It’s not a word the Dutch have much trouble with. “Yes, of course we had colonies and got rich from them.” Most would likely be able to say this without a shudder. Many live in fine houses, some more than a century old, built with salaries, pensions or dividends derived from the colonies. The largest and most lucrative was what is now Indonesia.
The colonial history Dutch schoolchildren learn centres on the Golden Age when Amsterdam was the financial capital of the world and on the exploits of the VOC, the United Dutch East Indies Company, which for almost two centuries was the country’s military-commercial complex. Historians have uncovered some dark corners of the story but that hasn’t much altered the hue of what the kids take away.
Towards the end, some of the darkness came home. In the late 1940’s the Dutch fought rearguard actions against Indonesian independence, the Politionele Acties. They’ve been called the Netherlands’ Vietnam. Veterans returned disgusted by what they saw and the lies they had been told. Opposition built at home and abroad. The Dutch soon pulled out.
Some 12,500 Moluccans went with them, soldiers who had fought for the Dutch, and their families. The government promised to negotiate for a homeland in the Moluccan Islands, in the meantime housing them in former Nazi concentration camps. The promises lapsed. In the 1970s, frustrated, 2nd generation Moluccan youths tried to grab back attention, storming a school, holding the children and teachers hostage and seizing two trains. It ended badly.
The Dutch historian James Kennedy told me the country’s colonial experience has been “heritaged”. There is almost no one to keep the moral and political edge sharp. Grandpa and Grandma, who might have witnessed or played a part in the darkness, have passed on. The Moluccans have mostly given up their dream and adapted to a country that, at its heart, is not multicultural. The calls to atonement died out decades ago. For a growing number of Dutch, the far “abroad” has become a threat, in the vague shape of immigrants, yet, at bottom most recognize that they have prospered from globalization – then and now.
We Canadians messed up. We were supposed to learn from the Old World but we chose our colonies underfoot, where we settled, rather than 10,000 km away. The past, which in the Netherlands has been swept under a handsome oriental rug – nothing that’s likely to trip one up now – is rather more confronting on The Island, and across the country.
The truth is supposed to set you free but damn it’s hard. We’re known and think of ourselves as the nice guys, peacekeepers, liberators: one of the main streets in this town is named after the Canadian general who took the Germans’ surrender here in May 1945. Now ministers of the Crown speak of colonial policy, and how it continues. The chief justice of the Supreme Court, among others, talks about cultural genocide. Hey, that’s us.
In 1880, Sir John A. Macdonald assured Parliament that relief food would be withheld “until the Indians are on the brink of starvation, to reduce the expense” in pursuit of clearing the Plains for the railroad and settlement. The residential schools, he later explained to MPs, were intended “to take the Indian out of the child”. We can remove his statue from the Hill but those were not his acts alone. They were debated and duly approved. The Schools expanded and continued until 1996, chronically underfunded, as Indigenous education and so much else remain to this day.
We can’t say we didn’t know: it’s all laid out in the Government’s annual Estimates. Which of course we all read, but if we don’t there have long been people like Charlie Angus to point it out.
So if we want to understand how structural discrimination has persisted in Canada, we need a mirror. An Environics survey in 2016 provides a sliver. Almost as many non-Indigenous Canadians (41%) believe that “the residential schools policy was not an intentional effort to destroy Aboriginal culture and connection to the land” as believe it was (47%) with whom Sir John A., the architect, would seem to agree. More Canadians (61%) disagree that “mainstream Canadian society today benefits from ongoing discrimination against Aboriginal Peoples” than believe that it does (33%) although the large underspend on Indigenous services means there’s more available for the mainstream.
Many kick back against the discrimination narrative: as many non-Indigenous Canadians implicate Indigenous people themselves as “the biggest obstacle to [their] achieving economic and social equality” as implicate the policies of Canadian governments (both 26%). The highest income earners (>$100,000) are the most likely to see Indigenous people as the biggest obstacle (32%), as are people in Saskatchewan (41%), the province with the greatest proportion of Indigenous people.
There are several positives in the Environics survey. Young adults have the most favourable attitudes towards Indigenous people and are the most optimistic that there will be meaningful reconciliation in their lifetime. But it also shows that personal contact between non-Indigenous and Indigenous people is no more common in 2016 than in 2008 at the time of the last survey.
Without such contact, the threads linking non-Indigenous Canadians to the history and ongoing experience of Indigenous people are thin. There is little to relate to. The testimony heard at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission events and reproduced in its reports is mostly that of the residential school survivors. It was gut-wrenching for those who offered it and for many who heard it. But there were few voices heard or reported of the non-Indigenous who made the system work.
That we don’t hear from the perpetrators of violence and cruelty, as was the case in the South African TRC, is perhaps understandable: the Canadian Commission had no power to grant amnesty. But in a system through which 150,000 children passed, there must have been tens of thousands of farmers, drivers, carpenters, secretaries, teachers, cooks and more who would have witnessed those acts and could have described what made them possible and normal.
The TRC has concluded but there are discussions around dinner tables, in school and college classes, at local events – parts of many paths towards reconciliation – where the truth of those people needs to be heard. They are fewer each year but the other gears of the system, which still turn, need the same illumination.
An Indonesian walks into a bar in Amsterdam… I can’t think of a next line. There’s no tension. Their relationship has flatlined.
On the other hand:
Why do Native people hate snow? Because it’s white and all over our land.
What proportion of non-Indigenous Canadians laugh? Laugh easily?
Maybe that’s something we should be tracking over time.