As a now retired school teacher who taught high school social studies, I have taught about the indigenous (First Nations or aboriginal) people for about 30 years. I have always been drawn to the indigenous people especially to their spirituality and their tremendous respect for Mother Earth before contact with the European explorers. For several years I had the privilege of working with aboriginal people when I taught courses to adults a few weekends during the year. I have always been sympathetic to the plight of the aboriginal people in North America. From the moment the Europeans landed on this continent to the present day, aboriginal people have been exploited and treated unjustly, so when I read about improved relations between our leaders and indigenous people, I cheer.
According to a CBC article, Aboriginal’s top newsmakers of 2015, it was an exceptional year for indigenous people in Canada, a year that included truth and reconciliation, a year when ten indigenous Members of Parliament (MPs) were elected to Canada’s parliament and the year the long-awaited inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women and girls was announced.
In case you are not familiar with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), here is a little history lesson. The Commission’s five-year mandate was to inform all Canadians about what happened in Indian Residential Schools (IRS). The TRC hopes to guide and inspire Aboriginal people and Canadians in a process of reconciliation and renewed relationships that are based on mutual understanding and respect. After travelling about the country for six years, the committee collected 6,740 statements from survivors of the Residential Schools and recorded 1,355 hours of testimony. The Commission completed its task on June 2, 2015.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission report makes 94 recommendations for change in policies, programs and the “way we talk to, and about, each other.” These recommendations include the creation of a National Centre and Council for Truth and Reconciliation and the drafting of new and revised legislation for education, child welfare, aboriginal languages, and the implementation of the United Nations Declaration on Indigenous Peoples.
If you don’t know much about the legacies of Residential Schools, here is another lesson. (It’s the teacher in me. I just have to teach). After the closing of the schools, which operated from the 1870s to 1996, and held some 150,000 aboriginal children over the decades, many former students made allegations of physical, psychological, and sexual abuse, plus accusations of neglect. The sole aim of residential schools was to assimilate First Nations children into the European culture. There were also student deaths at these institutions as well as burials of numerous deceased students in unmarked graves without the notification or consent of the parents. I personally have heard residential school survivors tell their stories and break down weeping when doing so. It is a very painful topic for many of them. This is not a part of our history that I am proud of. I have also taught about the atrocities that have occurred in these schools and witnessed students distraught because of it. Students instinctively know, as all of us do, that the way the indigenous people were treated was unjust.
CBC reports that on December 14,2015, the completed Truth and Reconciliation report was released in an emotional ceremony that had commission chair Justice Murray Sinclair choked with emotion and newly elected Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wiping away tears. Kudos to our leaders who recognize the wrongs done to the aboriginal people.
Then there is the missing and murdered aboriginal women in Canada, an issue that First Nations people have been lobbying our government to conduct an inquiry on for at least a decade. The following statistics are from the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) fact sheet based on March 2010 statistics. The association gathered information on about 582 cases of missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls. Of these:
67% are murder cases (death as the result of homicide or negligence);
20% are cases of missing women or girls;
4% are cases of suspicious death—deaths regarded as natural or accidental by police, but considered suspicious by family or community members; and
9% are cases where the nature of the case is unknown—it is unclear whether the woman was murdered, is missing or died in suspicious circumstances.
The number of missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls in Canada is disproportionately high. NWAC’s research indicates that, between 2000 and 2008, Aboriginal women and girls represented approximately 10% of all female homicides in Canada. However, Aboriginal women make up only 3% of the female population. What is interesting is the NWAC has found that only 53% of murder cases involving Aboriginal women and girls have led to charges of homicide. This is dramatically different from other homicide cases in Canada, which was last reported as 84% solved cases according to Statistics Canada.
On December 8th, 2015, Canada’s new Liberal government announced that the first phase of an inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women and girls would begin. This is great news for those grieving families who lost their children. They have a right to know what happened to their loved ones.
The October 2015 federal election saw 54 indigenous candidates enter the race, and a groundbreaking push to have First Nation, Inuit and Métis people head to the polls. When it was over, ten indigenous MPs were elected to Canada’s House of Commons; the most ever. Newly elected Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told the Assembly of First Nations, “It is time for a renewed, nation-to-nation relationship with First Nations people. One that understands that the constitutionally guaranteed rights of First Nations in Canada are not an inconvenience but rather a sacred obligation.” This is great news for Canada. I cannot say it any better than Assembly of First Nations Chief Perry Bellegarde who said, “It sends a powerful statement about inclusion and it sends a powerful statement about the reconciliation that is going to be required in rebuilding a new relationship between Canada and Indigenous Peoples.” A new kind of relationship with our First Nations people has been long overdue. Kudos to Canada’s new PM for initiating a new kind of relationship; a relationship that can only make this a better country.
Now I know many people do not feel the same as I do about these events. There has been, and still is, much racism between our people. Having said that, racism stems from ignorance, and so much of that racism is due to misinformation and misunderstanding between aboriginal and non-aboriginal people. I am hopeful that the TRC and the National Inquiry will educate and eradicate that ignorance, bringing about a new relationship. They were the first people on this continent and rightfully deserve to be treated with the same respect and privileges as non-aboriginal Canadians. It has been a long time coming!