In the middle of all the dramatic media coverage of the Indigenous Residential Schools issue over the last year, it became very clear that there are many inaccurate and misleading ideas circulating about Indigenous matters generally. Much of the coverage of these issues contained far more heat than light, and that has only added to the misleading impression many Canadians have about what Indigenous peoples deal with on a daily basis.
The Municipality of North Grenville has just announced a new Land Acknowledgment statement which they intend to incorporate in all future activities. The municipality is also carrying out training for staff on Indigenous matters and in dealing properly with the Indigenous community at large. This is a process that is being followed by many other municipalities across Canada, as they grapple with the Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) dealing with the municipal level of government.
It is becoming quite common these days to hear such Land Acknowledgments being recited before various events and activities, and that is a clear sign of the growing awareness within the population at large of the importance of recognising Canadian history and its founding peoples. But there are still very many who consider these developments in a most negative light. Old prejudices die hard, and a misunderstanding of what initiatives like Land Acknowledgments actually mean, and what implications they might have on other Canadians, often leads to opposition and antagonism.
As someone who has worked with, and for, Indigenous communities and organisations for over thirty years, I have seen the reality behind the image that too many Canadians still have about Indigenous people. There is the old and inaccurate idea that “Indians get everything for free. They don’t pay taxes, and they are lazy and spoiled by not having to work like we do”.
On the other hand, there are those who are keen to see these positive developments, and would like to join in the campaign to deal with historic grievances and hurts. The problem is that they don’t know what it is they can actually and practically do. At the Day of Reconciliation last September 30, there was a large turnout for various events around the country. In some places, a smudging ceremony was held, and the public were invited to take part. But, due to uncertainty about what the ceremony was actually about, or because they were not sure about how to take part, there was a reluctance on the part of the most supportive people attending the events to join in the ceremony.
There is, in fact, a cultural ignorance on the part of Canadians. As with so many other areas of life, informed citizens are a necessary part of reconciliation and nation building. If there is to be any progress away from the traditional apartheid system which Canada has historically imposed on Indigenous peoples in this country, we, as citizens, need to know that history, need to understand the cultures and traditions of the first peoples.
You may note that I use the plural: “nations”, and “peoples”. There is a tendency to speak of all Indigenous people as a single, monolithic group, not recognising that the Algonquin are completely separate in culture, language, and history, from, for example, the Haida of British Columbia. There’s another interesting issue concerning terminology. British Columbia: an expression of colonial history. Not that those names and titles need to be abolished, but there is a need to understand that they do not always reflect the history of the land. What is Haida G’waii to the Haida people are the Queen Charlotte Islands to others. Not recognising the differing cultures of the First Nations is like thinking of the Irish and the Germans as the same, just because both are European peoples.
So, there is much to be done to remove false narratives, misunderstandings, both within those who are suspicious of initiatives like Land Acknowledgments, and those who want to be part of the Truth and Reconciliation process. What we at the Times can do is bring information to readers, information about Indigenous history, culture, experience. Over the coming months, we hope to publish articles on these topics, to allow Indigenous writers, artists, and others to have a voice also. I have never believed, as an historian, that only those involved in a group can write and discuss matters concerning that group. It is not just Irish people who have the right and the credibility to write about Irish matters. In the same way, non-Indigenous people can discuss and write about Indigenous issues, bringing to the work a different perspective, while honouring and acknowledging that “inside” information that Indigenous people bring to the table.
Not everyone will consider this to be “appropriate”, perhaps. Many people believe that newspapers should only publish news, and be objective and dispassionate. We don’t agree. Informing readers about things is publishing news, new facts and ideas, sometimes differing viewpoints and attitudes. Because we do not all agree on everything, no matter how informed we may be. Different perspectives can be about far more positive changes than a simple and single interpretation of history.
One of the great lessons the historian learns is that, in a sense, there are no “good guys”, nor should we expect to find them. We are all flawed human beings, not by any means perfect. To live together in peace and community we have to acknowledge that, too. And, as always, if you don’t want to know, if you don’t want to find out, then don’t read those articles. But I believe it is worth the time and effort to find out, to examine, debate, and explore, even when it makes us uncomfortable. That is what life is all about, isn’t it?