BRANTFORD – I took my grandchildren and children to the Mohawk residential school laneway leading to the Woodland Centre that is lined with a photography installation by Six Nations artist Shelley Niro — a pictorial exhibit of American and Canadian battle zones important to our history.
American historical markers describe how Sullivan and Washington defeated the Iroquois. The U.S. burned our civilization to the ground. They don’t say that only 40,000 of the 1,250,000 Rotinohnsyonni survived the American Revolution. Some escaped, including the 3,000 Rotinohnsyonni refugees living along the Grand River.
Canadian historical signage makes little reference to the Rotinohnsyonni after the American Revolution. Canada says battles in the War of 1812 were won by British soldiers. Port Maitland. Stoney Creek. Queenston Heights. Niagara Falls. It’s like we weren’t even there. We were erased from history — invisible people.
However, the collective memory of our Old Ones prevails. Our fighters captured three platoons of U.S. troops at Long Point. After General Brock was killed 10 minutes into the Battle of Queenston Heights, it was Six Nation’s fighters standing on top of the hill. The Indian battalion won key battles in the First World War. Our fighters also piloted the first tanks.
The children and grandchildren were in awe of the true history of the photographs. But also vexed by the Indian Residential School. It’s how-things-came-to-be thanks to people like Canada’s first prime minister, John A. Macdonald.
Historical revisionism usually goes to the winners. But it’s not clear who the winners are in the case of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (EFTO) August 24, 2017 motion to remove John A.’s name from Ontario public schools. As agents for local change, in 2015 the ETFO endorsed the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) 94 Calls to Action. Did we win? Can we start rewriting history?
“ETFO understands that it is integral for educators to move forward into reconciliation with the indigenous peoples of Canada,” said the EFTO responding to the TRC. “It is our hope to educate and inform ETFO members on the diversity of indigenous peoples in Canada, provide information on the complex historical and current relationship between Canada and Aboriginal nations, and provide for dialogue to dispel common myths and misconceptions of Aboriginal peoples.”
Banning John A.’s name from Ontario public schools dramatically enacts their support for the TRC.
“The [August 24] motion recognizes that Macdonald has been celebrated based on an incomplete version of Canadian history,” the ETFO stated within the TRC context. “As a central architect of the Indian Act and residential schools, Macdonald played a key role in developing systems that perpetuated genocide against indigenous people. Passing this motion recognizes the impact this history has on all of our students, but specifically on indigenous students, parents and educators.”
The EFTO bases its position on the harsh reality of colonization, racial superiority, and power.
“When the school is on the reserve the child lives with its parents, who are savages; he is surrounded by savages,” John A. said to the House of Commons in 1883. “Though he may learn to read and write he is simply a savage who can read and write. Indian children should be withdrawn as much as possible from the parental influence.” Thus, John A.’s Indian Residential Schools would become the weapon for what the TRC called cultural genocide.
Politicians at both the provincial and federal levels immediately defended Canada’s first prime minister. The politicians see the slippery slope of politics and truth. One says, as a father of Confederation, John A. was far from perfect. Others stood firmly that John A. was an untouchable because of his place in Canada’s creation.
John A. used power to suppress Indian people — namely the Gatling gun. He stated “we could not always hope to maintain peace with the Indians; that the savage was still a savage, and that until he ceased to be savage.” John A. maintains that Canada’s goal to have continent-wide dominion was interrupted by western tribal treaties he wished to extinguish. “We were always in danger of a collision, in danger of war, in danger of an outbreak,” he said in 1885. “I am only surprised that we have been able so long to maintain peace — that from 1870 until 1885 not one single blow, not one single murder, not one single loss of life, has taken place.”
As an exercise in colonial power and seizing what John A. called “the last best west” John A. made an example of Louis Riel. Executed on the charge of treason, Riel’s hanging showed how the west would be tamed Canadian style. Hang one person of indigenous ancestry and who needs guns. As John A. said after the execution Riel “shall die though every dog in Quebec bark in his favour.”
John A.’s name on buildings and statues exist across the land. Like flags, anthems, legal, social and economic structures, John A.’s presence is a sign-and-symbol of Canadian culture that communicates their idea of the Good Life. According to Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, John A. represents a conception of the Good Life from the 1800s.
No value judgement here. John A. was a product of his times. Back in the 1800s the settlers said they were engaged in wars against savages. They had Charles Darwin to back them up with science where evolution was about “the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life.” War was a law of nature.
Then there’s that little matter of genocide. John A. knew what he was doing. Indigenous people were perishing because Canada did not honour its treaty obligations. Children were dying in the schools. Riel was innocent. There were many indigenous people sophisticated in contemporary life and not savages — like our people who’d sat alongside settlers for more than 400 years. What is true? Known as a two-bottle man, the alcoholic John A. anesthetised himself—something our healers know about.
The EFTO took a huge leap with their daring motion to remove John A.’s name from schools. The EFTO act encouraged debate as we watched the alt-left and neo-Nazi’s fight over a statue in Charlottesville, Virginia. But the EFTO does have power — they teach children and are agents for stable social change. They have 78,000 classrooms to teach true meaning of John A. Teaching how-things-came-to-be means rejecting value judgments and teaching understanding.
Thohahoken Michael Doxtater is an educator from Six Nations