Foreign Affairs

A Conversation on Canada’s Forgotten Peoples

Nick Romanow: This semester, I was lucky enough to be joined at The Orator by a couple of fellow Canadians, one of which has very graciously agreed to join me in a conversation about a recurring topic in Canadian politics: First Nations issues. First Nations are what people in the States refer to as “Native American” communities; the Canadian government’s relations with these peoples is a long, often messy history, which we will try to break down and compare to Indigenous issues here in the United States. First, I want to start out by sharing our personal connections to Canadian Indigenous communities.

My family is originally from the province of Saskatchewan, which is overwhelmingly rural and sparsely populated. The Indigenous community makes up a noticeable segment of Saskatchewan. As a child, I remember visiting family and playing with Indigenous children in the park. It has only been since I left Canada that I have realized the hardships faced by generations of Indigenous peoples. I was very shocked to hear when my home province became the site of what is called “Canada’s Trayvon Martin” moment when an Indigenous man was shot and killed by a Saskatchewan farmer. These issues are always overlooked by rather rosy caricatures of Canada, so I look forward to uncovering some of the realities of this dire problem. Morgan, would you like to start off with a little introduction to your ties and background to First Nations in Canada?

Morgan Learn: Kwe sewakwekon! Morgan iónkiats. Kanien’kehá:ka niwakonhwentsiò:ten. (Hello everyone! My name is Morgan and I am Mohawk). The Kanien’kehá:ka People mostly reside in Ontario; however, we have bands in upstate New York as well. I belong to the Bay of Quinte band located in Kingston, although my grandfather from many generations ago founded the city known as Brantford, and my family has lived there ever since. Unfortunately, I did not grow up on my reserve, or even in Canada, but I made frequent visits to see family. I think Nick will have more anecdotal accounts than me, but the history of my people and the struggles of Indigenous Peoples in general is something I can very much relate to. For instance, the Bay of Quinte reserve is trying to revitalize our language after colonial efforts to eradicate Indigenous languages via residential schools. I think because Canada is idealized as a “promised land,” many people are unaware of the atrocities that have happened and continue to happen there.

Nick: Let’s start off by getting into some of that history. Canada was a loose collection of British colonies and territories until 1867 when those colonies became a confederation that we now know to be Canada. Before the creation of Canada as a formal country, European settlers negotiated a series of treaties with local tribes that resulted in the surrender of First Nations land. Once Canada was confederated under the British North America Act of 1867, the Canadian government expanded its influence on Indigenous groups. The Numbered Treaties continued the pre-Confederation practice of negotiating land surrenders; these treaties were largely coerced and one-sided. The Indian Act of 1876 enabled large-scale control of Indigenous peoples. This law facilitated the systematic assimilation of “Indians” and laid the groundwork for the residential schools system which is seen as the gravest atrocity against Canadian First Nations. I think that you can probably explain residential schools and their impact far better than I can.

Morgan: One thing I want to touch on quickly is the impact of the Indian Act of 1876. Not only did it pave the way for residential schools, but as you said, it coercively assimilated First Nations Peoples into white culture. Practicing our traditions and ceremonies was illegal. Speaking our languages also became illegal and Natives were forced to adopt Anglo names. It was cultural genocide which intrinsically caused actual genocide. All Indian culture was practically decimated. We were killed off culturally and for some people physically because they could not or did not want to meet the demands of the Canadian government. I think the best way to talk about the impact of residential schools is to give a familial account of what transpired behind their walls.

My great-grandfather was stolen from his mother after his father passed away. His mother was deemed “unfit” to take care of him, and was subsequently taken to the Mohawk Institute Residential School in Brantford, Ontario. My grandfather, John, was born with an Anglo name, however, he was a fluent Kanien’kehá speaker. Seeing that speaking his language was an offense worthy of severe punishment, he never spoke it again. That decision impacted him as well as the rest of my family. His daughter (my grandmother) was never taught the language and was forbidden to learn about her culture. She then passed on those same sentiments to my dad, and he to me. Aside from the cultural dissemination, the physical abuse was its own kind of perdition. My grandfather was lucky enough to live through the traumatic experiences by running away at the age of 16; however, others weren’t as lucky. Other children were abused either sexually, physically, or both. The school’s food was eventually referred to as “Maggot Mush” because of its disgusting consistency, color, and source of protein.

I recently visited Brantford over the winter break, and the Mohawk Institute was one of the pit-stops I made while there. The school is being remodeled almost like a memorial for the children who lived and, sadly, died there, but the feeling of loss, desperation, and heartache still seep through the exposed pipes. I feel like I carry my grandfather’s trauma with me, but I only feel a sliver of the pain he felt while he was at the Mohawk Institute.

Nick: The best understanding of the history and its impact comes from personal stories like that. The residential school system existed for most of the twentieth century. The last one closed in 1996 — that’s within a lifetime of some current college students. Canada as a nation has only recently begun to come to grips with its dark past. Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued the first apology to victims of the residential schools on behalf of the Canadian government in 2008. Some First Nations leaders found hope in the statement, while others were less receptive to what they viewed as merely words. In that same year, the federal government launched the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was directed to uncover the facts of the abuse as well as offer recommendations to mend the deep wounds in Canadian society. In 2015, the Commission released its report and made 94 recommendations. Some of these steps have been taken, but most are either currently in progress or yet to be started.

Reconciliation is a tough subject. It is meant to answer the question: “What do we do now?” There are certainly legal and policy changes that can and must be made, but the real challenge lies in the general public. Can there ever be trust again between First Nations and non-Aboriginal Canadians? I definitely hope so, but it won’t be easy. It will require the courage to accept what happened and to offer forgiveness in return. For you, what does the idea of reconciliation mean, and do you have hope that it will bring a better future for all Canadians?

Morgan: My response is going to seem somewhat cynical, but I feel as though it’s a sentiment that many Indigenous People share. Reconciliation is not for Indigenous People. The idea itself was created by colonizers for colonizers. I feel like it’s a way to suppress white guilt. Canada has not respected our sovereignty, rights, or treaties. For there to be actual “reconciliation” we need to be respected as nations.

Nick: It’s clear that Canada still has a long way to go on this issue. Arguably, the treatment of First Nations is as bad as America’s well-documented history of racism and discrimination. As my home country, Canada holds a special place in my heart, and you’re right, it induces a lot of painful feelings to see how this country has fallen short of its promises. Policy-wise, the Canadian federal government is slow and clumsy, but I hope that Canadian culture can start to drive change and move forward.

I believe there are some positive signs. Local schools, stadiums, and other organizations are starting the practice of acknowledgement. Where school days and sporting events in the U.S. often start with a pledge or an anthem, Canadians will start events with a spoken statement that “acknowledges” the peoples who occupied the land before Europeans arrived. It doesn’t undo any of the hardship, but it at least begins the long process of reconciliation

In the United States, Native American affairs seem to receive a very limited amount of attention in public conversation. Maybe adopting some form of acknowledgement may change that. Besides that, the governments of both nations must take the community more seriously and find ways to promote opportunities for Indigenous groups. I don’t know what that looks like exactly, so maybe you can shed some more light on what changes you want to see in both the States and Canada.

Morgan: I think what ought to happen first in the U.S. is acknowledging the mass genocide of the Indigenous Peoples who resided on this land well before colonizers came. The U.S. had its own residential schooling system that has yet to be addressed as well. Indigenous Peoples in both the U.S. and Canada want to be seen and respected as sovereign Nations. We want the right to self-determination. We want to be heard by the Canadian and U.S. governments when we say we don’t want pipelines burrowing under our land. We want to be heard when we say murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls have become an epidemic in our community perpetuated by non-Natives.

We face the highest rates of police brutality in the U.S.; in Canada, we account for almost 25 percent of total adult inmates, but only 3 percent of the total population. There are so many issues facing the Indigenous community that it’s hard to pinpoint a good starting point for change. What I just listed doesn’t fully encompass all of the problems we face on a daily basis. But any change is a step in the right direction, we just need commitments from both countries.

Nick: The first step in solving any problem is identifying it, and I think this conversation was successful in doing that. There are a number of lessons that both Canada and the United States need to learn. This will take time, but I agree with you that even small changes are a step in the right direction. It is not an easy subject to talk about, but it is an important one nonetheless. So thank you for having this discussion with me; I learned a lot and hope our readers do too.

The motto of my home province, Saskatchewan, captures the spirit of Canada as a whole quite well: out of many peoples, strength. Canada, like the U.S. or any other nation, is a deeply imperfect place. But through these conversations and the action that follow, we can one day realize the true strength of many peoples.

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