Sunday, July 12, 2009

Two Examples of the Historical Erasure of Struggle

A primary focus of my reading and writing has for years been histories of struggle in the Canadian context. It is, therefore, hardly news to me that struggles against oppression and exploitation, and their crucial role in creating space of greater freedom and social justice in the present (and future), are persistently erased from the mainstream collective memory -- "the social organization of forgetting," a friend calls it. I rather like that phrase. I still manage to run across examples of this that make me shake my head, however. This post is to share two such examples that I have encountered over the last few weeks in writing a chapter based on stories from a few different interview participants who have been involved in indigenous struggles in urban areas. The fact that these are struggles waged by people who experience both racism and colonization is, I think, very much related to the this historical erasure.

Example One -- Grassroots Response to the White Paper

The first is a big one. It's possible, in fact, that I just haven't found the right sources, the ones that talk about it, and if so I would really like to be corrected. Though I suspect that if such sources exist, at least one of the things that I have found would reference them. In any case, I will proceed based on what I know.

In the late '60s, there was an upsurge in the cenutries-long process of indigenous anti-colonial resistance. It began, from what I understand, in the part of Turtle Island colonized by the United States and fairly soon spread to the part colonized by Canada. In part to preempt this, in 1969 the Liberal government of Pierre Trudeau introduced a public policy document called the White Paper. This document, in the name of an individualistic liberal understanding of "equality," proposed to end any legal recognition of indigeneity -- reserve communities turned into ordinary municipalities, reserved land broken up into individually owned plots, denial or extinguishment of settler state recognition of Aboriginal and treaty rights, a complete folding into mainstream service provision, and a few other things. In response, there was vocal and extremely united opposition from across the many and diverse indigenous peoples colonized by Canada, which by 1971 had forced the Liberals to withdraw the proposals. Notwithstanding that it is commonly understood that the same basic assimilationist goals motivate the settler state's orientation to the peoples it is colonizing to this day, forcing it to retreat and regroup and creating space for indigenous survival and further resurgence were great victories.

Given the importance of this moment not only in the histories of indigenous peoples in northern Turtle Island but in the history of the Canadian state, I find it flabbergasting that there is no broad history of grassroots indigenous struggle, including in response to the White Paper, in those years. Most general sources that I have found on indigenous people in Canada that talk about those years have similar elements: they describe the White Paper and why the vast majority of indigenous people considered it cultural genocide; they talk about the important roles played in giving voice to that opposition by indigenous leaders and political organizations at the provincial and national levels; and they say virtually nothing about grassroots organizing in reserve communities and cities. Change is shown as being about interactions between leaders and the state, with strongly worded policy briefs playing a major role, and with no hint that leaders only exist because they are in dynamic relation with peoples that they may in some sense lead but that they do not control and that are themselves active agents in history. Ordinary people, and struggle as something ordinary people do, gets written out. I should add that I have encountered three important but narrow exceptions -- a biography of an important national leader in that era, a history of the period by a white feminist woman that includes a chapter that talks about a very partial slice of grassroots indigenous struggle, and a book by a radical Metis man that has a similar chapter on a different slice. But nothing even approaching an exhaustive, general examination.

I should add that I'm sure many indigenous communities have preserved the memories of those days in stories, as communities in longterm struggle tend to do, and really that's the most important thing. I also know there can be good reasons not to make such stories accessible to the oppressor. Nonetheless, I have a feeling that a lot of the reason for the absence of such histories has more to do with the ways in which mainstream institutions that produce historical narratives are funded, peopled, and organized. And I still cannot dismiss my sense that the cause of transformative social change is better served by trumpeting the stories of past struggles as far and wide as we can.

Example Two -- Mainstream Reporting of Indigenous Victory Over Children's Aid

The other example is much smaller. I spent a few days recently looking at old microfilmed newspapers in a Toronto library. Mostly it was the Winnipeg Free Press. I was trying to find material related to indigenous struggle with the Winnipeg Children's Aid Society in the late '70s and early '80s. Across Canada starting in the '60s and continuing in many places today, child welfare agencies have taken up the colonial role left by the receding residential school system -- that of stealing children from their families and raising them in ways that often weakens or even destroys their ties to their nations, their cultures, and sometimes even their very selves. In the early '80s, sparked by the tragic death of an 18 month-old in CAS care, a group of indigenous people -- mostly women -- waged a brilliant struggle against the CAS. They didn't get everything they wanted, but they were able to force significant changes in how child welfare worked, including the complete dismantling of the organization that had terrorized their families for decades and a new system that, while still deeply flawed, included more space for the urban indigenous community to protect its own children. As is always the case, this depended on cleverly working with other factors at play. CAS upper management was notoriously hostile to and lashed out at the merest hint of criticism, and as the indigenous community turned up the heat, relations between upper management and workers, between upper management and the board of directors, and between upper management and the provincial government seriously deteriorated. Add in a couple of sympathetic journalists (carefully cultivated), a family court justice doing a review of the system whose conscience did not allow him to downplay in his reports the damage done to indigenous people over the years, a related but separate process over the same years whereby Manitoba indigenous nations based on reserved land were taking direct control of child welfare in their territories, and an NDP provincial government that was hardly a close friend of indigenous people but whose electoral needs left some space for prodding in just directions.

Judging as best I can with white eyes and form this end of history, I would describe the coverage in the Free Press as somewhat inconsistent but good at some key moments. What is interesting, though, was its coverage some time after those key moments. As I said, one of the outcomes of all of this was that the Winnipeg CAS, after being ordered into a sort of trusteeship for a period of time by the province, was dismantled and replaced by half a dozen new organizations. For the occasion of the last meeting of the CAS trusteeship board and its final cessation of operations a month or two later, the Free Press had a total of two news articles and an editorial, each of which presented a summary of the events that had lead to this. Native people were mentioned exactly once, in one of the news articles, in a vague and short clause that said something about "criticism" from them, packed into a sentence about other things. The editorial and the other news article didn't mention indigenous people or grassroots struggle at all.

Certainly struggle by indigenous people in Winnipeg wasn't the only thing going on, and without other factors being as they were the outcome would probably have been different. But grassroots struggle by indigenous people was absolutely necessary to create that outcome. Yet it was (despite earlier coverage that wasn't bad) completely erased from that crucial first draft of history that is the daily newspaper as it was authoritatively setting the issue to rest.

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