It’s fitting that today, on Canada’s 20th National Aboriginal Day, Historica Canada released a new Heritage Minute video about the death of a young man.
It tells the story of Chanie “Charlie” Wenjack. Historica Canada, the non-profit organization that produces Heritage Minutes, noted that his death sparked the first inquest into the treatment of Indigenous children in Canadian residential schools.
The greatest stain on Canada is that for 100 years the state not merely sanctioned but often sent police to seize aboriginal children from their families, then imprisoned them in residential schools run by religious and state institutions.
Some children were sent by willing families, some received valuable educations, some benefitted. But it’s well-documented how many of those children were sexually, physically, and mentally abused, and/or neglected — often to the point of murder. It’s well documented that many never made it home at all, and how few of the survivors came home intact.
It’s a horror spelled “GENOCIDE” that Canadians and Canadian institutions did their best, with few exceptions, from almost the first contact with European peoples, to wipe out not only aboriginal culture but entire peoples.
And it’s an incalculable loss that as a modern country took shape in a globalized world, the knowledge and culture of aboriginal Canadians was ignored, often suppressed; that the leadership potential of aboriginal women and men was squandered.
Is it possible that Canada is now turning a corner?
Can we call this progress? While protesting that they were not fully included in government meetings, First Nations were at the table before a rare First Minister’s meeting in March, in Vancouver. They were not full partners, but their voice was loud and clear.
Is the existence of a day for aboriginals progress?
Here’s what is new, to me as a Canadian born to immigrant parents, who as a teen attended a public school in the NorthWest Territories with a large aboriginal residential school population: instead of being ignored, downplayed, sneered at or frowned upon by most of the public, it’s now possible for Canada to hold a National Aboriginal Day that is a coast-to-coast celebration of aboriginal culture and of the accomplishments in all realms of aboriginal Canadians.
Anecdotally I observe that First Nations — legally called Metis, Inuit and Indian — are increasingly accepted and sometimes celebrated by non-aboriginal Canadians as fellow citizens, with unique status, in Canada’s multicultural fabric. An example: when the new federal cabinet was sworn in in 2015, First Nations culture prominently featured in music and dance.
Some of this acceptance has been forced on the country: over decades, decisions by courts at all levels upheld numerous aboriginal rights and land claims, such as the 2014 Tsilhqot’in Nation v. British Columbia ruling by the Supreme Court of Canada.
Progress is a tricky concept, and there’s a long and harrowing road to reach normalcy, let alone some version of redemption. The damage runs deep.
A two-year federal national inquiry is slowly getting underway into missing and murdered aboriginal women in Canada — some 1,200 women and girls, estimated a 2014 Royal Canadian Mounted Police report; fully 4,000, says the Native Women’s Association of Canada. Meanwhile, plenty of people protest that aboriginal men, too, have gone missing or been murdered, in unknown numbers but which are certainly greater than for non-aboriginal men.
Statistically, the picture is grim for aboriginal Canadians. A quick scan of any census or report shows that the nearly 1.5 million Indian, Inuit and Métis Canadians fare far less well than all others in terms of longevity, health, education and prison incarceration.
Time, some vast and today unfathomable sweep of time, may eventually heal the wounds in the people, families and communities left by Canada’s treatment of its first peoples; of even the theft, abuse and murder of generations of children.
For now, on the first day of summer each year, Canada celebrates National Aboriginal Day.
Copyright Deborah Jones 2016
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The Missing Women Commission of Inquiry, British Columbia, commissioner Wally Oppal, 2012
Canada’s First Nations: A History of Founding Peoples from Earliest Times (2008), by Olive Dickason and David T. McNab
A Fair Country: Telling Truths About Canada (2008), by John Ralston Saul