What is up with Canada’s Indigenous Peoples?

A commentary on the Plight of Canada’s Indigenous Peoples

Recently, while my wife and I were travelling in the province of Newfoundland, we met a newlywed American couple from Atlanta, Georgia.  They were a delightful couple who we started chatting with while touring an archeological dig in Ferryland where one of the best preserved English colonial sites in North America is located. The colony was established in 1621 by Sir George Calvert and was known as the Colony of Avalon. What surprised me was the groom randomly asked us if Canadians treated their Indigenous Peoples as badly as they did.

Now this really struck me because all over Newfoundland, we were learning about the Beothuk. I used to teach about the Beothuk when I taught Social Studies.  We visited the Port au Choix National Historic Site of Canada where burial sites were uncovered in the 1960s & 70s. The archeological digs have provided evidence of its earliest settlers such as the Maritime Archaic Indians and the ancestors of the Beothuk. You’re probably wondering: Who are the Beothuk? Here is a short history of their sad story.

The Beothuk lived throughout the island of Newfoundland, and because of the Europeans’ arrival, the Beothuk were forced away from their coastal homelands and fish camps to inland territories. Possible violent encounters with the Vikings between 800 and 1000 CE likely caused the Beothuk to avoid the European newcomers as much as possible. The establishment of permanent European settlements in the 1700s significantly altered the Beothuk way of life. causing them to become increasingly isolated. With the increasing English settlement, the Beothuk now had to compete with the European fur trappers. The Beothuk were increasingly denied access to bays where they fished. This created tension, and at times, conflict, between the Beothuk and the Europeans. Many of the Beothuk were hunted and slain by the Europeans.

Shawnadithit

Sadly, as a result of European encroachment, slaughter and diseases to which they had no natural resistance, the Beothuk’s numbers diminished rapidly because of European contact. The last known surviving Beothuk, Shawnadithit, died of tuberculosis in St. John’s in June 1829. In essence, the Beothuk are now extinct.

Hearing the sad story of the Beothuk people got me thinking about how the Indigenous people were treated. I started paying attention to the news stories about our First Nations people. There has been a lot about the indigenous people in the Canadian news lately.

The CBC article, Gord Downie takes to Parliament Hill, describes a rare appearance that Gord Downie made on July 1st during Canada Day celebrations on Parliament Hill. Mr. Downie is the lead singer for the Rock Band Tragically Hip and he rarely makes public appearances because he has brain cancer. On Canada Day, he said Canada’s young Indigenous people are still suffering the same kind of pain that aboriginal youth suffered in the residential schools. Downie told the crowd that young Indigenous children in parts of the Canada still must travel great distances to go to school. He said, “It’s time to listen to the stories of the Indigenous [people], to hear stories about now. We are blessed as a young country to be able to look to the wisdom of a really, really old country.”

In another CBC news article called, Cornwallis statue removal, is a story on the controversial statue erected in the 1930s of Edward Cornwallis, founder of the city of Halifax in Nova Scotia. The statue first became controversial in 1993, when Mi’kmaq writer Daniel Paul released the book We Were Not the Savages. Mr. Paul describes the treatment of the Mi’kmaq people by Cornwallis and the early British settlers whereby the British took land from the Mi’kmaq people, attacked their communities with the aim to drive them out of Nova Scotia, and in 1749 Governor Edward Cornwallis offered a cash bounty to anyone who killed a Mi’kmaq person.

Municipal crews draped a black cloth over the statue of Cornwallis on July 15th when protesters gathered with a plan to remove the statue. The protesters were told that the city would shroud the monument as a sign of good faith. (see Offensive and disgraceful). Indigenous protestors said they will continue negotiating with the city to peacefully remove the statue. Patrick LeBlanc, one of the protesters, said the statue is a painful reminder of the oppression of First Nations people in Canada. LeBlanc said, “This gentleman [Cornwallis] here represented a genocide for our people and to see it every day, it just brings back memories and it also brings back pain.”

In still another CBC news story, Indigenous leaders boycott, it is explained that leaders from the three national Indigenous organizations refused to attend the meeting of Canada’s premiers in Edmonton, Alberta, saying the format does not adhere to the spirit of reconciliation. Assembly of First Nations (AFN) National Chief Perry Bellegarde, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami President Natan Obed and Métis National Council President Clément Chartier told reporters in Toronto, Ontario that the current format subjugates Indigenous issues, because they cannot participate in meetings as full members of the Council of the Federation with province-like powers. In other words, these Indigenous leaders feels that they are not being treated as equals.

Canada is currently celebrating 150 years as a nation, as we should. But let’s be clear. What Canada is really celebrating is 150 years since Confederation, when Canada was granted freedom from British Colonial Rule with the passing of the British North America (BNA) Act. I really like Gord Downie’s words, “We are blessed as a young country to be able to look to the wisdom of a really, really old country.” We are a really old country! Canada is much older than 150 years and it is time to fully recognize and honour the first occupants of our country, our Indigenous people.  There is a reason the Indigenous people are referred to as Canada’s First Nation peoples. They were here first.

Shortly after returning to our home province my wife and I attended a Pow Wow at a nearby Cree Nation Reserve. A Pow Wow is a social gathering of different American Indigenous communities where people meet and dance, sing, socialize, and honour their cultures. It often involves dance and drumming competitions. I was amazed by the elaborate, colourful regalia (costumes) and the supple movements of the ceremonial dances. It is truly an amazing culture and I felt privileged to experience some of it.

A CBC article entitled, Archeological find, describes the ancient archeological find of a Heiltsuk settlement on Triquet Island on the coast of British Columbia. The Heiltsuk are an Indigenous people centred on the island communities of Bella Bella and Klemtu. Archaeologists have excavated a settlement in the area and dated it to 14,000 years ago, during the last ice age when glaciers covered much of North America. William Housty, a member of Heiltsuk Nation said, “This find is very important because it reaffirms a lot of the history that our people have been talking about for thousands of years,” This means the Indigenous people were here at least 14 000 years ago. The English and French didn’t arrive until the 1600s. That is less than 500 years ago.

Our Indigenous people are right to demand to be heard and deserve to be heard. Let’s face it, our European ancestors did not treat the Indigenous people very well, and I have to wonder if we are treating them any better today. If we are, then why are our First Nations people still protesting and demanding equality.

Our Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, in his statement to Canadians on Canada Day said,

“As we mark Canada 150, we also recognize that for many, today is not an occasion for celebration. Indigenous Peoples in this country have faced oppression for centuries. As a society, we must acknowledge and apologize for past wrongs, and chart a path forward for the next 150 years – one in which we continue to build our nation-to-nation, Inuit-Crown, and government-to-government relationship with the First Nations, Inuit, and Métis Nation. Our efforts toward reconciliation reflect a deep Canadian tradition – the belief that better is always possible…”

I wholeheartedly agree.