Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 3/6/2015 (1694 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
For many of us, Tuesday was a tough day. It was hard to watch the faces of people affected by the Indian Residential School system as they broke down, remembering the treatment they received at the hands of the government.
To open up the executive summary and read in the first paragraph of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report that the establishment of government policies in relation to First Nations "can best be described as ‘cultural genocide.’ "
I went to school in Fort Simpson, N.W.T., — a residential school that operated until the 1970s. I was pretty lucky. I was one of a few white kids in that school system, in a community where few white people lived or worked.
As a school kid, I got to keep my long hair, unlike the other kids I went to school with — the brown-skinned girls all with the same pixie haircut and the boys with their buzz cuts. It was easier to take care of short hair than long. It was also easier to treat when there was a lice outbreak. My classmates were so fascinated by my waist-long hair that they would pull it out of the braids my mother fashioned for me to play with it during recess (something that drove my mother to distraction).
Because we lived in airport housing just off the island where Fort Simpson was located, I got to go home every night. My mom or dad could tuck me in, comfort me when I was scared, hug me tight when I was ill. I think back now about my classmates — with memory that is as frosted as glass — and wonder how these tiny children made it. And where are they now? Are they even still alive?
I’m sick of hearing people say First Nations need to get over this. Pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Tired of the ubiquitous taxpayers, screaming that they don’t want their hard-earned money spent on aboriginal issues. You need only read the comments after any story on this issue to get a sense of the rage people feel.
But I am sympathetic too because this all seems too overwhelming and the problem so insurmountable. You want to shut your eyes and just make it go away.
You can’t. As TRC chairman Justice Murray Sinclair put it: "The cost of doing nothing is worse than the cost of doing something." And we cannot continue to do nothing and hope that First Nations problems will disappear. I know that this is just the beginning of a very long dialogue Canada needs to have.
I am also disappointed that the Canadian government was so absent Tuesday. Just one minister was there, Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt. Prime Minister Stephen Harper was not, leaving it up to Valcourt to represent the state. Other ministers were also noticeably missing, including Health Minister Rona Ambrose, Justice Minister Peter MacKay and Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq, the first Inuk to be named to cabinet in Canada.
Ambrose’s portfolio will no doubt play a major role if and when the federal government considers the TRC report, as recommendations include the need to provide mechanisms to close the gap between aboriginal and non-aboriginal people in terms of health care.
MacKay’s department should also be keenly interested in the commission’s report. One of its calls to action included working on reducing the over-representation of aboriginal people in the jail system.
And Aglukkaq? She’s a residential school survivor herself. Surely she could have shown up to provide support. Instead, she posted on her Facebook page: "I am proud of the former students who came forward to speak about their experiences. It took a lot of courage to do this and I thank them for this important and difficult contribution."
She continued by saying: "In order to move forward we will need to continue to work together to rebuild the relationship between aboriginal and non-aboriginal Canadians. I am proud to be a part of a government that recognizes this and is committed to advancing reconciliation with those who suffered from the residential school system."
Nice post, but it falls flat considering that in the House of Commons, Harper would not commit to anything until the government has read the full report, which is not expected until mid or late October. The cynic in me thinks Harper is considering the optics of this as we head to the polls on Oct. 19.
On the plus side, the government did provide funding for the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation that is housed at the University of Manitoba. That’s a positive first step.
And politically, I do get it. The government has to provide careful consideration of the recommendations made. It cannot be a knee-jerk response to the multiplicity of recommendations.
But I would have liked to see my prime minister and his ministers sitting in the audience on Tuesday, surrounded by the survivors. In an era of optic politics, it would have sent a clear message that this is being taken seriously. Or that their voices have been heard.
I would hate to see all the time, money and tears spent by this commission result in a report that will sit on the shelf gathering dust without at least a nod to following through on some of the 94 recommendations — like so many other commissions and reports.
For me, my biggest fear is that Canada is on the precipice in terms of race relations. Douglas Bland, the former chair of defence management studies at Queen’s University, echoes these concerns. In media interviews, he has argued that the conditions are ripe for an uprising by frustrated aboriginal people tired of being ignored by the Canadian state. Indeed, how much longer can we expect First Nations to be patient while grappling with northern food shortages, water issues, inadequate health care and education?
My mom got fed up with the poor education, the insufficient health care and the violence and poverty of the north. She forced my dad to take a demotion to move us south to protect me and my brother and keep us safe. I was one of the lucky ones. I was white.
Shannon Sampert is the Free Press perspectives and politics editor.
Updated on Thursday, June 4, 2015 at 7:26 AM CDT: Adds photo