Fixing the Cracks

Canada Needs to Work to Mend Ties With Its Native Population

  • Graphic Caity Hall

What is a Canadian?

No, seriously. Take a minute to think about that.

The obvious answer is “Someone who holds Canadian citizenship.” But Quebecers hold Canadian citizenship, and we’ve had two referendums on sovereignty, because many of us don’t feel like Canadians.

Another answer is “Someone who holds Canadian values.” As if those are the same in Calgary, AB as they are in St. John’s, NL.

It’s a complicated question at the best of times. But if Idle No More does only one thing, it may be to force us to confront that question.

What is a Canadian?

On paper, Native people are Canadians. They hold citizenship, they can carry a passport with the maple leaf on the front and they are bound by essentially the same laws on the reservations as off (though there are differences depending on the nature of their band’s treaty with the Canadian government).

But talk to a First Nations person. Or a Métis, or an Inuit. Ask them if they feel Canadian, and I think you’ll find that many of them do not. With a total population of 1.1 million indigenous people in Canada, that’s a lot of folks who could feel alienated.

Take David Bouchard, an author, literacy advocate and a member of the Order of Canada. He’s also president of the Métis Nation of Canada advocacy group.

The Métis are living proof of the gap that has formed between the average Canadian and those who have descended from Canada’s earliest inhabitants. The Métis’s ancestors were a mix of natives and European settlers, and you’d think that this would result in them having a foot in both worlds.

But according to Bouchard, though the Métis have no reservations or land of their own, many still don’t feel Canadian, even as they live among the general population—an issue that has been around since the execution of Métis leader Louis Riel by the Canadian government in 1885.

“By and large, the people that I know, and they’re numerous, are not big-time nationalists,” said Bouchard. “Though they live in and respect a lot of Canadian traditions, by and large, Métis people see themselves as victims.”

It’s difficult to feel like you’re part of a nation when you feel like that nation victimized you. Riel was executed over 125 years ago, and the Métis still harbour resentful feelings.

It’s therefore hard to blame First Nations people for not wanting to be a part of Canada when the last residential school only closed in 1996. In some ways, Canada has become a series of Russian nesting dolls of nationality, the smaller ones living among the larger ones, but being separate from the larger whole.

My grandparents came to Canada from Eastern Europe. Throughout their lives, they remained able to call themselves Hungarian and Slovak, but also Jewish and also Canadian (not necessarily in that order). Identities are fluid; they can adapt.

So I asked MNC founder Bryce Fequet if he thought it was possible to identify as a member of both an indigenous community and as a Canadian, a question he circulated among friends and MNC Board members.

One Board member cited Malcolm X’s claim that “We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock, that rock landed on us”—regarding the status of black people in the United States—applied to aboriginals in Canada.

“If you refer to culture, you can come across some problems,” the Board member said. “Some indigenous people may proudly insist they are Native Canadians, namely the first and original Canadians. Others may refuse to identify with the culture of the colonizer.”

And therein lies the problem—our current government is still seen as an extension of the colonialists who abused the indigenous people for hundreds of years. It is possible to reach out and close the gap in this country, but that begins with distancing ourselves from the colonialists who came before us.

If there’s one part of the Bible that has any accuracy, it’s the quote in the Gospel of Matthew that says, “A house divided among itself cannot stand.”

Idle No More is the paint flaking off the long-standing and deepening cracks in our foundation. If we do not fix these divisions, if we do not find a way to make all who hold Canadian citizenship feel like that is an identity, and not a designation, this house will collapse.

When Stephen Harper apologized for residential schools in 2008, it was a start. But words are not enough.

Concrete actions aimed at rectifying past mistakes are essential, and that means we have to stop pointing to misspent funds and corruption among Native leaders while ignoring the same among our own government. It means investing in infrastructure and giving our indigenous communities the ability to succeed.

What is Canada?

It’s a gigantic country, filled with millions of people of differing ethnic, religious and linguistic backgrounds who somehow have made a whole. But it is not a monolith. It changes constantly.

What is a Canadian?

I don’t know. I don’t know if anybody does. But it’s a question we’re going to have to answer, because there’s no going back now.

Until we resolve to truly bring indigenous people into the Canadian fold by respecting their culture, their ambitions and the history we all share, Idle No More will continue to be necessary.

I still may not know what a Canadian is, but I know that’s the Canada I was raised to believe in.

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