When I was a boy I read historical novels by Canadian and English writers. The hero was always English, honest, brave, generous and kind. Other people were shifty-eyed, dishonest, traitorous scoundrels. As I was an English Canadian, I accepted this as self-evident truth.
Later I learned to read French and found historical novels in that language were exactly like the English novels – except the kind, generous, honest and brave hero was French and the dishonourable scoundrels were English. I have learned that there is at least as much, if not more, evidence to support this latter point of view as for the first. We absorb the attitudes of the time and place we live in, and it is good to examine the attitudes we take for granted.
Plantation owners in the southern states needed workers skilled in growing cotton, or rice in coastal areas. They found the people they needed in Africa and brought them over as slaves.
Plantation owners were Christians; to own another human being didn’t seem right. But they already had beliefs about class distinctions and it was just a short step for apologists to explain that below the lowest classes of humanity there were these animals that looked almost human, but had no soul.
Even though the Africans had skills in the cultivation of cotton and rice that their white owners lacked, the owners seized on the idea that the Africans were domestic livestock and treated them accordingly. Still, they did their best to ensure that slaves would never see poor white people or free black people. The tragic effects of these false ideas linger on in the lives of both white and black people.
Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theory taught that there are different races of humanity and the white race is more highly evolved than the others. He taught that the white race was destined to supplant all the other (inferior) races. Modern science agrees with the Bible that there is only one human race, yet ideas of white superiority still linger.
The people of the area that is now Rwanda and Burundi are Bantu who all speak the same language. The Tutsi were the governing aristocracy, the common people were Hutu. There was intermarriage and social mobility between the two groups. When Europeans, first Germans then Belgians, became colonial masters of this region, they saw the Tutsi as more European in appearance, therefore superior, and governed the colonies through them.
The Tutsi found this agreeable, the Hutu not so much. The upshot was a Hutu uprising in Burundi in 1972 which ended in the killing of 80,000 to 200,000 Hutu by the Tutsi army. Then came the Rwanda genocide of 1994 where the Hutu set about to eliminate the Tutsi from their country, killing 800,000 to 1,000,000.
Both countries have made strides towards reconciliation. From the first, the distinction between the Tutsi and Hutu existed only in people’s minds, not in physical, linguistic or religious difference.
Before the Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933, there was little friction between Jews and other German citizens. Hitler was an evangelist, inspiring German people to believe in a revival of their nobility. From 1933 to 1939 the Nazis flooded the country with propaganda about the danger the Jews were to the welfare of the nation. Research institutes published glossy books with pseudoscientific information about the degradation of the Jewish race. Popular movies, novels, comic books reinforced those stereotypes in the conscience of the German people.
Hitler said next to nothing about the Jews during those six years. Then in 1939 he spoke forcefully about the need to eliminate the Jewish danger. By then the propaganda had taken effect on the conscience of the German people. After the war many Germans, although they deplored Nazi atrocities, believed the Jews had brought them upon themselves by being so different from other Germans. The Nazi propaganda machine created that perceived difference.
The Roman Catholic Church dominated Quebec for generations, telling people it was their protection against the hordes of Anglos around them and if anyone left the mother church, they would also abandon the French language. That was a self-fulfilling prophecy; the church ran the schools, hospitals and pretty much everything else. If someone joined a different church, the priests would ensure they became pariahs to their catholic neighbours.
That era ended with the Quiet Revolution of 1960. Church attendance in Quebec is now the lowest of any province or state in North America. Yet a suspicion of other denominations remains.
We English Canadians have no such problem, do we? Or are we just ignorant of our own prejudices and their roots?
The Orange Order dominated politics in English Canada for generations; they believed that only WASP’s (White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestants) were worthy of being citizens. Other people were second-class citizens, and should have no influence on government, nor any consideration from government.
After the union of Upper and Lower Canada (Ontario and Quebec today) in 1841, Orangemen fomented a series of riots in Toronto to cement their influence. They were the inspiration behind the 1847 riot in Montreal that culminated in burning the parliament building.
When the prairies opened for settlement 100 years ago, Clifford Sifton, an Orangeman, was minister of immigration. He scoured Eastern Europe for settlers who would assimilate to the English language and submerge the French already settled in the west. Orangemen in government were behind the decision a few years later to close all non-English schools. French schools were the target, other schools were collateral damage.
I attended public schools at a time when the curriculum taught the Orange Order’s perception of Canadian reality. The influence of the Orange Order waned over the years and French schools were once more allowed to operate. But when a concept of the superiority of one group of people guides government policy for so many years, prejudice does not soon wither away. We are going to be suspicious of people whom we think different from us until we get to know them. We will have to step outside of our comfortable, familiar, bubble to do that, but we are apt to find that other people are pretty much like ourselves. Can we call ourselves Christians and still try to maintain ethnic and linguistic divisions?