Truth and Reconciliation

A few years ago, one of my Canadian friends here in Japan gave me a compilation CD of kids’ songs she had got from a discount bin in a store in Canada. It was a three CD set that had older recordings of many classic kids’ songs and sing-along standards. I was charmed that it had some of the old-school nursery songs with the original dodgy lyrics (“Three Blind Mice,” and so forth). So we put it in the car and into the mix it went.

My daughter was about two at the time, and she came to enjoy these CDs. By the time she was four, she was singing along with most of them. Quite charming.

Now, there was one song that was not so charming: “Ten Little Indians.”

Listening to the CD for the first time I had no idea what was coming next. I heard that song start, and I thought, “Oh dear.” And, as with the rest of the songs, the version was full-on. It was a kids chorus group doing the singing, with a war drum backing them, and doing all the war-whoops and chants. The whole routine.

Oh dear.

But, I thought, the rest of this CD is lovely, and as bad and racist as this song is, there is no cultural context for it here in Japan. With my daughter being too young to explain properly why this song is bad, I decided just to ignore it, as I did with so many other things she enjoyed that I did not care for.

The trouble was, the song became her favorite. And she would sing along and do all the whoops and chants without any notion of what it is all about. But I knew all too well.

Oh dear.

One of the fun surprises of parenthood is how you are able to re-experience elements of your own childhood through the eyes of your child. It is much the same thing as watching a movie you love with a friend who has not seen it. It’s great.

Watching your child go through things can also trigger all kinds of emotions and memories from your own childhood, both good and bad. So it went with my daughter and, “Ten Little Indians.”

Driving along, with her in the back seat war-whooping and chanting, and wondering what I ought to be doing about this, I had a sudden recollection of doing exactly the same thing as her. I remembered singing that song in exactly that way, with the whoops and the chants, not just by myself, but with a big group of kids. I remembered loving it.

This got me thinking, in a very bothered state: When had I done this? With what group of kids?

It took me some time to remember properly. It was in grade one of elementary school. We did that song in our music class. At least a few times.

Oh dear.

Now, in the last months as the truth and reconciliation movement has gathered momentum with the discovery of unmarked graves of First Nations children at residential schools, I have been drawn to think about this memory again. To put it into the wider context of Canadian society as it relates to this issue.

Oh dear.

I do not think that our teacher, in choosing this song, was thinking that she wanted to be a cog in the machine of cultural genocide. I do not think that as six-year-old children we realized that our performance was working to dehumanize First Nations people in our own perception.

But this is so. This is what we were engaged in, consciously or not.

Then I went on to recollect that there was at least one First Nations child in our class. I recalled that she went on to be the first outcast among us. I recall that I went on to treat her very poorly.

I do not think this is a coincidence.

When I widen my thoughts further, to the area of Edmonton where I grew up, I recall stories I heard from an older man I worked with. How he proudly related how his grandmother came to northern Alberta as a little girl in a chuckwagon with her family to homestead a farm. What a tale it was. And without diminishing the incredible story of that family, that is how immediate the history of colonization is in our land. This is not ancient history. This is our story.

Many people like to ask how it was that normal Germans could sit by and allow the Holocaust to occur. They think to themselves that if they had lived in those times, they would have done differently. They would have stood up. They would have resisted.

Well, something similar to the Holocaust did occur in Canada, for the entire duration of the twentieth century. A cultural genocide was conceived of, planned, and perpetrated by the Canadian and provincial governments and Canada’s major churches. Justified, in fact, with the same philosophies and academic theories that the Nazis used to justify their genocides. Racial ideology. Eugenics. The purity of the nation.

It is all the same thing, at heart. The Nazis just took it further.

And we must not forget that this genocide was perpetrated by Canadian society as a whole. For we cannot say that the average German bore culpability for the Holocaust without now turning that righteous judgment on ourselves.

A genocide was perpetrated, and what did we do? Did we stand up? Did we resist?

Ignorance is no excuse. It never is. The machine of the Canadian genocide of the First Nations ought to have been patently obvious to everyone. All it would have taken was the slightest bit of attention for all of us to realize what was happening. But we did not look. Instead, we sang, “Ten Little Indians,” and turned like predators on the other we had created.

And now we are discovering the atrocities of this genocide. “Discovering” them from the people who have been clearly talking about what was done to them for years; done to them by people who were lauded in our communities as paragons of charity. Perhaps we are discovering these things in the same way that the land of these peoples’ ancestors was “discovered” by Europeans so long ago.

I wonder how this new age of discovery will impact the culture. I somehow doubt it will make the same mark in the dominant narrative of our history. I also wonder if it too will be appropriated; this time as a vehicle of virtue signaling and patting ourselves on the back for our enlightenment.

And I’m not going to say, “I stand with you.” Because have I? Do I? I don’t even know what that means. It seems an empty platitude. I think you need to earn the right to say you stand with someone. Doing so requires some degree of tangible action.

I will say that I am sickened, depressed, and demoralized about what we have been “discovering.” And I do not know what to do about it.

But I will say: I am very sorry for my part in it.

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