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Beyond Canada150 — June 23, 2017

Beyond Canada150

Rev. Yme Woensdregt

I was going to write a column this week about the juxtaposition of National Aboriginal Day (June 21) and the upcoming celebration of 150 years of Canadian Confederation.

Canada150 is a huge deal. Unless you live in a cave with no access to the internet and television, it is impossible to have missed the news of this great and glorious event. National Aboriginal Day has not received quite the same level of attention. That’s unfortunate.

In the middle of all this, our Governor–General David Johnston made an unfortunate remark in which he referred to Indigenous people as immigrants. Some critics have said that this reflects “a deep–seated colonial mentality.” I can’t judge whether or not Mr. Johnston has such a mentality, but I believe his apology and his statement that he misspoke. He has acquitted himself honorably in his service as Governor–General. I was delighted to hear Perry Bellegarde, AFN National Chief, say the same thing, and call Johnston a good, caring kind and honorable man.

My column was going to explore some of the issues around our celebration of 150 years of Confederation and our relationship with our Indigenous brothers and sisters. As I was working on the column, a statement from the chief pastor of the Anglican Church of Canada, Archbishop Fred Hiltz was sent out. It explored some of the same themes I was going to explore. I will use some of his words in this column.

Our celebration on July 1, he says, will be “a time of national thanksgiving, and rightly so, for among other things the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms with the benefits we enjoy as Canadians. It will be a time for reflection on our place in the family of nations committed to peace and freedom for all peoples in the world.” Many people will celebrate with fireworks and special events to mark this occasion. I have some friends who decided that they were going to travel to Ottawa to “do it up right this year.”

At the same time, it is also true, says Hiltz, that “for many #Canada150 will pass with much less of an air of celebration given the history of relationships between the First Peoples of this land and the Settler Peoples. For some, #Canada150 is now #Resistance150, as #Canada150 is a reminder that this country’s founding is inextricably linked to this relationship. This relationship is marked by an imperial arrogance that became enshrined in a Federal Government Policy of Assimilation of the First Peoples into the culture, social structures and governance established by colonial powers.”

Let me give only one example of this arrogance. In the 1880’s, our Canadian government established Indian Residential Schools as a way of assimilating indigenous peoples into the prevailing, English culture. It is a shameful episode in our history, which was marked by slogans such as “beating the Indian out of the child.” Scores of residential schools were established, tearing children away from their parents and communities, shaming them, denying permission to remember their heritage. The last school was closed only 20 years ago, in 1996. The Government finally issued an apology in the House of Commons in June 2008, but “the legacy of those schools lives on.”

In December 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) presented its report after listening to thousands of stories of pain, humiliation and shame. It listed 94 Calls to Action which include the following: establishing a National Council for Reconciliation; funding a National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation; erecting  a Residential Schools Monument “to honour survivors and all children who were lost to their families and communities”; “marking the 150th anniversary of Canadian Confederation in 2017 by establishing a dedicated national funding program to commemorate projects on the theme of reconciliation”; repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery (a Papal Bull issued in 1493 which said that when European nations “discovered” non–European lands, they gained special rights over that land, such as sovereignty and title, regardless of what other peoples live on that land); and taking steps to “ensure that Aboriginal peoples are full partners in Confederation”.

If we as a people, and we as individuals, commit ourselves to these Calls to Action, they will mark a profound shift in the relationship between indigenous peoples and the rest of us who are settlers on the land.

The work of reconciliation is long and hard. The TRC report defines reconciliation as “an ongoing process of establishing and maintaining respectful relationships.” Justice Murray Sinclair, who chaired the TRC, remarked that it took generations for this to happen; it will take generations for us to learn to live together in peace.

Fred Hiltz ends his letter by quoting the last of the Ten Principles underlying the 94 Calls to Action, namely that “Canadians must do more than just talk about reconciliation; we must learn how to practise reconciliation in our everyday lives—within ourselves and our families, and in our communities, governments, places of worship, schools, and workplaces. To do so constructively, Canadians must remain committed to the ongoing work of establishing and maintaining respectful relationships.”

This Canada Day, may we all make a new commitment to working towards reconciliation in all our relationships. In future years, may we celebrate National Indigenous Peoples Day and Canada Day with the same fervour.