Canada’s Commission on Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women is floundering with public criticism, resignations of original members, scepticism of the indigenous communities and growing doubt that the commission, if it ever does report, will merely add another volume to the public archives of Canada without prompting social, cultural and historic changes.
Racism in Canada has deep roots, and continues to bubble out of the offices and corridors and the squad cars and the pistols of law enforcement, security agencies and wanton and wayward young men. Just last week, four agents of the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service (CSIS) laid a $35 million law suit against the agency for blatant racism and harassment. Police in Thunder Bay are suspected of failing in their duties and responsibilities in the investigation of the deaths of aboriginals. Three teenaged indigenous girls recently followed through on a suicide pact. Reports of young indigenous boys’ bodies being found in a river in Northern Ontario, while generating dismay and anger among their community, seem to have raised barely a whimper in the “polite white” society in Canada. If these event were occurring in southern Ontario, whether among Caucasians or among indigenous, there would be a loud hue and cry in the media.
Yesterday, three of five indigenous groups of leaders who normally meet with provincial premiers prior to the premiers’ annual meeting abstained, seeking a place at the table with the first ministers, and not mere tokenism. Some indigenous leaders say the prime minister missed an opportunity to solidify the spirit of reconciliation with First Nations peoples he touted while campaigning, by not appointing an indigenous person to the office of Governor General. (He appointed former astronaut, fluent in six languages Julie Payette.) Indigenous peoples insisted that Canada’s 150th birthday earlier this month did not include or even recognize their 15,000 year history in this country.
According to published reports there are some 1100+ cases of murdered and missing aboriginal women waiting closure in police files. Not only is the number outrageous, but the fact that the cases remain unsolved suggests an even deeper problem: no one really cares.
We all know that the opposite of love is not hate; it is indifference, insouciance and ignoring detachment. For a nation to bear this scar on our national conscience, without a hew and cry from all quarters, as we did for decades about the “residential schools” issue before it, is a badge of shame on every Canadian. For former Prime Minister Stephen Harper to refuse to acknowledge the missing and murdered aboriginal women issue was merely a matter of solving the crimes, without a social, cultural, historic national ethical investigation, another dismissal that “sounds” intellectual but begs for rebuttal, is another of the many mis-steps this country has committed in our relationship with indigenous peoples.
And while clean drinking water, sanitary homes, professional and welcoming schools, and more federal money will go a long way to “fixing” the problem, without a transformative change in the hearts and minds, in the daily encounters and in the expectations of all Canadians that demonstrate our authentic welcoming and embracing our own indigenous peoples, all of those “extrinsic” steps by governments will be mere mascara on a tumour.
Gord Downie, in championing the tragic life and death of Chanie Wenjack, the twelve-year-old indigenous boy who attempted to walk, in freezing temperatures with minimal clothing, several hundred miles back home from his residential school, until he died along the tracks, has done more as a single person (albeit a famous and near-death with brain cancer person) for the cause of indigenous peoples than any single non-indigenous person in my lifetime. Downie’s Secret Path album and story book will find their way into bedrooms and classrooms of young children across the country whose hearts and minds are already open to a new cultural image of indigenous peoples that connotes both suffering and creativity, spirituality and harmony with nature, a deep and lasting commitment to the land and to the other people of this land, and a profound commitment to playing an integral part in our shared futures.
In his book, A Fair Country, John Ralston Saul, too has paid homage to the contribution of indigenous peoples to this country, through their metaphor/archetype of the circle as a symbol of how Canada is different from other more European-based cultures. Saul’s articulation of the ever-opening and always-welcoming circle for newcomers places indigenous peoples as one of the three legs in our national “stool” (English, French and Indigenous) that clearly differentiates us the American more European model. Of course, there are still segments of our national culture that hold fast to the hierarchical model, believing that they are revering a sacred trust.
Next generations of both indigenous and non-indigenous young people, however, have the open opportunity to show a different path, more closely resembling the sacred path of Chanie Wenjack. Fiercely independent without being submerged or assimilated, uniquely oriented to the whims and the demands of nature, sparing in their resourcefulness of all of the bounty nature offers, without pillaging or raping our shared natural resources, committed to listening to the Spirit they believe is forever guiding them, celebrating their ancestors, their languages and their shared cultures, shared cultures, always conscious of the long-term history of which they are an integral part without the greed or opportunism of much of the non-indigenous culture, these indigenous peoples have so much to model and teach us who came to this continent much later. They were not the “savages” their Christian missionaries considered them to be. They were not in desperate need of the conversion and salvation through being Christians that their missionaries deemed them to be. They were not the scum that their conquerors “played” with through trading treaties that brought intoxicants for furs. And they are not now the forgotten peoples of our country….or at least we hope they are not.
Patronizing, however, will never lead to reconciliation. They are not the outsiders in our country, we Europeans are the outsider and the newcomers. And unless and until we abandon our assumed “privileged,” climb down from our self-designed and constructed pedestals, shut our mouths and sit quietly and listen to the beat of their drums, instead of the ch-chinging of our cash registers, and draw into our lungs some of their sweat-lodge smoke, and dance with their rhythms, and start to look at nature from their eyes, walking along the shores with our eyes trained on the same spot on the horizon as our indigenous companion, we will continue to avoid true and full reconciliation.
And we will continue to be the losers for our insensitivity.
Indigenous peoples are waiting with open arms for our accepting their historic invitation….will we force them to withdraw it by our indifference?