Gurpreet Singh: Canada and the churches must take responsibility for growing unrest in Indigenous communities

Tears and apologies for historical wrongs were never enough

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      When I first visited Germany back in 2018, I half-expected to be greeted by memorials to Adolf Hitler. 

      Call it my ignorance or stupidity, I didn’t see even one, leaving aside the question of stumbling upon his grave.  

      That’s what I learned from the country that was once ruled by Nazis and had perpetrated the Jewish Holocaust. The mainstream has erased monuments to those who committed genocide—and rightfully so.  

      However here in Canada, in spite of tall claims of diversity and tolerance, we continue to celebrate bigots who were responsible for the killings of Indigenous peoples of this land. And that is one reason, why so many Indigenous activists have taken upon themselves to spray paint or topple their busts.  

      In retaliation, a totem pole was recently burned on Vancouver Island.  

      Had Canada learned from Germany and understood the anger that these political figures bring to the hearts of the First Nations, the issue could have been settled much earlier.  

      Tears and apologies for historical wrongs were never enough. Concrete action was needed, and that remained missing.  

      Rare politicians, such as City of New Westminster councillor Chuck Puchmayr, did make a beginning by getting a statue of controversial judge Justice Mathew Begbie removed in 2019. Begbie was responsible for the wrongful execution of six Indigenous chiefs in 1864.  

      This should have forced Canadian authorities to do some reflection and remove statues of other problematic "icons". But apparently, they continued to wait until unmarked graves of Indigenous children who were killed by the racist residential school system were located recently.  

      To add insult to injury, Pope Francis has refused to make an apology for injustices committed in residential schools run by the Catholic Church.  

      The burning down of churches in different First Nations in B.C. is a result of pent-up anger in Indigenous communities. Both the Canadian establishment and the churches need to take responsibility for the situation that we are in.  

      That said, attacks on churches cannot be justified. These are going to give legitimacy to anti-Christian violence in countries where Christians are in minority and being persecuted with impunity.

      India, where right-wing Hindu nationalists are in power, is one example. They have already been accusing Christian missionaries of converting Hindus and these nationalists been involved in violence against them. In 1999, they burned to death an Australian Christian missionary and his two sons.  

      It is not surprising to see that a section of the Indian media—owing allegiance to the Hindu right—is having fun with what has happened in B.C. this summer.

      It has become important to measure words before anyone tries to defend burning down of churches in an effort to speak for First Nations, as it might have unforeseen consequences. When residential school survivors themselves are denouncing such actions, why should anyone try to rationalize them? This will ignite more trouble for Christians in a place like India, where Hindu supremacists are pressing for draconian anticonversion laws.  

      This is not to suggest that Germany is perfect or that fixing historical wrongs alone is the solution. Of course, these steps matter, but we need to go beyond that and examine if we are giving respect to our First Nations.

      The ongoing systemic racism against them needs to be challenged and stopped. Above all, the leadership of Indigenous peoples that was stripped through the Doctrine of Discovery and papal bulls, besides the residential school system, needs to be restored. Under the current circumstances when we are dealing with a climate emergency, we need to listen to Indigenous peoples who are closely connected with nature and the Earth and have the key to fix the problem. 

      Gurpreet Singh is cofounder of Radical Desi magazine and Indians Abroad for Pluralist India. He's the author of Why Mewa Singh Killed William Hopkinson: Revisiting the Murder of a Canadian Immigration Inspector and Fighting Hatred With Love: Voices of the Air India Victims' Families. Both were published by Chetna Parkashan. The Georgia Straight publishes opinions like this from the community to encourage constructive debate on important issues.