The Truth Is a Great Bridge Builder

Image: Shutterstock by Nelepi

He was only 10 years old when he and his parents were herded into a neighborhood called a ghetto, where his kind would live. It would be illegal for him and his family to live anywhere else. Very soon it would be illegal for them to even live. What were they doing that was being criminalized by the country they were in? They were Jews in Nazi Occupied Poland.

Morris Faintuch was in the radio studio with me on this 70th Anniversary of the liberation of the world’s worst ever murder factory, Auschwitz. Long before, when it was starting to become illegal for him to be a Jew in his native Poland, he began to commit petty crimes like stealing food, so his family could survive. He was only 10. What do I say to a man like this except ‘I am glad you have made it back from hell to Canada, where all of us can feel far away from the ugly, pernicious, toxic “ism” that racism is’.

Racism is so toxic that you can actually motivate people to want to mass murder children. Hundreds of thousand of people murdered at Auschwitz were children younger than 10. As I tell my guest this, I am so damn keenly aware of something I told another guest only days earlier about how my heart breaks when I meet Aboriginal brothers and sisters in this country and they tell me that they don’t feel free everywhere in this country - free from fear, free from hate, free from discrimination.

Many people on the other side of the racial divide in my beloved Canada say that this is not their experience. And so the issue dies. How utterly lame can a discussion be? In Nazi Occupied Poland if you were not Jewish, you likely did not face discrimination, injustice, and forced expulsion. Does that mean it wasn’t going on? So when I hear white faces, some of them belonging to politicians who say ‘Racism isn’t my experience’, I sit back and wonder how utterly stupid this conversation is politically, culturally, and socially.

An article was recently published in Macleans calling Winnipeg the Capital of Racism, and unfortunately there were links made between some serious crimes and the fact that we have racism in our midst. And in reaction, many people have said things like, 'obvious this was just a careless, reckless smear job because racism did not brutally attack and then try to drown Rinelle Harper. Some young Aboriginals were charged with that crime. And some people who happened to be white participated in rescuing Rinelle. So how is that racism? And there is no evidence that whoever murdered Tina Fontaine was white. No evidence that the crime was a hate crime or race based.' Yes, the Macleans article was clumsy and reckless and may have in some ways just given another blanket excuse for crimes like rape and homicide. But want we need are fewer excuses and more responsibility, I thought to myself.

So the Mayor of Winnipeg comes along, our first elected Metis mayor Brian Bowman, and at City Hall he takes a page out of Martin Luther King Jr. and says he wants his children to live in a better society. He wants them and all other children in Winnipeg to be proud of their heritage, harkening back to the great pastor from Atlanta who led the march on Washington and said he had a dream that some day his children would be judged, not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. Morris Faintuch had pointed to a piece of skin on his arm permanently scarred by the number that had been branded into his arm by the Nazis at Auschwitz.  Then he told me his number and while I looked at it with tears in my eyes, I knew full well that my father’s parents had numbers just like that before their numbers came up at the murder factory liberated 70 years ago this week.

The Mayor was in tears when he said, “My family is Metis”. Many non-aboriginals say the fact that we elected a Metis mayor drowns the racism argument. Does it? Is that how Brian Bowman ran for mayor? Elect me and make me the first Metis mayor of Winnipeg. Did he? Last week when he said “My family is Metis,” it was the first time that most people in Winnipeg were even aware that this guy was Metis. Why didn’t he run as a Metis? Why wasn’t he more public with that I asked. That wasn’t the reason for him wanting to run he said. That wasn’t the issue, he said. But there might be another reason, I will submit. Maybe he thought it would be held against him. Because maybe in much of the Winnipeg he has experienced, he has heard Aboriginals and Metis mocked so often, put down so often, that he didn’t think the majority would feel comfortable voting for a Metis mayor. As Morris Faintuch and others will tell you, when you are a member of a minority group your job when serving and servicing the majority, the so-called mainstream, is to make sure they are never uncomfortable. And nothing makes them more uncomfortable than suggesting even politely that some improvement is needed in the content of their character. 

Brian Bowman like any member of a minority group has been in many conversations where he would hear his people sullied, slurred and slagged, and he would just bite his lip, suppress the lump in his throat and say nothing. Nothing, while painful, is the lesser evil. Constantly calling people on their B.S. makes them uncomfortable and they no longer want to do business with you, so you let stuff slide. That is the burden of every minority group. I had one powerful guest in the studio a few days ago, who, just like Brian Bowman, passes for white but happens to be Metis. Ry Moran is his name and he is the head of the Research Centre for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. And he too has been in the middle of many situations and conversations where his people are sullied and slurred and slagged and he has, as he says, just eaten it. Creating a fuss or confrontation wasn’t going to be helpful, he said. But I will say that racism has been his experience and racism has been at the focus of his scholarship.

The Research Centre that he heads up is all about getting at the truth. You cannot have reconciliation until you have assessed the facts, the truth. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission he works for is mostly about one of the most racist relics we have in the history of Canada - the Residential School System that existed in this country for 150 years.  And what is the truth that needs to be gathered and reconciled?  The truth that the “civilized” people, as they saw themselves, who founded this country decided that, while it would not be right to kill all the backward, uncivilized people they found here, to do an Auschwitz, what did seem to be a civilized balanced approach would be to take them away from their parents and have them in boarding schools, residential schools, exposed only to the Christian Church teachings and the cultural leanings and language of the civilizers. The idea was to peel the bark off the Indian, to de-Indian them. Can you think of anything more savage than abducting thousands of children and making them ashamed of their parents, of their heritage, of their language, and indoctrinating them in such a way as to forget who they are so that they can fit in with the civilizers? This isn’t a bad sci-fi movie I am telling you about. It’s the truth. A Canadian historic truth. It is a stain on our country’s character. And the way to remove the stain is not to say “racism is not my experience” but to admit that racism has been the experience of too many of our fellow Canadians. The residential school system was born of racism and the only way to get it out of the fabric of our country is to tell the truth, to apologize, and to reconcile. That would be regarded by people everywhere as a civilized approach.

So what I am asking you to do today and every day in the name of Canada and everything we regard as responsible and decent, is to tell each other the truth, no matter how uncomfortable it may be to hear it. And one of the uncomfortable truths that we have to honour is that racism is not some toxic agent created in a white man’s lab to inflict pain on all non-whites. That’s how this stuff is often misrepresented. Racism has no colour or racial or ethnic barriers. It’s everywhere and it affects all of us. And so let’s tell the truth.  The truth is a great bridge builder and a great healer. And together arm in arm, aboriginal and non-aboriginal, let’s walk into the future proud of who we are, and proud not only of where we came from, but where we are going. 

I’m Charles Adler