Robinson’s Abhorrence of the White Man’s Burden
By Alex Paterson
“Take up the White Man’s burden–
The savage wars of peace–
Fill full the mouth of Famine
And bid the sickness cease;
And when your goal is nearest
The end for others sought,
Watch sloth and heathen Folly
Bring all your hopes to nought.”
Back in the days of the British Empire, Rudyard Kipling wrote a poem aboutthe White Man’s Burden to help raise the uncivilized masses around the world from the depths of savagery and teach them to live like proper human beings. To live like the British.
To some this poem was just an expression of the moral duty of the rich to help the poor around the world. To others it was a justification for colonial occupation. Like all imperial projects British colonial rule was a mixed bag of racism and humanitarian liberalism. They combined to create very unique histories of whites ruling colonial populations and all the attendant abuses that comes with these situations.
Canada is a descendant of this history of British rule. When residential schools in Canada were being developed many liberal and socially-minded white Canadians wrote of how Indians needed to be saved and helped out of poverty. Residential schools taught kids about British culture and skills they’d need to be workers in the white man’s economy. It forced them into the white man’s language. The reserve system, the elimination of Indigenous languages and the forced internment of Canada’s Aboriginal people was done for many with the best of intentions. Many white Canadians couldn’t help but see Indigenous ways of living on the land as wretched and assumed the British way of life was better.
Residential schools were white Canada’s first attempt at service delivery to the Indigenous population. Mostly run by churches the historically main service provider before the development of the welfare state. They were an attempt at assimilation into the British way of living. This trend continues right up to this day in Winnipeg and Manitoba.
When residential schools were in southern Canada were finally being closed. White Canada had to find another way to relieve its feeling of guilt that Indigenous peoples had not fully adopted white ways of being. White Canada’s burden had not been lifted. Along came the next project – child protective services and the 60s scoop. Thousands of Indigenous children were being taken away and placed with non-indigenous – mostly white families. Child placement replaced the mass re-education of indigenous children in residential schools with private citizens taking on some of the burden shared with the public school system. How could white citizens not continue to further the assimilation process?
In reaction to this Indigenous peoples have fought to gain control and autonomy over service provision to their own communities to begin to repair the damage to their communities. Projects such as Thunderbird House and Ka Ni Kanichihk are all attempts to wrestle control back and begin to put a stop to the tendency of white people to make service provision a form of assimilation. However the white man’s burden still remains. The people who control the sources of funding are predominantly white and still steeped in the same ideas of what it means to be civilized. Indigenous organizations are forced to appeal to rich do-gooders to run their organizations if the non-Indigenous dominated government won’t give them money.
Most funding is for recreation and skills development for placement in the labour market. Very little funding is given for indigenous peoples to collectively rekindle their relationship to the land and actually reacquire independent land-bases. Culture and language are now tolerated in so much as they don’t interfere with the Indigenous peoples participation in the white man’s economy.
All of these things are the projects of do-gooder white people. This is what Eric Robinson and Nahanni Fontaine were referencing when they talked about the tendency of white people to harm Indigenous people, even though they have the best of intentions. This is what they mean by misguided. Its because we never stop to listen. Its because we think our way of life is better and we’ve done a very good job of convincing people we are right or killing them.
The problem is we white people are so defensive, we can’t seem to believe that the poor wretched of the earth would dare question our well thought out plans to dress them in a suit, teach them English and sell their culture at a discounted rate. This is civilization right? Or whatever it is we are trying to stuff down their throat this year.