Sprit Quest


Blotches on our escutcheon
By The Rev. Dr. Hanns F. Skoutajan
True North Perspective
There are “blotches on our escutcheon,” as the saying goes. Perhaps you prefer “blots on our copy book.” Those of us, and I am one of them, who like to think of the True North as brave and pure, should not read the three books to which I shall make reference lest you become disillusioned.
Last week at The Ottawa International Writers Festival I listened to Frances Itani read from her most recent book Requiem. It is a superb novel  about a very bad blotch on our nation’s history. She tells the story of Japanese Canadians  who were uprooted, dispossessed and deported. Their homes, businesses and all their possessions, except what they were able to carry, were  taken from them. They were then transported to primitive camps in the interior of the country. 
Canada, like our neighbour to the south, was panicked  by the attack on Pearl Harbour. They feared that the Japanese on the west coast, especially the fisherman, would welcome and aid an invasion by the Imperial forces of Japan. She read from her description of the looting as seen by the departing Japanese. Their caucasian neighbours wasted no time breaking into their abandoned homes and dragging out what they could, even a piano.
She tells of the dreadful events through the eyes of one of the victims, a small child. It is a passionate retelling that leaves one wondering how that spot can ever be erased from our history. There has been an apology and some compensation but the blemish defies eradication.
A second spot that resists all scrubbing is of course our record on the native situation. The story of our residential schools is one that haunts Canadians. Native families were robbed of their children who were taken to schools far away. I have heard that it wasn’t all negative, that some children received an education of which they would have been deprived if left at home, however, the fact of the matter is that the churches were co-opted by the state to be part of the system of assimilation, robbing the children of their language, culture and religion, as well, of course, their family relations.
James Bartleman, the former lieutenant governor of Ontario, in his powerful novel As Long As The Rivers Flow gives a riveting description of the residential school system and the impact it left in terms of alcoholism, poverty and estrangement.  They were beaten if discovered speaking their native language. Many were sexually abused . His depiction of children being dragged off by officials to a waiting float plane that would take them far from home and family is unforgettable. Many attempted to run away home and often died on the way.
What has been revealed in the past decades as the stories of residential schools are told  makes us aware that the blotch is indelible. It ought to give us a sense of shame. But I wonder what we have learned as the reserves particularly in the north continue to be islands of neglect and abject poverty, to say nothing of the toxic impact of the tar sand mining on the health of aboriginal people of Alberta. But of course it has made us one of the top suppliers of crude which trumps all ethical considerations. The blotch spreads.
The third blotch is much more recent. It was acquired earlier this year, in the merry month of May. I am referring to the last general election when Canadians surrendered a significant measure of our much valued  democracy.  The Harper government was given a majority in the House of Commons with less than a 40 per cent popular vote. 
Well, that’s our system, I am told. Is it democracy when the province of Prince Edward Island, pop. 141,000, is given four seats while the greater municipality of Kingston,  with a population, 151,000,  has only one seat in the House of Commons? This inequity is repeated many times across this country. 
The present government is undoubtedly the most ideological we have ever had. It immediately rushed to legislate that ideology, doing away with the Wheat Board in the west and exposing farmers to the power of American based grain conglomerates. Stephen Harper made no bones about it in his campaigning that he would do away with the long gun registry, and institute a raft of  measures including the building of many new places of incarceration. The criminal justice system is being taken from its course to restorative justice  back to retributive justice. Further he would purchase expensive jet fighters although no one really knows the price tag and what would be their purpose? Canada would cease to be a peace keeper but a war fighting machine on the world stage. No doubt many Canadians agree with these and many other so-called right wing policies. But not the majority. 
Lawrence Martin in his recent book Harperland gives a scary description of what awaits Canadians under a Harper majority dictatorship. Parliamentary debates may become less onerous but also futile inasmuch as the passage of a bill is a forgone conclusion. Opposition plays to the people and the press but beyond that is quite ineffective. It begs the question whether there is still a democracy. Does proportional representation have a chance? How firmly is the present government entrenching itself for the future?  Martin states that, the trains run on time in Harperland, but all else is left to the tight-fisted control of its namesake. 
Doubtless there are many more blotches marring our escutcheon. Nevertheless, I like to feel that there is a spirit alive in our midst. I now am constrained to ask how viable that spirit remains .
Throughout the world people are protesting, wanting to take back their nations, their system of governance and finance that have fallen into the hands of  the less than 1% of the population, who won’t easily let go but are busily strengthening the ramparts of their citadels against change.
I have no doubt that there is a spirit among the people, not only in Arab nations, but also in North America. That spirit will make huge demands on its people.  I am still positive that that spirit will prevail. I would love to see it in my own life time, but I am now more than four score years of age and wonder about my future.
There is an old ditty about grandma’s lye soap, “good for everything in the home.” It then reveals that “the secret is in the scrubbing, it wouldn’t suds, it wouldn’t foam.” Scrubbing is hard work. Unfortunately no amount of lye soap or scrubbing will remove those blotches. We must therefore strive to fashion a new, a better garment with which to clothe the future of this nation.
Hanns F. Skoutajan
SQ 28/10/011    

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