June is National Aboriginal History month here in Canada, and has been since 2009. I only found out this year. We’ve had National Aboriginal Day (June 21) for about 15 years now, but apparently we also have a whole month devoted to our culture and history. Huh. Who knew?
Who knew indeed. Isn’t that the question, really? Who here in Canada knows anything about aboriginal peoples at all?
I often get the sense that I live in two very distinct worlds. That is a common refrain among native peoples…that experience of walking in two worlds. Sakej Youngblood Henderson refers to it as being a ‘split-head’ and I think that is a good image.
There are few, if any, native people who are not all too familiar with non-aboriginal Canada. After all, it is not our history and culture represented in the history books, in the schools, in the media. We grow up learning about Canadian culture, which apparently does not include aboriginal cultures. So what do Canadians know about us? You only need to look at how we have to struggle to reclaim knowledge of ourselves to understand how deep runs this exclusion.
I think about pow-wow season. Every year when the weather gets warm, thousands of native peoples roam what is now Canada and the US, attending a variety of community events. My home community, Lac Ste. Anne, welcomes thousands of native people during the annual Pilgrimage. Some people travel there on foot from extraordinary distances. People from ever corner of Canada and the US make their way to the shores of the lake each summer. These annual movements are not new for us. Our peoples have been making treks over hundreds, even thousands of kilometers each year since time immemorial. The rivers were our highways. Even our youngest children, not still on their mothers’ backs, were used to making long treks by foot.
Do non-aboriginal Canadians even know of this movement? It has not been my experience that they do. It happens in the unseen background. A seasonal migration of truly epic proportions in a world that does not seem to be connected to the world of non-aboriginals. A season of joy, of the renewal and strengthening of traditions and relationships.
Another damning report by the Auditor General has been released. Like so many other reports saying the same (or worse), it has largely gone unnoticed. The issues are as misunderstood as ever. It may be common knowledge to most native people that our on-Reserve schools are massively underfunded in comparison to non-native schools, but the myth of First Nations ‘wealth and waste’ is a strong one in Canada. Here is a fantastic piece on the issue, by the way, very clearly highlighting some of those stats.
Then you have the issue of potable water. When I talk to non-native people about the widespread lack of safe drinking water on Reserve, they are shocked….as they should be. These are not the conditions one expects to prevail in a so-called developed nation. Yet they do. I have no doubt that if even a few non-native communities faced temporary situations like what we find on so many Reserves, it would be a national emergency. I don’t think anyone can seriously deny that probability. This is an issue we have been dealing with for decades. It’s another one of those realities we live with that goes completely unnoticed by the majority of Canadians.
I have to remind myself that people do not know this stuff. They don’t know about the housing shortages and crowded conditions in substandard buildings. They don’t know about the astronomical rates of suicide and the epidemic of diabetes. They don’t know that there are more aboriginal children in foster care right now, than were removed from their families at the height of Residential Schooling. They don’t know about the issues facing native people who come into contact with the judicial system. They don’t know about the Highway of Tears, or what a Starlight Tour is. *
We know. We know it very, very well. We don’t keep it quiet…our people fight endlessly to bring these conditions to the attention of policy makers and the general public. There has never been a time where native people have stopped pushing, stopped fighting for better conditions. That’s another thing that is not understood. The average Canadian sees ‘native issues’ as being historical in nature, rather than ongoing.
I am not saying anything here that will surprise most native people. In fact, I think we’re all a little sick of hearing about it. That’s why it is so…jarring to once again meet someone who doesn’t have the slightest clue about any of it. Inquests. Royal Commissions. Reports by the Auditor General, the Federal Ombudsman…fine, ignore what aboriginal organisations have to say on the subject, but how can you ignore these findings of systemic racism, of a failure to live up to promises, of a damaged relationship. How can you ignore these things when they are said by your own government? By your own experts?
I honestly don’t know what else we can do. There are people in our communities…so many people…who devote their entire lives to raising these issues and trying to get the message out. I know we cannot become angry people. I know we have to continue despite the heavy cloak of invisibility that is drawn over us.
All I can do is say please. Please don’t feel that these issues are too complicated, or unimportant, or just self-inflicted internal problems. You don’t have to become an expert. But please focus. Celebrate National Aboriginal History Month by taking the simple step of trying to see us.
We are here, we are not invisible.
*some of these links are pretty old, but the situation has not improved enough to warrant finding more up to date sources.