There is an ironic juxtaposition of National Aboriginal Day, which takes place today, Wednesday, June 21, and the Canada Day celebration of Canada’s 150th birthday. Although many indigenous people may well ask what they have to celebrate on Canada Day, national aboriginal leaders have encouraged their people to join in the celebrations in a spirit of reconciliation. Assembly of First Nations (AFN) National Chief Perry Bellegarde issued a statement which reads, in part:
“On the 20th anniversary of National Aboriginal Day, we are poised on a new era of reconciliation, a time to renew our original relationship of partnership, respect and sharing. This is a time to be hopeful for what the future holds. A number of celebrations will be taking place across the country, and I encourage First Nations and all Canadians to participate in these events. It is an opportunity to get to know one another better. Education and awareness leads to understanding and action.”
The official Canadian Government website for Indian Affairs encourages Canadians: “On June 21, celebrate the heritage, diverse cultures and outstanding achievements of First Nations, Inuit and Métis!” This is at a time when many First Nations communities can’t drink the water on their reserves, have absolutely no economic development opportunities, and suffer from high rates of addiction and suicide as a result. The federal government apologised for the horror of the residential schools, and then cut funding for future First Nations’ historical research by up to 70%, as though to ensure that no-one could ever discover more of the sordid history of Canadian treatment of indigenous peoples.
There are many, no doubt, who believe the racist stereotypes of the drunken, lazy Indian, the welfare bum who gets everything for nothing. We are all human, and no ethnic group is perfect and without problems, but the indigenous people of Canada have always shown an amazing resilience, patience and tolerance when faced with the prejudice and oppression they received from the settler community. After working in indigenous history for thirty years, their attitude continually amazes me. Compared to what they have lost, the land, resources, cultural and spiritual traditions, language and all through a policy of apartheid and inequality, free education and tax advantages hardly count for very much.
So many examples from history could be given, but here’s one that may speak to some in this community. Francis Pegahmagabow was a young man from the Parry Sound Band [Wasauksing First Nation]. He joined up in 1914, one of thousands of aboriginal soldiers who did so. By the end of the war, he was the most highly decorated of them all. He was credited with 378 kills, as well as the capture of 300 prisoners. Francis Pegahmagabow was awarded the Military Medal in 1916 and received two additional bars to that medal, one of only 39 members of the Canadian Expeditionary Force to receive two bars to the Military Medal. In addition, he received at least two other medals for service. He fought overseas for almost the entire war, seeing action in some of its most horrific battles: Second Battle of Ypres, the Somme, Passchendaele, Battle of the Scarpe.
Francis, like all indigenous soldiers, was granted the right to vote during the war; but once back on the reserve, that right was taken away from him again. He was subject to the whims and biases of the Indian Agent, as well as the restrictions of the Indian Act. No other section of the Canadian population is controlled by an Act of Parliament. The Indian Act dictates, along with Indian department regulations, who qualifies as a “status Indian”, regardless of how any individual self-identifies, or of their family backgrounds. At the same time, the way in which the Act has impacted the socio-economic lives of First Nations has left them unable to create stable economic foundations on many reserves.
It’s simply not enough to say “sorry” and hope that makes up for centuries of apartheid and oppression: to properly celebrate Canada 150, we need to seriously rethink our past relationship with aboriginal groups, and pay attention to National Chief Bellegarde’s wise words: “This is a time to be hopeful for what the future holds…It is an opportunity to get to know one another better. Education and awareness leads to understanding and action.”