Dark truths unearthed

A mass grave. Of children. In Canada.

David French has a characteristically thoughtful piece on the Tulsa Race Massacre, which happened one hundred years ago today, and is just now being recognized after decades as one of those things people just didn’t talk about:

…On May 31, 1921, a 19-year-old black man named Dick Rowland was arrested after an encounter in an elevator with a 17-year-old white elevator operator named Sarah Page. We don’t know definitively what happened in that elevator, but Page apparently screamed, Rowland ran, and word soon spread across town that a black man had been arrested for sexually assaulting a white woman.

As an angry white lynch mob numbering in the hundreds gathered, a small band of 25 armed black men arrived to try to protect Rowland’s life. At the sight of armed black men, a number of white men left to gather their guns, and the white crowd continued to grow. Approximately 75 more black men arrived to help protect Rowland. At around 10:00 p.m., one of the white men demanded that a black World War I veteran surrender his sidearm. He refused, a shot was fired, and immediately a gun battle broke out in the streets--killing people of both races.

As the outnumbered black men retreated, the white mob surged forward into Tulsa’s prosperous Greenwood District, home of Black Wall Street, a thriving neighborhood of black-owned businesses. What happened next is beyond horrifying. The district was set ablaze. In spite of valiant attempts at self-defense, black Americans were shot dead by the dozens (unofficial accounts put the number as high as 300), and there were reports white attackers dropped incendiary devices on the neighborhood from the air. By the end of the massacre an entire neighborhood lay in ruins, black men and women were herded into internment centers, and the dead were buried in mass graves

[…]

I would urge you to read the entire report of the 2001 Oklahoma Commission to Study the Race Riot. It contains an hour-by-hour chronology of an urban massacre, and it includes these infuriating words: “Not one of these criminal acts was then or ever has been prosecuted or punished by government at any level, municipal, county, state, or federal.”

This is the sort of racist atrocity that’s happened far too often in American history, and about which we Canadians would feel kind of smug. Except that we are just now learning about mass graves - of children, no less - in our own country:

Preliminary findings from a survey of the grounds at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School have uncovered the remains of 215 children buried at the site, the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation said Thursday.

The First Nation said the remains were confirmed last weekend near the city of Kamloops, in B.C.'s southern Interior. 

In a statement, Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc said they hired a specialist in ground-penetrating radar to carry out the work, and that their language and culture department oversaw the project to ensure it was done in a culturally appropriate and respectful way. The release did not specify the company or individual involved, or how the work was completed. 

"To our knowledge, these missing children are undocumented deaths," Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc Kukpi7 (Chief) Rosanne Casimir said in the statement.

"Some were as young as three years old. We sought out a way to confirm that knowing out of deepest respect and love for those lost children and their families, understanding that Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc is the final resting place of these children." 

[…]

The Kamloops Indian Residential School was in operation from 1890 to 1969, when the federal government took over administration from the Catholic Church to operate it as a residence for a day school, until closing in 1978.

Up to 500 students would have been registered at the school, according to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR). Those children would have come from First Nations communities across B.C. and beyond. 

Tristin Hopper, in the National Post, explains why so many innocent young children lost their lives at these institutions, the last one of which closed way back in, um, 1996.

One of the most painful tasks of Canada’s seven-year Truth and Reconciliation Commission was an attempt to quantify the sheer number of Indigenous children who died at an Indian Residential School.

The commission ultimately determined that at least 3,200 children died while a student at a Residential School; one in every 50 students enrolled during the program’s nearly 120-year existence. That’s a death rate comparable to the number of Canadian POWs who died in the custody of Nazi Germany during the Second World War.

The result is that many of Canada’s most notorious residential schools sit amid sprawling cemeteries of unmarked children’s graves.

[…]

The main killer was disease, particularly tuberculosis. Given their cramped conditions and negligent health practices, residential schools were hotbeds for the spread of TB.

The deadliest years for Indian Residential Schools were from the 1870s to the 1920s. In the first six years after its 1884 opening, for instance, the Qu’Appelle Indian Residential School saw the deaths of more than 40 per cent of its students. Sacred Heart Residential School in Southern Alberta had an annual student death rate of one in 20.

But despite occasional efforts at reform, even as late as the 1940s the death rates within residential schools were up to five times higher than among Canadian children as a whole.

The deadly reputations of residential schools were well-known to officials at the time. Kuper Island Residential School, located near Chemainus, B.C., saw the deaths of nearly one third of its student population in the years following its opening in 1889. “The Indians are inclined to boycott this school on account of so many deaths,” wrote a school inspector in 1922.

Exacerbating the death rate was the absence of even the most rudimentary medical care. Survivors described classmates becoming increasingly listless with TB until they were quietly removed by authorities.

James Gladstone, who would later become the first Status Indian appointed to the Senate of Canada, in his memoirs described a fellow student who died after school administrators failed to find him medical care for stepping on a nail. “I looked after Joe for two days until he died. I was the only one he would listen to during his delirium,” wrote Gladstone.

Accidents were the next big killer. Firetrap construction and the non-existence of basic safety standards frequently hit residential schools with mass-casualty incidents that, in any other context, would have been national news. A 1927 fire at Saskatchewan’s Beauval Indian Residential School killed 19 students. Only three years after that, 12 students died in a fire at Cross Lake Indian Residential School in Manitoba.

Despite this, “for much of their history, Canadian residential schools operated beyond the reach of fire regulations,” wrote the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

But probably the most resonant of residential school deaths was the number of children who froze or drowned while attempting to run away. Several dozen children would die this way, with schools routinely making no attempt to find them and failing to report their disappearances for days.

Thousands of people who attended these schools are still alive today, and still bear the mental and physical scars.

I think of my country as a beacon of peace, tolerance and freedom compared to most of the world, and when I hear about some of the awful things Canada has done to its First Nations, my first instinct is often to become defensive. I’ll tell myself it was a different time, and that we can’t judge people of the past by the standards of today. Some Canadians, like former Senator Lynn Beyak, still insist on going even further and trying to argue that the residential schools weren’t that bad.

I suspect many Americans have the same reaction when they hear about their country’s darkest moments (check out some of the responses French received when he tweeted about his Tulsa article) and even some of the anti-Israel sentiment in Europe has as its root lingering guilt about the Holocaust and historic antisemitism.

At the same time, because everything on social media is absolutely black and white with no shades in between, many go in the other direction and argue that “settler-colonial” states like Canada and the United States are fruit of a poisoned tree, illegitimate and irredeemable. Andrew Sullivan discusses this in his most recent newsletter:

The genius of liberalism in unleashing human freedom and the human mind changed us more in centuries than we had changed in hundreds of millennia. And at its core, there is the model of the single, interchangeable, equal citizen, using reason to deliberate the common good with fellow citizens. No ultimate authority; just inquiry and provisional truth. No final answer: an endless conversation. No single power, but many in competition.

In this open-ended conversation, all can participate, conservatives and liberals, and will have successes and failures in their turn. What matters, both conservatives and liberals agree, is not the end result, but the liberal democratic, open-ended means. That shift — from specifying a single end to insisting only on playing by the rules — is the key origin of modern freedom.

My central problem with critical theory is that it takes precise aim at these very core principles and rejects them. By rejecting them, in the otherwise noble cause of helping the marginalized, it is a very seductive and potent threat to liberal civilization.

Am I exaggerating CRT’s aversion to liberal modernity? I don’t think I am. Here is how critical theory defines itself in one of its central documents. It questions the very foundations of “Enlightenment rationality, legal equality and Constitutional neutrality.” It begins with the assertion that these are not ways to further knowledge and enlarge human freedom. They are rather manifestations of white power over non-white bodies. Formal legal equality, they argue, the promise of the American experiment, has never been actual equality, even as, over the centuries, it has been extended to everyone. It is, rather, a system to perpetuate inequality forever, which is the single and only reason racial inequality is still here.

Claims to truth are merely claims to power. That’s what people are asked to become “awake” to: that liberalism is a lie. As are its purported values. Free speech is therefore not always a way to figure out the truth; it is just another way in which power is exercised — to harm the marginalized. The idea that a theory can be proven or disproven by the empirical process is itself a white supremacist argument, denying the “lived experience” of members of identity groups that is definitionally true, whatever the “objective” facts say. And our minds and souls and institutions have been so marinated in white supremacist culture for so long, critical theorists argue, that the system can only be dismantled rather than reformed. The West’s idea of individual freedom — the very foundation of the American experiment — is, in their view, a way merely to ensure the permanent slavery of the non-white.

And nothing has really changed since the beginning: slavery, segregation, mass incarceration are just different words for the same experience of oppression. Our world is just a set of interlocking forms of oppressive structures, and has been since the West’s emergence.

Sometimes it feels like we’re stuck between two competing forms of authoritarianism: one that wants to tear down society, salt the earth and build a utopia in which we flagellate ourselves constantly out of shame for what our ancestors did, and a hardcore nationalism in which any suggestion that our forefathers might not have been perfect is a deeply personal insult.

French argues that the truth lies somewhere in between: we have to celebrate our national triumphs while also recognizing our darkest and most dishonorable moments, and getting the balance right is a constant struggle.

It is not “hating America” to acknowledge this is part of our story. It is not unpatriotic to understand that much of our present reality exists because the legacy of past atrocities does not fade as quickly as their memory. 

So, what do we do? Perhaps we can take a cue from the way in which we honor the glories of the past, but with a very different emphasis. When it comes to our great moments, we remember them, we celebrate them, and we teach our children to emulate the courage and virtue of our heroes. We cover the countryside with tributes.

If it is right to celebrate, it is also right to mourn. When it comes to our darkest moments, we should remember them, we should lament them, and we should take a page from Josiah and seek reform to ameliorate their effects. Unless we remember our worst moments, we simply can’t truly understand our own nation, nor can we relate to all its people. 

Humanity has not transformed its fundamental nature in the last 100 years. A nation full of people no better than us can do great good. A nation full of people no worse than us can commit great evil. Remembering our nation’s virtues helps give us hope. Remembering our sin gives us humility. Remembering both gives us the motivation and the inspiration necessary to repair our land.

Like French, I deeply love my country, and I want it to live up to its stated ideals and make amends for the many times it has fallen short.