05 October 2020

The New Colonialists #nlpoli

The New Colonialists
don't look like the old ones
The last day of September is known as Orange Shirt Day.

It is a day to remember residential schools for Indigenous people, which, as the national Truth and Reconciliation Commission said in its final report, “were a systematic, government-sponsored attempt to destroy Aboriginal cultures and languages and to assimilate Aboriginal peoples so that they no longer existed as distinct peoples.”

Across Newfoundland and Labrador, schools featured special events to tell the story of residential schools in Canada. CBC Newfoundland and Labrador ran two stories, one of which was written by a young journalist from Labrador whose grandmothers attended a residential school. His first sentence is both evocative and typical of the emotion that accompanies stories of residential schools.

“For years, the Lockwood School in Cartwright housed Indigenous children taken from their homes all in the name of "killing the Indian within the child."

Another of these “localizer” pieces – ones that give a local angle to a national or international story – explained that “[r]residential schools were established by the Canadian government in the 1800s, with a guiding policy that has been called ‘aggressive assimilation.’ The federal government sought to teach Indigenous children English and have them adopt Christianity and Canadian customs, and pass that — rather than Indigenous culture — down to their children.”  That one was written by a journalist from northern Ontario now living in St. John’s.

In 2017,  CBC reported on Justin Trudeau’s apology to Indigenous people in Labrador for the treatment they received in residential schools.   The CBC story at the time explained that “[b]etween 1949 and 1979, thousands of Indigenous children were taken from their communities to attend five residential schools that were run by the International Grenfell Association or Moravians.”

There’s only one problem with these stories: they aren’t about residential schools in Newfoundland and Labrador.

These stories about Canadian residential schools are imposed on something different, namely the schools in Newfoundland and Labrador, without acknowledging the meaningful difference.

The two are distinctly different.

One of the biggest differences is that the schools in Newfoundland and Labrador weren’t exclusively for Indigenous children.  They weren’t created by the Newfoundland government to assimilate Indigenous children into white culture. They were schools open to anyone, including non-Indigenous children.  There were also differences between the schools run by the Moravian mission and those run by the International Grenfell Association that are important to understanding what happened and why it happened.

Indigenous people in Labrador felt left out of the apology offered by the federal government for the abuses they suffered in schools run in Canada with the express objective of assimilating Indigenous people.

People in Newfoundland and Labrador frequently complain they are treated differently from other Canadians.  Most times, that isn’t justified.

But here’s a case where they should have been treated differently if the objective was – in the words of the commission’s name – truth and reconciliation.  Only by understanding the whole story of the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in Newfoundland and Labrador can those people find the truth they share that would form the basis of any reconciliation.

And in a national sense, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians deserve to know the truth of what happened in Newfoundland and Labrador, fully, and to embrace it as part of their national history.

As it is, the national commission that traveled the country collecting stories of Indigenous people and abuse in residential schools failed when it did not deal truthfully with the residential schools in Newfoundland and Labrador.  The commission also failed when it produced a report that ignored the differences in the history of the two school systems. 

Newfoundlanders and Labradorians, Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike, deserve to know their own history for themselves.  To say that does not deny or diminish the experiences of Indigenous people in residential schools or their desire for acknowledgement of harm.  Rather, it says that we must find out what our own story is, whether we are Indigenous or non-Indigenous.  We must understand our different perspectives and different experiences of the same time and place.

Mimicry and Content Assembly

What we should note of this experience with residential schools is how much it reflects the way local elites these days either take their cues on what is important from external sources or adopt external narratives.  We see it in the residential schools stories and in the minor flap over taking down statues last summer.   We saw it in the other examples from the post last summer about mimicry and pantomime.  We saw it plainly in the story about Roger Grimes, the supposed reactionary.

Around these parts, your humble e-scribbler has started to call it Content Assembly instead of journalism.  The drive to produce content means that large media organizations like CBC, PostMedia, or even Saltwire pay less attention to the calibre what they produce in favour of producing content to fill space.  It lines up with another trend, namely the way people look something up quickly, read a bit here and a bit there to meet a need and then forget it.  Increasingly people can find tidbits of information on the Internet but they either lack the capacity to string them together into a coherent, persistent thread or lack the interest in doing so.  Information is transient.  Knowledge – understanding - is almost non-existent. It’s part of living in the Age of Unformation.

You can see this transience of  information or the lack of understanding in other media stories.  CBC ran a piece a few months ago about two Indigenous actors from this province.  One of them found success nationally and another is able to make living acting in St. John’s.  But for some reason, both the writer and the editor thought that references to pre-Confederation Canada applied in Newfoundland and Labrador.  The result was a bizarre disconnect between a story that was generally positive and the historically false - but deliberately negative – references that, quite literally, had nothing to do with Newfoundland and Labrador today.

The New Colonialists

It’s no accident that these stories all came from CBC.  Canada’s largest media bureaucracy is also rapidly becoming its leading content assembly facility.  The pressure to produce content for multiple platforms coupled with the bureaucracy’s centrally controlled approach to stories makes it easy to insert false narratives into stories to serve large bureaucratic objectives. The motive to do so comes from nothing other than the Canadian Broadcasting Centre’s ability to do so, being as it is located in the centre of the Canadian universe.

Take, for example, the CBC reporter in northern Ontario who could tweet about how proud she was  of taking a “new approach for me, trying to actively de-colonize my journalism. Resisted journalistic compulsion to ‘humanize’ victims, instead attempted to contextualize Indigenous deaths within Canada’s colonial project.”

The story was about the number of Indigenous people who have died in police custody in Ontario.  There’s plenty in the story to connect the deaths with a common theme across Canada, namely mental illness.

What the reporter meant by “de-colonizing” her writing was her reliance of the opinion of one academic to transform the story into a narrative about race.  There might be a case to be made but, in an age when local stories are easily accessible nationally, it’s this false claim that leaps out:

“In Canada, policing was founded on the premise that Indigenous peoples needed to be removed from the land and false beliefs that Indigenous peoples are both less human and more-threatening than white people, says Jessica Jurgutis, whose academic research looks at the relationship between settler colonialism and imprisonment in Canada.”

Jurgutis’ doctoral thesis does precisely what happened in the residential schools story and what she did in the CBC interview.  It takes a sweeping narrative and applies it generally and without apparent concern for the importance of the details that do not fit with her objective.  A fine example is in a footnote, one of three references to Newfoundland in her study that looks at the relationship between Indigenous communities and imperial Britain as an international relations question.

“In the 1850s," Jurgutis notes, “the federal government also opened a number of schools across the country with the exception of Newfoundland, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island.”  Just as all policing in Canada did not come from a desire to move Indigenous people from their land, so too was it impossible for something that did not exist in 1850 – the federal government – to establish schools in places over which the non-existent government would have had no control at the time.  Even if she used Upper Canada as synonymous with modern Canada, Jurgutis would still be wrong factually, ethically, and in the context of her academic discipline.  That she got her doctoral degree using such nonsense is more a testament to the sorry state of modern academia than anything else. 

There is more to this than laziness or the difficulty that some social scientists have in coping with the concept of time.  Jurgutis reflects a common attitude in central Canada toward what some would call figuratively or others literally the periphery of Canada.  The mindset defines Canada and Ontario as synonymous and treats the regions furthest away not just as external borders but – as the word itself also means – lesser or insignificant parts.

After a while, these things start to look like colonial attitudes.  The local elites in the region or on the periphery ape the metropole they desire to be part of.  The outsiders treat anything local as insignificant.  It is an expression of power, to be sure, to erase document facts and one not without brutal hypocrisy. Academics who might wince in fear of judging one culture by the standards of another  - they call it ethnocentrism - have no problem doing the same thing when looking at people in the past. It's called presentism. In other cases, as in Jurgutis thesis she is, in effect treating Indigenous people on the periphery in the same way.  Their experience, their history is so insignificant that she can make one up and impose it on them. The same is true of journalists who fancy themselves impartial tellers of truth yet who, in their “de-colonized” writing, simply take up a new ideology that looks remarkably like the old one. Or a national commission that tells the story of only one part of the country but pretends it is the only story.

Nor is this just old central Canadian wine in new skins.  Lately, Atlantic Canadians have seen an influx of western Canadian money and western Canadian politic attitudes.  Whether it is from the national Conservative Party or from organizations like the Canadian Taxpayers Federation and the Fraser Institute, western Canadian money is pushing a narrative at Atlantic Canadians with no concern that the narrative is, from an Atlantic perspective, an entirely false one.  One of the easiest to spot is the notion that we are all welfare bums who refuse to develop our own resources because we can get Alberta to pay for it through Equalization.

It’s all horseshit, of course, but they have the money to pile it higher and deeper.

And they'll keep doing it as long as we let them.

That is the way colonialists operate.