Are we responsible for what happened before we were born?

The need for reconciliation between Indigenous peoples and the colonial state has received more attention in Canada this year due to the discovery of the remains of hundreds of Indigenous children who died at residential schools and whose deaths were not recorded and graves left unmarked. Over a decade past the official apology and years after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 calls to action, the discovery of the remains does not come as a surprise. Indigenous communities and non-Indigenous Canadians know that residential schools were terrible places for children, however, the discoveries provide solid evidence of the extent and the scale of the mistreatment and bring it into the spotlight.

Recently, I hear people saying, “I’m not responsible for residential schools,” or, “I’m not responsible for colonization, that happened before I was born.” This attitude is widespread and held by many kind, generous, caring people who would say they believe in equality and justice. However, shirking responsibility for colonialism is too close to outright saying, “why can’t they just get over it?” Colonialism is not a thing of the past, it is happening right now, is built into the core functions of the state, and is the reason Canada is among the wealthiest nations in the world. I am here, living on this land, because my ancestors came here from Scottland as part of the settler colonial project in the 1890s. Despite what our individualist culture tries to tell us, we are our ancestors. We are the living legacy of the hopes and dreams, flaws and failures of our parents, grandparents, great grandparents and so on. Their actions and inactions are inherited by us and carried forward by our children. It is up to us to honour their lives and their gift to us by using our own knowledge, skills, and experiences to make the best decisions we can, in response to life as we know it now. I, and other non-Indigenous individuals, need to step up and take responsibility for our part in the ongoing impacts of colonialism. The stakes are high. We need to own up to our role as current perpetrators of colonial violence and as benefactors of theft, exploitation and abuse of Indigenous peoples and lands. Ultimately this culture of theft and exploitation of people and land will lead to the ruin of planet Earth, for which all of us earthlings will pay dearly.

I can personally take responsibility for my part in this ongoing colonialism by learning to identify it and then helping others to also become aware of how it shows up in our daily lives. Examples that I am responsible for include perpetuating myths and stereotypes about Indigenous peoples by not bothering to learn the truth or not bothering to correct others when I hear racist jokes or stereotypes in conversation. I can unlearn the anti-Indigenous biases I was raised on and educate myself by reading the work of Indigenous authors, following Indigenous influencers, and speaking up around family, friends and co-workers to challenge the biases of others.

I can also try to be more aware of my participation in and benefits from the ongoing theft and exploitation of Indigenous peoples and lands, in North America and around the world. Much of this is baked into our way of life in so called developed, post-industrial countries and celebrated as “progress” and “economic growth.” Some examples include excess consumption of natural resources and individualist practices of each person owning their own personal items rather than sharing among family or community. I can drive less to use less gas, use public transit more, reduce my consumption of products made with trees and oil, paper and plastics, and encourage my friends, family and coworkers to do the same. Middle class privileged people like me can unlearn our socially conditioned exploitative habits and explore ways to find contentment and fulfillment while meeting our basic needs.

Responsibility = response + ability. My ability to respond is the measure of my relationship to others, essentially to all life on earth. To respond with love, with care and compassion, could be more than a way of life, but a practice to ensure our survival. To be responsible is to consider more than my own needs and to be aware of how my actions and inactions impact others. Responding to the needs of Indigenous peoples with the kind of care that I would attend to the needs of my own family members. If my partner or my kid was injured or in crisis I would prioritize caring for them, treating their injuries while also addressing the cause of the injury and investing in longer term supports or stable infrastructure to help foster and sustain well-being for my loved one in need.

Accountability is the younger sibling of responsibility, the one left to deal with the fall out if responsibility doesn’t finish its work or causes any trouble. Where responsibility is about the response, accountability is about the account. The debt owed for benefits or harms and the interest accrued on such debts. The accounting for losses and the balancing of accounts. Accounting for losses that are not financial requires an ability to listen and to hear the description of the losses. Emotional, physical, psychological and spiritual losses can be repaid but how can the repayment be determined when some things can never be regained.

The interrelated harms of rampant consumer capitalism and ongoing colonialism are complex and merit more thought than this short rant can cover. If I am to take responsibility for my part in the big problems we face, then I need to simplify and narrow my focus. As a teacher I can attend professional development led by Indigenous educators, I can discuss current events with my students to help them engage in the political discourse, I can build Indigenous ways of knowing into my practice and invite Indigenous knowledge keepers into my classrooms. I can research the historical context and political implications and attempt to connect the dots for others. We all need to start somewhere.



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Sylvanus Oliver

Sylvanus Oliver

queer white settler, writing as acknowledgement and accountability, curiosity and questioning