Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Becoming More than Nothing

I've been following the work of Rev. Kevin Annett, a United Church of Canada minister who has been doggedly pursuing the truth about the genocide of Canadian indigenous people since he came to know some indigenous survivors of the Canadian genocide more than twenty years ago. These survivors told Annett of their experiences in the "Indian Residential Schools" in Canada, mostly run by churches, primarily the Roman Catholic and United Church of Canada varieties.

It is undisputed that these "schools" had about a fifty percent survival rate--yes, you heard that right-- half of all the children imprisoned in these institutions over the course of many decades died. It is now undisputed (after the churches and the Canadian government spent years denying the truth) that physical and sexual abuse of the children in the schools was commonplace. It is documented from contemporaneous accounts, even accounts of government officials, that living conditions and the nutrition provided by the schools to indigenous children would likely get pet owners thrown in jail for animal cruelty. And, of course, there are the stories told by survivors--stories of malnutrition, intentional introduction of disease, medical experimentation, beatings, rapes, even murders--all perpetrated by church and government officials on the children. And not one person has been prosecuted.

Rev. Annett's book, Hidden No Longer: Genocide in Canada, Past and Present, tells the sad tale of these schools and the "soft genocide" strategy that the Canadian government and the churches adopted toward the Canadian indigenous--a strategy of penning them up on "reservations, then stealing their children, abusing them, sterilizing them, and medically experimenting on them, often until they died. The ones who survived are of course, never to be the same. High rates of mental illness, addictions, poverty, and homelessness plague them, as one might expect when a person is told from a young age that they are garbage. I recommend the book highly. It is available online for free, but make sure you have a box of tissues handy as you read it.

Rev. Annett has recently written a blog post on the website of his organization, the International Tribunal of Crimes of Church and State. It is his comment on the recent "Truth and Reconciliation Commission" appointed by the government of Canada to "investigate" the claims of abuse in the Indian Residential Schools, although the commission has no subpoena power and no power to bring criminal charges. Not much truth OR reconciliation there.

I've reproduced most of his post, dated April 15, 2012, with his permission. It makes for a long blog post, yes. But what Rev. Annett is talking about here is the kind of thing that we must stop ignoring and we must engage with, so I implore you to read on.

[The Commission proceedings are] all quite the déjà vu experience. The travesty going on this weekend in Victoria reminds me of a story told to me by one of the few survivors who hasn’t been gagged.

When the children weren’t being starved, raped and tortured to death, they were dressed in decent clothing every Sunday and paraded in front of a smiling and appreciative middle-class congregation at the local United Church. And there, to the happy amusement of the official Christians, the boys and girls of the Edmonton Indian Residential School would sing hymns of praise to Jesus.
After they had performed for the Christians, the children would return to the school, where half of them would die.

Those who did survive are still performing for us, because we still desperately need to smile on Indians and think good of ourselves. That’s really why we created the misnamed “Truth and Reconciliation Commission”: to reassure ourselves that we aren’t, in fact, murderers.
The Indians are singing a new tune to us these days, perhaps not a church hymn anymore, but one just as crafted and controlled by us. Those chosen survivors whose statements have been reviewed and officially approved by the state and church-funded TRC are presenting to us what we need to hear: a sanitized version of the unspeakable that will not disturb either our sleep or our legal liability.

The survivors will say many things, but none of it will ever be acted upon, or, heaven forbid, used as a way to bring to justice the churches responsible for killing more than 50,000 children. That’s not allowed. The head TRC official, another sanitized Indian named Murray Sinclair, has even called the whole thing “a big venting session and nothing more”.

Like in the days they sang in the church choir, the survivors will be doing all the performing. We will do the listening. That’s how the game has always worked. That’s how we learned how to conquer and enslave them: watch, and learn, and manipulate.

One of the few indigenous people left standing, a traditional Anishinabe man named Peter Yellow Quill, had the temerity to ask the TRC Commissioners in Winnipeg last June why none of the church officials would be testifying at the hearing."Shouldn’t the people who caused this holocaust be made to explain and be held accountable?” Peter asked. He was told to sit down.

Peter still doesn’t get it, but I don’t blame him. He doesn’t understand who and what he’s dealing with yet. Neither do all the desperate brown men and women who will walk on razors and publicly undo themselves once more by recalling their torture in order to provide satisfaction to we who caused their suffering: the Mu Multh Nees.

That’s a west coast word from a nation long gone, and it means, “Those who are nothing”. It’s what the Nuu-chah-nulth people named the first Europeans they encountered.

I’ve pondered that word mu multh nee ever since it was first told to me in 1993 by a hereditary Nuu-chah-nulth chief in Port Alberni, where I began to learn of the mass graves of all the children behind the United Church residential school there.

Stirring his tea, the old man explained,
“Sometimes it means ‘the ghost people’, ‘cause that’s what you seemed like to my ancestors, spirits who were lost. But it really means, people who are Nothing.”
“Nothing?” I repeated, confused.
“Yeah” he said. “You appear to be real but you aren’t.”

Appearance, after all, is everything to us Nothings. If we create an appearance of an investigation and call it a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, then it is faithfully believed to be so: even when it has no power to subpoena, or prosecute, or allow names of criminals to be named.

If we speak of healing, we genuinely believe that we know what that is; and that we are actually capable of it. But the Appearance is shattered in an instant by simple questions like “Where are the bodies?”, and “Who is responsible?”, which is why the TRC must be as rigidly controlled as a Sunday church service.

Most of the many aboriginal survivors I know have avoided the TRC like the plague, knowing that Nothing will come of it. And sure enough, tomorrow in Victoria, as at every TRC event, the carefully screened and selected witnesses will tell their tales of woe and desperately believe, as all slaves must, that Caesar will be moved, and will change, as if he were human. But that which is Nothing cannot change.

And yet, the performance must go on, and this week the Canadian “media”, which has for so many years utterly ignored the evidence of murder and torture and mass graves at the Indian residential schools, will suddenly and dutifully describe how something called truth and healing has finally arrived. All of the right kind of Indians will be quoted. But the survivors will continue to die in droves. And the graves will remain closed.

My closest friends worry about me these days, even more than normal. One of them called me up yesterday and said,
“It must be hard for you to be so ignored when you’ve been so vindicated. After all you’ve sacrificed, I don’t know how you can stand it, this huge cover up of the truth.”
“It’s okay” I replied. “None of it’s real”.

None of it is real. It's a staged and orchestrated manipulation designed to make us, the ghost people, feel better about how we've gotten what we have. To feel ok about all the millions of people on whose backs we've climbed to have our empty, meaningless lives of plenty. To make us think that it was all an accident, the act of a few "bad apples," instead of a systematic decision on the part of the powerful to stand on the less powerful in order to stand "tall."

We are 'Nothing' the old native man told Kevin Annett. We are form without substance--ghostly apparitions of humans, but without the animating spirit of real beings, made in the image of, and from the same stuff as, God, whoever He is.

How can we claim a 'spirit' if we can say blithely that the abuse, torture, and death of tens of thousands of children is just water under the bridge? How can we claim any humanity when we expect these victims and their families to just buck up and go on, while NO ONE has ever been charged with a crime for what was done to their children? How can we sanction saying that these crimes are not worth pursuing, as if killing 50,000 children is like swatting a fly--no need for redress, no requirement for justice, no questions asked?

And we all know, somewhere inside, that the horrors visited upon young native children in Canada is the same as that visited upon our own indigenous people and upon the Africans who were kidnapped and brought here to America as slaves. We all know that the same type of degradation has been visited upon people all over the world--Ireland, Australia, Latin America, Palestine, the Middle East, Asia. You either get on board the Western Civ train, or you get hit by that train.

We all ask "how does this keep happening?" But we know how it happens. It happens when some power structure tells people that the "_______s aren't like you and me, they're savages (or heathens, or deviants, or defectives, or whatever term best played on the prejudices and fears of the masses)." It usually happens in the name of God. I'm not blaming Him though, because I don't think He had thing one to do with it. It's just that attaching His name to an atrocity has been and still is a very effective marketing ploy if you want a bunch of unthinkingly devoted sheep to get on the bandwagon for some old fashioned terror, violence, and concentration of power through conquest and stifling of dissent. We are ghosts because we choose not to see what is real. And because we refuse to see it, it keeps happening, over and over and over again.

But we don't have to stay "ghost people." We can tune our dials to find our spirit again. We could start by not ignoring and avoiding the horrors our "progress," our lifestyle, and our arrogance have caused. We can acknowledge the crimes committed in our names, both centuries ago and during my lifetime. We can recognize that this isn't an isolated incident, the acts of a few bad apples, or a Canadian phenomenon. We can tune in enough to realize that a pro forma 'apology,' the appointment of a toothless "commission," and some welfare programs aren't enough to make up for imprisoning, torturing, and murdering people. Particularly when we're continuing to do it right now. We can begin to see, and feel, what is real. And it's going to hurt--but that's good, because the pain is what shows us that we're not sociopaths, that we're still human after all.

We could start by reading Rev. Annett's work--the work he lost his job, his family and his normal life for, the work that has given voiceless and nameless victims a voice and a name, at least in some measure, the work that isn't finished until regular people see what was done to the Canadian indigenous, and to countless others, in order that we might dominate and exploit the world unfettered by reason or conscience. And then we could start demanding that it stop and that the people who did it, and who are still doing it, face justice. If we did, we might just start becoming more than Nothing.


  1. Watch out for this guy. Kevin Annett is a con-artist. Read this story, and make sure you read the comments...

  2. I've corresponded a few times with Rev. Annett. He's quite passionate, and may have engaged in some of the PR 'failures' you allege in your posts. He may even have mis-communicated some things--haven't looked back carefully at your examples. He certainly doesn't strike me as a psychopath. And that there are those who don't like him or call him crazy is pretty much par for the course if what he alleges is even partially true. None of us who are hiding something like to be called out on it, do we?

    And, regardless of one's opinion of Kevin Annett, it is difficult to ignore the evidence that half of the kids who went into those schools didn't come home. It's also difficult to imagine that ALL of the survivors are either liars or nuts--even the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is admitting much of what is alleged by them, and by Annett, although they're not planning on doing a damn thing about it. And, to dismiss these survivors is to ignore many, many more--in countries all around the world--who make similar allegations.