Submitted by Robert Macrae
After the release of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (1996) report, I began to read more regarding Canada’s Indigenous peoples. The RCAP recommended substantive changes to the relationship between Canada’s Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples, to respect Indigenous cultures, Indigenous nationhood, and the inherent right to Indigenous self-determination.
I read Ipperwash: The Tragic Failure of Canada’s Aboriginal Policy (2013) by Edward J. Hedican, a history of Canada’s Indigenous peoples from pre-contact to the present. Hedican, an academic, explains treaties, the legacy of broken promises, residential schools and events such as the Ipperwash and Oka crises.
I read Keeping the Lakes’ Way: Reburial and Re-creation of a Moral World Among an Invisible People (1999) by Paula Pryce. Pyrce introduced me to the Sinixt, Indigenous people who live where I live, to their culture and history. She goes far beyond what I knew: the Sinixt were declared extinct in 1956 and therefore lost their legal Indigenous status. The Sinxit recently successfully challenged that decision.
I read We Share our Matter: Two Centuries of Writing and Resistance at Six Nations of the Grand River (2014) by Rick Monture, a history of the Haudenosaunee (Mohawk) people. I didn’t know this history although I grew up in southern Ontario close to Haudenosaunee reserves.
I read The Inconvenient Indian, Green Grass Running Water, and Indians on Vacation by Thomas King, in part because I was a fan of King’s CBC radio program, “Dead Dog Café Comedy Hour.” King is Indigenous and an excellent writer. He provides personal and mythic perspectives.
However, it was Seven Fallen Feathers (2017) by Tanya Talaga that crystallized the injustices, the privations and hardships, the intergenerational trauma of Indigenous peoples since European contact – systematic betrayals, theft of their land, destruction of their cultures – colonization and genocide.
Talaga recounts the stories of Aboriginal teens from remote communities in northern Ontario who travel hundreds of kilometres from their homes to Thunder Bay to attend high school because there is no alternative if they wish to continue their education. These are children, as young as 14 years old, who travel bravely from small villages to a large city for the first time to board with families and to negotiate the challenges of city life, with limited support and with limited life skills. Their travels were frequently punctuated by racism.
As these children walked along sidewalks, unprovoked passersby in cars would regularly scream insults and throw garbage at them. Remember Barbara Kentner, killed in Thunder Bay by someone who threw a trailer hitch at her from a moving vehicle.
Like Kentner, these children started to die. Talaga relates the circumstances of their seven young deaths over a period of years. Had more attention been paid to the early deaths, the later deaths might have been avoided, but reaction was slow, presumably because they were Indigenous children.
What these seven fallen feathers were doing prior to their deaths was no different than what non-Indigenous children do. The difference is the safety net for non-Indigenous children. People, including the police, in Thunder Bay and other Canadian communities care and watch non-Indigenous children to protect them from their mistakes.
Teens think they’re immortal, seek peer acceptance, engage in risky behaviours. It took the death of seven Indigenous children before we noticed this unfolding tragedy, which is shameful, but upon reflection, unsurprising. It took over 1,000 deaths between 1980 and 2012 before we noticed the tragedy of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. Canada’s safety net for Indigenous people is filled with gaping holes.
Talaga describes Indigenous communities in northern Ontario. They often lack clean water and sewage treatment. Housing is decrepit, unsafe, overcrowded. Health and educational services are substandard. Unemployment is high. The communities are overseen by a heavily bureaucratic, under-funded administrative system with responsibilities unclearly divided between the federal and provincial governments.
The system fails to provide for Indigenous people at the same standard as non-Indigenous people. These scandalously overlooked holes in the safely net span generations. In spite of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Idle No More, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the National Report on Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls, there still isn’t consensus on the need, let alone a plan, to mend the safety net for Indigenous people.
In the next federal election, I will support candidates with a clear commitment to improve the lives of Canada’s Indigenous peoples.
Robert M. Macrae is an Environmental Technology Instructor from Castlegar, B.C.