Copping the Ultimate Plea

Canadians have learned a lot from our city-cousins to the south. For example, one of the biggies of American jurisprudence is known as copping a plea, a godsend among bored judges, disgruntled jurors and prosecutors late for a pro bono dinner date. Simply stated, worlds are won and lives transformed by the simple expedient of admitting to a misdemeanor in order to walk from a felony. Not that the Yanks invented it — the Borgias and other historical Vatican heads of state have been making zillions out of this dodge since a clerical comedy team held a roast for Joan of Arc. Joan, of course, refused to play ball, and was barbecued for her heresy.

For the benefit of foreign readers among our alien corn, Paul Martin is a former Prime Minister, that Canadian genus emeritus of which the members tend to lapse into obscurity raising tomatoes or perhaps cannabis, or being appointed to corporate boards, depending on their socio-political orientation.

After the Prime celebrity comes the Sub-Prime. Few, if any, have ever become post hoc celebrities, nor have they developed Prime Ministerial Libraries, as is the case with American ex-Presidents. Unlike the former, the latter, by the way, get to retain their title in perpetuity, even if they were impeached, lost their marbles, were shot at or died of old age. If [former President] Rutherford B. Hayes were still around as old as Methuselah, he’d still be called “Mr. President,” and be like they’d strike up “Hail To The Chief,” every time he walked into a church or an estaminet.

But getting back to today’s text, once Canadian PMs are back in the workaday world, they tend to be listened to with about as much respect as that afforded Rodney Dangerfield or heeded with as much scholarly appreciation as is Yogi Berra on one of his best days.

Still, [former PM] McKenzie King is remembered for keeping Quebec out of The War To End All Wars, tantamount to the degree to which Roosevelt was getting the Americans INTO it; [former PM] Jean Chretien shunned invading Iraq primarily so as not to jeopardize the candidacy of his son-in-law’s Societe Generale, in line with PetroJapan to get first dibs on Iraqi oil before Halliburton spudded in. And who can forget [former PM] John Diefenbaker’s statesmanlike trashing of the Avro Arrow fighter plane in favor of Eisenhower’s Bomarc Missiles, on the sale of which Ike closed him in the course of a single 18 holes of golf?

You can see why we don’t have Prime Ministerial Libraries. The equivalent of the Bush Library’s power-point tutorials for the kiddies on “Mission Accomplished,” just wouldn’t fly with anally retentive Canadian scholars. In peace, there’s nothing so becomes a Canuck as modest stillness and humility, but when the blast of war rings in our ears, even grade schoolers know a beanie when they see one.

So it came as no surprise the other day when Sub-Prime Paul Martin came out of retirement long enough to comment on Harper’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), the news item of choice these days along the frozen reaches of the Rideau Canal, right up there with bonspiel scores and Crow’s Nest Pass Freight Rates.

But first perhaps I should give the novice student of Canadian content a little background on the TRC, that Nelson Mandela innovation that plays well to a Canadian audience that prides itself on our broad-mindedness and love for minorities. And Indian kids are definitely one of the neatest minorities of all.

For example, we point with pride to the recent tradition of appointing our Governor-General – a sort of Assistant Queen – from our mosaic of minorities. Following an Inuit princess and a social worker from Haiti, the current Canadian Governor General, David Johnson, is the most noteworthy minority member yet, having graduated from Cambridge, Harvard and Queens, not necessarily in that order. Definitely not Mainstream.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) is a full-blown exercise in the finest tradition of the Royal Commission, a British protocol for kicking a problem not down the road, as in American politics, but under the broadloom of the House of Commons, often permanently. It’s especially effective if its research takes place in Toronto’s National Club, and if it’s expressly mandated — as in the case of the TRC — not to name any names or grab any posteriors. Just play nice and spend the $68 million stipend, and come up with 115 pages of plea copping, government-wise.

You know the background, or should. About how 150,000 Indian kids were rounded up by the RCMP over a 100-year period, delivered to 141 “residential schools,” run by kindly old priests and nuns — you know, like Barry FtizGerald and Mother Theresa, in order to teach them the proper deportment befitting Canadian kiddies, and how 75,00 of them never graduated cum laude or returned to their parents. Some say they all became Mounties, priests or nuns, while others are not so sure. Anyway, it’s history, right?

Not that you, especially American readers, would be likely to read about it in the Canadian print media, which are just as prone to overlook our national misdemeanors as are the government and the three perpetrating entities in our divine comedy: from left to right, the United Church of Canada, the Anglican Church and of course big Daddy, the Roman Catholic Church, Inc., Ltd. and Societe Anonyme. (Same thing happened in the States, but in classier circumstances, as usual. In Pine Ridge, South Dakota, the Lakota kids enjoyed a beefed up curriculum, including the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.

For the most part, Canadians of the right sort know that it wasn’t really that bad, and anyway we’ve made up for it by saying “Sorry,” and forking over a lot of Canadian dollars to Assembly of First Nation (AFN) chiefs. What they did with it — community welfare or Mercedes sedans — is not for us to question, since they’re entitled to self-determination.

Before he took his golden parachute, Pope Benedict put everything in perspective and silenced the more outspoken critics by nominating a 17th Century Mohawk maiden for sainthood. That tended to shut them up about the mistreatment of Indian kids by the Catholic Church.

“Pope Benedict XVI declared recently,” burbled a Seattle newspaper, “that a medical intervention attributed to a 17th century Native American woman was a miracle. That declaration means that Kateri Tekakwitha, a Mohawk maiden, is expected to be named a saint sometime next year. (Right after Fat Tuesday in New Orleans would be nice. — Bill.)

“Catholics credit her with curing a deathly ill Seattle-area boy five years ago after relatives prayed to her.

“It’s wonderful,” said Yvonne Smith, a Yakama who attends St. Mary’s Catholic Church in White Swan. “I’m glad the Vatican caught up with all the Indians in Indian country.” (What that means, I’m not sure. I personally can’t wait till the Indians catch up with Il Papa. — Bill.)

But I stray from our discussion of Canadian plea-copping. First came Harper, making like your typical rez school was a sort of Sunday school gone wrong, where kids were made to stand in the corner if they blew their catechism, that sort of thing. Then courageous TRC chairnative Murray Sinclair allowed as how there was indeed genocide, but it was the nice kind, you know, depriving kids of their culture.

Finally Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan used the G-word, but said that Canadian genocide was milder than those massacres in Rwanda and so on. He was promptly advised to resign1 in order to spend more time with his constituents in the Comox Valley on Vancouver Island, where there haven’t been any Indians ever since the Small-pox Blanket Jubilee of 1870, which is another story.2

And now, along comes Paul Martin to bring a Sub-Prime Liberal perspective to a Conservative government photo-op.And he blows it. “Residential schools engaged in ‘cultural genocide,’” former Prime Minister Paul Martin was quoted by The Canadian Press, at the hearings of the Truth And Reconciliation Commission.

“Let us understand that what happened at the residential schools was the use of education for cultural genocide, and that the fact of the matter is — yes it was. Call a spade a spade,” Martin said to cheers from the audience at the Montreal hearings. The cheering was largely from the head table, composed of visibly white dignitaries and distinguished guests.

Shucks, just when we thought ol’ Paul was going to bring down the house on the Conservatives, he ends up allowing Stephen Harper’s government to cop the plea of all pleas. Sub-Prime Martin’s spade ends up being just another shovel job, like the one that graces not only the Mounties’ Musical Ride, but the horse droppings that are so customary around Ottawa these days.

When you can admit to faulty pedagogy and cross-cultural inadequacy instead of rape, murder, medical experimentation, sterilization and strange and unaccountable disappearance, you easily end up with the copping of a plea that puts our American neighbors to shame.

John Wayne and General Custer, enfin, were a lot less subtle. They really called a spade a spade.

  1. Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan resigns from cabinet: Concedes it was not appropriate for him to write to Tax Court on behalf of constituent,” CBC News, 15 February 2013. []
  2. See, e.g., Rob Wipond, “Infected at birth,” FocusOnline, July/August 2012 and “Smallpox Epidemic of 1862 among Northwest Coast and Puget Sound Indians,” HistoryLink.org. []

Bill Annett writes four newsletters: The Canadian Shield, American Logo, Beating the Street, and The Oyster World. He can be reached at: hoople84@gmail.com. Read other articles by Bill.