My entire extended family is from Saskatchewan and when I was very young I remember seeing a group of men fighting and stumbling around on a Regina sidewalk. I asked why they were acting like that and my older cousin said, “They’re Indians. What do you expect?” Someone else mumbled something about drunk and Welfare Wednesday, which I didn’t understand. Then we were ushered away.
In elementary school, my favourite subject to study was the “First People of Canada”. I loved learning about their art, their connection with the land, their myths and legends, their housing, and the clan structures. I still to this day stare at museum dioramas and visit ancient archeological sites imagining what it would have been like to live in a traditional First Nations’ way.
Being born in Yukon Territory and then living in Prince George, I saw a lot “First People of Canada” who didn’t look or act anything like the wise and noble people I was learning about in school. They were the cliché image of the Indian in the derogatory jokes that I heard outside of school.
I didn’t understand what happened to the “First People of Canada”.
At university, I continued to study the First Nations with instructors who were Aboriginal. That was when I read Resistance and Renewal — Surviving the Indian Residential School by Celia Haig-Brown. I still have my copy today because it had such a profound impact on who I am and how I think about every single social issue.
I started to understand what happened to the “First People of Canada”.
From the 1880’s until 1986, the “First People of Canada” were victims of antidialogical action, which is one group dominating and controlling another group through invading the cultural context, imposing their own view of the world, silencing them and disrespecting their potential.
In this case, it was called residential school.
Two primary objectives of the residential school system were to remove and isolate children from the influence of their homes, families, traditions and cultures, and to assimilate them into the dominant culture. These objectives were based on the assumption Aboriginal cultures and spiritual beliefs were inferior and unequal. Indeed, some sought, as it was infamously said, ‘to kill the Indian in the child.’ Today, we recognize that this policy of assimilation was wrong, has caused great harm, and has no place in our country.
– Prime Minister Stephen Harper, official apology, June 11, 2008
A formal apology from the government over the residential school policy was necessary, but the damage was already done.
For generations, Aboriginal children were forcibly removed from their families, forbidden to speak their own language, abused, and given an inferior education that focused more on skills training for manual labour and domestic work. Because they were removed from their families and segregated from their siblings by gender, many students grew up without experiencing a nurturing family life and without the knowledge and skills to raise their own families.
The last residential school did not close its doors until 1986, so many of the leaders, teachers, parents, and grandparents of today’s Aboriginal communities are residential school survivors.
Half of all children in foster care in Canada are Aboriginal. Four percent of all Aboriginal children are in care compared to .3 percent of non-Aboriginal children. Although Aboriginals only comprise three percent of the adult population in Canada, forty-one percent of women who are incarcerated are Aboriginal and twenty-five percent of men. There are almost 1,200 Aboriginal women who have been murdered or gone missing since 1980.
They’re Indians. What do you expect? Well, the United Nations human rights envoy has suggested that we should expect that the outstanding concerns related to the First Nations education bill be addressed, a national inquiry on missing and murdered women be conducted, the mandate of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission be extended “for as long as may be necessary”, the housing crisis be addressed, education, health and child welfare be funded, and service delivery be coordinated with provincial and Aboriginal governments.
I expect to live in a country where every single Aboriginal child who is placed in foster care because his or her parents were raised in an institution and didn’t learn parenting skills matters. Every single Aboriginal man who committed suicide because he was haunted by the sexual abuse he endured at a residential school matters. Every single missing, murdered, or incarcerated Aboriginal woman who didn’t know any other world than one of poverty, exploitation, addictions, and abuse matters.
I know there are people who will argue that the government has already spent enough money trying to “help” First Nations people. Critics will use arguments such as, “Aboriginals already don’t pay taxes, they get special privileges for fishing, and their university tuition is paid for, but they can’t capitalize on those opportunities.” There are also people who will argue that the past was the past and Aboriginals should get over it and assimilate.
The mistaken belief that assimilation to white culture is the only right way to live is what started this problem in the first place.
First Nations people are not inferior, they are not stupid, they are not useless, and they are not worthless. They are recovering from one hundred years of abuse, family destruction, and cultural genocide. Trauma takes time to heal. Education takes time to instill. Healthy communities and traditions take time to rebuild. Many nations have already become healthy, strong, and wealthy again, but it will take longer in remote and isolated areas. It will take forever if they continue to believe the lie that being an Indian means being inferior.
When someone says, “They’re Indian. What do you expect?” I hope you respond by saying, “Great things.”
Update: I would like to thank everyone who has sent me e-mails and left phone messages to privately thank me for writing this article after an abridged version was first published in the Richmond News. It means a lot to me that it resonated with you and that you would take the time to thank me. I hope that this article will continue to bring awareness and open discussions.