When I was in graduate school, using the word “agency” was a favorite signal of one’s in-group status. In the cutthroat world of graduate history seminars, “agency” is a way to criticize “tropes” about people in the past. A commonly called-out “trope” is that “subalterns,” or those who live in the shadow of a larger and imposed culture or political system, do not have “agency.” In other words, they are merely automatons who cannot think or act for themselves.
Although graduate departments are hyper-partisan and overt prolifers are as rare as hen’s teeth, I always thought that attempting to identify the agency in the lives of people whose names historians did not record was a very life-affirming practice. For reasons of politics, class, race, and other factors distorting the way history is written (and not written), the names of the downtrodden masses often sink under the waves of passing time and are lost. By reflecting on agency in these nameless lives, historians can help us all remember that every human being deserves a “yad vashem,” a memorial and a name.
Of course, the task of recovering agency for the nameless is often a futile one. We simply do not have enough information, in many cases, to put together who was the man or woman, or boy or girl, who now lies in an unmarked grave. But by trying to piece back in place the shards of a long-ago life, we honor the dead even if we do not satisfy our desire to know everything about them.
Seeking out agency is therefore a corrective to the tribal instinct in human beings. We must always be trying to see the individuality, the dignity of the Other, especially when there are so many in the world who insist that we see one another as members of some race, political party, or other group. We are all subalterns in that sense. We are all seeking refuge from being cast as faceless extras in a racial or political play.
Over the past few weeks, North Americans have been horrified to read one report after another of church arsons in Canada. Burning a place of worship is one of the most hateful and bone-chilling acts of civilizational terrorism. Watching churches go up in flames brings back bad memories of bombings in Birmingham in the Sixties, of the desecration of churches by the socialists in Mexico during the Cristero War, and of the call for massive violence against churches and synagogues by leftists in the American media and academy in 2020.
The Canadian burnings may be more horrifying than even these examples, for the churches are being burned because it is alleged that Christians were responsible for genocide against Canada’s indigenous First Nations peoples. In 2015, a report issued by a Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission on First Nations peoples used the term “cultural genocide” to describe the practice of forced assimilation mandated by the Canadian government.
As in the United States, many Native children were sent to boarding schools, orphanages, or other institutions run by Christian (often Catholic) churches, where they were forbidden to speak their tribal languages or dress in their tribal clothing. A thoughtful piece at First Things emphasizes that this policy was decided by the Canadian government under the 1876 Indian Act and subsequent pieces of legislation. Nevertheless, had church leaders regarded the assimilation mandates unjust, they could have refused to comply with them. In the event, it appears that thousands and thousands of First Nations children were forced to live in cramped dormitories, where diseases like Spanish flu and tuberculosis killed indiscriminately. Death rates were estimated in places to be as high as fifty percent.
When the arsons began this year, apparently in response to the finding of unmarked graves of First Nations peoples buried on church property in Kamloops, British Columbia, many in the Canadian establishment actually encouraged the arsonists to continue. Harsha Walia, the former director of the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association, resigned after tweeting “Burn it all down”. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau issued what many thought was a noncommittal statement on the arsons.
As in the nineteenth century, so today the Canadian establishment seems uninterested in the agency of the First Nations peoples—all that appears to matter is the narrative, the trope. First the idea was assimilation, now it is radical difference. During the assimilation years, in other words, indigenous people were seen as a group that had to be forced to act like progressive Canadians. Today, progressive Canadians insist that indigenous people should have been kept separate from the dominant culture. In both cases, the First Nations peoples are tacitly presumed to be functions of tribal identity, not individuals who must be lifted up and remembered. Subalterns again cast as extras in a political and racialist drama.
Even if we admit that the assimilationist policies were wrong and that justice must be done, we must remember that the people lying in unmarked graves were not uniformly representative of any ethnic group. Our political sensibilities do not determine their humanity. Their lives, though lived in forced proximity under often horrifying conditions, were their own, not vicarious expressions of whatever larger cultural and political forces were at work. The First Nations peoples were, in grad-school parlance, “subalterns,” or domestic Others, but in a pro-life sense they are also Us—human beings. They belonged to communities of other human beings. If we want to know who those people were, we must go back and discover the history of the communities—however sad and unfortunate—in which they lived. To know the nameless dead, we must dig much deeper than labels about race, class, party, or tribe.
According to the First Things article, members of the church communities where the First Nations people lived and died buried them in graves marked with crosses and individual names. The graveyards were fenced and the graves apparently tended. But as church communities withered, another kind of agency—neglect—took its toll. The wooden crosses disintegrated, the fences fell, the graveyards went unkept. While the church buildings still stood, however, there was a chance that the names and circumstances of at least some of the people in the ground could have been reconstructed. The path to recovering the agency of the now-nameless dead went through the communities to which those people once belonged. The key to learning their identities was to go back through records, conduct interviews, find photo albums—recover the institutional memory of the old churches beside which the dead now sleep.
That is lost, though. Burning the churches likely destroyed any chance to remember who, individually, the victims of cultural genocide were. Ironically, the zealots who seek vengeance for that cultural genocide have obliterated the human traces of the lives they now claim to avenge. The Catholic Church, for its part, in 2009 expressed “sorrow” and “anguish” over the Church’s role in abuses of First Nations peoples. But this was not enough. For many who call themselves social justice champions today—both in and out of government—the best way to solve past inequity is with matches and gasoline.
Arson, half-hearted political statements, and even official apologies all fail to acknowledge the agency of the nameless dead. Thousands lay in the ground in Kamloops and elsewhere, in unmarked graves all but forgotten until the wheels of history ground around and the darkness of the past was revealed again. The best the living can do for the dead is to remember them, but burning down churches—destroying the nodes of memory—virtually ensures that the forgotten of decades and centuries before will remain ciphers in the historical imagination.
The people, many of them children, in the ground in churchyards in Canada (and elsewhere) lived in the fullness of life, as we all do. They had names and experiences, and those must not be erased. But to burn down churches in an act of wanton revenge is to do just that, to erase the traces of each person’s unrepeatable soul on earth, the outlines, however faint, of a life lived on the same terms as anyone else’s. The children of Kamloops deserve a pro-life answer. We must never counter forgetting with obliteration. The pro-life way to honor forgotten lives is to seek to bring their names, their faces, their lives in full, back into the light.