By Kate Proctor
On September 30, I spent a beautiful fall day harvesting soybeans. It provided me perhaps one of the best opportunities to reflect on the first ever National Day for Truth and Reconciliation held in Canada. It provided me with the opportunity to learn the history of our country as I had not learned it before. Even from the combine in rural Huron County, the radio provided me with ample opportunity to engage and learn.
The residential school history is horrible and tragic, and the responses by our government and some church leaders have allowed the tragedy to be swept under the rug for too long. But we allowed ourselves to be deaf to the stories. We need to remember that we are the government, and if we want real change, we must demand it. We must ensure that our voices are heard – politicians respond to that, eventually, if there are enough voices.
As we consider the horror of the residential schools, the other things that happened as Canada was settled may pale in comparison. But learning about this helps us to understand why Indigenous people are still fighting to be heard, still trying to be understood by the rest of us as we go about our busy lives.
I know I’m not alone in working to learn more about our history. I took an online course over the summer through the University of Alberta that I watched on my phone, and read a small, but important book – “21 Things You May Not Know About the Indian Act,” by Bob Joseph. Baby steps.
In the book, Joseph explains 21 pieces of the Act that worked together through a series of rules, prohibitions, and regulations to move Canada towards Deputy Superintendent General of Indian Affairs, Duncan Scott’s vision. Scott wrote “I want to get rid of the Indian problem… Our objective is to continue until there is not an Indian that has not been absorbed into the body politic, and there is no Indian question, and no Indian Department…” (21 Things You May Not Know About the Indian Act, Joseph, 2018, pg 8).
Despite the fact that many Canadians did become aware of the Indian Act after the end of WWII and started looking at it critically, the Act has not changed a lot in the years between 1876 and today. While it has been amended many times, the basic framework remains and controls almost every aspect of life for Indigenous people (Joseph, pg 10).
The Indian Act imposed a new way of government to First Nations people, one which is still used today, and “has severely impacted the manner in which our societies traditionally govern themselves,” writes Joseph. It took away status from women, which has severely impacted the lives of women and children in Canada. It created reserves, renamed people, and even created a permit system that controlled Indians’ ability to sell products from farms. I found that one especially interesting. While the Canadian government was attempting to force First Nations people to “civilize” and become farmers, it made them settle on reserves, on land that was unsuitable for agriculture, and when they succeeded anyway, introduced a “permit-to-sell” system. “Indian farmers were then placed in a position of requiring a permit to leave their reserve and a permit to sell farm products,” (Joseph, pg. 37). The glimmer of understanding I gained from reading the book made me wonder how any sort of reconciliation is even possible, given all the wrongs that have been done in the past.
In that light, I was slightly encouraged to hear a story about our neighbours to the north, Saugeen Shores and the Ojibway Nation. After 25 years of legal action in court over parts of the Saugeen (Bruce) Peninsula, the Saugeen Ojibway Nation’s (SON) claim with Saugeen Shores has been settled. What interested me most about the story was learning that after years of sitting across a courtroom, both sides agreed to sit down and discuss the matter as people, as community members, as folks sharing the same land. While the claim is still being disputed against federal, provincial, and other municipal governments, it is encouraging to know that progress can be made.
Chief Lester Anoquot (Saugeen First Nation) is quoted on the Saugeen Shores website as saying “We are pleased to close this chapter of our land claim. Through cooperation, and a spirit of listening and joint respect, we have been able to arrive at an agreement with Saugeen Shores that supports a strong relationship between our communities,” (www.saugeen shores.ca). “Reconciliation is an ongoing process, but each step forward is important and significant. This resolution has strengthened the partnership with our neighbours at the Town of Saugeen Shores and is a positive step forward in our journey together on our traditional lands,” added Chief Veronica Smith, Chippewas of Nawash Unceded First Nation, (www.saugeenshores.ca).
In spite of their best efforts, governments and church officials have not succeeded in getting “rid of the Indian problem” from Canada – our First Nations people are still here and they are still fighting to keep their culture and languages alive. As we work to learn more, we must not let one day a year be the only way we recognize and move towards real reconciliation. We cannot change the past, but must consider “reconciliation” to be a word of action, one that keeps us moving towards greater understanding, relationship building, and partnership. ◊