Canada has consistently failed to make progress that is commensurate with so many lofty pronouncements and expectations on the Indigenous file. By statistics alone, it is a national shame that most Indigenous Canadians in reservations live far below acceptable socio-economic standards. Money is not the problem. By 2022, the federal budget allocations to Aboriginals will have doubled since 2016 to nearly $25 billion.
Symbolic gestures like the new ritual acknowledgements when standing on Indigenous land improve nothing. The culture of pronouncements, symbolic nods, confessions of privilege, apologies and promises that governments have developed are virtue-signalling political gimmicks. Similarly, engaging in Truth and Reconciliation is in principle a good thing, but the engagement has been partially derailed away from both truth and from reconciliation. The reporting coverage and reactions to the 215 graves in Kamloops are a case in point.
None of these observations are meant to deny documented abuses or the grief and pain that the news evokes in individuals. It is precisely in respect to the painful experiences of victims and their families that the reporting and reactions have failed.
Our intellectual and political classes keep failing miserably. There has been no shortage of public officials, organizations and private citizens rushing to exhibit pain as well as anger and indignation. But for a few opinion-makers, the rush to express these sentiments, real or affected, has trampled on truth and on reconciliation.
The trampling on truth is most evident in the descriptions of what was found in Kamloops. Take the reporting of “mass graves,” for instance. This formulation is inflammatory and callous when we consider victims’ relatives. Saying “mass graves” evokes the murderous intention of killing machinery at work, like the trenches in the Balkans where the victims of ethnic hatred were dumped by the thousands. Jagmeet Singh has alluded to such places in making references to “genocide.” Here and abroad Reuters, The Guardian, BBC, and The New York Times have parroted the false formulation. While calling for prayers in “truth and reconciliation,” a University of Toronto scholar friend of mine affirms that Indigenous children were “wantonly murdered and dumped in a mass grave.” There is more at play here than semantics. The graves, unmarked at the time of finding, are individual graves located inside the perimeter of an institution that operated for over 8 decades. They are not a mass grave.
Allowing for the future possibility, even if remote, that foul play was involved in every case, there is no evidence that warrants such conclusions while the remains are still buried. No one has yet been exhumed, no investigation has commenced. As Peter Stockland recently pointed out, it is also impossible to determine the age of buried remains using the methods employed in finding the graves. In this sense, truth has been sacrificed in the rush to display sympathy and outrage, to the point of mainly serving condescension and falsehood. The political co-opting of the pain of others is particularly offensive; the misreporting is injurious and irresponsible.
Such careless liberties in the reporting, whether honestly expressed, rooted in sophistry, or seeking sensation, re-open wounds and rub poisonous salts. They subject relatives to imagining atrocities unlived and victims to remembering, for no benefit, nightmares lived. They erect real obstacles to national reconciliation. Reconciling requires forgiveness. Presenting monstrous untruths as facts obfuscates reason and enflames anger that impair forgiveness.
People who care about Indigenous Canadians, especially the press, have the greater responsibility to report accurately and truthfully, mindful of the consternation and the renewed suffering they stir.
Moral character has never been exclusively measured in words but in deeds. For generations now, successive federal governments have made promises without delivering. For all the inflated rhetoric, even the present federal government has been incapable of permanently delivering potable water to so many Indigenous children. Worse still, not that long ago, Prime Minister Trudeau openly mocked Aboriginal women at a Liberal Party fundraiser in Toronto when the women demanded clean water for their children. Expressions of solidarity, vacuous electoral promises and virtue-signalling schemes will not deliver the outcomes that Indigenous Canadians need, just as handing out large amounts of unaccountable monies over decades has failed.
If politicians and the press begin with truth instead of grand schemes, we might pave the way to reconciliation. Similarly, modest, effective development, targeted action leads to meaningful solidarity. Otherwise, cheap talk offers no solutions. Cheap talk invites more self-congratulatory attitudes. Cheap talk snuffs opportunity. Cheap talk is a formidable obstacle to moving on from past injustice.