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Hoping Against Hope?

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Issue: 43 Section: Original Peoples Geography: Canada Topics: Indigenous

February 20, 2007

Hoping Against Hope?

A review of a new audio documentary about the struggle against colonialism in Canada

by Kim Petersen

The cover of the audio documentary Hoping Against Hope? The Struggle Against Colonialism in Canada, which examines colonialism and genocide in Canada today. Photo: Gord Hill

A recently released audio documentary finds that in today’s Canada, Indigenous communities are “beset with record levels of suicide, high infant mortality rates, rampant sexual exploitation, epidemic levels of gas-sniffing, and alcohol, drug and solvent abuse. Furthermore there is an over-representation of Indigenous people in the prison system and chronic levels of desperate poverty.” These findings aren’t much different from what’s occasionally found in media headlines, but the root causes the documentary points to and the solutions it proposes are radically different from anything found in mainstream discourse.

The documentary begins with a question listeners will find difficult to ignore. “What if the Holocaust had never stopped?” asks Dr. Roland Chrisjohn, an Onyota’a:ka (Oneida) and Director of Native Studies at St. Thomas University in Fredericton. “What if, instead, with the passage of time, the world came to accept the State’s actions as the rightful and lawful policies of a sovereign nation to deal with creatures that were less than fully human…Then, you would have Canada’s treatment of the North American Aboriginal population in general and the Indian Residential School experience in particular.”

Praxis Media Productions and the Nova Scotia Public Interest Research Group have produced a three-part radio series, Hoping Against Hope? The Struggle Against Colonialism in Canada, which examines colonialism and genocide in Canada today.

In 1876, the Canadian government enacted the Indian Act -- a tool for ethnic cleansing. The Act replaced traditional Indigenous government with a band council system. This allowed the government to determine who was an “official” Indian and reduce Indian numbers.

The professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Boulder in Colorado, Ward Churchill, describes the practice in Hoping Against Hope (HH) as a “sort of revitalized eugenics movement” based on what percentage Indian blood one has.

The next step was the consolidation of territory by the colonizers. Treaties were often the instruments used to accomplish this. Andrea Bear Nicholas, who holds the Atlantic Chair in Native Studies at St. Thomas University, points out that in the Maritime Provinces, most treaties were nation-to-nation agreements -- peace agreements between the encroaching settlers and Original Peoples. They were not land treaties.

“When you add it all up,” says Chrisjohn, “for about 90 per cent of Canada, even under the best possible scenario, there is no legal transfer of title from the Aboriginal inhabitants to the Crown.”

The method originally used to seize control of the land was genocide of the people living there. As evidence of this, Bear Nicholas recalls the bounties that were offered by the Crown for Indian scalps. Incidentally, this practice has been wiped from most Canadian textbooks -- a process she calls “historicide.”

The forced removal of Indigenous children from their families and placement in residential schools exemplifies assimilation as a form of genocide. Assimilation, says Bear Nicholas, is based on “the idea that a colonized people must have their identity, their being, literally wiped away from them and that they must be remolded, refashioned in the image of the colonizers, primarily for purposes of control and exploitation

HH quotes the civil servant Duncan Campbell Scott, who described Canadian Indian policy as “tak[ing] the Indian out of the Indian.”

De-Indianizing the Indians has been a multi-pronged process, but “the main vehicle for assimilating Indigenous peoples,” has been the “education route,” says Bear Nicholas.

HH notes, “Schools have colluded in the attack on Aboriginal forms of life. Schools maintain the hegemony of the western world view -- promoting individualism instead of communities, and economic and material acquisition over equitable distribution and co-operation.”

HH cites Statistics Canada figures that indicate that fewer than a handful out of nearly 60 Indigenous languages in Canada are expected to survive until the middle of the century. Tove Skuttnab-Kangas, a linguist at Roskilde University in Denmark, calls this “linguicide.”

Linguicide, asserts Bear Nicholas, “also carries with it the idea that the languages that we speak…are not just dying out by some sort of natural force that happens to every minority language, but that there’s an actual deliberateness, there’s actually agency involved.”

As for the crimes of genocide, historicide and linguicide, HH says: “The Canadian government and the churches have been evading responsibility for their crimes, focusing instead on healing Native people, rather than providing justice. Somehow, it is the victims of genocide who are the sick ones, not the perpetrators. When genocide is brought up, it’s denied.”

Ward Churchill provides a simple solution to colonialism: “Law enforcement, more than that, obedience to law. I don’t think we need amendments, I think we need some adherence to the existent laws.”

“I am hoping,” says Chrisjohn, “hoping against hope, that the average Canadian will read what their Government did in their name to human beings…what their churches did to human beings in their name, because their churches are not telling them. The government is not telling them. They will not allow the word genocide to come up in discussion.”

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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