Happy Settlers’ Day

I am very proud to be Canadian. I love our land and water. I love our music, literature and sports. I love our many cultures and how we’re able to intermingle peacefully. There are few things that prevent me from being proud of my Canadian nationality. (That time Celine Dion got right in Aretha Franklin’s face and repeatedly hollered “Jesus!” at a 1998 VH1 Divas Live concert came close.)

So whenever July 1 rolls around, I like to wish neighbours a “Happy Canada Day.” I did so this year at my local pub as patrons took in the FIFA World Cup match between Croatia and Denmark. The staff were decked out in red and white with temporary maple leaf tattoos. One of the regulars there is a First Nations woman named Michelle. I gave her the same “Happy Canada Day” greeting I gave everyone else. She responded with “Happy Settlers’ Day.”

This caught me by surprise. On a day like Canada Day, the tendency is to assume it’s a day of celebration for everyone. We’re always reminded of what a kind country we are, and what a force for good we are on the world stage. Much is made of our universal health care system, our United Nations peacekeepers and our contributions to every area of the arts. It can be somewhat sobering when someone reminds you Canada still has sins for which to atone.

The slaughter of the First Peoples of the New World should be news to no one. Entire races such as the Beothuk of Newfoundland and the Lucayan of the Bahamas have been completely wiped off the planet. Settlers from all over Europe have come to dominate every square kilometre of habitable land in North, South and Central America. That was accomplished through genocide. No one can deny this, and everyone is taught this at some point, but everyone who doesn’t possess First Nations heritage also stops think about it. Canada, after all, is a wealthy First World country. We have work to do, mouths to feed, cars to maintain, and mortgages to pay. We can’t dwell on our ancestors’ sins from centuries ago. Besides, a lot of us are only first or second generation Canadian. It wasn’t our people who slaughtered the Natives. It’s not our debt to pay, right?

In recent years it’s been harder to ignore the strife experienced by Canada’s indigenous peoples. Reserves have long suffered boil-water advisories and suicide crises. Attawapiskat, a native community in Northern Ontario, declared a housing crisis in 2011, spawning the Idle No More movement demanding that First Nations issues become part of mainstream discussion. For a time it felt like Idle No More had an effect, but it wasn’t a lasting one.

Some people seem more ready to acknowledge Canada’s indigenous heritage more readily than others – people like Kathleen Wynne who only just vacated the premier’s chair in Ontario. Every time she speaks in public, she opens by acknowledging the people who first occupied the territory on which she is standing. It’s a small gesture, but it’s one she never fails to repeat, and it conveys respect to those people.

Gord Downie, the late lead singer of The Tragically Hip, went further on August 20, 2016. It was the band’s last concert, and a third of Canadian eyeballs were trained on the K-Rock Centre in Kingston, Ontario. The band were playing the intro to a new song entitled “Machine” when Downie took advantage of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s presence in the audience. Noticing the irony of a fan’s sign reading “Thank you Prime Minister Downie,” the terminally-ill singer remarked “Well, you know, Prime Minister Trudeau has got me. His work with First Nations. He’s got everybody. He’s going to take us where we need to go. And we gotta be a country; it’s gotta take a hundred years to figure out what the hell went on up there. But it isn’t cool, and everybody knows that. It’s really, really bad. But we’re going to figure it out. You’re going to figure it out.”

The Tragically Hip may have come to an end that night, but Downie wasn’t done shining a light on the wrongs suffered by Canada’s First Peoples. What no one knew was that he had written an album, Secret Path, inspired by the death of a 12-year-old indigenous boy fleeing from a residential school fifty years earlier. Comic book great Jeff Lemire created a graphic novel to accompany the album, which would be animated for a special on CBC TV. Downie and Lemire’s retelling of the tragic death of Chanie Wenjack brought the subject of Canada’s residential schools into mainstream consciousness.

Canada’s residential school system started in 1876 as an effort to rid indigenous children of their culture. The schools comprised of rotting buildings that served as breeding grounds for tuberculosis. Students were taken from their families, starved, sexually molested, and experimented on with new supplements and additives. Wenjack’s story, sadly, isn’t unique; Duncan Sticks ran away from a residential school in Williams lake, B.C. in 1902, only to die from exposure. A 1920 revision to the Indian Act made it legal for the Canadian government to force indigenous children to go to residential schools. The government convinced many First Nations parents that sending their children to these schools was to their benefit. Uncooperative families would see government agents driving into town and physically grabbing kids walking on the side of the road, herding them onto trains.

A June 2016 Environics poll showed that only 66 percent of Canadians had heard of residential schools. Less than half of those who heard of them knew about the abuse and molestation. Less than a third knew about the separation of children from their parents. Less than a fifth realized students were forbidden to speak their own language. I’m sure most people think that these schools closed sometime around Wenjack’s death, but those people would be wrong. Canada’s last residential school closed in 1996. More time has passed since a Canadian team last won the Stanley Cup.

All of this makes the outrage Canadians level at the Drumpf Administration when it comes to the practice of separating the children of undocumented immigrants from their parents very tone-deaf. Not only does this show disrespect to our own indigenous people, but it speaks to an over-willingness to consume American news media at the expense of our own self-awareness as a nation.

The Canadian government has apologized. In 1998 Indian Affairs Minister Jane Stewart acknowledged the government’s role in residential schools and apologized to victims of abuse. In 2006 the government settled a lawsuit from 79,000 survivors of residential school abuse for $1.9 billion. Two years later Prime Minister Stephen Harper rose in the House of Commons and addressed Phil Fontaine, head of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs (himself a survivor of residential school abuse) along with other victims. The schools, Harper said, “were based on the assumption Aboriginal cultures and spiritual beliefs were inferior and unequal. Indeed, some sought, as it was infamously said, ‘to kill the Indian in the child.’ Today, we recognize that this policy of assimilation was wrong, has caused great harm and has no place in our country.

“The burden of this experience has been on your shoulders for far too long,” he continued. “The burden is properly ours as a government, and as a country. There is no place in Canada for the attitudes that inspired the Indian residential schools system to ever prevail again. You have been working on recovering from this experience for a long time and in a very real sense; we are now joining you on this journey. The Government of Canada sincerely apologizes and asks the forgiveness of the Aboriginal peoples of this country for failing them so profoundly.”

It may have been an eloquent apology, but it would have been better had the ensuing years demonstrated a willingness towards including First Nations people as full partners in our country. A federal inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women and girls has been plagued with the departures of two different executive directors. In December 2017 a special gathering of chiefs hosted by the Assembly of First Nations approved a resolution calling for the federal government to reset the inquiry by replacing the chief commissioner. Prime Minister Trudeau has shown no signs of fulfilling their request. More than a hundred Native reserves are still living under drinking water advisories. None of this is acceptable in a wealthy First World country.

Throughout its 120 years of existence, the residential school system damaged several generations of indigenous children in many untold ways. Over that time, thirty-three children died of exposure running away from the schools, and children in the schools died of tuberculosis at a rate five times higher than other Canadian children. For several decades indigenous Canadians have been trying to call attention to the horrible realities of residential schools, so it can’t help but be somewhat distressing that their voices were ignored while Gord Downie’s was heard. Yes, Downie has done a lot of good. Future generations will learn Chanie Wenjack’s story through Secret Path. It may prove to be Downie’s most enduring legacy, but there is another lesson Canadians can learn from Secret Path – to pay attention to First Nations people.

I don’t think there was anything rude in the way Michelle wished me a “Happy Settlers’ Day.” I think she is just tired of her people being overlooked. Yes, Canada has brought a lot of good into the world, but we must address our failings. A good way to start is to listen to what First Nations people have to say. They have been kept down for centuries, and the onus is on everyone in the country to include them as equal partners in society.