school by their own parents, who begged the school to take them in.

And in a past blog on this topic I cited the Comment of “skeptical” who said “in truth, Indigenous children were very seldom sent to residential schools ‘forcibly’, unless it was their parents doing the forcing. As a researcher who has worked in the area for many years, I have seen literally hundreds of documents indicating that Indigenous parents were often eager to send their children to residential schools, many of which had waiting lists.”

While feeling the same public shame and upset over the treatment by some school officials, of some children, over the more than a century that these schools existed, I have felt the public “shame record” needs balance. This essay is basically arguing that if we are going to demand public apologies and reparations today from individuals who did no wrong, and render them to individuals who suffered no wrong, shouldn’t all sides be required to face their historical acts of cruelty?

Read on to see what you think ….

The string of calls for public apologies continues unabated. Yet again, demands have been made that Pope Francis apologize for the role that the Catholic Church played in the Indian Residential School system. His refusal to do so has outraged native leaders. Anishinabek Nation Grand Council Chief Patrick Madahbee denounced “predatory abuse in biblical proportions” and “the Church’s heinous crimes”, saying that a papal apology was necessary “before considering any kind of reconciliation”.

The continual clamor for yet another apology, this time from Pope Francis, leads one to wonder whether the process of regret and reconciliation shouldn’t work in both directions.

If apologies are truly necessary to bring about reconciliation between the races, then perhaps it is time to consider some of the atrocities that natives have committed and to demand some expressions of repentance from their present-day representatives.

Let us begin with the worst massacre in Canadian history. This was the genocidal campaign in 1647-49 by the Iroquois Confederacy against the Huron nation. In the course of this series of attacks, perhaps as many as 30,000 Hurons were killed, with a remnant of survivors fleeing to New France for protection. These killings, and those of the Jesuits who ministered to the Hurons, are today remembered at the Huron/Ouendat Village and the Martyrs’ Shrine near Midland Ontario. Would it be asking too much for present-day Canadian Iroquois to apologize to the descendants of the Huron and to the Jesuit order?

The worst mass murder of whites by natives occurred in the early morning hours of August 5, 1689 when over a thousand Mohawk warriors descended upon the French-Canadian settlement at Lachine, near Montreal. They set fire to the village, murdered many of its inhabitants and retreated with a number of captives. The fate of these prisoners is described in an 18th-century history:

After this total victory, the unhappy band of prisoners was subjected to all the rage which the cruelest vengeance could inspire in these savages. They were taken to the far side of Lake St. Louis by the victorious army, which shouted ninety times while crossing to indicate the number of prisoners or scalps they had taken, saying, “We have been tricked, Ononthio [the governor of New France, Count Frontenac], we will trick you as well.” Once they had landed, they lit fires, planted stakes in the ground, burned five Frenchmen, roasted six children, and grilled some others on the coals and ate them.

As many as forty-eight prisoners were tortured to death. We call upon the Mohawk Council of Kahnawà:ke to repudiate this policy of murder by their ancestors and to issue an apology.

Samuel Hearne, the English explorer, made an expedition to the Arctic Ocean by way of the Coppermine River. On this trek he was joined by a group of Dene who were intent on making war against their Inuit enemies.  Near a waterfall on July 17, 1771, these natives attacked a sleeping band of Inuit and murdered them in what came to be known as the Massacre at Bloody Falls. In Hearne’s description:

In a few seconds the horrible scene commenced; it was shocking beyond description; the poor unhappy victims were surprised in the midst of their sleep, and had neither time nor power to make any resistance; men, women, and children, in all upwards of twenty, ran out of their tents stark naked, and endeavoured to make their escape; but the Indians having possession of all the land-side, to no place could they fly for shelter … The shrieks and groans of the poor expiring wretches were truly dreadful; and my horror was much increased at seeing a young girl, seemingly about eighteen years of age, killed so near me, that when the first spear was stuck into her side she fell down at my feet, and twisted round my legs, so that it was with difficulty that I could disengaged myself from her dying grasps.

Naturally, present-day Dene will want to make amends to the descendants of the victims of their brutal forbears.

In 1869 the Métis of the Red River area rose in revolt against the claims on their territory (newly surrendered by the Hudson’s Bay Company) to the government of Canada. A provisional regime led by Louis Riel rounded up opponents of this move and imprisoned them. One of the dissidents, a 28-year-old Irish immigrant named Thomas Scott, was court-marshalled and executed by firing squad in March, 1870. We call upon the Manitoba Métis Federation to disavow this extra-judicial murder and to issue an apology.

During the second uprising led by Louis Riel, the Northwest Rebellion of 1885, in Frog Lake, in what is now eastern Alberta, a group of Cree warriors led by Wandering Spirit raided the Hudson’s Bay Company store. They also took a number of Canadian settlers and officials prisoner and burned down the village. They subsequently murdered the Indian agent, two Catholic missionaries and their assistant, and five other white men. We call upon the Frog Lake First Nation and the Assembly of First Nations to recognize this dark deed and to apologize.

If, as we are forever told, apologies must freely flow if reconciliation is to be achieved in Canada, there should be no hesitation on the part of native groups to issue their regrets for these bygone evils.

Or – and here is a shocking new idea – we could all assume that present-day Canadians are not responsible for actions undertaken in earlier days and have no need to apologize. We could assume that our fellow-citizens wish us well, regardless of ancestry, and get on with building a unified nation, free of inherited resentments.





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