History and the Atrocity of Silence

      No Comments on History and the Atrocity of Silence

Kamloops Residential School, c. 1930s. BC Archives, B-01592.

Owen Griffiths

“Dear brothers and sisters! I have been waiting to come here and be with you!” With these words, Pope Francis began his long-awaited apology for the Catholic Church’s role in more than a century of abuse and marginalization of Indigenous Canadians, what the Truth and Reconciliation Report called “cultural genocide.” Reactions to the Pope’s July 2022 visit and to his words have been mixed at best, especially among Indigenous peoples. Of the many criticisms, silence stands out: silence on the institutional role of the church rather than just on some of its members; silence on the reams of as yet unexplored documentation; silence on the Doctrine of Discovery and even on the word genocide itself, which the Pope did not utter in front of those who needed to hear it most because, he later said, “it didn’t come to mind.”

To these silences we must add another. This is the silence of indifference, hostility, and denial that has accompanied acts of atrocity across decades to become a foundational component of intergenerational trauma. About this, the Pope also said nothing. His apology made no mention of the years that survivors of Residential Schools, for example, suffered in silence because those who authorized and ran the schools refused to acknowledge the horrors committed in them. Also missing was any acknowledgement or apology for refusing to pay reparations until a 2006 class-action lawsuit by school survivors compelled the Catholic Church (and the Canadian government) to consider compensation in the first place.

This silence is itself an atrocity, one can be measured, documented, and incorporated into our stories of the past. We can find it in our churches, our governments, and our schools, as well as in our media and popular culture. It comprises a body of evidence that helps us understand, for example, how generations of Canadians were raised in relative ignorance regarding the lives and struggles of our Indigenous brothers and sisters. This is not to provide excuses or absolution but to explain and highlight the roots of that ignorance. Such measurement therefore provides important insight into the systemic nature of discrimination, how and why it is perpetuated, as well as the manner in which silence is finally broken.

Tracking silence is also revealing from a comparative perspective. When I began teaching in the late 1990s, for example, my students were shocked to learn about the internment of Japanese-Canadians, reparations and apologies for which were then only a decade old. They had been taught little if anything about this story and the long history of discrimination in which it was embedded. The education system, the news media, and popular culture had largely ignored it, as had successive governments until they were compelled to pay attention by the growing chorus of voices from within the Japanese-Canadian community who refused to let the silence continue. About a decade later, this story of silence played out again as my students were shocked to learn of the Residential School abuses and the more general degradation of Indigenous people as a dark thread running through the entirety of Canadian history. There are many other stories like these in Canada where silence after the fact has compounded the trauma of the acts themselves. Each case has its own history but they all share much in common, both in terms of the rationale behind the acts themselves and in their subsequent erasure. They also share the theme of survivors and their children using the power of their voices to finally break the bonds of silence.

But these are not just stories of Canada, the West, or settler societies. They permeate human history like a dark stain. My own field of Japanese history is filled with tales of colonial and wartime atrocities, driven by many of the same attitudes and institutions that we see in the Canadian examples. Then, for much of Japan’s postwar history, successive Japanese governments refused to acknowledge or confront their colonial and wartime history, while the education system basically ignored these subjects altogether. This led many to characterize Japan as a nation that whitewashed its past. However, the revelations of past abuses in numerous countries throughout the world in the last few decades, Canada included, have demonstrated clearly that Japan is not unique in this regard. Atrocity it seems, whether in peacetime or war, is all too human, as is the silence that follows. But so, too, are the attempts to shatter the silence, even those that failed or whose actors did not live to see success. Taken together, these stories reveal the worst of us and the best, human inhumanity and the indomitability of the human spirit.

It is the latter, above all, that has the power to break the silences of what is often left untold. And it is here that historians have a particularly important role to play through teaching and research. Together with the survivors of atrocity, we can work to provide a deeper understanding of our past by examining, among other things, the gaps and silences in our stories. The Pope’s apology omitted much and there are still so many stories yet to be told. Engaging all this will be a multi-generational task that hopefully will link our stories to those of other peoples to create a fuller and richer account human history, one that we can leave behind as a legacy for those to come. To paraphrase Karl Marx, let us consider that the purpose of our stories, especially those that cut through the veil of silence, is not only to interpret the world in various ways but also to change it. This is active history at its best.

Owen Griffiths is a historian of modern Japan and East Asia, and an associate professor at Mount Allison University.


Creative Commons Licence
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Blog posts published before October  28, 2018 are licensed with a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 Canada License.

Please note: ActiveHistory.ca encourages comment and constructive discussion of our articles. We reserve the right to delete comments submitted under aliases, or that contain spam, harassment, or attacks on an individual.