Tomorrow September 30th, is the first national day for Truth and Reconciliation. CBC describes this new federal statutory holiday as, “an annual commemoration honouring the children who died while attending residential schools and the survivors, families and communities still affected by the legacy of the residential school system.”. The creation of this statutory holiday has been in the works since 2017 when, “Saskatchewan MP Georgina Jolibois introduced a private member’s bill” (CBC News) and it was finally granted approval this year, days after the bodies of the children were discovered at the Kamloops residential school. You can learn more about the creation of the first national day for Truth and Reconciliation here.
(Image source: Toronto Star)
Over the past few years, I have started to unpack what it means to be a beneficiary of colonialism. And, there is a lot to unpack. The more I learn, the more I am amazed at how potent and transcending the impacts are of our colonial legacy.
Growing up, I had such a superficial and outright ignorant understanding of what colonialism is: Explorers arrived in Canada and stole some land. It didn’t sound that bad. During my elementary and high school years I learned a little about our settler history and it seemed attempts to incorporate Indigenous themes into the curriculum usually were in the form of artwork; albeit important in the aftermath of a genoicide that included attempts of cultural erasure, but severely missing the mark in informing the social consciousness of youth. In high school art class, I sat sewing pillows with Indigenous designs, probably chatting about weekend plans with friends and completely obtuse to the fact that I was sitting on the very site of a former residential school. Sure, I knew in passing that St. Paul’s Indian Residential school had once existed on the same grounds, but I was ignorant to the true ramifications of what that meant.
It wasn’t until I attended university and interned that my understanding of colonialism was broadened by some very thoughtful teachers and mentors. Now, as I embark on my legal studies, I feel grateful to have more professors who are passionate about teaching the horrific realities of our history and the continued impacts today. I have started to realize just how pervasive the effects of colonialism are and the systemic implications. The Indian Act was designed to suppress Indigenous people. For example, if an Indigenous person wanted to improve their economic prospects by obtaining a university education, they would have had to give up their “Indian Status”. “Indian Status” under Canadian law recognized certain rights, like the ability to live on a reserve with your family. Would you want to go to university if it essentially meant divorcing yourself from your community? In an Aboriginal law course I took through Queen’s University, I learned that reserves are considered crown land and therefore obtaining a loan can be very difficult for Indigenous people as their homes cannot constitute collateral. These provisions and many more economically disadvantage Indigenous communities. Poverty and crime are positively correlated, and when you add intergenerational trauma to the mix, it should serve as no surprise that Indigenous individuals are grossly overrepresented in our prisons, “In 2018/2019, Indigenous adults accounted for 31% of admissions to provincial/territorial custody and 29% of admissions to federal custody, while representing approximately 4.5% of the Canadian adult population.”(Statistics Canada). The notion that colonialism wasn’t that bad is toxic, blatantly ignorant and outrageous. The idea that it is a thing of the past comes from an out of touch place of privilege. People in Canada continue to suffer every day.
Tomorrow is a time for reflection. In light of covid, there are many virtual events occurring across the country. There will be an event taking place at 2:15pm at the Kamloops residential school as, “215 was the number that made a ripple around the world at the end of May of this year (2021) about the truth of missing children in unmarked graves at the sites of former Indian Residential Schools.” (Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc website). You can join virtually here.
Tomorrow is also a time of learning. A resource I’ve found helpful and think every Canadian should read is, 21 Things You May Not Know About the Indian Act: Helping Canadians Make Reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples a Reality by Bob Joseph. This book is very short but succinctly distills information that I think most of us are oblivious of, or at least I certainly was! I would also suggest reading the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s Calls to Action. These are the steps that Indigenous communities have expressed are needed in Canada to create real progress towards reconciliation.
Paternalism is another legacy of colonialism. Canada has treated Indigenous people as wards of the state, telling them what they need and failed to recognize their sovereignty for a very long time. Amplifying Indigenous voices and truly listening is one way we can counter this poisonous attitude. I have been trying to listen to more diverse voices, being conscious of who I follow on social media, the authors I read and the podcasts I listen to. It is easy, especially in the era of covid to live in a vacuum. An Indigenous influencer I particularly admire and would suggest following is Shayla Oulette Stonechild. I would recommend reading From the Ashes by Jesse Thistle, Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer and 21 Things You May Not Know About the Indian Act: Helping Canadians Make Reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples a Reality by Bob Joseph, as they are phenomenal authors. On my reading list are Seven Fallen Feathers by Tanya Talaga, Five Little Indians by Michelle Good, Probably Ruby by Lisa Bird-Wilson, and Highway of Tears by Jessica Mcdiarmid. For podcasts featuring different perspectives, CBC has some great options.
If you are interested in supporting Indigenous businesses, here are a few I would recommend checking out:
Though I am embarrassed by my own ignorance and deeply saddened by the pain in my country, I am motivated to continue to learn more and hopeful that together we can do better. Please don’t be a stranger, I welcome all conversation and I would love to hear your thoughts, book recommendations, favourite Indigenous podcasts and perspectives on how we can propel this change.
I leave you with an excerpt of the poem from Dennis Saddleman entitled, Monster, A Residential School Experience:
“…YOUR WIDE MOUTH TOOK ME
YOUR YELLOW STAINED TEETH CHEWED
THE INDIAN OUT OF ME
YOUR TEETH CRUNCHED MY LANGUAGE
GRINDED MY RITUALS AND MY TRADITIONS
YOUR TASTE BUDS BECAME BITTER
WHEN YOU TASTED MY RED SKIN
YOU SWALLOWED ME WITH DISGUST
YOUR FACE WRINKLED WHEN YOU
TASTED MY STRONG PRIDE
I HATE YOU RESIDENTIAL SCHOOL I HATE YOU
YOU’RE A MONSTER”
You can listen to the full poem here.