Let the grovelling begin!
That, at any rate, seems to be the philosophy of Indian Affairs minister Jane Stewart. On Wednesday, she rose in the House of Commons to read a "statement of reconciliation." Ostensibly, she was apologizing for one specific public policy: the removal of native children from their reserves in the 1950s and ‘60s in order to send them to boarding schools that promised to assimilate them to the Canadian mainstream. If that were all the statement said, it would be reasonable enough. But unfortunately, it implies much more than it says—and what it implies is an insult to the rest of the Canadian population.
Two principles should govern public apologies.
First, apologies are due only to living people. Wrongs are suffered by individuals and restitution can only be made to those individuals. That’s why it was appropriate to apologize to and compensate Japanese-Canadians whose property was seized when they were interned during World War II, and why it would be inappropriate to apologize to and compensate the Acadians of today for the expulsions of the 1750s. When the great-great-great-grandchildren of someone who was maltreated ask for an apology, they are engaging not in the pursuit of justice, but in ethnic muscle-flexing.
Second, apologies are due only for violations of fundamental rights. We ought not to apologize to the descendents of Chinese immigrants forced to pay a head tax, because the rights of those Chinese were not violated. There is no right to immigrate to Canada. Canada was entitled to exclude Chinese immigrations entirely, and so it is equally entitled to admit them only after the payment of a tax.
The Indians sent to boarding schools satisfy both conditions. The federal government violated both the right of Indian parents to educate their children as they saw fit, and the people whose rights were violated are still living. An apology directed to that specific transgression by the federal government would be perfectly reasonable.
Unfortunately, Stewart’s statement is neither direct nor specific. In its fourth paragraph, the apology makes reference to "actions" that weakened the identity of aboriginal peoples. "We must recognize the impact of these actions on the once self-sustaining nations that were disaggregated, disrupted, limited or even destroyed by the dispossession of traditional territory …"
Now what is that supposed to mean? It sounds to me as if, embedded in a reasonable and limited statement of regret for one particular policy, has been buried a more general apology for the settlement of this continent by Europeans. And that is utterly, absolutely unjustified. As this week’s horrible ice storm reminds us, the northern half of North America is one of the harshest, most inclement corners of the globe. It’s cold, it’s unpredictable, and it’s deadly. On this punishing terrain, European settlers built one of the wealthiest and most technologically sophisticated societies on earth—and also one of the fairest and most humane. Disasters like the Great Storm remind us of how breathtaking difficult that accomplishment was and how fragile in many ways it remains.
And yet we did it.
This achievement benefited native peoples every bit as much as the descendents of those settlers. If, by some freak of history, the European settlement of North America had never occurred, native people who are today living in heated houses, travelling by truck and skidoo, treating sickness with modern medicines (at no charge to themselves), and eating hygienic food would instead by living in miserable frozen shanties, walking in un-soled shoes from one frozen hunting ground to another, desperately attempting to catch their dinner with stone-tipped arrows, and dying by the thousands every time the wind gusted from the north.
It’s often said that the North American Indians lived in greater harmony with the environment than we do. That’s quite wrong. The ancestors of today’s Indians arrived in the Americas 12,000 years ago, and promptly exterminated almost all of the continent’s large mammals, from its indigenous horses to its giant sloths. (They also engaged in genocidal warfare with each other, but that’s another story.) The Indians didn’t live in harmony with the environment; they lived at the mercy of it. It was the European settlement that rescued them.
The descendents of the Europeans have had the good taste never to demand a thank you from the descendents of the aboriginals. They shouldn’t demand it now. But at the very least they are entitled to refuse to bow and scrape and abase themselves for the sin of having tamed and civilized this inhospitable land.
February 7, 1998
Quick: who invented aspirin? No, it’s not a silly question. Strangely enough, it goes to the heart of the way we think and write about the aboriginal people of this country.
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a column [above] criticizing the Chretien government’s apology to native Canadians, and arguing that the European settlement of the North American continent was a good thing—good even for the original inhabitants, because pre-settlement their lives had been so poor.
That column proved (surprise, surprise) controversial. I’ve now received a stack of letters from readers chiding me for—among other offenses—my allegedly hideous ignorance of native history. The letters cited a long list of grand native achievements to which we are supposedly indebted. Before contact with Europe, one correspondent told me, 100 million Indians lived here, and had built a civilization as advanced as anything in Europe. My correspondents went on to claim that it was from the Iroquois confederacy that the Americans borrowed the political ideas contained in the U.S. Constitution. And, they said, it was from the native use of chewing willow bark (which is rich in saricin, a chemical component of aspirin) that we got our most familiar painkiller.
These claims are, as anyone interested can quickly find for himself or herself, baseless. But that does not seem to matter. There is growing up a weird pseudo-history of North America intended to enhance the prestige of native culture. Worse, this pseudo-history is now seeping from the small ideological subgroups that created it into the larger society—I noticed, with some alarm, that one of the letters offering the aspirin myth as fact came from a man who identified himself as a university lecturer.
So let’s set the record straight. The suggestion that 100 million people lived here in 1492 is farfetched. The consensus among scholars and historians is that, at discovery, the population of the whole territory from Baffin Island to the bottom of Chile ranged between 4 million and 10 million. In central and south America, aboriginals had indeed built high cultures, with sophisticated calendars and complex social hierarchies. These were not, however, gentle, peaceful societies—the Aztec empire of Mexico was built upon war, tribute and mass human sacrifice. (It’s true, as one letter writer said, that the when the Spaniards first caught sight of the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan, they exclaimed that it was more beautiful than any city in their country. When they got inside, however, they were more impressed by the immense mountain of human skulls in the very center of the town.) Nor were these cultures egalitarian: they were all founded on the slavery of almost the entire population. North of Mexico, conditions were not quite so blood-soaked, but they were dreadfully primitive—American and Canadian natives were living, literally, in the stone age.
The story of the Iroquois inspiration of the US constitution is pure invention. The idea of the separation of powers came to the Americans from a European intellectual tradition dating back to Aristotle; the phrases of the constitution were adapted from English constitutional law; and when the advocates of the Constitution wanted an example of a successful confederacy, they did what any educated eighteenth- century gentlemen would have done—they rummaged through the history of Greece and Rome. In the flood of pamphlets and speeches from the 1780s arguing for and against the constitution, I have yet to see a single one that even mentions the Iroquois. Unsurprisingly so: the points of similarity between the U.S. Constitution and the Iroquois confederacy are virtually nil.
Now then, about aspirin. In 1859, a German chemist named Hermann Kolbe invented the process by which the active ingredient in aspirin, ASA, could be synthesized. Kolbe was building on a medical tradition that went back to the ancient Greeks. The famous Hippocrates prescribed willow bark as a treatment for pain and fever as long ago as 200 BC, and we possess 1900-year-old Greek medical books that describe its benefits. The Indians may well have discovered the same thing independently, but it can in no sense be called an Indian contribution to modern life.
The story of the European settlement of this continent is replete with cruelty and injustice toward the original inhabitants. But you cannot make amends for cruelty and injustice by spinning an immense tissue of fabrications about the past. Unfortunately, that’s what all too many of the would-be champions of native rights are doing.