WITH THE Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s findings on the detrimental impact of residential schools only months behind us, Prime Minister Trudeau will undoubtedly face a trial cultivating new relations with Canadian First Nations.
In response to these challenges Trudeau has promised to meet with indigenous leaders before year’s end and hold an inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women. While I commend our new Prime Minister for his efforts to recognize First Nations’ issues, I’m concerned that they are not aimed at remedying the pervasive culture of tokenism and narrow representation that saturates Canada’s conversation on aboriginal issues.
First things first. The fleeting acknowledgement of being on unceded First Nations’ territory or noting the legacy of residential schools is not enough to be a solution to the systematic marginalization of indigenous peoples. For that reason, I have serious concerns about the state of equality, multiculturalism, and ultimately reconciliation in Canada. Even the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is not beyond the realm of my concern.
The portrayal of indigenous topics has been very narrow. While I do recognize that residential schools have an extensive history in the north, it seems that for the general population, First Nations identity and the impact of the schools are overwhelmingly inseparable. The assumption that the indigenous experience is defined by residential schools is a limited and overwhelmingly grim narrative through which to view aboriginal history.
Findings in reports such as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s “They Came For the Children” have been very influential in characterizing the conversation we have. But this ignores the wider racism experienced by many indigenous persons and the stories of those who do not recount a profoundly negative experience particularly (or at all) at the schools. It also ignores that leaders, such as Nisga’a chief Frank Calder, went to residential schools and then university in order to prepare to advocate for the rights of the community. Ultimately, this narrative makes it too easy to forget that the large majority of First Nations in Canada did not even attend residential schools.
I find it troubling that there has been no large scale effort to uncover the truth behind aboriginal day schools or the conditions found in some First Nations communities in an effort to further reconciliation.
These issues have been largely neglected and denied by society. It is possible that Canadians do not want to acknowledge these issues because they are only willing to speak about shameful episodes in their history in past tense. It is also possible that they prefer to blame our racist culture on the government or churches and deny their role in creating a marginalized group.
Whatever the reason, assuming a history based on one’s identity only discredits that person’s individual story.
The settlement reached in Canada, including the payment program which entitles former students of residential schools to standardized compensation, denies validation of case-by-case uniqueness, including the varying experience in the schools and abuses perpetrated outside them.
I think it is clear that our country needs to put more effort into actually understanding the variety of indigenous issues and addressing the details of discrimination.
My aim is not to discredit those who had a negative experience in what was an assimilatory project of the residential schools. It is only to acknowledge that the scope of inequality in here is much larger than many would like to believe it is. Furthermore, our community identity is not as simplistic as we sometimes make it out to be.
Canada has a long way to go before we can reach reconciliation. We need to go beyond the victimizing narrative in order to move past what is still a dark period in Canadian history.
Cecile Favron is a Rosswood resident and this summer was a news intern at The Terrace Standard.