Things are…getting tense.  

I wrote a few weeks ago about the grim discovery of unmarked graves on the grounds of an infamous Residential School in Kamloops BC.  While the investigations are ongoing and will probably take years to yield results, the remains of two hundred a fifteen children (some as young as three) were found with no record as to who they were and under what circumstances they died.  Prior to this discovery, the Truth & Reconciliation Commission estimated that as many as sixty children may have died from abuse and neglect at the school.[1]

Since then, two other schools (at the Cowesses Reserve in Saskatchewan and ʔaq̓am Band in British Columbia interior) have been found to have their own unmarked gravesites, with remains of 751 and 182 found there respectively.  Needless to say, a lot of people are shocked and upset.  

Out of respect, a lot of towns and cities across Canada cancelled or scaled back their Canada Day celebrations (for overseas readers, Canada became a nation on 1 July, 1867).  There have been demonstrations, statements, and calls for actions.  As I’m writing this, the reactions have yet to coalesce into a coherent message, which shouldn’t come as a surprise given how so many Nations are involved.  Right now the general feeling is one of shock and dismay but also helplessness.  No one yet seems to know how to respond.  

The government has said a lot of the right things, but it’s not clear whether this talk will translate into concrete actions.  For that matter, it’s not clear how well received any concrete action might be.  Just a few days ago we named a new Governor General – the (mostly) ceremonial head of government – and the individual in question is Mary Simons, a former Ambassador and Inuit activist.  She will be the first Indigenous Governor General in Canadian history, but already there’s been accusations of pandering or tokenism from some of the angrier corners of First Nations Twitter.[2]

There have also been some…less constructive actions.   

I’ve already talked about my feelings about public protest.  Personal gestures like taking a knee are fine, but gestures that involve destroying a symbol (like say, flag burning) is potentially counterproductive.  Other people who aren’t your enemy might take your action as a personal attack if the symbol you’re destroying is something they hold as sacred. 

Egerton Ryerson

Egerton Ryerson was a foundational figure in the development of Canada’s education system.  With a career that straddled Confederation, he developed Canada’s public schools, founded a University in Toronto that bears his name, and is (rightly) considered a Father of Confederation.  He was also a central figure in the creation of the Residential School system which has made him one of the faces of the system responsible for these hundreds of sinister graves.  

So it should come as little surprise that his statue at Ryerson University has become the centre of protest and calls for its removal.  Although previously the University administration has been receptive to concerns about their founder’s history, they evidently hadn’t moved quickly enough this time.  Over the past month the statue has been protested, vandalized, and finally toppled and decapitated.  The severed head now occupying a spike outside of the Six Nations’ Reserve.

Ryerson Head on Spike

Source.

There have been a lot of protest actions across North America recently that centred around statues of controversial historical figures, but the situation at Ryerson raises some additional issues given that the statue was University, not public property.  

A symbol that is publicly endorsed – like a statue in front of city hall – that becomes something that anyone in the public can object to.  Any resident of that city can rightly protest the statue of a controversial figure in front of their city hall because it is their city hall.  When the symbol is on private property – like the statue of Ryerson – it’s another thing altogether.  You’re going into someone else’s space and doing something to that someone else’s property. 

In the case of Ryerson’s statue, the initial objection (and apparently some of the early vandalism) came from Indigenous students at the University itself.  So far, so good.  As students, the school their space, which gives them standing to object to Ryerson’s statue.  This also gives them the obligation to win over other students who might not agree with them, or who may want to deal with the statue in a different way. Those students – though they may be wrong – have equal standing to demand that the statue remain.[3]  

Rights to demand here get counter-balanced by obligation to communicate.   A government has an obligation to meet a bare minimum standard, whereas a private citizen (sadly) has the right to be an asshole.  They ought to do better, but they do have a right to object.  Furthermore, from a purely pragmatic perspective it’s also worth noting that, if you force the issue, the assholes will fight.  The bigger the asshole, the harder they’ll fight.  

I’m hoping that the people who tore down the statue were students and not just random people from the Six Nations Reserve.  A lot of people have grounds for being mad at Ryerson, but trashing University property is something that should generally be reserved for actual students.  I mean, personally I don’t think trashing your own school is a good idea in the first place, but at least you’re one of the people bearing the brunt of the damage done.  Walking into someone else’s house and saying “Fuck you! We’re wrecking your statue and taking it’s head!” is ugly behaviour.

There’s the added problem here that the world has no shortage of assholes who will happily jump in on the other side and escalate.

Shawnigan Lake is in BC, on the far side of the country from Ryerson University.  It’s the site of a scenic lookout that also has a Totem Pole created by a local artist.  And a couple of weeks ago some tool bag tried to burn it down.  As retaliation.  For a statue.  And no, I’m not speculating when I say this. 

Burnt Totem Pole
Luckily, a passing motorist spotted the flames and was able to summon help in time to prevent a larger forest fire.

Source.[4]

I’m trying to remember where I read this, but a key point on the journey to extremism is the point where targets become fungible.  One sacred object is as good as another, and as long as you’re hurting someone who might bear some semblance to the person you hate, that’s good enough.  

And we haven’t even gotten to the church burnings yet.  

Yeah, there’s churches that have been set on fire.  

Holy Trinity-Redberry Lake Fire
Holy Trinity Catholic Church at Redberry Lake Saskatchewan is destroyed by fire 09 July 21.

 

As in, full on burned to the fucking ground.  

In addition to Holy Trinity getting burned last week, the last half of June saw four Catholic churches (St Anne’s at Upper Similkameen, Chopaka Catholic church in Lower Similkameen, Sacred Heart Church at Penticton Reserve, and St Gregory’s on the Osoyoos Reserve) in BC destroyed by fires that were “deemed suspicious.”  I’m saying ‘deemed suspicious‘ but the fact is that these four churches were burned two at a time (on 21 and 26 June respectively), each pair catching fire within hours of each other.  Several other churches (including a few non-Catholic ones) have been vandalized and damaged by fire as well.  

It should go without saying, this is not helping an already bad situation.  

The Catholic clergy’s response to the discovery of all these unmarked graves has been a mixed bag at best.  A few prominent members speaking in favour of reconciliation while others have managed to beclown themselves in their tone deafness.  

I want to preface this next part by saying that I get why people in pain might do something ill-conceived or counter-productive.  The criticism that I’m offering is of actions is not necessarily meant to be a condemnation of the people taking these actions.  

I’m hoping (Fuck, I’m actually using the word hope here!) that the perpetrators of these fires will turn out to have been actual victims (or people close to victims) of the Residential Schools.  Not that this would make it significantly better, but at least there will have been a decent motivation for the action.  It’s still not constructive to burn down your local church, but if you’re a victim of that church then I can understand. 

Bad idea, but I get it.  

My greater fear is that these fires were committed by people removed from the direct harm of the schools or the church.  Either a “wound collector” kind of extremist who will take on the anger of others as a justification for their own violence, or worse, an cynical opportunist leaping at the chance to take advantage of a period of intense emotions to sow chaos and hurt people.  If that’s the case then it’s likely the trauma of destroying a house of worship can’t even start of be balanced out by an individual’s sense of catharsis.[5] 

And to top things off, it’s looking like the fires are spreading.  

Last week, the RCMP in Manitoba arrested an Alberta man who was deliberately setting grass fires in the vicinity of the Siksika reserve outside of Calgary, Alberta.  The individual was taking advantage of recent hot dry weather to set his fires with the apparent intent to burn down the reserve.[6]  

As in, the home of over seven thousand men, women and children.  

At some point, years from now, there’s going to be a history of this time period that will make some kind of sense out of this shit storm.  But for now it’s looking like that line from the poem by Yates:  “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are filled with a passionate intensity.”  

This seems to be a summer where the worst are running rampant.  

EDIT: And even as I was putting the finishing touches on this post, another discovery was made of 160 unregistered graves – apparently of the Penelakut nation – at the site of yet another Residential School.  

_______________

[1] Discrepencies in numbers should not come as any surprise, especially when dealing with historical crimes and attrocities.  In the aftermath of the Second World War the established procedure was to only count the dead that could be positively confirmed through discovered remains, or explicit records.  As a result, it is not uncomon for an investigating commission to seriously under-estimate the number of casualties simply because they cannot positively confirm a higher number.  

[2] Whatever the Prime Minister’s reasoning behind the nomination, Mary Simons is no token representative.  She’s been a tenacious activist and land claims negotiator to the point that she’s managed to honk off Americans during circumpolar conferences.  [Source: Family annecdotes.]

[3] My personal opinion is that it’s a bad idea to try and erase the name/presence of a controversial historical figure entirely, there is an argument to be made for reconsidering how that person is recognized.  There’s no getting around the fact that Ryerson is the founder of his University and is the architect of Canada’s educational system.  He was also central in creating an instrument of cultural genocide that killed thousands of Indigenous children.  Both these facts are true, and both are important to teach.  Especially together….

…but yeah it’s probably a good idea to take down the statue.  

[4] Although this article seems to suggest the statue in question was one of Capt James Cook which was removed (not destroyed) from Victoria’s Inner Harbour.  Either way, it’s gross behaviour.  

[5] And if you want to be brutally pragmatic, there’s also the issue that these churches may have contained records that could lead to the prosecution of the people responsible for these abuses and deaths.  

[6] This gets into the world of speculation, but it’s possible the suspect was “inspired” by the recent wild fires that destroyed the town of Lytton (a reserve of the Nlaka’pamux nation in BC) and decided to repeat the event outside of Winnipeg.  As of this writing, the cause of this fire is still being investigated.  

 

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