the action of surrendering or ceasing to resist an opponent or demand.
For me, pride in Nation was first instilled at the knee of my mother. Born Joan Steele she would recount to me endlessly tales of our famed ancestor, Major General Sir. Sam Steele. My father had taken off when I was an infant thus ending her second shitty marriage. Joan also had the bad luck of having epilepsy in Alberta in the 50’s. The shock treatments they gave her meant she couldn’t remember high school. Despite being desperately poor most of her life she had a fierce pride in our family’s part in creating the nation, perhaps at times, it was all that sustained her.
My Father Larry Ray and his Brother William fought the Second World War for Canada having rode their horses down to the recruiting centers in Edmonton 2 days after Germany invaded Poland. Never knowing that we Canadians had pioneered the way in re-education, our genocidal tendencies preceded the German Empire by hundreds of years. Their father had homesteaded in Rochfort Bridge in 1904. My family just received a plaque from Blue Heron County recognizing us for 100 years of Occupation on the land.
I’m the guy with the green helmet band and the shitty mustache
As a young man I was privileged enough to serve with the 2nd Battalion Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry. One clear September morning in 1993 some 750 of us stood against some 4000 men of the Croatian Federal Army to halt their bloody ethnic cleansing of Serbian civilians in the Krajina. At the time it was the largest land engagement for Canadian Infantry since the Korean War. Though lacking any weapons much above small arms we stopped them and their tanks cold. Not one human being was harmed behind us. I will never forget moving forward after forcing them back with my 7 man section onto the ground formally held by the enemy. Still under sporadic heavy fire, we found a depression in the ground and laid in a circle with our weapons pointing out and our ankles crossed over each other so that if one of us was hit the men on either side would feel the impact. For a few hours, we were the most forward deployed troops in the United Nations. The men around me didn’t share my accent, my specific culture, or my race and came from thousands of miles from my home. What we had in common, what united us as Canadians was an agreement on a set of basic beliefs about right and wrong and the conduct of human affairs that is the essence of any thoughtful Canadian identity.
The Sam Steele I learned about is the man most Canadians know. Fearless and fierce, yet fair and principled. He probably felt he had much to live up to. His Father Elmes had
served in the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic wars. One of his uncles was recorded as being the tallest man in the British occupation forces after the battle of Waterloo. His father’s uncle, whose name he bore, Major Samuel Steele, had mounted the cliffs outside Québec city in 1759 and fought with Wolfe on the Plains of Abraham. He evidently performed well as he subsequently was made Colonel and became Military Adjutant to Lord Amherst, first Governor of Québec. Young Sam saw his first combat at 18 fighting off the American Fenian Raiders along the Ontario border in 1866. He would go on at 23 to become the third man to join, and the first Sargent Major of the storied North West Mounted Police. As a Mountie, he would ride into the camp of Sitting Bull when he crossed the American border, after killing more American soldiers than Canada had in total. Through some deft negotiating he got him to agree to “keep the Queen’s peace” even though he could have destroyed our meager forces in the west. He did such a good job in his role in clearing the right of way for the CPR that Donald Smith would pick him to lead the Lord Strathcona Horse to South Africa in Canada’s first foreign war. A role he would be knighted for. He finished his career with being the General who led the first Canadian contingent to leave for Europe in WW1 on those famous 13 ocean liners. He lies buried in Winnipeg.
All of this incredible story is true, it dovetails very nicely with how we as Canadians view our history, quietly dignified daring. But it is not the whole story. And it is in the rest of the story that the truth of our collective past, and therefore the key to our collective future waits for us all.
So let us start with the iconic Heritage Moment. Sam Steele controlling the hordes of Americans storming in for the gold-rush. Steele was one of the most powerful representatives of the Government of Canada in the west. Here’s the part of the story that isn’t included in the heritage minute. One of Steele’s prime motivations was the direct belief that any assertion of Indigenous rights, and in fact their existence was a direct threat to the continued formation of Canada. In 1887 he wrote to Sir John A McDonald the following in regards to the Sun Dance rights of Indigenous peoples on the west coast:
“Warriors take this occasion of relating their experience of former days counting their scalps and giving the number of horses they were successful in stealing. This has a pernicious effect on the young men; it makes them unsettled and anxious to emulate the deeds of their forefathers.”
Steele would preside over the banning of the Sun Dance and the burning of the longhouses up and down the west coast.
He would also preside over the beginnings of the residential school system. He would order some of the first kidnappings of Indigenous children. He drove the CPR through the prairies by brutally sweeping Indigenous Peoples out of the way. Helping to supervise the slaughter of millions of buffalo, with the goal of starving the Indigenous Peoples. John A MacDonald knowingly ordered and Steele enthusiastically carried out policies that deliberately used starvation as a weapon in an undeclared war to erase Indigenous Peoples from the prairies. He did all this in the firm belief that the national security and growth of Canada superseded their right to safety, security, and fulfilling their basic human needs. In short, their right to exist. He truly believed himself to be a moral man. He truly believed he was right.
Sam Steele, Canadian icon, representative of all the values we want to believe we have always adhered to; justice, rule of law, good governance and respect for all peoples. He certainly believed he was. I have read his journals. But his beliefs about the world and his place in it are horrifying in many respects. He certainly doesn’t seem consciously motivated by evil but the result and responsibility are the same. He believed in the rule of law and in many ways helped shape it in Canada. Under our current Canadian statutes, many of his actions would be considered Crimes Against Humanity.
“Any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:
-Killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
-Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part
-Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; [and]
-Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”
Any of that sound familiar?
So then as a modern Canadian soldier applying the convention, it would have been my clear and present duty to stop the genocidal actions of the Government of Canada cold, using whatever force necessary. Had I encountered Sam Steele using force to rip children screaming from the arms of their parents I would have shot him dead. Make no mistake, we have used brutality on the scale of Nazi Germany to attempt, in the words of the Minister of Indian affairs in the late 1800’s to, “wipe their culture from the face of the earth”. Recently mass graves containing the bodies of large numbers of children have been found at residential school sites. Thousands went missing with no trace over the century of our concentration camp system’s existence. More discoveries are likely to come.
If any of you think this is all remote history you are wrong. The so called “60’s Scoop”, was one generation ago. An offense that saw Indigenous children once more ripped from their families and placed with random White people. Gordon Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan, the last of our Canadian Dachau’s, was closed only in 1996. Within the lifetimes of millennials, and hipsters.
The difference between our mythologized view and the real history of Sam Steele is the perfect narrative vehicle to examine the vast difference between our founding myths; beliefs we hold about ourselves and our past, and the genocidal reality of our treatment of Indigenous Peoples and how the building of modern Canada depended on it.
For what is prejudice, racism and hate except for the effect of belief. Beliefs of superiority, of ownership. The lesson we as a nation, and as humans, need to take from our brutal conception is the terrible power of the beliefs we hold towards ourselves and others. Belief is the most dangerous weapon the human race has ever possessed. Belief is what truly created the atomic bomb, and the will to use it. The people who carried out the occupation of Canada, conceived of and carried out the residential school system were not all intrinsically evil people. They were acting on what their beliefs were about themselves and others. As insane as it seems some believed they were doing good, many believed they were helping advance Indigenous Peoples from a sub-civilized condition. They would have been appalled by any other suggestion. Their beliefs were reinforced by the fact that everyone in their society believed the same things. And those who didn’t said nothing. It worked the exact same way in Nazi Germany. It worked the same way in the former Yugoslavia where as a boy I learned the true width and depth of human cruelty and depravity.
For this nation to fulfill it’s incredible promise, to be the nation we all wish to leave to our children. We must each make a solemn oath. To never again be silent when faced with moral depravity, no matter the cost. We have all been silent to the obvious distress of Indigenous Peoples too long. We all knew. Socially and individually we must Capitulate ourselves, in the true and full meaning of that word. Capitulate ourselves to the full uncensored brutality, the dark horror that lies seething at the heart of our national birth story. This subject must be the very center of our national dialogue. Only then can we speak of moving toward true reconciliation with a clear understanding of what that means.
Genocidal treatment of Indigenous Peoples is not just a matter for our ancestors. The beliefs that allowed us to act this way in the first place; prejudice, racism, ignorance, exist as strongly today. They keep Indigenous Peoples locked in a cycle of violence and despair. In this respect, I am personally, absolutely, and indefensibly guilty of what the Queens Regulations and Orders would have called crimes of omission and commission. I have been a full participant in the system of genocide all my life. Either by my actions or lack thereof. Just as my pride at being Canadian came from my childhood and my life experience, so did my racism.
As a child in northern Alberta, I remember the Indigenous kids being incredibly tough. And pretty much throwing down on site of a White kid, they seemed to hate the sight of me for reasons I couldn’t fathom. To this day I have a healthy respect for the ground combat capabilities of your average North American Indigenous person, male or female. I remember my great aunt, a strict Jehovah’s Witness who had her hair short and wore work-boots, taught me most of what a boy with an absent father needed to know about being a man. In today’s world, she might have made different choices, but I digress. In any case, she would tell me “Billy don’t play with the Indian kids, they’re dirty.” She would never have recognized this as being racist. But that was the start of my racism. I didn’t go to school with any Indigenous children. African, South Asian, Asian etc. filled my classes but no Indigenous children that I recall. So though I grew up surrounded by Indigenous people I had literally no positive contact. Of course, I had no idea this was due to the residential school system. I had no idea that the notion of school was for them prison and death. I thought they just didn’t care about education.
When I moved south from the boreal forests to Edmonton in my teens the only Indigenous Peoples I saw were generally drunk on the corner of Jasper Avenue. In the way of children looking for simple answers, I attributed this to some innate characteristic of Indigenous Peoples. This was helped along by the casual, routine racism around me. People like teachers, Edmonton Eskimo Quarterbacks, the Premier of my province, and other authority figures would casually remark on the sad, self-induced state of Natives. My peers would often refer to Indigenous Peoples as “chugs”. For the imagined chugging sound they made as they gulped their government bought whiskey. My racism had blossomed full flower.
Until my late twenties, I truly viewed Indigenous Peoples as some sort of sad accident of history. How was it that they were here 20k years and were still hunter gathering. Why did they seem to do nothing but drink and steal. Hobema, the reserve north of Edmonton was something akin to Beirut. Infants dying in their cribs from bullet wounds. I truly believed that Indigenous Peoples had some terrible deep-seated fault that drove them to violence, alcoholism, and a complete and total inability to care for themselves or their children in any way. The only news I heard from Indigenous communities was bad. Shootings, drug dealing, brutal domestic abuse. All the while having no idea of my complicity in apartheid-light. Light in the sense that we didn’t have the moral courage of the South Africans to readily admit to our purpose. I would see an Indigenous male on the street and automatically go hostile and guarded. I dismissed out of hand any Indigenous claim to sovereignty. It is so ingrained that to this day I have to consciously examine my reactions to Indigenous issues and actions. I will probably never be fully free of these deeply ingrained attitudes.
My son will know the truth. I will teach him that the place he enjoys in the world was bought partly in the blood of the Indigenous Peoples of this country. He will also know that I allowed this to happen in my lifetime. The moral fault is mine as much as Sam Steele’s.
For me, the beginnings of real understanding came with the help of an unexpected agent, the Canadian Armed Forces. During my service for the first time I was in a social setting with Indigenous Peoples on equal footing. The rigid hierarchical structure of the forces and the base comradeship somewhat broke through the hard wired attitudes I had formed. In the quiet watches of the night my Indigenous brothers began to recount to me their history and for the very first time, the real history of my nation. It was the first inkling I had of the residential school system. My understanding has grown slowly and through many years of interacting with amazing Indigenous Peoples, experiencing their warmth and wisdom.
Canada, the name we took from the Indigenous Peoples who welcomed us. We have dishonored it, and ourselves in the darkest way possible. And this dishonor will continue for as long as we do nothing. We dare not continue our shameful silence as a population, not if we truly respect ourselves and care for our children’s future. We must have the courage to not recoil from our duty. To fearlessly seize the opportunity afforded to us by the otherworldly but not infinite patience of our Indigenous sisters and brother
We can, if we have the wisdom, light a fire in this place and time, so bright and clear that it will be seen by all the children of man. Many of whom still huddle in darkness and misery in every corner of the earth. Let our actions be a blazing beacon of hope in a world of Donald Trump and YouTube beheading videos. Let us be the example to our children of what is possible for humanity when people of reason and good will work together in good faith.
We could be the first colonized nation on Earth to cede some real form of sovereignty back to its Indigenous Peoples, compensate them meaningfully and with them build something truly new on this earth. An entity born not in repression but in the expression of all our myriad cultures. Not in violence but in understanding, respect and common humanity. That is my Canada. A Canada that has as its fundamental, principal foundation the belief that the well being of any one of us depends directly and fundamentally on the well-being of us all. Let us together, and truly for the first time, build that Canada.
We should absolutely not look to, or wait for, government leadership on this issue. We need to lead our government. This is the clear duty of us all. It must start there. We must as Canadians reach out our hands immediately and with resolve. Wherever you are. In every part of this huge nation. If you agree with what I have said, I call on you to act and act now. First, spend some time between furry hamster videos and use that magic box in front of you to educate yourself in a real way about what has passed. Find and personally reach out to Indigenous Peoples in your area. Organize your whole community to reach out together. Phone your local Band Council or Indigenous action group and ask them how you can work with them. Approach them in a respectful and open fashion, take their direction and in no way impose your own. Despite everything, I have always found Indigenous Peoples to be open and generous.
If housing conditions in Indigenous communities around you are bad then organize in your community to raise money and donate labour to help them ameliorate it. Help them build the skills they need in their communities. After all, their ancestors taught us to survive here. If they have water issues then organize to provide your fellow human beings with water. If there is poverty and despair in urban areas for native people then organize to raise money, provide food and shelter, and any other service they need to build better lives. We must use the collective expertise and experience of the amazing “village” that is Canada. We must begin to repair this damage on a personal citizen to citizen, human to human level. We must for the very first time open our hearts and welcome those who have always been our brothers and sisters into the society we have all had a part in excluding them from.
This will not be easy or quick. It will take patience, commitment, and courage. We must prepare ourselves to bear the anger of centuries of brutal mistreatment. We must be unmovable in our resolve and have the courage to accept the hate, outrage and mistrust that will naturally be directed at us. We must at all times and without waiver meet it with patient and steady compassion and understanding. We must be prepared to have no response but absolute love no matter what. In this lies our redemption and the full reclaiming of our place and pride.
To Canadians whose families arrived here after these events had been set in motion and may feel little connection to them. Understand the advantage and opportunity we offered you was not completely ours to give. The country that welcomed you now desperately needs your wisdom and engagement. Many of you have experience in the countries you or your family came from of oppression, colonialism. and racial tensions. We need your innate understanding of this experience and your wisdom in how to overcome it’s devastating effects. Your fresh views and ideas are vital to moving forward.
To the Government of Canada, I would say this. Anything less than a swift move toward immediate substantive negotiations to bring Indigenous Peoples into the governance of this Nation State is unacceptable. Anything less than giving them status that is at the very least akin to a province, is unacceptable. Anything less than an immediate move toward a reparations formula, that in some immeasurably small way repays the theft we have committed both of materials and lives, is unacceptable. This must be your overriding priority. If it is not, you will be replaced Mr. Trudeau.
I will end where I began, in the personal. To any Indigenous Peoples reading this, I William Ray, apologize humbly and unreservedly, on behalf of myself and my family, to each of you. To each member of your family. To all your long suffering people. I apologize for four-hundred years of rape, murder, and theft. I cannot change the past but I swear to you I will use all the strength in me. The strength my ancestors used to rule oceans and conquer continents. I will use every ounce of it to ensure my child will walk hand in hand with yours into a future they, and all of us deserve.