The Great Canadian Myth
From Fox News to CNN, mainstream media outlets across North America are abuzz with the story of a tense encounter between a MAGA hat-wearing high school student and a drum-wielding Native American veteran which took place outside the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., last Friday (January 18, 2019). The 17-year-old student, who attends Covington Catholic High School in Park Hills, Kentucky, had travelled to Washington with his class in order to attend the March for Life, an annual pro-life rally. The 64-year-old Native American veteran, on the other hand, had come to the U.S. capital to attend the very first Indigenous People’s March, a political demonstration intended to draw attention to injustices perpetrated against indigenous peoples around the world. The two groups came into contact with each other, whereupon the two main characters of this story engaged in an awkward standoff in which the veteran sang and beat a hand drum close to the student’s face while the 17-year-old field-tripper stared at him, grinning.
Early reports of the incident were quick to denounce the student’s smirking as an example of the sort of disrespect which the Indigenous People’s March was intended to address, alleging that the student and his classmates had surrounded the veteran and his fellow Native American protestors before rudely mocking them and their traditional culture. Newly-released videos, however, clearly show that the veteran and his fellow protestors were the instigators of the encounter. During the strange stalemate that ensued, one of the protestors began hurling insults at the predominantly white high school students, shouting “this is not your land” and “go back to Europe”. The teenage students responded to these taunts by reciting their own high school spirit chant.
According to an introductory paragraph on this website’s homepage, MysteriesOfCanada.com was created back in 1998 in order to “help Canadians better understand the history, geography, myths and legends of their own country.” As such, I try to focus my articles on Canadian history and folklore, and often find myself referencing the mythology of various Canadian ethnic groups. Although the following piece may seem thematically incongruous with the articles that I usually post, I submit that it is not entirely out of place, as it addresses that which the official purpose of the Indigenous People’s March, the racially-charged invectives of the Native American protestor, and the mainstream media’s kneejerk reaction to the aforementioned story all evoke: a popular Canadian narrative which also happens to be one of Canada’s greatest myths.
The Great Canadian Myth
The truths that I will lay out in this article are uncomfortable, and I take no pleasure in writing them. I would much rather spend my time resurrecting an old Sasquatch story buried in some bygone men’s magazine or cobbling together a biography of a long-forgotten Canadian gunslinger. However, the perpetual reiteration of this Great Canadian Myth by the mainstream media and various provincial curricula, along with the negative consequences of the myth’s proliferation, has convinced me that history nerds like myself have a civic duty to at least attempt to set the record straight. So here goes!
The Great Canadian Myth that I will outline in this article can be distilled into five main points:
- Before the coming of the white man, Canada’s First Nations lived in peace and harmony with nature and with each other. The concept of personal property was foreign to them, and thus they shared the land and its resources freely with one another, devoid of any semblance of greed or jealousy.
- In the dim recesses of Canada’s past, European explorers appeared on Canada’s eastern shores and claimed the land they “discovered” for their respective monarchs. In the centuries that ensued, evil European colonists, consumed by greed, stole the land from the natives by force.
- In the 1880s, the Canadian government passed a law which decreed that all First Nations children be hauled from their families and thrown into residential schools, where they were forced to abandon their traditional cultures and assimilate into a European one. The horrors these native children endured at these residential schools, from brutal beatings to sexual abuse, were so traumatic that they prevented that entire generation, and all their succeeding generations, from getting back on their feet and enjoying happy, fulfilling lives in this new Europeanized Canada so different from the wild land that their ancestors knew. To this very day, First Nations communities across the country are rife with alcohol addiction, drug abuse, and suicide- all of these things after-effects of the residential schools and the callous brutality of the racist white colonizers who ran them.
- All white Canadians today are personally responsible for the current issues faced by various indigenous communities across the country, and are morally obliged to continually and eternally pay the First Nations reparations for their grievances via taxes.
- The aforementioned reparations will help Canada’s First Nations communities climb out of the slump in which they currently find themselves.
I will address each of these myths in the order in which I introduced them.
1. The Myth of the ‘Noble Savage’
A few years ago, I had the opportunity to flip through one of Alberta’s current elementary school Social Studies textbooks. In this book, I came across a three-page article detailing the Iroquois legend of the Great Peacemaker- a 15th Century prophet who united the Mohawk, Seneca, Onondaga, Oneida, and Cayuga Nations to form the mighty Iroquois Confederacy. The article was written in such a way that, to the Albertan elementary school student unfamiliar with the history of New France, it would likely convey the idea that the Iroquois were model peacemakers, and that the European colonists who ran roughshod over Canada’s First Nations throughout the 17th, 18th, and 19th Centuries would have done well by taking a page or two from their book.
In reality, nothing could be farther from the truth. The Iroquois were a ferocious and warlike people who constantly battled with their hereditary foes, the various Algonquin tribes that lived north of the St. Lawrence River. When New France was but a fantasy in the mind of Samuel de Champlain, the Iroquois were busy wiping out the Neutral Nation, an enemy tribe that lived between Lakes Huron, Erie, and Ontario. When Jesuit missionaries attempted to evangelize them in the 1600s, Iroquois braves tortured these men of cloth to death, burning them with red-hot tomahawk blades, stripping the flesh from their limbs to the bone, and mocking the sacrament of baptism by pouring boiling water over their heads. And when pregnant French women fell into their clutches following the 1689 Massacre of Lachine, they cut their unborn babies from their wombs, roasted them over a fire, and ate them before their very eyes. The idea that the Iroquois were champions of peace because a 15th Century medicine man brokered a powerful alliance between their five tribes is akin to the suggestion that the 13th Century Monglian warlord Genghis Khan ought to be accorded the same honour for uniting the tribes of Northeast Asia and establishing the Pax Mongolica in the wake of his bloody conquests.
While trivial, the little Social Studies lesson that I came across serves to illustrate the pervasiveness of the notion that Canada’s First Peoples lived an idyllic, harmonious existence prior to the arrival of the white man- a concept that is so fanciful as to border on absurd. Like nearly every society in the history of our species, the various cultures that constitute Canada’s pre-Columbian First Nations were riddled with practices and beliefs which would appall our modern Western sensibilities.
As an avid student of First Nations history and culture, and as a proud card-carrying member of the Metis Nation of Alberta, it is not at all my intention to malign Canada’s First Nations, some of whom were my ancestors. As such, I will dedicate no more words to this topic than are necessary, despite that frontier accounts of First Nations atrocities are sufficiently numerous to fill a book. To give a few more examples that illustrate my point: the Haida of the Pacific Northwest were notorious raiders and slavers; the Dene nations of the Canadian North treated their women like beasts of burden; and the Blackfoot of the Canadian prairies gloried in warfare and thievery. Suffice to say that Canada’s First Nations, prior to the settlement of the Canadian frontier, were no angels.
2. The Myth of the European Conquest
One popular facet of the Great Canadian Myth contends that evil European colonists stole the land from the indigenous peoples of the Americas- a belief epitomized by the Native American protester who shouted “this is not your land” and “go back to Europe” at the students of Covington Catholic High School. In order to determine the veracity of this notion, we must first examine the historic relationship between the indigenous people of the Americas and the continent which some modern aboriginals claim as their birthright.
Native Americans, of course, are not truly native to the Americas. The ancestors of most Amerindians are believed to have crossed an ancient bridge of land and ice, called Beringia, from Siberia to Alaska somewhere around 11,500 B.C. They were followed by the ancestors of the Dene Nations, who are believed to have made the same trans-Pacific journey between 10,000 and 8,000 B.C. The Dene, in turn, were followed by the ancestors of the modern Inuit, who migrated from Siberia to the Americas around 3,000 B.C.
Like every human civilization to walk the earth, the North American Indians have spent the past few thousand years engaged in endless intertribal warfare, violently displacing each other in a never-ending bid for greener pastures. In a sense, the French, English, and Spanish colonists who arrived on the eastern shores of the Americas several centuries ago were simply new tribes engaged in the same pursuit, their efforts aided by superior technology and the benefit of imperial support.
The notion that European colonists, upon establishing a foothold in the Americas, proceeded to steal native land by force has some merit in the United States, where the U.S. Army spent decades engaged in brutal Indian Wars with tribes opposed to their encroachment upon their hunting grounds. The same notion holds no water in Canada, however. The only First Nations to be truly conquered by the sword are the native allies of New France, who were finally subdued by the English at the end of the Seven Years’ War. Aside from the short-lived and relatively small-scale North-West Rebellion, there were no Indian Wars in Western Canada as there were in America’s Wild West; in the late 19th Century, after befriending the officers of the North West Mounted Police, the chiefs of the Blackfoot, the Plains Cree, and other western tribes peacefully settled onto Reserves, their traditional way of life having ended with the disappearance of the buffalo, a tragedy for which they were partly culpable.
3. The Legacy of Residential Schools
By the late 1800s, indigenous people all throughout Canada found themselves unable to make a living. Furs no longer fetched the prices they once did, and natives of Central Canada could no longer survive on trapping, the trade of their ancestors. Similarly, with the buffalo gone from the prairies, the natives of the Canadian Plains were forced to live off government handouts. The situation was grim for both the First Nations and the Canadian government.
In an effort to get the First Nations back on their feet and set them up for success in this new Canada, the Canadian government stipulated that the children of certain tribes attend church-run boarding schools, known today as residential schools. Unfortunately, these institutions largely failed in their mission to equip First Nations children for life in Canadian society. To make matters worse, native accounts of residential school life are filled with horror stories of child abuse- crimes which tragically seem to infiltrate even the highest-minded of institutions, from sports academies to Sunday schools.
Today, many First Nations communities across the country face serious problems. Among the most prominent of these is a lack of education. According to a study conducted by Statistics Canada in 2011, only 22.8% of Canada’s aboriginal peoples have completed high school and received some level of post-secondary education. To give this some context, a 2014 study conducted by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development concluded that 53% of Canadians aged 25-64 had received some level of “tertiary education”.
First Nations communities are also plagued by substance abuse and mental health issues. According to a 2009 report by Health Canada, the proportion of First Nations populations to report heavy drinking on a weekly basis is double that of general Canadian population, and according BC’s Mental Health and Substance Use Journal, First Nations members are twice as likely to commit suicide as the average Canadian.
Some other problems that disproportionately affect First Nations communities include drug abuse, obesity, domestic abuse, and unemployment.
According to the Great Canadian Myth, all of these problems are attributable to the childhood trauma experienced at residential schools, which had adverse effects on the mental and emotional development of generations of native students. A closer look at Canadian history, however, reveals several potential problems with this theory.
Native Americans were not the only Canadian ethnic groups to suffer widespread childhood trauma. During the so-called “Yellow Terror” of the late 19th Century, Chinese Canadians were treated horrendously by the Canadian government, being forced to live in abject poverty on account of steep head taxes and pitifully-low wages. During the Second World War, the Canadian government forcibly relocated Japanese Canadians to internment camps with atrocious living conditions, where children were frequently separated from their families. Perhaps the most traumatized racial group in history, through no fault of the Canadian government, were Ashkenazi Jews, who were killed by the millions in Nazi death camps during the Holocaust. After WWII, many Holocaust survivors immigrated to Canada.
Despite that Chinese, Japanese, and Jewish Canadians all suffered a considerable degree of childhood trauma at one time or another, these racial groups are now among the most successful ethnicities in the entire country. Could it be that Indian residential schools were so much more traumatic than the early Chinese-Canadian experience, Japanese internment camps, and the Holocaust? Or is it possible that there are other factors at play?
4. The ‘Sins of the Father’ Fallacy
The words “this is not your land” and “go back to Europe”, which one of the Native American protestors addressed to the Covington kids, echoes a widely held yet seldom spoken tenet of the Great Canadian Myth: that all white Canadians, by dint of their skin colour, are in some way responsible for and morally obliged to remedy the injustices perpetrated by their 17th, 18th, and 19th Century ancestors. In addition to being nonsensical, this argument fails to consider the facts that many 17th, 18th, and 19th Century Irish and French-Canadian settlers were themselves powerless victims of imperial oppression, and that the ancestors of a great number of Caucasian Canadians immigrated to the New World in the 20th Century, long after said injustices were committed.
5. The Reparations Fallacy
Perhaps the most destructive facet of the Great Canadian Myth is the idea that Canada’s suffering First Nations communities will somehow benefit from additional reparations, courtesy of the Canadian tax payer. This notion ignores what I believe to be the real reasons behind the suffering of Canada’s aboriginal people, namely a lack of incentive and cultural self-esteem, for which the Canadian government is entirely responsible.
In the late 1800s, when many Canadian First Nations lost the ability to make their own living, the Canadian government shuffled the last of them onto Reserves and hauled their children off to residential schools. In accordance with human nature, the natives whose needs the Canadian government provided for had little incentive to work. Even if some of them had retained a desire for productive exercise, they lacked the ability to engage in it; unable to hunt due to a scarcity of game and forbidden from warfare and certain religious ceremonies by Canadian law, these people lost their capacity to cultivate virtue in the manner with which they were accustomed. Forced into a life of purposeless indolence, many of them naturally fell into depression and vice- traps from which many of their descendants today have yet to escape.
Why the Myth Needs to End
Despite the good intentions which might have led to its creation, the Great Canadian Myth has some devastating consequences for both native and white Canadians.
The myth’s obvious adverse effects on white Canucks are illustrated perfectly by the case of the Covington boys. Although the Covington kids were neither the instigators of the confrontation for which they have become infamous nor the perpetrators of the racist acts with which they were initially accused, the media was quick to demonize them solely on the basis of their skin colour. They have since become the target of merciless name-calling by hordes of ill-informed social media users whose opinion of them was formed by the erroneous first reports. They have received death threats, some of them terrifyingly graphic in nature, and have had their names undeservedly tarnished. A cloud for which they were in no way responsible will hang over their heads for the rest of their lives.
As terrible as they are, the negative consequences of the Great Canadian Myth on white Canucks pale in comparison to the devastation that this popular fantasy wreaks upon Canada’s First Nations. The twisted logic of the Great Canadian Myth advocates perpetuating the residential system and pouring money into First Nations communities- an approach which will only exacerbate the suffering of Canada’s indigenous peoples for the reasons mentioned in the previous section. Instead of offering a helping hand to Canada’s First Peoples, it only succeeds in strengthening the bars of the cage in which they are trapped.
It’s high time that we expose this massive misconception for what it really is and make Canada a better place for both natives and whites.
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