Written by: Iloe Ariss
As I start this article, I would just like to acknowledge that Harbord Collegiate stands on Mississaugas of the New Credit territory. It is Aboriginal heritage month at Harbord, and the fact that it only receives one month of recognition sort of irks me. It is forced to share its time of recognition because November also happens to be Financial Literacy month. Not that financial literacy is unimportant, it is extremely useful to have an understanding of taxes and financial matters, but couldn’t it have been slotted for December or January? This is just another, although more subtle, marginalization of Aboriginal people.
Recently at Harbord we had a visit from Professor Douglas Sanderson who gave an engaging talk on Aboriginal history and the interactions with the Europeans who came to Canada. He is a member of the Opaskwayak First Nation and most of his research pertains to Aboriginal people, so he is highly knowledgeable. He depicted the arrival of the first Europeans in the 1600’s explaining how they were helped by different First Nations groups and learned the beaded documentation (Wampum belts) used by the First Nations, in order to make contracts with them. All was relatively peaceful. Canada was cold and difficult to navigate so the newcomers were thankful for all the help they could get. But then they became more familiar with Canada and their population grew, so they no longer needed to trade with or receive guidance from the Aboriginal peoples. In fact they saw Aboriginal people as in their way, occupying land that the settlers wanted to farm or mine. In the 1850’s things started going downhill and the notorious “Numbered Treaties” were drawn up, these treaties were wholly written by the settlers, in print on paper and in a language that only the settlers knew. There were oral translations into various indigenous languages, but they were poorly done and incomplete. So in signing these treaties the settlers were obviously the more advantaged party. And thus, Aboriginal people were pushed into the corners of Canada onto tiny reserves and (according to the Canadian government) awaiting assimilation. Perhaps one thinks “Well that sucks, but what’s it got to do with me?” It’s often hard for people to relate with issues in different areas, let alone ones from 250 years ago. The thing is, when those treaties were signed they bound not only Aboriginal peoples but the Canadian Government as well, in effect all Canadians. The treaties are active today and continue to bind us. The reminder, the connection, if one can see no other; is that we are all treaty people. We are all treaty people.
Another guest we were visited by was Drew Hayden Taylor, Aboriginal author, from Curve Lake. He prefers to be introduced as Anishnaabe, which is the name of his people in their language (known as ‘Ojibwe’ in english). He told us about how he became a writer and talked about his repertoire. He also talked about Aboriginal culture with an emphasis on humour in particular, explaining that Aboriginal humour is self-deprecating. He talked about how humour was a link between all cultures, even though there are some variations. He is an ‘Aboriginal success story’ but there are not nearly enough of these stories. First Nations people often have fewer opportunities because they are more likely to be poor than non-aboriginal Canadians.
Aboriginal peoples rights and their land (many Aboriginal peoples’ philosophy on land-ownership is much less destructive and possessive than the Caucasian perspective) are still being infringed upon. Some of the poorest communities are situated in Northern Ontario on land that is known as the “Ring of Fire”, it is extremely mineral-rich which makes it a target for mining companies. The community Kitchenuhmaykoosib-Inniniwug (KI) recently had to fight for the protection of their land against a mining company called Platinex. It was long-fought battle; six members of the Band Council, including the Chief were thrown in jail for months without reason. Finally they were released and eventually kept Platinex off of their land. Many cases like these are not won, in fact sometimes there aren’t even cases at all as the miners make claims on the land and begin building without notifying the people that live there. It’s like someone coming into your house and saying “Ok, you get the front half of the house, and we get the back half and the basement.” Unfortunately because of the layout of your house your kitchen is in the back half so you no longer have food to eat or clean water to drink. You ask the people in the back of your house to leave and stop contaminating the water with all their drilling, they refuse to stop, however, so you’re forced to move to your neighbour’s house. Having two families in one house is a bit crowded and there aren’t really enough bedrooms for everyone or enough food, so your quality of life goes down, plus the water main has been contaminated from the drilling so you aren’t sure if the water in your neighbour’s house is safe to drink. Aboriginal peoples in Alberta, particularly those living near Fort McMurray are constantly in this situation because of the ever-expanding tar sands.
The point is, this has got to stop. Canadian governments keep debilitating Aboriginal peoples all across Canada like nothing has changed since the days of the residential school; Canadians are still actively destroying Aboriginal peoples. Two apologies for residential schools have been issued, one in 1998 and another by Steven Harper in 2008, both promising further support of First Nations in Canada, however, there is very little evidence of these promises. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was developed in order to educate all Canadian youth on the horror of residential schools was an important step but does not go far enough into the present.
I would like to mention the great initiative put together by SLIC through Amnesty International in which students from our school signed postcards calling on the government to account for and investigate the many cases of missing and murdered Aboriginal women. The amount of missing and murdered Aboriginal women is abhorrent and something must be done to stop the numbers rising. I hope that this call to action is impressed heavily upon the government so that they do act.
When the government signed treaties with the First Nations in the late 1800’s it bound all of us in contract. Although there were many unfair settlements in them there were some beneficial to Aboriginal peoples, and those are the ones that have not been held up by the Canadian government. It is appalling how badly First Nations groups have been treated when all the different Aboriginal peoples distinct cultures should be recognized and celebrated. People need to recognize that discrimination is happening still, and the way to stop it is through being informed, being aware and fighting for Aboriginal peoples rights because they deserve them as much as non-Aboriginal Canadians do.