Peter Shawn Taylor: We are following in the footsteps of Australia by misrepresenting past wrongs in order to exaggerate feelings of remorse, says historian
What do Australia and Canada have in common? Both are modern multicultural societies borne of British roots. Both are heavily reliant on resources and trade. Both have a passion for globally obscure professional sports. Both are largely empty in the middle. It’s a long list.
Here’s another: both display the same worrisome tendency to misrepresent past wrongs done to Indigenous people in order to exaggerate present-day feelings of guilt and shame. In this case, however, Australia has a significant head start on its northern cousin.
In 2001, Australia marked its 100th anniversary in a fashion familiar to Canadians who just lived through the deflated balloon of Canada 150. In place of celebrations of a great country’s many accomplishments, there were instead countless lamentations of a discreditable colonial past and its effect on the native population. Australian Governor-General Sir William Deane, for example, expressed his regret for “the oppression and injustice to which indigenous Australians were subjected in our land.” In particular, he drew attention to the Mistake Creek Massacre of the 1930s in which eight Aborigines were killed by a white telegraph station employee and his two native hands in a dispute over a stolen cow. “I’d like to say to the Kija people how profoundly sorry I personally am that such events defaced our land,” he said at a ceremony in Mistake Creek in June 2001.
We need to be objective and dispassionate about our past … Anything else is just self-indulgent moralizing and fanciful garbage
Despite Deane’s public contrition, however, there never was a Mistake Creek Massacre. Or at least not in a way that would require the Queen’s representative to publicly apologize for it. Eight Aborigines did die violent deaths at Mistake Creek — but in 1915, not the 1930s. And there’s no conclusive evidence any whites were involved. According to police records, the deaths were the result of an argument between rival Indigenous families. Time, politics and the vagaries of oral history have conspired to turn an ugly domestic incident into yet another reason why white Australians should feel ashamed of their past.
According to outspoken Australian historian Keith Windschuttle, both Canada and Australia are guilty of concocting such “atrocity stories” in efforts to deliberately darken their country’s pasts. “Australians have a totally incorrect view of their own country because of a campaign meant to convince everyone that our treatment of Aboriginals has amounted to genocide,” Windschuttle says in an interview from Sydney. His controversial 2002 book, The Fabrication of Aboriginal History, opens with a devastating take-down of Deane’s phoney massacre and apology; the remainder reveals many other examples of major historical errors, myths, guesses and outright deceptions from well-known Australian historians and politicians, all of which have conspired to create a deliberate — and often entirely incorrect — shame-filled version of their country’s past.
Deliberately twisting the past to make our history seem worse that it really was poses a serious threat to the twin causes of truth and reconciliation
In demanding that claims of massacres or other high crimes meet exacting standards of factual evidence, Windschuttle has been accused by his critics of “lacking compassion” for the obvious disadvantages suffered by Australia’s Indigenous population. It’s an insult he wears proudly. “I think compassion in an historian is a weakness, not a strength,” he says sharply. “Surely we need to be objective and dispassionate about our past — recognizing in a rational way both our errors as well as our accomplishments. Anything else is just self-indulgent moralizing and fanciful garbage.” Canada could use a Windschuttle about now.
Windschuttle’s 2002 bombshell set off what’s now known as the “History Wars” in Australia; a book-length rebuttal of his work appeared in 2003, followed by a rejoinder from his supporters a year later. He has been intensely scrutinized, criticized and decried, but his scholarship has left a permanent mark on historical debate in Australia. Facts still matter. No one disputes both Australia and Canada have made their share of mistakes in the treatment of native populations. But deliberately twisting the past to make our history seem worse that it really was — particularly in the classroom — poses a serious threat to the twin causes of truth and reconciliation. Consider the examples of Rabbit-Proof Fence and The Secret Path, two popular versions of very similar stories; both of which play significant roles in Australian and Canadian schools.
“This is a true story,” the movie Rabbit-Proof Fence begins. Three Aboriginal sisters are taken from their family in the rural desert community of Jigalong in the 1930s and sent to a government-run native welfare settlement nearly 1,600 kilometres away. Molly Craig, age 14, promptly escapes and leads her two sisters, ages 11 and 8, back home on an arduous journey through the arid and unforgiving Australian Outback. To reach their mother, the girls follow a continent-spanning fence, built to keep rabbits from invading the western part of the country, on an arduous seven-week journey.
The 2002 movie confronts what Australians call the Stolen Generations: the removal of native children from their families during the 19th and 20th centuries to educate and assimilate them into white society, a policy similar to Canada’s residential school system. Following a 2008 apology by the Australian prime minister, Stolen Generations is now a mandatory component of the Australian high school curriculum, and Rabbit-Proof Fence plays a substantial role. Students are shown the movie so often they’re well-known to groan loudly whenever it makes another appearance.
Except for the happy ending, Rabbit-Proof Fence shares much in common with The Secret Path, a picture book and album co-written by Gord Downie, the late frontman of The Tragically Hip. Downie’s book tells the story of 12-year old Chanie Wenjack, an Ojibway boy from Ogoki Post in remote northern Ontario, who was sent to live at Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School in Kenora, about 600 kilometres away. Like Molly, Chanie decided to run away with two other boys in October 1966. After staying at the cabin of the boys’ uncle for several nights, he eventually set out alone for home. Wearing just a thin windbreaker, he thought he could follow a set of train tracks home; an engineer found his frozen body a few days later.
The Secret Path is quickly gaining the same prominence in Canadian schools as Rabbit-Proof Fence has Down Under. It is reportedly being used as a teaching aid in 40,000 classrooms nationwide. It’s part of the official curriculum in Alberta and has a notable presence in Ontario and several other provinces as well. The Manitoba Teachers’ Society even offers a series of lesson plans for teachers from Grades 1 to 12 explaining how to use it everywhere from in art class to English to history. Despite their large pedagogical footprints, however, neither can be considered honest recitations of their stories. Both Rabbit-Proof Fence and The Secret Path are burdened with fabrications and exaggerations meant to enhance the shame felt by white viewers or readers. The truth, it seems, is never bad enough.
The truth, it seems, is never bad enough
“The movie Rabbit-Proof Fence is just complete bullshit,” snaps Windschuttle, drawing a sharp distinction between the film and its source material, a book written by Doris Pilkington, daughter of Molly. The most obvious reversal of truth is in why the girls were taken from their parents in the first place. The villain of the movie is Australian bureaucrat A.O. Neville, played by Kenneth Branagh, who is seen ordering the three sisters’ removal and later explains his scheme to “breed out the colour” of Aborigines through planned intermarriage with whites. “In the third generation, or third cross, no trace of native origin is apparent,” he says chillingly.
Despite the movie’s allegation the girls were abducted as part of a government plan for genetic conformity, however, Windschuttle points out they were actually taken for reasons of child welfare and parental neglect. Contemporary reports observed that 14-year old Mollie and her 11-year old sister were “running wild” with local white fence repairers. In today’s parlance, they were being sexually exploited. “This was something that was a fairly regular occurrence in the area,” Windschuttle explains, noting that young white girls were also routinely taken from their homes for the same grim reason. While this detail doesn’t absolve White society from its responsibility for the girls’ condition, or the morality of moving them 1,600 kilometres from home, it certainly adds ambiguity to their tale.
Windschuttle further points out the girls arrived in Jigalong at the end of their epic journey not after crawling parched through the desert while on the lam from white police and an Aboriginal tracker, as the movie portrays, but on the back of a camel provided by a concerned white stockman.
These changes — recasting the girls’ removal as part of a creepy plan for racial purity and excising white Good Samaritans — are no small things. They turn a complex wilderness survival story into a simple tale of good and evil, with the villains played by an entire country of white settlers.
A similar transformation has taken place with Chanie Wenjack’s undeniably tragic story. The known facts of his life and death can be found in a coroner’s investigation, a famous 1967 Maclean’s article and the 2015 final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. All three sources claim he ran because he was homesick. Recently, however, salacious new details have been added to his short life.
The Secret Path alleges Chanie ran away from Cecilia Jeffrey school because he was sexually abused, apparently by Roman Catholic priests. The book’s illustrations show Chanie and other native students sitting at desks in classrooms overseen by priests and nuns wearing standard Catholic collars and habits. One of these priests approaches Chanie’s bed at night. Chanie’s eyes widen with fear. The next picture is an entirely unsubtle close-up of the priest’s crotch.
But Cecilia Jeffrey school was in fact run by Presbyterians, not Catholics. The headmaster was a Cree/Saulteaux from the Ochopowace Band in Saskatchewan. And Chanie didn’t actually go to school there. Most native students who boarded at Cecilia Jeffrey attended the regular Kenora public school system with the rest of the local population.
While sexual abuse certainly did occur at Canadian residential schools, there is no substantiated proof Chanie was a victim. Tanya Talaga’s 2017 book Seven Fallen Feathers reports a second-hand claim of rampant sexual abuse at Cecilia Jeffrey, but says this was carried out by older native boys, not the adult staff. Whether this new information is reliable or not, the implication is important. Despite its central role in teaching Canadian students about residential schools, the main plot point of Secret Path — that Chanie ran away to escape sexual abuse at the hands of Catholic priests — is a piece of fiction.
The farther the fall from grace, the greater the eventual salvation
While authors can reasonably claim a defence of artistic licence, Rabbit-Proof Fence and The Secret Path are being presented to school kids as documentary evidence. An entire generation of Canadian children will thus grow up believing Chanie was sexually abused by Catholic priests, just as Australian kids now believe their government mass-abducted Aborigine children to genetically cleanse the country. No one could claim either country’s record of colonial native relations has been blameless or praiseworthy. But why manipulate the past in such a calculated manner?
Windschuttle has a theory. The urge to blacken one’s own history is as old as the Bible, he says: “It is a sin and redemption narrative, plain and simple.” The farther the fall from grace, the greater the eventual salvation. By making past sins more horrible through the invention of new atrocity stories, the ultimate process of catharsis becomes more elevating and redemptive. “A literary trope has thus been co-opted for Aboriginal history,” he says. Such a process runs parallel to the political need for constant and abject apologies from Ottawa.
This is why the objectively sad tale of Chanie Wenjack has been made worse through the imaginative addition of Roman Catholic pedophiles, in the same way the remarkable experience of Molly and her sisters has been made more horrible by the creation of a monstrous genetic conspiracy. And while Australia had a head start in this imaginative shame-fest, we’re rapidly gaining ground. Much of what is said and done in the name of native reconciliation in Canada today amounts to a troubling misrepresentation of historical facts — from last year’s scrubbing of Sir Hector-Louis Langevin’s name from a prominent building in Ottawa because he was “an architect” of Canada’s residential school system (he was the minister of Public Works responsible for constructing the necessary buildings, he did not create the policy) to the recent removal of Edward Cornwallis’ statue in Halifax because the first governor of Nova Scotia once offered a cash bounty for Mi’kmaq scalps (in response to Mi’kmaq warriors scalping English settlers, paid for by the government of New France).
History is no longer the collection of facts bequeathed to us by those who went before. Today it is whatever story satisfies current sensitivities, regardless of what actually happened.
Peter Shawn Taylor is editor-at-large of Maclean’s. He lives in Waterloo.