For readers who are not familiar with Canada, in 2015 the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), established by the federal government, completed 6 years of an extensive and gut-wrenching inquiry into the impact of 120 years of the residential school system on our indigenous peoples (First Nations, Metis, and Inuit). The TRC followed an official government official apology for the devastating impact of this egregious system, as well as payments made to victims directly affected. The Commission concluded its process with a report that included a Call to Action with 94 wide-ranging recommendations, intended to “redress the legacy of the residential schools” and promote a path to reconciliation among residential school survivors, within indigenous communities, and among all Canadians.
The many recommendations lay out an urgent need for improvements in healthcare, education, and availability of essentials like sanitation and clean water in indigenous areas (a federal government responsibility). They include requiring access to teaching their own languages and cultural traditions within their schools. And, importantly, they include recommendations for mitigating the “inaccuracies” of prior teaching of the history of Canada, re-establishing truth in the history of indigenous people in Canada over millennia and ensuring that all children are taught of the many injustices perpetrated against our indigenous peoples, especially since the arrival of the British in the 1700s (just ask the Acadians).
How do we ensure that the work of the TRC does not go for naught? Certainly, awareness has been raised, and that is a very good thing. But broad-brush-strokes awareness and good intentions don’t do enough to change the lives of a nation’s first peoples, people who continue to live the legacy of the residential schools, general discrimination, and inadequate housing, education, and healthcare. People who often live in locations not of their own making, “resettled” by the federal government with no regard for the suitability of the location for hunting or trapping for self-sufficiency, or for being near their ancestors. The list of “challenges” is endless. The hope must be that a new awareness – and respect – on the part of non-indigenous Canadians can allow indigenous groups to reclaim and take pride in their cultural and spiritual traditions … and develop their own voice, determining a future that works for them within the Canadian mosaic.
Many of us who are not indigenous struggle with how we can help. There don’t seem to be easy answers, beyond showing respect, learning the history, and helping to raise awareness. But at least one person I know has found a way to make a tangible difference. A tangible difference in helping indigenous Canadians find their dignity and their voice. Dignity through work.
Keith McIntosh is the founder of a successful software testing company, PQA Testing, headquartered here in my hometown of Fredericton. [Full disclosure: I have known Keith since he was a first-year student in my computer science class many, many moons ago.] One of the points included in the TRC was Corporate Canada’s responsibility to help in bringing positive change for our indigenous communities. Keith took this to heart. He saw a win-win opportunity and, unlike so many of us who have some great ideas we don’t act on, he walked the talk in spades.
Keith talks about work as an agent of social change. Work brings us the money we need to lead our lives, raise our kids, and pay our bills. Thought of more broadly, though, work also provides us with independence and pride in self. It gives us a reason to get up in the morning; it cements our role as a contributor to our community. Losing your job means more than just losing your paycheck (although that is right up there). In many cases, you lose your self-esteem (maybe not so much if you don’t need the money and hated your job!). Satisfying, sustainable employment would seem to be an important component of helping indigenous people to control their own destiny. However, how easy is that when the population we’re talking about may live anywhere from inner Vancouver or Regina to remote northern Canada, from rural Nova Scotia to a First Nation in the middle of the Prairies? That challenge got Keith thinking even more. Continue reading