The Muse of History

Today Canada marks 150 years of Confederation with lavish firework displays, celebrations and concerts. Behind these festivities, however, the anniversary has also occasioned soul-searching about the past, particularly the government’s intense suppression of aboriginal culture in residential schools. These were closed in 1998 after more than a century of institutionalized racism had made them a byword for physical, emotional and sexual abuse. In 2015, after researching the history of these schools for six years, Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission described the policy that established them as one that “can best be described as ‘cultural genocide.’” In addition to causing some 3,000 student deaths – possibly twice that number – many due to mistreatment or neglect, the state-financed and church-administered institutions actively sought to erase native languages and cultures. The Commission concluded that the government had established the schools to “divest itself of its legal and financial obligations to aboriginal people [by cultural absorption] and gain control over their lands and resources.”

Despite formal apologies by the federal government and several churches, the government’s relationship with Canada’s indigenous people continues to rankle, not least because so many of them remain at the periphery of the national conversation.  Earlier this week, for example, one activist noted that while the country celebrated “this 150th year of Britain’s colonization of our peoples’ collective lands, the Governor General referred to Indigenous peoples as ‘immigrants.’” Soon afterwards, adding insult to injury, the national broadcaster hosted a discussion about this faux pas in which “four white men dissect[ed] the incident — with no First Nations’ perspective.”

This alternation of pity and condescension has a pedigree that reaches back to the self-serving misapplication of Darwin’s ideas which led Europeans to believe they were fulfilling a unique racial destiny by conquering and civilizing lesser peoples in their colonies. Determined to ignore the millennia of history that preceded their arrival in the New World, apologists for the imperial project argued that native populations were effete, ill-prepared for modernity, and incapable of adapting to it. Seen in these terms, the elimination or lesser cultures amounted to a Christian duty. Speaking to the House of Commons in 1883, Canada’s first post-federation prime minister, John A Macdonald justified the creation of the residential school system with these words: “When the school is on the reserve, the child lives with his parents who are savages; he is surrounded by savages, and though he may learn to read and write, his habits and training and mode of thought are Indian. He is simply a savage who can read and write.”

The contrast between the open-hearted, multicultural Canada that attracts immigrants from all over the world and this terrifying image of deep-seated racism is one that West Indians should consider carefully. Right from the start of our own political independence, regional writers and artists have shown how our own under-examined national narratives have profoundly shaped attitudes not only towards our own marginalized indigenes, but towards each other. In a celebrated essay called ‘The Muse of History’, Derek Walcott writes that “[A]s we grow older as a race, we grow aware that history is written, that it is a kind of literature without morality, that in its actuaries the ego of the race is indissoluble and that everything depends on whether we write this fiction through the memory of hero or of victim.” He warns that “servitude to the muse of history has produced a literature of recrimination and despair, a literature of revenge written by the descendants of slaves or a literature of remorse written by the descendants of masters.” Constrained by historical truth, much of this literature “yellows into polemic or evaporates in pathos.” He urges instead we aspire towards a New World view that “neither explains nor forgives history [but] refuses to recognize it as a creative or culpable force.”

Even with a hundred-year headstart on the West Indies, Canada is still coming to terms with the unresolved tensions of its post-independence narrative. In the meantime, however, transformed by painful dialogue with its native minorities and by the infusion of migrants from every corner of the planet, it has shown that democratic inclusivity and tolerance can emerge out of cultures that originally embraced neither value. Its steady growth and economic prosperity indicate that modern states can at least partially evade the muse of history and open up the prospect of different endings to problematic histories. These are lessons we would do well to remember.