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Truth and Reconciliation Day

black-and-white photograph of Native American soldiers in the Canadian Expeditionary Force

On September 30th, Canada recognized its first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation following a year where the bodies of hundreds of First Nations children were discovered in mass graves on the sites of former residential schools. Across the country, the day has been considered an important step forward in addressing many of the historical wrongs perpetrated on First Nations people within Canada. However, since then most of the media and larger public attention on the day has been preoccupied with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s decision to forgo meetings with First Nation leaders on September 30th so that he could instead go to the beach with his family. But while many have chosen to take this opportunity to point out the moral failings of the Prime Minister, is it possible that this represents a larger moral failure of the country?

The adoption of September 30th as a statutory holiday to allow for public commemoration of the history of residential schools followed recommendations made in the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The report called for a statutory holiday to be created to “honour Survivors, their families, and communities, and ensure that public commemoration of the history and legacy of residential schools remains a vital component of the reconciliation process.” Beyond this, however, the exact meaning and intention of this day isn’t exactly clear to everyone.

Even before the day had come, First Nations critics had noted that this was an extremely small step, representing only 1 of 8 other recommendations that have been implemented out of a total of 94. Critics also note that in light of this, the day feels like an empty promise because of the lack of plans of action for the day, making the federal statutory holiday ring hollow. According to the Canadian Heritage Minister, there were no details for any federal plans to mark the day as commemorations should be led by indigenous people. Canadian Senators were also concerned about what this day was supposed to represent. One noted again that this was only one of 94 recommendations which was rushed to adoption following the discovery of mass graves, and questioned whether a statutory holiday will simply be “a day to stay home and put up our feet and watch TV.”

Of course, the day is supposed to mean more than that. Given that this is a day of reconciliation between Canadians and First Nations, and that this was declared a national holiday, it presumably should carry meaning for the whole Canadian public as well as First Nations. But what meaning is it supposed to have exactly? Was this a symbolic gesture meant to convey a sentiment or was this a policy decision meant to change public relations when it comes to First Nations? What goals does the government hope to achieve? According to the Heritage Minister the government hopes it will be a day for Canadians to “reflect.”

This theme of “reflection” is one that the government often likes to bring up when it comes to discussing reconciliation issues. On Canada Day, when the national conversation questioned the merits of national celebration in light of the discovery of mass graves, Prime Minister Trudeau again stressed reflection. “Many, many Canadians will be reflecting on reconciliation, on our relationship with Indigenous Peoples and how it evolved and how it needs to continue to evolve rapidly.” But reflect how? In what ways? When 1/8th of your strategy for reconciliation is to create a holiday and your plan is just to tell people to “reflect,” it doesn’t inspire much faith that you’ve taken the idea that seriously.

This is not to say, of course, that serious public commemoration or reflection did not take place or that such a day of commemoration should not take place. Broadcasts took place honoring Indigenous people, articles were written suggesting different ways to meaningfully recognize the day, and across the country various events took place including flag-raising, drum performances, prayers, protests, and commemorations for the children who were victims of residential schools. But, what this does begin to suggest is that the Canadian Government wasn’t treating this day with the seriousness it should have.

What’s more is that this is a federal statutory holiday. Federal holidays only apply to a limited number of industries in Canada. However, the provinces of Ontario, Quebec, Alberta, New Brunswick, Saskatchewan, and the Yukon have refused to recognize the day as a statutory holiday. This means that more than 60% of Indigenous people in Canada will not be allowed to take the day off. While critics have made their objections to not declaring September 30th a statutory holiday at the provincial-level known, the counter argument is that a statutory holiday lowers productivity. Of course, the Ontario Government still insists that it would observe the 30th as a day to, you guessed it, “reflect.”

Nevertheless, there are no massive outcries from the public for governments to change their minds about this, at least, not big enough to make a government actually change course. My point is that both at the level of the Federal Government and at the level of the Canadian public at large, there seems to be a lack of a serious commitment to make this day mean something beyond symbolic gestures. Contrary to the idea that this day should be Indigenous led, Eagleclaw Thom notes, “This day as a holiday isn’t for the Indigenous peoples who have chosen to share their land with Canadians. It’s intended for settler Canadians, so they can recognize the pain and hurt they’ve caused.” But, neither the Canadian public nor the Canadian Government seem very willing to elevate the meaning of National Truth or Reconciliation Day beyond symbolism anyways.

This brings us back to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the fact that he chose to spend the day at the beach. The Prime Minister had been invited by several First Nations groups to attend various functions but declined. There has been much public and media outrage about this incident, but what is the Prime Minister guilty of that most Canadians aren’t? Why the outrage that the Prime Minister didn’t take the day more seriously when most Canadians weren’t willing to either? Of course, there are obvious answers. He’s not just anyone, he’s the Prime Minister; his government created the day in question, he prides himself on focusing so much on reconciliation, and recently won re-election planning to do more. Trudeau’s decision to go to the beach was not only politically inept, but represents a moral failure of leadership.

But had Trudeau attended a few functions that day instead of going to the beach, what might have happened? It would have made the news and the next day it would have faded from the public mind and the media’s consciousness. The main reason this topic is still in the public mind for most Canadians and media outlets is because Trudeau didn’t attend. They are outraged at the political optics when they should be outraged at the glacial pace of Trudeau’s government. His is a moral failing, to be sure, but Trudeau’s problem is representative of the larger moral failure to make National Truth and Reconciliation Day a more significant effort to affect social change.

The Coastal GasLink Pipeline

photograph of pipeline through open land with mountains

Tumultuous times in Canada as protests and blockades have brought to light a very complex set of moral issues. At the center of the turmoil is a natural gas pipeline running through the territory of the Wet’suwet’en in British Columbia. Approval for construction was given by twenty elected band councils (including the Wet’suwet’en) along the proposed route, but it has been denied by some of the hereditary chiefs of the Wet’suwet’en. Opposition has led to protests and blockades, court injunctions, and then further protests and blockades of rail lines and bridges in eastern Canada in solidarity. This issue now involves factors ranging from environmental effects, the rule of law, the future prospects of reconciliation with First Nations in Canada, economic effects, and the political priorities for Justin Trudeau’s government.

The proposed pipeline project is worth over six billion dollars and could introduce several economic benefits both to Canada and to the region in British Columbia where construction would take place including about 10,000 jobs. Coastal GasLink has signed economic benefits agreements with several First Nation groups. This is part of the reason that several prominent members of the tribe support the construction. It will bring hundreds of well-paying jobs to a region that needs it. On the other hand, the pipeline carries natural gas which means that there are environmental factors to consider as well. If completed, the pipeline will have the capacity to move 2.1 billion cubic feet of natural gas per day with the potential to eventually expand to 5 billion cubic feet. While supporters of the pipeline will point out the relative environmental benefits of natural gas compared to alternatives like coal, it is still carbon that will be burned. Also, like any pipeline there is the possibility of breakages and leaks which could cause additional harmful environmental effects.

Beyond environmental and economic concerns, the issue is complicated because of disagreements taking place within the First Nations community as a whole. Part of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s agenda when it comes to Indigenous issues is to build a nation-to-nation relationship between Canada and First Nations. However, it isn’t clear right now who speaks for the Wet’suwet’en. 20 elected First Nation government bands and some hereditary chiefs support the pipeline, while other hereditary chiefs remain opposed. The issue is made more complicated by the fact that the elected band councils are an imposition created by the federal government under the Indian Act. Because of this, the approval of the band councils is problematic. Critics charge that the councils are a colonialist imposition and question the moral and legal authority of the councils to offer approval. On the other hand, those council members and other Wet’suwet’en people have voiced their support for the pipeline and disapproval of the protests. This has resulted in a situation that is splitting families. As David Chartrand of the Manitoba Metis Federation points out, “The elected chiefs and councils and hereditary chiefs need to sort out amongst themselves who has governance of their territory.”

In addition to the economic, environmental, and political concerns of the pipeline itself, there are additional legal issues involved with the protests. This issue isn’t new as there have been previous blockades established to prevent construction. However, court injunctions have required that these blockades be removed. Those who oppose the blockades argue that the issue is a matter of the rule of law; the courts have ruled these blockades be removed and they have not done so. In addition, the protests and blockades of rails lines in eastern Canada have created further legal problems as protestors try to prevent trains from passing by throwing fire and debris at moving trains. Conservative politicians have compared the situation to a state of anarchy.

However, the issue is complicated by the fact that in many cases these protests and blockages are mostly on land that was never legally ceded to Canada. Canada’s Supreme Court has also ruled that First Nations legal systems continue to be valid. Depending on which legal authority takes precedence, the Wet’suwet’en may be within their rights to try to remove people and equipment from their land. In areas of Ontario (such as Belleville) where rail lines are being blockaded a similar concern exists.

Within the rest of Canada there are the complicated moral and political choices about how to respond. Canadian police have a controversial history when it comes to Aboriginal affairs and in breaking up protests. And this history may be driving the reluctance of the federal government to break up the blockades. The presence of the RCMP has been responsible for preventing negotiations to settle the matter. On the other hand, the blockades of rail lines will prove to be harmful to the Canadian economy. They have resulted in shutdowns of passenger trains as well as freight trains. It is estimated that $425 million in goods is being stranded each day. Farmers could lose payments because they aren’t paid until products are delivered. Hundreds of (and potentially thousands of) employees of the Canadian National Railway have been laid off. The Trudeau government has asked that people be patient, but a recent poll shows that 61% of Canadians oppose the blockades. Conservative politicians have called the government’s response weak, and because the government only holds a minority government, an early election could be forced at any time.

So to recap: the issue currently taking place in Canada involves the potential to bring economic prosperity for some who need it, harm the environment and contribute to global warming, it requires understanding who has the authority to represent the people of a given territory, it is splitting up families and communities, it involves determining how to deal with conflicting legal systems, the livelihood of thousands, trying to chart a new path in Canada-First Nations relations, and requires a delicate balance to reassure a public who is growing less patient by the day that something concrete is taking place to resolve the matter, all while trying to prevent an early election. It is safe to say that this account only scratches the surface of just how complicated this issue is from a moral perspective in terms of what should be done. Perhaps this is why there will be no “quick fix” to this according to the government liaison on the matter. However the issue is resolved it will have far reaching effects for future Canada-First Nations relations.

The Djap Wurrung Trees, Hermeneutical Injustice, and Australia’s First Nations People

photograph of road construction beginning with trees in distance

As I write this, a tense standoff between authorities and the traditional owners of a sacred Aboriginal women’s site is coming to a head in the state of Victoria, in southeastern Australia. The state government is preparing to bulldoze an area containing more than 260 large eucalyptus trees, some of which are as old as 800 years, that belong to an area sacred to the women of the Djap Wurrung nation: the Indigenous people and traditional owners of this area in western Victoria.

The proposed destruction of the site, to make way for an extension of a stretch of highway that links the two state capitals Melbourne and Adelaide, has led to a protracted battle between traditional owners and authorities, and some of the protesters have been there for over a year. Tent embassy spokeswoman Amanda Mohamet said: “We are the traditional custodians of this part of country, and we have a cultural obligation to be here.” The government insists it has sought and gained permission from traditional owners, but the protesters reject this, arguing that authorities have instead confected a ‘manufactured consent’.

The official reason for this extension is safety; authorities argue that this is necessary after 11 deaths since the beginning of 2013 on the stretch of road due to be upgraded. Protesters have now issued a red alert as fencing and machinery are being moved in. This situation is deeply distressing to the Djap Wurrung people, to the wider Indigenous community and to all Australians who stand in solidarity with them. It must be understood as a continuation and entrenchment of dispossession and colonial violence done to Australia’s First Nations people at the hands of British and European settlers. The history of the colonization, or invasion, of Australia is a history of violence to Aboriginal people and theft of the land to which their physical, ancestral, and spiritual lives are inseparably connected.

When the British colonizers arrived in Australia, a little over two hundred years ago, they encountered a land that had been peopled by its original occupants for over 60,000 years. Just pause for a moment on that number – on that length, and depth of time. The settlers encountered an ancient and complex culture formed from hundreds of different Nations, speaking hundreds of different languages; all with rich and deep religious, totemic, cultural, and ancestral connections to the land – to ‘country’. But, in another way, the settlers did not ‘encounter’ that culture at all. They saw Aboriginal people but they did not ‘see’ them. As Nayuka Gorrie writes of the Djap Wurrung efforts to save their sacred ground:

“The inability to see these sites as worthy of being protected or that they are significant is fundamentally racist. It is white selectivity that deems sacred trees unworthy of protection. This white selectivity spans across all elements of our life.”

This situation highlights an especially deep and entrenched kind of epistemic, hermeneutical injustice. The term ‘epistemic’ refers to knowledge, and the term ‘hermeneutic’ refers to interpretation. Miranda Fricker coined the term ‘epistemic injustice‘ and her original work recognized hermeneutical injustice as one type of epistemic injustice. Epistemic injustice occurs when a person or group of people are wronged specifically in their capacity as knower(s); when they are disadvantaged by being prevented from sharing or accessing knowledge.

Epistemic injustice affects those who are sidelined by others in positions of greater social power – when members of non-dominant groups are prevented from participating in meaning making of ‘shared concepts’. Those experiencing epistemic injustice may not be believed, may not be understood, or their knowledge and experience may be discounted or ignored.

Hermeneutical injustice occurs when an individual or group encounters a blind spot in how their experiences or concepts are understood. This can happen in situations where the individual or group is relegated to a position of relative social powerlessness, from which their experience is not recognized by, or reflected in, the collective conceptual vocabulary of the dominant social group.

Hermeneutical injustice is preceded by hermeneutical marginalization. Non-dominant groups are hermeneutically marginalized when they aren’t able to participate fully in the process of meaning making, so that the dominant group’s shared concepts fail to recognize the experiences of those marginalized groups. This happens when those in power are allowed to define the experience or control the conceptual apparatus. Conceptual gaps then open up in the social fabric, where a marginalized group can’t communicate to the dominant group, and where their experience, ways of understanding it and attempts to communicate it, are not acknowledged. The process whereby a group is hermeneutically marginalized is a spiral in which their communication is frustrated as a result of their marginalization, and then the frustrated communication further entrenches their marginalization.

Many levels of epistemic injustice are, in a multitude of ways, central to the experience of Australia’s First Nations people and hermeneutical marginalization is one of the central features of the colonial mindset; hermeneutical injustice is present at the very roots of colonial attitudes to Aboriginal people’s experiences – historically and contemporarily.

Aboriginal people’s deep cultural knowledge of the land did not register in the European consciousness. That is no mere accident of cultural difference. It has to be understood, historically, as embedded in the intentions with which the European settlers arrived on the continent. They came to take ownership of the land, to acquire and use it for the purpose of their own prosperity, and that intention mediated all their interactions with Aboriginal people.

When the first settlers arrived they saw a vast country ripe for the taking. Their determination to own and exploit the land blinded them to the truth about the Aboriginal people’s relation to the land. The settlers refused to acknowledge, refused even to see, the deep and ancient knowledge structures of the Indigenous cultures. They had no register in which Aboriginal knowledge of the land could be understood.

Consider for instance the type of knowledge known as the Songline, or dreaming track. Songlines are complex maps that record creation stories and histories that navigate vast terrain and map story onto country. They are recorded in songs, stories, ceremonial dance, and artworks. They take in landscape, its features, things people need to know (like where to find water or other local plant or hunting knowledge), as well as history and ancestry, things related to ceremony and other sacred knowledge. This knowledge is not ‘about’ the landscape, it is embedded in it, it is inseparable from it – and so destruction of country is destruction of knowledge. It is a kind of epistemic violence, which is related to, leads to, and sustains actual physical violence.

Fricker discussed the ‘virtue of hermeneutical justice’ whereby sensitivity to the gap in hermeneutical resources might be cultivated to prevent hermeneutical injustices. In Australia that means listening to Aboriginal people’s account of their experience, and learning from them what they know about the vast landscape of the continent.

Indigenous author Bruce Pascoe, in his recent book Dark Emu, has seriously challenged the view, upon which Australian history is based, that the first Australians lived a simple hunter-gatherer lifestyle. His research uses records from the settlers such as letters and diaries reveals a much more complicated Aboriginal economy based on land care, manipulation of landscape by building of dams and wells, planting, irrigating, harvesting, and food storage.

Many of the documents from which this picture of Aboriginal knowledge emerges also reveal the hermeneutical marginalization that Australian history rests on, because the settler accounts are epistemically blind to Aboriginal knowledge about the land, and therefore to the nature and depth of their cultural relationship to it. Many of these documents reveal details of Aboriginal land use while at the same time, perversely, dismissing or underplaying it.

So we could see, in the fight to save the Djap Wurrung trees in western Victoria, an opportunity for redress, and to promote epistemic justice, rather than a clash of interests between traditional owners and road safety concerns.

As Djap Wurrung man Nayuka Gorrie points out,

“The official line given by the Major Roads Project Authority is safety. This framing can be understood as a way to undermine land defenders and position us as against the interests of the rest of the population.”

To treat the issue as though the claims of safety were in some way ‘equivalent’ to, and therefore can be balanced against, sacred relation to country is a form of epistemic injustice through equivocation. The ‘road safety’ defense is a form of hermeneutical marginalization in the way it uses well-healed concepts (like “safety”) that are unmistakably tied to the goals and interests of the dominant group. These concepts effectively erase the very different language of Aboriginal people in their attempts to convey their physical, cultural, and spiritual connection to country. As Sissy Austin explains:

“This is a landscape that forms the basis of Djab Wurrung identity – from the roots of the trees that are more than 800 years old, the rolling hills, the kangaroos, eagles and black cockatoos, to the stories of the stars, the moon and the sun. You cannot have one element of country without the other.”

Before European settlement Aboriginal Australians were astronomers, they had complex maps of the stars represented in constellations which they recorded in rock paintings. They had highly developed systems of agriculture, oral literary traditions, and fine art – yet the settlers’ concepts of ‘civilization’ did not recognize them as civilized. That hermeneutical marginalization and the injustice it perpetuates continues as authorities ignore the pleas of the Djap Wurrung for the preservation of their sacred country.

Collective Responsibility and the MMIWG Report

photograph of bead art piece

Note: for immediate emotional assistance relating to Indigenous survivor and family experiences, please call 1-844-413-6649, a 24/7, toll-free national hotline in Canada.

Canada has long had a crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.  The number of Indigenous women and girls who were killed between 1980 and 2012 alone is estimated to be close to 4,000. Indigenous women are six times likelier to be murdered than non-Indigenous women, experience intimate partner violence at a rate three times greater than that of non-Indigenous women, and compared with non-Indigenous women, are three times likelier to be killed by a stranger.

 On June 4, Canada’s National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls released its long-awaited analysis. The two-volume report (available in full and as an executive summary) aimed at a cohesive account of the causes and remedies to the violence enacted against First Nations women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA (two-spirit, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex and asexual people).  

The report documents the testimony of 2,380 survivors, family members, Knowledge Keepers and experts. The participants shed light on more than facts: sharing the experience, context, and recurring stories of families torn apart by Canada’s recent colonialist history, including the impact of residential schools, the “Sixties Scoop”, and the extractive industries which are particularly fraught with risk for Indigenous women as well as challenges to Indigenous autonomy.  

The inquiry confronted structural issues, defining the Canadian government’s systematic treatment of Indigenous peoples and the resulting deaths of Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA persons as genocide. Its analysis takes intergenerational consequences of forced assimilation into account. While the accusation of genocide has caused some controversy in Canadian media (see here, here, and here), others note that Canadians’ reaction to the term is revealing of the colonial structures that are maintained in the present day.

Genocide was defined by the UN in 1948 to encompass more than immediate wholesale slaughter, but also the intent to eliminate the group through “killing members of the group; causing serious mental or bodily 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.” The MMIWG inquiry appended a 46-page legal analysis defending their use of the term, both with regard to the mens rea (the intention to destroy) and the actions as listed above in the UN’s definition.

What is the collective responsibility of Canadians for the violence against Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA members?

While speaking in terms of settler ‘privilege’ is an established way of framing the positionality of non-Indigenous peoples in the Americas, Beenash Jafri proposes ‘complicity’ with colonialism as a framework that removes the lens from the complexities of individual privilege and oppression (which can derail into comparing the personal experiences of inhabitants). Instead, the model of ‘complicity’ can help non-Indigenous people and their descendants comprehend the larger structures that were designed to decimate Indigenous sovereignty, cultures, and peoples.   

The notion of ‘complicity’ encourages a forensic approach to this Canadian genocide, which maps easily onto the findings of the MMIWG investigation. Grandmother Leslie (or Giizhigooweyaabikwe) recounts the linguistic apparatuses of colonialism in blaming missing and murdered women for their own disappearance:

“There’s always the polite terminology, which is coded, racially coded, like ‘at-risk,’ or those kinds of things. There’s ways of people washing their hands as if to say, ‘Well… that has really nothing to do with us.’ (…) They’ve contributed to their own disappearances, and/or rapes, and/or murders, by their personal behaviours – by the way that they are dressed, by what they were doing, by being Indigenous, and by being women. Many people don’t see the system as violence. But in fact, missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls is the result of imposed poverty, legal and individual racism, discrimination and the patriarchy.”

Another such assumption wielded against First Nations communities is the popular statistic, first voiced in 2015 by Harper-appointed Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt, that 70% of murdered Indigenous women are killed by Indigenous men, a claim that is not linked to measurable data. Valcourt has elsewhere displayed his penchant for reducing Indigenous issues to intra-family  problems by dismissing the suicides of Indigenous youths as being the concern of their parents, and was tepid concerning a nation-wide inquiry into the cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women.

Lack of data does not prevent Valcourt’s claim from being used as a rhetorical derailment against conversations on national responsibility for Indigenous deaths and disappearances. While there are de-colonizing approaches for discussing family violence in the context of intergenerational trauma, this is not the conversation which immediately involves all Canadians, except insofar as reparations for centuries of violence can contribute to support for Indigenous families.

The violated freedoms of Indigenous women which result in inadequate options and the genocidal context of their murders and disappearances do immediately implicate us as a nation. Certain patterns are known in these cases: Men appear to be the primary perpetrators of violence on Indigenous women (to the tune of 92 percent, according to one study). Offenders often prey on Indigenous women because the latter lack safe housing and safe transportation. Killers of Indigenous women are treated less severely than those who kill non-Indigenous women, revealing that Indigenous women are devalued in the justice system. The Chief Commissioner of the MMIWG report, Marion Buller, proposed an automatic charge of first-degree murder when the victim is an Indigenous woman, girl, or LGTBQ member to correct this imbalance. We could look for new legal categories to apply to crimes where the victim is an Indigenous woman, girl, or 2SLGBTQQIA member (adopting a lesson from Columbia, for example, which in 2015 defined “feminicide” as a hate crime carrying its own minimum penalty).

All Canadians can take it upon themselves to be informed, to condemn, and cease to tolerate abuses of and violence against First Nations women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA members. It is also crucial to educate ourselves concerning the historical and contemporary factors leading to this crisis. A combination of legal, cultural, and political structures resulted in systematic genocide of Canada’s first peoples – a legacy reflected in the histories of survivors.

Indigenous women have been marginalized since the earliest days of Canada’s colonization. While First Nations cultures traditionally held women in high regard, this norm was threatening to the patriarchal social organization of European colonists.  The consequences of the 1876 Indian Act, which stripped Indigenous women of their status if they married outside their tribe, continue to the present day.

Forced assimilation and genocide in Canada is often trained on Indigenous women’s bodies. Coercive sterilization is one instance. Disasters like long-standing water emergencies within Indigenous communities often burden women most heavily.

Reading the MMIWG report, one gets a glimpse of the power and agency of Indigenous women, their families, and their communities. As a nation, we need to listen to and support Indigenous women when they lead.

What would stopping this genocide look like in practice?  The report issued 231 specific recommendations addressed to the government, Canadians at large, healthcare professionals, police, lawyers, educators, media influencers, and extractive industries. It must be a collective effort, not a one-stop measure. There have been 98 calls-to-action on Indigenous well-being in the past that have not yet wrought widespread change. At the same time, the MMIWG report, a key part of the successful 2015 Liberal election campaign, marks the first nation-scale inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. It represents an imperative to change.

The report should awaken us to the need for systemic shifts – to increase the presence of First Nations’ women in legislation, in budgeting, in the regulation of services. We also need radical rethinking of our institutions. Canadian political and legal institutions are shaped by colonialism and patriarchy and marginalize First Nations’ peoples by design. We need to address the interlocking functions of patriarchy, colonialism, and racism. Finally, we need to be informed of and support the inherent prior rights of Indigenous peoples and to value the lives and leadership of Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA members.

Celebrating Invasion Day: Australia’s History War

Photo of the Sydney Harbor overlooking the Opera House and an Australian flag flying in the sky from a plane

On January 26 each year Australia celebrates its national holiday ‘Australia Day’ with official events including citizenship ceremonies and firework displays, as well as gatherings, barbecues and many other quintessentially Australian activities. But over the past several years, a debate has raged about whether it is appropriate to hold celebrations on that particular date, given its meaning for Australia’s Indigenous population (known also as Aborigines or First Nations People [1]), many of whom commemorate that particular date as Invasion Day.   

It was on January 26, 1788, that Captain Arthur Philip led the First Fleet into Sydney Cove, planting the British flag, and claiming the territory for the British Empire. The colonization of Australia meant severe degradation of traditional cultures which stretch back into prehistory.  The story of white, European settlement is, for First Nations people, a story marked — often dominated — by horrors of dispossession, massacre and attempted cultural genocide.

Inseparable from the ethical issues at stake in this debate — Aboriginal rights, justice and reconciliation — are broader philosophical issues about truth raised by vying interpretations of history. Disagreements about how the history of white settlement should be understood, and about how current generations of white Australians should respond, have become increasingly divisive over the past two decades, fuelled by the so called ‘history wars.’

At the time of European settlement, Australia had been inhabited by its indigenous occupants for over 60,000 years. That makes Aboriginal culture (though it is by no means homogenous) by far the oldest surviving, continual civilisation in the history of the world. The peoples of the First Nations made up over 600 individual Nations, with many different languages and cultural characteristics and customs.

Australia was colonized under the auspices of the doctrine of “Terra Nullius” (no-one’s land). The belief that the land did not belong to its Indigenous inhabitants rested on ignorance about the depth of the relationship of Aborigines to the land. To the European settlers, it justified their policy of driving Aboriginal people off lands in which they lived, hunted and fished, and it led also to many massacres of those who tried to resist. In the state of Tasmania, local Indigenous people were all but wiped out. In the state of Queensland, at least 65,000 estimated Indigenous people lost their lives defending their country in the frontier wars of the 1800s.

More recently, from the beginning of the twentieth century until roughly the 1960s, a government policy was in operation to remove Aboriginal and part-Aboriginal children from their Indigenous parents. The (so-called) Stolen Generation were taken and sent to homes or foster care, and in many cases were subject to abuse and neglect. A 700-page report entitled Bringing Them Home, the result of a national enquiry into the Stolen Children, was tabled in Federal Parliament in 1997. It detailed story after harrowing story of families torn apart and lives ruined by the grief and suffering visited on the victims of this state-enforced policy.

Currently, the situation for many Aboriginal people remains marked by disadvantage. For example, as of the 2016 census, First Nations People represented 3.3 percent of the total Australian population yet account for more than 28 percent of Australia’s prison population. Rates of youth suicide, violence, and substance abuse remain far higher for many Indigenous communities than for the population at large.

In the context of these egregious past and ongoing current injustices, many Indigenous people have asked the rest of the community to change the date of the national holiday celebrations. Many Aboriginal people feel both that they would like to be included in national celebrations, and simultaneously cannot feel included because of what the date means to them. They need the broader Australian community to hear their need for recognition of the wrongs they, as a people, have suffered. Indigenous television presenter, Brooke Boney said,

“This is the best country in the world… But I can’t separate the 26th of January from the fact that my brothers are more likely to go to jail than school, or that my little sisters and my mum are more likely to be beaten and raped than anyone else’s sisters or mum,” she said. “And that started from that day. For me, it’s a difficult day and I don’t want to celebrate it.”

A great many non-Indigenous people fully support Australia’s First Nations people in their call for a national holiday and celebration to be held on a date not synonymous with the pain and suffering of their people. Yet the call to change the date has encountered fierce ideological resistance from other sections of the community.  Keeping Australia Day on January 26 remains the official policy of both major political parties.

In an interview last year Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he understood that some who opposed celebrating a national holiday on January 26 did so out of respect for Aboriginal people, but said refusing to celebrate the day was “silly.” He recently wrote in a Facebook post: “Indulgent self-loathing does not make Australia stronger.”

There is a prevalent view that even though grave injustice was done to Aboriginal people in the past, colonization has also brought great benefit, and since contemporary Australians are not the perpetrators of historical wrongs, they need not, indeed should not, feel guilt or shame.

Many, especially on the socially conservative side in the history wars, argue that focusing on the darkest elements in Australian history eclipses the nation’s achievements, fosters disunity rather than togetherness and threatens to drown national pride in national sorrow. Many also feel confronted by the suggestion that they could or should feel shame for the past actions of others.

Yet the Prime Minister’s statement that “indulgent self-loathing does not make Australia stronger” appears not only to reject the so-called ‘black armband’ view of Australian history in unequivocal terms, but to seriously underestimate either the injustices done to Aborigines, or the depth of their effects. Racism of this kind that was behind the dispossession based on Terra Nullis and the policy of forced removal of Aboriginal children is constituted by a very deep-seated failure of white European colonizers to acknowledge the full humanity of their Indigenous victims.

To illustrate this failure, Australian philosopher Raimond Gaita emphasizes a couple of key moments. At the time of forced removals of Aboriginal children, James Isdell, a minister for protection of Aborigines in the Western Australian government, said that “no matter how frantic an Aboriginal mother’s momentary grief was at the time, they soon forget their offspring.” [2]

But in 1992, a high court ruling (The Mabo decision), overturned the doctrine of Terra Nullius doctrine. That judgement acknowledged that Aboriginal People’s spiritual relationships to the land are deeper than can be conveyed by the notion of ownership. [3] Then, given the definition of genocide decided by the 1948 Genocide Convention, The Stolen Generation’s Bringing Them Home report demonstrates that “The policy of forcible removal of children from Indigenous Australians to other groups for the purpose of raising them separate from and ignorant of their culture and people could properly be labelled genocidal.” [4]

These pernicious government policies represent a denial of the full humanity of Aboriginal people – their connection to their land, their love for their children. The willingness of other Australians to dismiss the feelings of hurt endured by Indigenous Australians by refusing to change the date of national celebration only compounds that injustice. As the Mayor of Darebin Council in Melbourne, Susan Rennie, told ABC Radio: “the people for whom the celebration is most hurtful should be listened to… we have consistently heard from Aboriginal / First Nations people in our community that the date is hurtful and causes distress… why wouldn’t we respond to that and think about changing the date.”

A full conception of justice would need to acknowledge what Indigenous people are saying and what they need in order for reconciliation to occur. This recognition is not merely limited to acknowledging past wrongs but perceiving ongoing injustice. That does not mean that this generation of non-Indigenous Australians, for whom there is likely to be no direct connection to those historical wrongs, should feel guilt, though some doubtless do. But it does seem to entail that a full moral appreciation of the injustices suffered include an appropriate sense of shame.

So what should a country be celebrating with a national holiday such as this? It is natural, and it is right, it seems to me, to feel a sense of pride in one’s nation. But, that sense of pride should be founded on a sufficiently deep conceptual sense of what pride is, or should be, if national pride is not going to collapse into nationalism and jingoism. To take full moral possession of the dark aspects of a nation’s history is not anti-patriotic but authentically patriotic. True patriotism should be genuine love of one’s country, and not a hollow, jingoistic nationalism of the sort which leads someone to confuse acknowledging the shame many Australians feel with “indulgent self-loathing.”



[1] First Nations is plural because there were thousands of tribes many with their own language and cultural traditions inhabiting Australia prior to colonization.  

[2] Raimond Gaita, A Common Humanity: Thinking About Love & Truth & Justice, Text Publishing, Melbourne, Australia, 1999, p57. My analysis here draws especially on several chapters that pertain to issues of Aboriginal dispossession and genocide in his book A Common Humanity.

[3] Gaita, 1999, 74.

[4] Gaita, 1999, 116; https://www.humanrights.gov.au/sites/default/files/content/pdf/social_justice/bringing_them_home_report.pdf 234-239