You can’t learn from history by hiding it

, , Comments Off on You can’t learn from history by hiding it

The search and destroy mission targeting Sir John A. Macdonald, does nothing to redress past wrongs. Instead, it stokes the flames of division by refusing to embrace the true meaning of reconciliation.

By Sheila Copps

First published in The Hill Times on August 13, 2018.

OTTAWA—You cannot learn from history by hiding it.

The decision by Victoria City Council to get rid of a statue of our first prime minister does nothing for truth and reconciliation.

It repeats the same errors made by past generations, who believed the best way to deal with a difficult issue was to hide from it.

Teen pregnancy? Send the offending young mother away and do not allow her to hold her baby in case they bond in the first few moments of life.

Spousal abuse? Suck it up buttercup, your marital vows included good and bad, and after all, how bad can it be?

Non-heterosexual relationships? Hide them in the closet for fear their sexual orientation will contaminate the rest of us.

Racism? Simply the state of things between dominant whites and everyone else.

Mentally handicapped? Stamp it out through sterilization.

Deculturalization? It is the white man’s way or the door way.

One does not have to reach too far into the past to find blatant examples of discrimination that would not be tolerated today.

Back in the eighties, there was a move afoot to modernize the Indian Act, and abolish sexual discrimination enshrined in the legislation.

At that time, an aboriginal woman who married a white man lost her status. The same punishment did not apply for an aboriginal man who married a white woman.

Pure, unadulterated gender bias.

The biggest opponents to ending the discrimination were neither the bureaucrats nor the politicians but rather the aboriginal chiefs who refused to extend band rights to women who married outside their race.

Just this spring, the courts overturned a local Mohawk band decision in Kahnawake that required First Nations people who married whites to get off tribal land. The “Marry Out, Get Out” law prohibits people who marry non-natives from living in the community. The Mohawk Council says the move to expel mixed-marriage families safeguards Mohawk land and culture.

But Justice Thomas Davis ruled otherwise, saying the policy violated the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms ban on family discrimination. Mohawk council spokesperson Joe Delaronde insisted the community’s membership laws are an internal community matter. “Our position has been that these types of matters are not to be decided by outside courts,” Delaronde said in response to the decision. “We’re very independent here and we say it’s our law and our business.”

He framed the membership law as part of the Mohawk struggle against assimilation.

“When a place like Kahnawake stands up for itself we seem like radical bad guys when really, all we’re doing is trying to protect what little we have,” he said. “It’s a survival mechanism.”

The same argument was used by racists to defend segregation and oppose interracial dating, which they claimed would dilute the white race.

Today, no one would tolerate racism but some have no problem explaining away the obvious discrimination in Kahnawake.

The search and destroy mission targeting Sir John A. Macdonald does nothing to redress past wrongs. Instead, it stokes the flames of division by refusing to embrace the true meaning of reconciliation.

Nelson Mandela, a stirring example of real reconciliation, invited his own prison guard to the inauguration of his presidency.

Our first prime minister was not perfect. By many accounts, he was an alcoholic who suffered from racist tendencies that translated themselves into horrible public policy. That was part of his legacy.

Macdonald also had the vision to link a new nation from Atlantic to Pacific, making an indelible mark on our collective identity and creating a country which is the envy of the world.

The answer should be to educate everyone on the positive and negative aspects of his political leadership without obliterating the significant accomplishment of creating Canada.

Last summer, some were mourning Canada’s 150th birthday, focussing on imperfections that have beleaguered our past. Our collective treatment of indigenous peoples was disgraceful.

So is our continuing sexism, where women in the paid work force are still paid only seventy-four per cent of what men receive.

All discrimination should end, and that is the job of current and future leaders.

But each change happens by moving in a positive direction.

Removing traces of our history, however chequered, does not change them.

Much has changed since Macdonald railed on in Parliament against Indigenous peoples.

It would be a mistake to define his place in history only by mistakes. Our first prime minister did some things worth remembering.

The colonial construct called Canada is one of them.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.