A History of Canada’s Interaction with First Nations – Part 1

Raeesa Ashique - 2B Electrical
Posted on: November 9, 2016

My first co-op was in London, Ontario, and some of my coworkers were pretty racist. One told me that she does not like Muslims, besides me of course, because I was different. I am pretty sure that I am the only Muslim she has ever known personally, so she really had no basis for the initial statement. Another coworker spoke in an unflattering way about Canada’s First Nations. Again, I am pretty sure he does not know any Aboriginals personally, but as a straight white Canadian male, he feels entitled to gripe about how Aboriginals do not have to pay taxes. I tried to explain to him all of the horrible things that we (Canada) have done to First Nations in the past, until I realized that I have a very poor grasp of the history myself.

Now, this is likely because I went to elementary school in the US. These days Canadian children are taught extensively about Canada’s history of interactions with Aboriginals in elementary school. I actually spoke with an elementary Social Studies teacher to see how this topic is approached, and I will return to that subject later.

In Saskatchewan, where I went to high school, every grade 12 is required to take Canadian Studies if they plan to graduate. Now, theoretically a Canadian Studies course should at the very least explain all the events that happened in our history, even if it is through a white man’s lense. However, in high school we focused on English-French relations, which I agree is important in discussing how Canada evolved to be the country we know today, but it is equally important to discuss Canada’s interaction with First Nations. To be blunt, it is equally important to make students aware of Canada’s horrific treatment of First Nations throughout history. But this is glazed over, and all of these grade 12s are graduating with a very incomplete knowledge of our true history.

When I realized how shockingly messed up the education system is, I became determined to do research on the subject and write this article.

So here I am, making good on some advice Dr. Rachel Griffin gave in a presentation I attended near the beginning of term. She said white people need to feel comfortable standing up and saying “I have privilege”, and then advocating for coloured or minority groups. Heterosexual cisgender people need to feel comfortable standing up and saying “I have privilege”, and then advocating for LGBTQ rights. There aren’t enough minorities with loud enough voices to enact change all on their own. In the same spirit: I am a Muslim female lucky enough to live in Canada where I rarely, if ever, face racism or discrimination. I have privilege. I am trying to standing up for Aboriginal rights, and I am starting with spreading awareness about Canada’s history.

I want to start with sharing my experience from the Integrated Knowledge Summit I attended a couple weekends ago at St. Paul’s. It was organized by the University of Waterloo’s Aboriginal Student Association, and was designed to be an intercultural and cross-disciplinary opportunity for collaboration and change in response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Call to Action. I only attended for part of Saturday, during which I had the opportunity to listen to speakers and panel discussions on various topics, and then sat down to socialize with members of the University’s Aboriginal Education Centre. I gained so much perspective within those few hours, and there are two things I would like to share.

Aboriginal worldview is so much different than the Western worldview. Theirs are foreign to us, as we are a culture built on consumerism and a desire for power, but they are infinitely more beautiful.

For example, Aboriginals honour nature – it is the core of existence, and humans could not exist without it. We are dependent beings. For this reason, many ceremonies centre around giving thanks and acknowledging nature.

They do not think about hierarchy, power, or control. It is all about what one person can do for the community. As one summit attendee said, “It’s not about a win. We’re all in this together.”

They do not have the concept of ownership and commodification. Land cannot be owned, which is why they do not consider their land “stolen” by settlers. How can you steal something that is not possessed? Rather, lives, family, and culture were stolen. Homes were taken away over and over. But it was not about land itself.

A territorial acknowledge is a formal statement honouring the Aboriginal people whose traditional land we stand on. Many events are being opened with the acknowledgement, such as convocation, which is a huge step for reconciliation. The intent of the acknowledgement is not “admitting defeat”, because this is not an Aboriginal value. Again, it is not about winning or losing. It is about working together. It is about reconciliation, which in many definitions means honouring both differences and commonalities. This idea came up a lot during the discussions.

The second, and very powerful, takeaway from the summit is related to stolen culture.

Blue Waters is an elder at Seneca College, where she works with the youth. She says that whenever people ask for her credentials or qualifications, she says that she has worked with people for a very long time. She knows people. To be honest, if I ever needed counselling I would love to go to her. She shared grains of wisdom with every sentence she spoke.

She described the Aboriginal concept of the wellness wheel, which follows the progression of a person’s life. Quadrant one is “emotion” (baby), quadrant two is “physical” (teenager), quadrant three is “intellect” (adult), and quadrant four is “spiritual” (elder). On the wheel, the adult sits opposite from the baby. This is because the baby teaches the parent, and the parent raises the baby. However, at a certain age, the child and parent no longer understand each other, which is around when the child becomes a teenager. At this point, they are sent off to live with their grandparents, which is why teenagers sit opposite to elders on the wheel. The elders are able to provide for their spiritual needs. Also, the teenager is more likely to listen when they are being advised, rather than told.

Today, the fourth quadrant is missing, which keeps the wheel is out of balance. The youth have no one to turn to, and their spiritual needs are not being fulfilled. (Note: Aboriginals are very spiritual people, another thing that is missing in Western culture. Blue Waters commented that the youth in general are missing their spirituality.) They can’t learn about beliefs, ceremonies, culture, or language – colonization took this way, and broke the cycle of continuous learning.

A lot of adults do not know anything about their culture, as so many children were put in residential schools in the 60s. The youth have no one to turn to, since their parents are ignorant and there are not a lot of elders around anymore. Those who are still alive and have knowledge are a resource stretched too thin.

One attendee tearfully lamented the way residential schools infected the whole system. She hated her culture and background as a child and teenager, and tried to avoid her identity. She said that by the time she was ready to learn and remember, it was too late: her grandmother had dementia.

For years, Canada committed cultural genocide, which was basically erasing all evidence of Aboriginal culture. They seized land, forced them to move, destroyed political and social institutions, banned language, persecuted spiritual leaders, and forbade spiritual practices. They destroyed culture, family, and identity, causing trauma and generations of systemic issues within communities.

Next issue, I will get into the actual history of Canada’s interactions with Aboriginals, with a particular focus on the residential schools. In the meantime, I hope I have managed to build some sympathy and share some perspective.