Last year, on July 1, my wife and I took a break from our farm to mark Canada 150 Day. Increasingly conscious of Canada’s shameful historical (and contemporary) treatment of Indigenous peoples, we decided to sidestep events focusing on the nation-building achievements of the Fathers of Confederation and the “two founding nations.”
Instead, we opted to attend a “First Nations” ceremony at Owen Sound’s Kelso Beach. There, leaders from Saugeen and Nawash First Nations, municipal officials, and the public gathered to dedicate a site set aside for the building of Niimaywikwedong Reconciliation Garden.
The garden’s name is partly derived from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which was part of a response to the abuse inflicted on Indigenous peoples by the notorious Indian residential school system. When it concluded in December 2015, 94 calls to action were issued to redress the legacy of residential schools and advance the process of reconciliation with Native peoples. All Canadians would be well served by reading the TRC report (http://www.trc.ca).
At the Kelso Beach site, Indigenous leaders spoke passionately about how the garden will be a symbol and place of healing. Smudging, offerings of tobacco and traditional Indigenous dancing consecrated the moment. When completed the garden will depict, with sculpture, rock and native vegetation, the veneration with which Indigenous peoples have historically treated the land.
Our decision to attend the dedication was political. We wanted to express our solidarity. Indigenous communities across Canada experience a litany of injustices, all with their roots in “settler colonialism.” Addressing them in a tangible way has been slow to the point of inertia. Land, including the land on which we farm and on which all Canadians live, is at the core of the matter.
Settler colonialism involves the replacement of Indigenous populations with an invasive settler society that, over time, develops a distinctive identity and sovereignty.
My ancestors were part of that invasion. In the 1860s they immigrated from Ireland to Perth County where they were granted land by the Crown to establish a farm. They were economic migrants seeking a better life and committed to working hard to achieve it. They would have had little if any awareness, let alone concern, that the land on which they had settled had been effectively stolen.
That’s right – stolen. There’s just no denying it.
It’s abundantly clear that First Peoples had laid rightful claim to every square kilometer of the land base that is now Canada. An interactive map (https://native-land.ca) depicts a complex patchwork of tribal territorial boundaries throughout North America.
My ancestors probably knew nothing of the treaties. Although said to be fair, they were anything but, and many were broken. Typically, the smoking of a ceremonial pipe would seal a treaty deal. For Natives it was a solemn, sacred rite signifying trust and the integrity of the transaction. For the Crown, it legalized the displacement of the Indians so their lands could be exploited for their riches in fertile soil, timber, minerals, and other resources.
An Ojibwe traditional knowledge keeper and friend teaches a course called “Kiinoo Mudwin (we learn together): Introduction to Indigenous Culture and History.” He provides evidence of how the Crown used the treaties not only to manipulate Natives onto small and often remote parcels of land (reserves), but – and I found this startling – to “convalesce the Indians to their deaths,” in the words of one Crown official.
After initial contact hundreds of thousands of Indigenous people had died of diseases carried by Europeans and against which few Natives were immune. The Crown apparently expected that all would eventually succumb and that the “Indian problem” would disappear.
Even though countless more Natives did die, the Crown’s strategy failed. Other nefarious schemes followed. The worst was the residential school system. It sought to forcibly assimilate Indigenous children into mainstream settler society by stripping them of their language and culture; in effect, killing the Indian in the Indian.
Thousands of Indigenous youth died – from malnutrition, starvation, beatings, and other privations. A sadly debilitating legacy of the schools is something called “inter-generational trauma” whereby chronic dysfunctions caused by trauma are passed from one generation to the next.
As the owner of a farm in Grey County, I don’t bear direct responsibility for the sins of my forefathers. I am complicit, though, in that I am benefitting from land that was acquired under questionable circumstances. I need to be accountable for that. Maybe all landowners do.
Complicity – it’s a hard word. But it needn’t be perceived as threatening or intending to induce guilt or shame among us as settler people. It does involve learning about and facing the truth: that the first peoples inhabiting the Canadian land mass were subjected to policies the early intent of which was to effectively eliminate them; to commit genocide. It involves acknowledging that indisputable fact and moving forward from there.
If my experience is any measure, coming to terms with the truth can be a liberating and motivating experience. It starts with self-education. Reading books by Indigenous people and taking Kiinoo Mudwin set me on the path of learning how to be in meaningful solidarity with Canada’s First Nations. There are an increasing number of programs offered by Native and non-Native organizations for this purpose. Why not find one for yourself? If you need help, I’d be pleased to assist. You can reach me though The Rural Voice. ◊