Canadians are apparently waiting distraught, wondering what crimes from the country’s history – true, exaggerated or unfounded – might soon be unearthed afresh. And what new social spasms such discoveries will prompt. Which new statues will be toppled, which new streets will be renamed and which heroes will be re-christened as villains? At stake is not just a chapter of history, but the entire book of what Canada was, what it is and what it should become.
Canada appears to be on its way to a consensus about how to view state-enabled crimes of the past towards its Indigenous people. This would be heartening, except that it is not a consensus which has been deliberated, discussed or debated. The process was initiated as social examination aimed at forming thoughtful national policy, but as it widened, has degenerated into social hysteria triggering national panic-attacks.
The resulting consensus has no formal national assent underpinning it, yet creates a set of assumptions decided by a few and imposed on all. Any transgressions against it – not just provocative breaches, but even tentative questions – typically trigger enraged condemnation. Anyone challenging the narrative does so at their peril. But what are these assumptions which are so sacred that they dare not be cross-questioned?
First is the assumption that the Canada of today is exactly the same country that committed indefensible crimes 50 or 100 years ago. In effect, the country has a perennial, immutable persona which, of course, is ugly and systemically racist.
Second is that there can be no stratification of the degree of crimes, the culpability of those involved or even the damage to the victims. Any distinction in intention – misguided versus evil – does not matter; nor any distinction in trauma – death due to illness versus corporal disciplining. Even tabling the possibility of such distinctions is sacrilegious.
Third is that while the state has an inescapable responsibility for the past (through apologies, memorials, policy-changes and reparations) there’s an overwhelming individual burden, too. It is carried primarily by those who happen to be from the same racial class as the perpetrators, even though separated by generations. Further, guilt and shame – expressed publicly and incessantly – are the expected penance for those individuals who bear this inherited moral burden.
Fourth, such penance is unending, because it is unthinkable to begin defining measures that demarcate a foreseeable “Finish Line.” This atonement is therefore a Sisyphean task subjecting Canada to eternal toil.
Canada is skating on very thin ice if these assumptions are adopted as the secular catechism, because each of them is seriously flawed – morally, ethically and legally. And if they shift from temporary social-media posturing to permanent institutionalized policy, then communal harmony will sink into icy waters.
First: Is Canada the Same Country?
The Ship of Theseus is one of the oldest concepts in Western Philosophy, having been discussed by Heraclitus and Plato over 25 centuries ago. It explores the question whether, if something has had all of its components replaced, it can still be considered the same as it was. If your grandfather had an axe, your father replaced the head and you replaced the handle, is it still your grandfather’s axe?
Is Japan today the same country that unleashed its imperial troops in 1937 and, in six weeks of what history calls the Rape of Nanjing, slaughtered hundreds of thousands of Chinese civilians? Is the Germany of today the same as the Third Reich of Hitler or even the Communist East Germany that existed until 1990? Is the South Africa of today the same that practised the abomination of Apartheid?
The answer is clearly “No” because nations don’t freeze in time. Their borders change, their regimes change, their constitutions change, their demographic composition changes…Even their national character and values change.
We refer to the Government of China as Communist, but its citizens are among the most ferocious capitalists in the world. Toronto is still viewed globally as the major metro of a predominantly Caucasian country, but in reality over 52 percent of its residents are not Caucasian. Countries can be artificially hammered together, like the Soviet Union once was, or they can peacefully separate, like Slovakia and the Czech Republic did in their “Velvet Divorce” of 1993.
But very few nations of today remain the same as they were decades ago, even if their boundaries are unchanged. The massive transformations in Canada’s laws, social mores and ethnic composition are evidence of its exceptional progress as a nation. The clearest corroboration is not just Canada’s global rating in 2021 as “The Best Country in the World,” but the way individuals worldwide are overwhelmingly voting with their feet by queuing-up for immigration to Canada.
Second: Are all Crimes, all Victims and all Perpetrators the Same?
Even some who’ve not heard of the British writer L.P. Hartley recognize the immortal opening line of his novel from 70 years ago, The Go-Between: “The Past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.”
Indeed, they do. It is within the memory of most Canadians when Ontario and British Columbia became the first provinces to legalize the licensing of same-sex marriage. And it was only in July 2005, just 16 years ago, that the federal Civil Marriage Act legalized same-sex marriage across the country.Evidently, millions of Canadians living today may have taken a position opposing same-sex marriage, something that was hardly out of step with their times, for gay marriage was not only social unacceptable to the broad majority, but actually illegal.
Should all of those people alive today be shamed and shunned? Our moral sense will reject this notion because those opposing gay marriage, objectionable as their view may seem today, reflected prevailing morality, law and policy. We have to judge actions today by the standards of today and judge the past, at least in good measure, by the standards of the past.
But what about policies, practices or views that violated widespread belief and moral teaching even at the time? There are not a hundred or even a thousand but millions of Americans whose grandparents participated – eagerly or reluctantly – in the everyday practice of disgraceful Jim Crow segregation laws. Still, it is untenable to sweepingly conflate an entire population into one guilty class when, in reality, different individuals have varying degrees of participation in social crimes. Decision-makers are not accomplices, who in turn are not unwilling participants, who are not powerless bystanders, who are not conscientious objectors.
Not everyone in an oppressor-group commits crimes equally and not everyone benefits equally. Even more often forgotten than this critical distinction is that not everyone in a victim-group suffers equally, either.
With the illumination of hindsight, many hostile adjectives can be rightfully applied to the Canadian policy on Indian Residential Schools: Short-sighted, ill-conceived, unfair, paternalistic, foolish, culturally-damaging, destructive. Yet “genocidal” cannot be one of them.
As C2C Journal also discussed in this essay, many horrific episodes in human history merit the word “genocide.” Like the one-and-a-half million killed (including 99 percent of all Cambodian Viets) within four years starting in 1975 by the Communist regime of Kampuchea. Or the 1 million Armenians killed or tormented to death (nine-tenths of the entire Armenian population that then lived in the Ottoman empire) in half-a-decade from 1915.
Was the hidden intention of successive Canadian leaders also the eradication of an entire race of people? If it was, then its policy – of building and funding schools for many decades – was the strangest approach to genocide the world has ever seen.
Third: Does Culpability Transfer Inter-Generationally? And is Shame the Right Penalty?
Do people – clumped together by race or ethnicity or religion – carry a liability indistinguishable from their predecessors? Persuading a current generation to acknowledge the crimes of a preceding one has powerful moral value. But that is starkly different from shaming them for sins of forebears they did not even know.
If we justify reprisals today for crimes done by long-dead people decades or centuries ago, it means we are recklessly introducing the poison of inter-generational vengeance into the community-reservoir of social harmony.
Relentlessly crushing people viewed as a past aggressor, enemy or oppressor has historically been an acceptable public ritual for the emergent dominance-class. This works, but usually not in the way intended. The Treaty of Versailles after the First World War, for example,imposed conditions that not only abased Germany’s economy but also the self-respect of many Germans. It has been cited by many historians as a factor behind the rise of the Nazi movement. One of its goals was to adopt the same tactic – but reversing whose boot it was and whose neck.
Fourth: Are Some Chapters Destined Never to be Closed?
It’s difficult to resolve problems with someone who can’t take “Yes” for an answer. If not stopped by a friendly yet firm hand, even the best of us can occasionally drive ourselves into an angry froth. We careen onwards in our frenzied momentum, raving and ranting without realizing that the other side already conceded. Accepting defeat takes grace, but accepting victory requires magnanimity. Yet for some, wallowing in the quicksand is more beneficial than climbing out.
Social issues are insidiously made worse when a cancerous industry grows around a pristine mission. The philosopher Eric Hoffer, who did considerable work in the study of mass movements, memorably remarked in his 1967 book The Temper of our Times that, “What starts out here as a mass movement ends up as a racket, a cult, or a corporation.”
The racketeers who benefit – lawyers, grant-receiving associations, prominent spokespeople – generate significant financial and reputational rewards. Non-entities become power-brokers as the rising tide of the problem lifts them to a pay-grade far above their natural competence. Isn’t it obvious why they would be loath to accept resolution and declare victory?
Extinguishing past fires is a prerequisite to rebuilding, because it can happen only over cold ashes. Endlessly stoking the embers of retribution and fanning them again into raging flames helps only those who profit from burning it down. In many cases, literally so, as the indefensible vandalism of churches across Canada was accompanied by a shameful defence of the call to “Burn it all down.”
What History Teaches about Remedies
So, what have other nations done when faced with situations that are conceptually similar, even if poles apart in degree?
Often, they resort to brazen denial. One example from this long and sorry list was Soviet Russia’s decades-long coverup of its massacre of 5,000-8,000 Polish officers and their secret burial in the Katyn forest early in the Second World War, before finally conceding the truth in 1990. Because even a notoriously thick-skinned regime realized there was only so much international condemnation it could resist. Communist China, on the other hand, continues its campaign of denial regarding its criminal conduct in Tibet and Xinjiang.
Some other countries attempted to grapple with the past but could not settle on a clear policy and flip-flopped according to the views of whoever was in office at the time. This has been the case in Japan, with one Prime Minister apologizing for his country’s war-crimes and then a different Prime Minister in a different decade back-pedalling and negating his predecessor’s progress. The consequence? It has fuelled China’s hostile orientation towards Japan, not just nation-to-nation but also people-to-people. That is a serious foreign relations and economic headache for Japan given that in the more than 75 years since their war ended, its impoverished neighbour’s GDP has leap-frogged to become three-times Japan’s.
Far more useful for many countries seeking a model is to examine what the Germans did. They planned their post-war Holocaust restitution in a typically Germanic way, creating a rigorously-debated program with a tongue-twisting name: Vergangenheitsbewältigung (“coming to terms with the past”). But the German model is not adoptable by Canada, given that Germany’s post-Second World War endeavours were designed as penance for monstrous crimes – against Jews and other minorities, against occupied countries, against humanity itself – that were orders of magnitude worse and of an entirely different nature than what happened in Canada.
Canada did not need to be coerced by such tactics or shamed by global opinion. The honourable course Canada took upon itself was to uphold its values for their own sake, acknowledging that mistakes were made and needed to be amended.
Acceptance is a commendable first step. But what should be the next one?
Framing the Finish
Every sensible movement for justice – at least any that has succeeded – has a clear list of rational and reasonable claims. With integrity and focus, even demands once thought unattainable can eventually be met.
The famously hawkish U.S. President, Ronald Reagan, apologized for and approved a financial reparation of $20,000 to every survivor or heir of those Americans of Japanese ethnicity who were interned in camps during the Second World War. Because they had a specific set of demands that were met after a decade-long civil campaign, there’s no continuing Angst among the Japanese-American community. When internment is talked about today, it is correctly viewed as a disgraceful scar on American history, not a festering wound.
Is there a similar road to redemption for Canada? Apologies, reparations, memorials? More than one Prime Minster has already issued heartfelt apologies. Close to $2 billion has been paid through the Common Experience Payment of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement and, additionally, over $3 billion has been paid through Independent Assessment Processes.
Yet the most commonly-heard refrain is “Not enough.” The state apologies appear not enough, heartfelt national penitence appears not enough, the direct compensation appears not enough and the many changes in government policy aimed at helping Indigenous communities lift themselves up appear not enough. Just a few weeks ago, the chief of the largest advocacy organization for Canada’s First Nations spoke about fresh reparations encompassing the entire community, above and beyond payments made to specific survivors.
In the spirit of reconciliation, perhaps many more apologies can still be made and many more billions can still be paid. But it is necessary to ask: What will be enough?
Should Restitution be Measured?
Justice typically requires some combination of punishment and recompense. But both need to be measured and proportionate. Distasteful as it may seem, arriving at the right measure of each demands a detailed financial calculus.
This thought repels us because the concept of “blood money” to erase crimes makes our skin crawl. It runs counter to our intuitions because we feel there can be no measure for a lost life or a lost childhood. And indeed, this is true. But in practical terms, carefully measuring restitution is how justice is delivered in every civilized system of jurisprudence.
If I’m maimed in an accident in Canada, it would not only tear my life apart but that of my family too. No number in dollars would provide true restitution, because the most grievous wounds can never be completely healed by money. Yet even the most warm-hearted judge will still compute compensation with cold-headed pragmatism, including factors like the degree of my injury, my expected lifespan and my income trajectory before and after the accident.
Societies have learnt that psychological closure is necessary for moving on, and without moving on – whether as a nation, community or family – we keep boiling ourselves in a cauldron of anger.
The Indigenous leadership representing descendants of the victims of Canada’s Indian Residential Schools should confer and propose a finish line, because that is the starting point of anything decisive. Compensation for specific victims is a very different journey from reparations to an entire community. And Canada should be sure what it is heading towards.
Building a Legitimate National Consensus
Even when a defined proposal is on the table, it does not follow that every expectation is legitimate, sensible and reasonable just because it has been proposed by victims. Any settlement must represent the genuine and collective consent of Canadian citizens as a whole. And perhaps the best way to achieve this would be to put the proposed settlement to a national referendum.
Referendums have an admittedly shallow history in Canada, with only three national referendums having been held in the past 120 years. The first concerned prohibition of alcohol in 1898, the second was on military conscription in 1942 and the most recent was held in 1992 to approve passage of a set of constitutional amendments called the Charlottetown Accord. It failed, but with momentous political consequences, for the deeply unpopular Progressive Conservative government of Brian Mulroney, the chief architect and advocate for the deal, was virtually annihilated in the following election. Quebec, of course, has held two referendums on separating from Canada, both of which caused national division. This checkered record has made traditionally risk-averse Canadian political leaders even more jittery at the prospect of risking not only their policy proposal but their party’s very future on such a roll of the dice.
Even so, a national referendum could offer profound value: not merely the process or even the outcome, but the recognition that political leaders are responsible to explain, make a case for and ask “permission” from the public for a proposed settlement that may alter the nation itself and affect the life of every citizen. An economy like Canada’s, with a GDP closing in on $2 trillion per year, can always write-off another few billion. But decisions over an issue like the one being discussed have a social and cultural impact which is not reflected in its accounting books.
Every human being worthy of the name has empathy for the historical suffering of Indigenous people in Canada. Yet, even as they appear universally sensitive to the issue, Canada’s citizens seem unsure and divided about not only the remedies for survivors of Indian Residential Schools but the whole approach to reconciliation with the country’s Indigenous peoples.
The imperative for Canada is to unify not just for restitution but also for its national narrative. To acknowledge that what was once thought beneficial was proven by subsequent events to be misguided, often harmful and, in specific individual cases, criminal or even evil.
Remedying this is a moral project that should be undertaken as a voluntary harness which unifies diverse ethnicities, races and religions. Not as a divisive cleaver which slashes deeper wounds between them. Canada will emerge in its noblest incarnation when everyone displays solidarity with Orange. But by uniting under the Red, White and Maple.
Gourav Jaswal is an entrepreneur in technology and communication who studied history, politics and economics at university. Email him at [email protected]