DEBORAH JONES: FREE RANGE
June 21, 2016
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
Contact: djones AT factsandopinions.com (including for reprint inquiries.)
Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future, Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (summary)
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
Related stories from our archives:
Canadian Court Expands Aboriginal Rights. By Deborah Jones (2014)
Canada’s top court greatly expanded aboriginal rights in Canada’s westernmost province, in what may stand as a landmark decision affecting control of a vast swath of land and resources, in British Columbia and beyond. The case, Tsilhqot’in Nation v. British Columbia, was sparked in 1983 when the provincial government licenced a commercial company to log the Chilcotin. The licence was disputed by the Chilcotin residents who lived there long before the mid 1800s when — without their consent — England claimed the land as a colony, and named it British Columbia.
The Case of the Serial Killings: Gruesome details in Pickton pig farmer trial. By Deborah Jones. (2007)
Wedged between white-capped mountains and sparkling blue ocean, Vancouver is lauded for multicultural livability, ranked worldwide as a top travel destination and is preparing to host the 2010 Winter Olympics. But lately a grim pall has blanketed the western Canadian city of 2.2 million, for reasons far worse than the freak winter storms. The harrowing details of a grotesque serial killer case are bringing to the surface the city’s seamy underworld, usually confined to the squalid 10-block open drug and sex market known as the Downtown Eastside. The seaminess surrounds the trial of pig farmer Robert William Pickton, charged with murdering 26 drug-addicted prostitutes.
Deborah Jones is a founder and the managing partner, editorial, of Facts and Opinions. Her bio is here.
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