The Indian Act, the infamous Residential Schools, Canada’s history of interaction with its Indigenous peoples – all were rooted in an attitude that Indigenous peoples and cultures had nothing to contribute of value for Canada.
The injustice and falsity of that attitude, and the path to Reconciliation, were the focus of the BWG & District Community Foundation’s Rooted in Community evening, May 30 at Green Valley Alliance Church.
Guest speakers Kathleen Lickers, Indigenous People’s Counsel, and Chief My’eengun Henry shared personal experiences, and their views on Truth and Reconciliation and the potential for a new understanding.
“I do come from a family that had been subject to Residential Schools,” said Chief Henry – schools that took children away from their culture and families, and punished them for speaking their native languages.
“At that school, our language was taken away from us. We’re still living out the confusion and anger,” said Chief Henry, a “second generation” victim living with “the lessons taught… That is the legacy of the residential schools.”
Both he and Lickers are members of the Indigenous Advisory Group to the Law Society of Ontario– a group established in response to the recommendations released in 2015 by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which investigated the abuse and cruelty of the Residential schools.
Lickers is a Seneca of the Haudenosaunee or Six Nations, in Brantford. A member of the Ontario Bar since 1995, she is an Indigenous Peoples Counsel, adjudicator and mediator, and winner of the 2018 Law Society Medal.
Lickers pointed out that the work of the Commission was more than documentation, recording the stories of the survivors and families of the Residential Schools – archives that are preserved at the University of Manitoba. It was also a call for change; its 94 recommendations are “94 calls to action, regarding reconciliation between Canada and its Indigenous people,” Lickers said.
Recommendation #27 called for the establishment of an Indigenous Advisory Group, “to ensure lawyers receive the proper cultural training,” encompassing everything from treaty law, to indigenous rights.
Overall, she said, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission attempted to outline a path towards developing “a mutually respectful relationship between us, as Indigenous and non-indigenous people” – something that needs to engage everyone.
Lickers outlined steps to Reconciliation – an awareness of the past, an acknowledgement of the harm that has been done, a desire to atone or correct the injustices, and finally, action to effect change.
“That hasn’t happened yet,” she said. “The legacies of colonization have wreaked havoc on the lives of Indigenous people… Knowing the truth about what happened in Residential Schools doesn’t in and of itself lead to reconciliation.”
That can only happen with the commitment by all Canadians to “make Reconciliation a concrete reality in their own lives, in their schools and their workplaces.”
Both Chief Henry and Lickers shared a unique perspective on what Indigenous culture and tradition have to offer, to promote the healing and bring about Reconciliation.
Chief Henry, a member of the Chippewas of the Thames, opened the evening with a special prayer and song to the Creator, and drumming to make all things and beings aware.
“In order to get to Reconciliation, we need to have people come and listen,” he told the gathering. “We’ve all been given very special gifts and talents by the Creator,” and the responsibility to use those gifts to heal, and promote truth.
Lickers shared the tradition of the Wampum belt – the finely woven beaded belts that are the symbolic repositories of all Haudenosaunee treaties, agreements and conflict resolutions, and constitution – along with a plethora of other symbolic objects, including eagle feathers and cedar.
“These ceremonies and practices are the foundation of Indigenous law,” she explained, suggesting they can be used, with understanding and respect, to “work together to forge a new covenant for reconciliation.”
Lickers brought with her a Wampum belt with two rows of purple, separated by three rows of white beads representing “peace, friendship and respect.” The symbolic meaning: the First Nations path and the White path, in purple, are shown as equal, but separate.
The lines represent Indigenous and White “travelling down the same river, but not in the same vessel,” Lickers said. “The promise was that we would travel side by side, but avoid interfering with one another.”
It is a promise that has never been kept. Indigenous people were prohibited by Canadian laws from free assembly, from speaking their own language, from voting, and for decades after Confederation, banned from engaging in certain occupations: the law, the clergy, medicine.
“We were prohibited from practicing our culture… into the early 1900s,” she said. “Canada was determined to assimilate Indigenous peoples.”
The result was the Residential School system. Even now, the ongoing tragedy of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls is a “stark reminder” of the “denial of justice and security,” and how much remains to be done,” Lickers said.
In fact, in 2007 Canada was one of only four countries that refused to endorse the United Nations’ Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous people; it wasn’t until 2016 that Canada signed on.
“Canada is acknowledging that its Indigenous rights must meet a Human Rights standard,” Lickers said, calling for “a new vision, that fully embraces Indigenous people’s rights to self-determination, within the framework of Canada. Without a new vision, reconciliation will hardly be achieved.”
The Wampum belt, and the silver covenant chain – representing the links between First Nations, the Land, and the British Crown – were among the earliest treaties, now “long forgotten or misunderstood by Canadians,” Lickers said. A greater understanding of the obligations and bonds of the past should be part of the reconciliation process.
In a Question and Answer session, Lickers was asked why newcomers and immigrants to Canada should be asked to learn about the struggles of Indigenous people.
“There is no understanding of Canada without knowledge of the Indigenous nations,” Lickers was quick to respond. “There is such a rich and diverse tapestry… You can’t really understand the richness, without really knowing who the first peoples were.”
She was also asked about the Indian Act of 1876.
“It has been amended a few times, but for all intents and purposes it has remained the same Act,” Lickers said – with a huge impact on the lives of Indigenous people. “The reality is the Indian Act still persists.”
Until 1927, the Act restricted the movements of First Nations people, and prohibited engagement in certain professions. It wasn’t until 1951, that Indigenous people were permitted to pay a lawyer – and it wasn’t until 1985 and a court challenge that Indigenous women were no longer stripped of their Indian status if they married a White.
“It is a patronizing, patriarchal structure,” said Lickers.
Chief Henry pointed to ongoing restrictions on economic development, including establishing businesses and selling products off the Reserves. “We weren’t able to develop our own businesses,” he said. “We have challenges when it comes to building on our First Nations and creating wealth.”
He spoke of the difficulty of getting new infrastructure built. “What I had to endure, to get one stretch of road… This is not acceptable,” Chief Henry said.
The treaties promised access and equality; the reality has been racism and a system of regulation that act as barriers. “We should be able to participate in the wealth this country has,” said Chief Henry. “Those lingering effects are affecting our ability to prosper.”
As an example, he cited a Walmart store that moved into a small community, but didn’t hire any of the Indigenous job applicants. When challenged, the manager pointed to an historic murder of a non-Indigenous person by an Indigenous perpetrator.
Attitudes and barriers to opportunity continue to act as barriers to Reconciliation. “It’s going to take a lot more work, it’s going to take understanding. So many things we need to discuss here,” said Chief Henry.
Lickers was asked what the average citizen can do, to be part of the Reconciliation process.
“It is important to start with what the Commission actually said,” she said, urging Canadians to read the six-volume report, or at least the executive summary – available online.
The Commission identified a number of pathways to Reconciliation – through government action, Faith communities, and through education. That means not only the introduction of Indigenous history and culture in a National curriculum, but a challenge to all Canadians, to learn more about their Indigenous neighbours.
“It’s becoming more aware. It’s educating ourselves. It’s just becoming more active in how we effect change,” Lickers said.
Asked about Indigenous studies and Reconciliation in the schools, Lickers said, “It has to be a priority. There’s a whole generation of Canadians who never learned a thing in school. We were intentionally made invisible.”
Education “has to be an intentional effort.”
She acknowledged that the Ministry of Education has taken steps to introduce Indigenous history and studies into the secondary school curriculum - but “at the public school level, there’s very little,” and the province of Ontario recently took a step backwards, repealing legislation that would have made Indigenous studies in the curriculum mandatory, rather than an elective.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission is “a call to action. There are multiple calls to action that speak to education,” said Lickers. “It has to be a priority – or history will continue to repeat itself, to all of our detriments.”
“Reconciliation – it’s a challenge. It’s worth struggling for,” said Bob Evans, BWG and District Community Foundation Chair.