Remembrance and Racism: reflecting on the experience of Aboriginal veterans

So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.

1 Thessalonians 5.6-8

Last Tuesday I attended the annual remembrance ceremony for aboriginal veterans.  I am always moved by Remembrance Day observances; the dignified respect shown by veterans to the memory of their fallen comrades is a profound and solemn expression of love.  This year, I was also moved by the realization that the aboriginal veterans who volunteered in the second world war fought in defense of freedoms and rights which they themselves did not possess.  At that time, aboriginal people in Canada were not permitted to vote.  Those who volunteered for military service were given the right to vote, but only at the cost of giving up their status under the Indian Act.  This seems to have been part of a broader, and well-known, government policy at the time to assimilate aboriginal people into Canadian society.  The government of Canada would not officially set out to kill individual aboriginal people, but it would kill aboriginal cultures and communities, and with them, the memory of the original injustice upon which the nation of Canada was built.  The policy of Canada was one of cultural genocide, founded, as are all genocides, upon deeply entrenched racism.

It is painful to hear such words applied to Canada, the country that we love and for which so many brave men and women have laid down their lives.  But they are a true and accurate description of our society.  Canada and its social, cultural and political institutions have been, and to a great extent still are, deeply racist.  Reflect, for example, on these words written by an Anglican bishop in 1969, protesting the decision to close the Indian Residential Schools: “We cannot close the schools.  We must persist in our efforts among the Indian people.  Of course we know that there is no hope for this current generation.  However, if we persist in our efforts perhaps we will be able to raise up the grandchildren of this generation to the level of a servant class in Canadian society.”

If we were asked to name a twentieth-century nation-state which pursued an official policy of genocide founded upon institutionalized racism, Canada would probably not be the first to come to mind.  We might be more likely to think of Nazi Germany, one of our enemies in the second world war.  The crimes and atrocities of the Third Reich are well-known, and I do not wish to suggest that the government of Canada was the moral equivalent of that regime.  However, if I have committeed a crime, the fact that someone else has committed a worse crime does not reduce my guilt.  We were right to fight fascist ideology, but to a certain extent our victory in the second world war has allowed us to overlook the extent to which the same ideology and the policies it inspired were part of Canadian society.  In wartime we tend to project onto our enemies those things which we most dislike about ourselves.  At some deep level we knew that our policies towards aboriginal people were wrong, but we sent young men off to Europe to fight racism there rather than deal with it at home.  We forget that in wartime, whenever we look at our enemies, we are really looking in a mirror.  In our most recent war, in Afghanistan, we have been told again and again that we were there to defend the rights of women and help children get a better education.  Does that mean that there is something about the status of women and the quality of education in Canada that makes us uneasy?  If so, why has such an important social debate been reduced to bumper stickers which read “Support our troops”?

In one of the readings appointed for this Sunday, St Paul tells the church to keep awake and to be sober—we must be alert and pay attention to what is going on around us.  Part of paying attention is to engage in critical reflection about ourselves.  Remembrance Day is an important day in our national calendar, but it is also a dangerous day because it can encourage a one-sided, highly-varnished and historically-inaccurate sense of Canada’s history and identity.  In some ways, it can be a day for forgetting rather than for remembering.  St Paul reminds us that part of the church’s job is to stand back from all the fluff, spin and propaganda and take a long hard look at who we really are and what we have really done.  By all means, honour our veterans, but do not allow their sacrifice to blind us to the deep-seated evils in Canadian society.  Otherwise, it is too easy to fall asleep, to be lulled into complacency about our national virtue, and to get drunk on too many tales of heroism and national righteousness.

The point of such critical self-examination is not to encourage us to despise ourselves or our country.  God does not hate us and neither should we hate ourselves.  While St Paul encourages us to keep awake, he also reminds us that “God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.”  We are being called to a better future, one that is defined not by the failures and sins of our past but by God’s grace and mercy.  We are being challenged to build a better country, one that is not defined by racism and genocide, but by the values of the kingdom of God.  But we cannot build that country, move into that future, or obtain that salvation, if we are not honest about our history.  We need to address our past with clear and sober vision before we can obtain God’s glorious future.

This is the text of a sermon to be preached by the Rev’d Michael Batten on the twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost in St David of Wales, Vancouver.

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