The difference of guilt and responsibility

Non-Indigenous reflections on Orange Shirt Day

The comment read, “Yes, I agree that the Indigenous children were stripped of their heritage and dignity, but it is the very Catholic churches that still exist today that should be paying serious restitution, and not the Canadian government and us taxpayers.”

It was made in response to a Facebook post about Orange Shirt Day, the day in September that recognizes the legacy of residential schools. 

The commenter was frustrated because he felt blamed for choices and actions made by others who, in his mind, have nothing to do with him. Why should he pay for what Catholic nuns and priests did to Indigenous families?

I’ve heard these sentiments from non-Indigenous folks before. It’s a sense that we are being unfairly blamed and penalized for atrocious things that aren’t our fault.

I get the logic. As a white-passing person, I might even have had similar feelings myself at some point. But the more I learn, the more I realize an important distinction that changes this whole conversation: the difference between guilt and responsibility.

Is it the fault of the average non-Indigenous person that atrocities committed against Indigenous people in this country—including within residential schools—happened? Did we personally rip children out of their mothers’ arms? Did we build or run or support the schools? Probably not.

Guilt for ongoing atrocities is more debatable, but for the sake of this discussion, let’s focus on residential schools. It’s true that we as individuals are not, technically, guilty.

However, the people at fault, including various churches and the Canadian government, used residential schools as part of a deliberate strategy to get Indigenous people out of the way, both physically and symbolically. They had to be removed from the land. Their way of life had to be suppressed if not eradicated. Why? To make room.

Colonialist institutions were making room for non-indigenous people and their ways. Every aspect of Canadian society follows primarily non-Indigenous models. Non-Indigenous people, including the government and other power structures, control most of the land in this country. 

Non-indigenous people are in charge now. We do things our way, and we expect Indigenous folks to do so as well, for the most part. We are dominant and successful because Indigenous people were removed from the equation; suppressed, assimilated, severed from their heritage and families and land. 

This is where responsibility comes in. Whether or not any of us actually chose to commit atrocities against Indigenous people, those atrocities were committed on our behalf. Here and now, we have advantages because of it, and Indigenous people are disadvantaged.

Indigenous people are overrepresented in the homeless population and criminal justice system. One study found that nearly 50 per cent of Indigenous children live in poverty. That’s more than twice the national rate. That’s a direct result of what was deliberately done to keep Indigenous people down, so non-Indigenous people could be on top.

This is not to say that we as non-Indigenous people don’t work hard, don’t struggle, don’t experience hardship. Life is not being handed to most of us on a silver platter. But generally speaking, non-Indigenous people are better off; Indigenous people are worse off.

Imagine if your grandfather had one day taken a gun and kicked another family out of their house and set up housekeeping without even paying them. 

The dispossessed family in this scenario never fully recovered, financially or emotionally, from the blow. Their stress increased, their health declined, and the adversity the theft created was passed on to their kids and then their grandkids.

Meanwhile, you, in the same generation as those grandkids, are fine. Your parents grew up in the stolen house. They inherited it ‘legally’ from your grandfather. They did not have to struggle to put a roof over their heads. They could afford higher education. They had less stress and more ability to have healthy relationships. They passed these advantages along to you.

You are now likely in pretty good shape, while the grandchildren of the dispossessed family are not. The odds are in your favour, not theirs.

Did you steal their house yourself? No. Are you a bad person because of what your grandfather did? No.

But do you have a responsibility to the descendants of the dispossessed family? Yes.

I don’t have solutions for all the problems created for Indigenous people by those acting in my best interests. I haven’t got this all figured out. No one does.

But at the very least, we should be on board with things like Orange Shirt Day.

This is not about accepting blame or beating ourselves up. It’s about recognizing the truth of what happened, and that we have a role in addressing the consequences, no matter who is at fault.


Featured Image: Wearing an orange shirt on Sept. 30th is one way to recognize and acknowledge the legacy of residential schools in Canada. | Nadine Riopel

Nadine Riopel

Nadine is a professional facilitator and connector. She is also an enthusiastic member of the Spruce Avenue community, where she lives with her husband and young son.

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