Friday, November 7, 2014

Truth and Reconciliation....Indigenous peoples are Canada's "cold cases"

UPDATE:  November 27, 2014 Police completed digging up the concrete floor of the Cannington Barn where it was alleged three Aboriginal boys were buried.  No bodies were found.  A case of false memory?  Perhaps we'll never know.
UPDATE:  November 14, 2014  Police have begun excavating the barn floor where it is alleged that three aboriginal boys were buried in the 1950's.
Severn and Jacob....two aboriginal youths from the
 Great Slave Lake region of Northern Canada
I sketched them in charcoal in August of 1966

A month or so ago, a CBC documentary by television reporter Paul Hunter Cold Case:  Murders of three aboriginal boys goes uninvestigated got me reflecting about the plight of indigenous peoples (called "First Nations") in Canada.  The three boys are suspected to have been murdered in the 1960's in southern Ontario by a violent pedophile farmer, who then buried their bodies beneath the cement floor in his barn.  The horrific act was witnessed by his young daughter (the victim of his rapes and physical abuse) who was warned that if she told anyone he would kill her.  Haunted by the evil deed forever after, the daughter grew up and eventually went to police.  The tale then takes some interesting twists and need to watch the video to understand.  IMO, it is a window on how indigenous peoples are treated in Canada.

Reading this story got me to thinking about Severn and Jacob, the two aboriginal youths that I sketched in August of 1966. (see photos of sketches above and also on my Arts and Crafts page). In the summer of 1966, I attended a "Summer School for the Arts" at Elliot Lake in Northern Ontario.  The boys were also attending the school.  They had come down from the Great Slave region in the far north and this was their first trip to civilization.  Most of the students in the program were aboriginal.  I remember going to a few parties where I was the only Caucasian.  I reveled in the company of the aboriginal students and was curious about their culture.  Severn and Jacob told me the main thing they missed from their homes in the forests of the far north was "raw meat".  They told me they loved to go hunting and eat the meat while it was still warm and raw.  I was appalled and intrigued at the same time.  As far as I can recall, the boys were good artists--with a natural ability in carving and design.  I don't know what became of them after summer ended.  Did they return up north? Or did they drift down to southern Ontario? I will never know.

Over the decades since the summer of 1966...I have crossed paths with First Nations people in my personal and professional life.  Significantly, during my last 8 years as a child protection social worker, (now retired) I worked specifically in "Aboriginal Services".  It has been the greatest honour in my life that my employer, the Government of British Columbia, trusted me (of non aboriginal heritage) with the privilege and responsibility of working with aboriginal Canadian families.  I had to take special courses in cultural awareness/sensitivity to be allowed to do this social work.  My primary teachers, however, were First Nations people themselves.  I learned to understand that First Nations peoples are culturally different than white people.  They have a more traditional, communal mindset and no matter how big or small their homes...extended families like to live together in the living room.  Another thing I learned...Aboriginal people have a whole existence apart from white people.  They are only truly themselves when they are with one another...they say things they would never say in front of white people.  Once....when I was with two First Nations women they "forgot" I was there and started lambasting white was a privilege to be able to hear them "being themselves"...and it was a sign that I had won their trust.

Anyone connected with First Nations peoples is struck by the profound generational negative effect that the residential school system has had on First Nations as a whole, from coast to coast.   Right up until the 1980's, aboriginal children were taken from their families at a young age and sent off to residential schools in white communities.  These schools were primarily run by religious groups. The children were routinely physically, sexually and emotionally abused.  They lost their language and culture.  Even more devastating, parents lost their ability to parent...while their children lost their understanding of family life and developed poor or non-existent parenting skills themselves...leading to generations of substance abuse/addiction, involvement with the criminal justice system and the social services systems.  Residential schools were part of a strategic design by the Canadian government to destroy first nations' culture and absorb them into mainstream Canadian society.  Canadians have since realized that it was like trying to put a square peg in a round hole.  The social, financial and emotional toll on Canada has been incalculable.

The slow awakening of Canada to First Nations issues took a major leap forward in the early 1990's during the time of the "Meech Lake Accord" constitutional crisis. The neocon Conservative Party under Brian Mulroney tried to amend Canada's constitution, granting a special status to Quebec--"distinct society" (does this "exceptionalism" sound familiar?  The United States is currently demanding "special status" as the "indispensable country" on the international scene).  In any case, the Meech Lake Accord initiative went over like a lead balloon with Canadians.  The Conservatives retained only two seats in Parliament in the election that took place immediately following the defeated Referendum on the amendment.  The reason this episode gave aboriginal issues a much needed boost was an ancient piece of federal legislation called The Indian Act.  In early Canada, the "Indians"as they were then referred to, were given unique constitutional status by way of The Indian Act.  This Act is a major difference between how Canadian First Nations and American Indians are treated by their governments.  While both First Nations and the rest of Canada (ROC) hate The Indian Act for very different reasons...First Nations at least felt, and the rest of Canada knew, that it gave them a de facto veto over the Meech Lake Accord.  The aboriginal hero of this era was a member of the Manitoba provincial legislature (MLA) Elijah Harper:

Elijah Harper speaking in the Manitoba Legislature against the Meech Lake Accord

When the Constitutional Amendment failed in 1992, largely on the basis of rejection by Elijah Harper, speaking for Canada's First Nations...this sent a shock wave through the country.  Suddenly, First Nations were no longer an ignored, taken for granted and disrespected element of the Canadian national identity.  It has been a slow but steady progression since.  First Nations have rebounded in their population demographics and in their contributions to the Canadian social and economic fabric.  But it has not been without setbacks and challenges.

Here are some recent stories in Canadian papers concerning First Nations:

"Elijah Harper's 16-year-old grand niece is a victim of brutal sexual assault in Winnipeg":

"First Nations shame federal government on Parliament Hill in ceremony".

"Residential School survivors left with hearing loss, broken bones"

"Truth and Reconciliation Committee report on deaths of Aboriginal children in residential schools between 1917 and 1956"

"Ottawa to give records up to residential school investigation"

Interview with a former residential school student

and, review of Canadian history reveals a shameful past....

Homeless First Nations woman builds own home...then fined.

While recent land settlement cases with First Nations communities have made some reserves quite rich.   This wealth has had both positive and negative effects on the communities:

"Shuswap Chief and wife make $400,000 per year between them"

While Canadian First Nations communities do not like being lumped together--because they have significant cultural distinctions from one another, they have joined together in solidarity over common causes, both within Canada

"Ontario First Nations Chiefs say they are ready to die defending their lands".

and internationally.  Canadian First Nations have gone to the UN on several occasions to the embarrassment of the Canadian government

Similarly, huge settlement in the US with the Navajo nation over past government misdeeds'...
"US has $500 million settlement with Navajo nation over claims of mishandling land and funds":

Indigenous people at risk all over the world

What I would like to see happen in Canada as a next phase of First Nations' recovery from the devastation of adoption by Canada of first nations' indigenous traditional culture as our own official Canadian culture.  I would like to see the First Nations' reliance on political consensus, communal living, reverence for the environment, respect for elders and spiritual healing recognized as the "official culture" of Canada. First Nations languages should be revived and words taken from them to be used in place of english where appropriate.  First Nations history and culture should be mandatory subjects in school.   If we lived by the tenets of  the medicine wheel, rather than some of the divisive religious doctrines dragged over from Europe and currently holding sway in Canada, IMO, we would be much better off.

Finally, updating the story of the three youths who were murdered in southern Ontario and remain anonymous, there has recently been a healing ceremony on the site--and a renewed commitment to find out who these boys were,  I don't think the government should rest until this has been accomplished.

"First Nations healing ceremony takes place near barn where teenaged boys were murdered":

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