National Indigenous Peoples Day is an important day in Canada, one in which Indigenous peoples celebrate their heritage and non-Indigenous Canadians are encouraged to reflect on the critical importance of turning around the devastation the effects of colonialism have had on Indigenous peoples. “Colonialism” is a polite way of speaking of the brutal treatment of First Nations, Inuit, and Metis peoples by government, police, and churches over centuries. Slowly, very slowly, Indigenous peoples are taking back their culture, their languages, their pride, and self-determination. We can all help that process by learning the truth of our colonial past (which hasn’t quite ended yet) and helping our Indigenous neighbours celebrate their heritage.
Last June (2021) I wrote weekly blog posts on Indigenous issues, in honour of the whole month of June being Indigenous History Month (along with Pride Month). In reading over those posts, I’ve decided it’s appropriate to post an updated version of one of last year’s posts in recognition of today being National Indigenous Peoples Day. The importance of getting reconciliation right cannot be overstated.
Spring of 2021 was a particularly unhappy time in Canada with respect to our shameful past in the treatment of Indigenous peoples. Last June (2021) was bookended by the discovery (confirmation) of the remains of hundreds of remains and unmarked graves of Indigenous children at the sites of former Residential Schools in Kamloops, B.C. and Saskatchewan. Both of these residential schools were run by the Catholic Church, funded by the federal governments at the time. A Catholic Church that has finally, in 2022, officially apologized for its unspeakable actions against innocent children or turn over its records of the schools and grave sites, with Pope Francis having announced his impending visit.
With these findings, we were confronted with the Truth, or maybe one could say we were hit over the head with a sledgehammer called the Truth. The Truth of the cruel, inhumane, criminal residential school system perpetrated on the Indigenous Peoples by the colonizers of what has become Canada. Thirteen full years after June was first proclaimed as National Indigenous History Month by Parliament in 2009, the recognition and the need for it can be doubted by no-one.
It was always clear to those in the know and those who reported on the hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) that such grave sites existed and would be found. That they needed to be found. In fact, that requirement is one of the 94 recommendations of the TRC Report, which was presented to the federal government seven years ago. Since last June, more grave sites have been found.
The one positive outcome of these findings is that non-Indigenous people now recognize how real this is. There is no hiding from facts. Our telling of history will change to reflect reality. It is changing. And because of this vastly raised public awareness, government action needs to be accelerated. Governments at all levels are starting to slowly, very slowly, walk their talk. Finally. But we need much more than these tentative baby steps.
Report card of government actions on the TRC Recommendations.
The CBC is keeping an up-to-date interactive report card, called Beyond 94, of the expectations and progress of each of the 94 recommendations. The first screen shot below is the report card as of June 22, 2021, and the second one is a screen shot of the report card as of Jun 8, 2022, one year later. I encourage you to take a look at the site. You’ll notice that there have been exactly zero additional recommendations completed in the past year, after me writing last year that June 2021 had been a good month for recommendations to be moved to the ‘Complete’ column. I had such high hopes for this activity to have accelerated. Instead we do at least have an additional 6 recommendations that have moved from the ‘Not Started” column to being in progress in some way, shape, or form. But not one additional completed recommendation.
TRC Report Card, June 2021
TRC Report Card 2022
Let’s hope that by the time next year’s Indigenous History Month arrives, many more recommendations will be well along the ‘In Progress’ route or ‘Complete’. Clean water in all First Nations remains an outstanding problem, along with other health issues included in recommendation 19. Consider sending your voice of concern to your MP.
And while we’re at it, let’s not forget that the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) Report released in early June 2021 needs to be actioned in a timely and accountable fashion. Similarly, acknowledging and addressing systemic racism within policing across the country is critical and also overdue. Sadly, I wrote the very same things last year.
What can non-Indigenous people do to help?
Non-indigenous people right across Canada are asking themselves, “What can I do?” We try to show our shock and shame with gestures we can think of, but our small gestures don’t do much beyond acknowledging that we’ve heard and been touched. Changing our Facebook pics to orange and wearing an orange shirt on Orange Shirt Day (Sept 30, aka National Day for Truth and Reconciliation) is something, but it doesn’t do much to help survivors and their children and grandchildren move beyond the trauma.
The question is, what can non-Indigenous people do to help effect real change? Sustained change? How can we help Indigenous Peoples in Canada become whole after all that has been done to break them and keep them broken? How can we individually contribute to helping Indigenous communities move past generations of trauma, to reclaim their heritage, their cultures, their languages, and their sense of self-worth, all of which the Residential Schools and other government policies have done so much to destroy?
There are several suggestions online. You can find some simply by googling ‘how to help indigenous peoples’. Here are a few for you to consider; most of these come from globalcitizen.org.
- Practice compassion and self-reflection as Indigenous communities mourn and remember.
The recent discoveries (confirmations) of human remains and unmarked graves at former Residential Schools is a reminder to all of us of how generations of Indigenous people were denied their fundamental human rights and dignity. These revelations also make clear that violence and trauma are not just historical facts — they’re an ongoing struggle we need to confront. Listen to and respect Indigenous communities as they work through their grief about residential schools and other colonial legacies.
- Educate yourself about Residential Schools and their ongoing impact.
- through reading any of the many fiction or non-fiction books by Indigenous authors, describing the realities of the residential schools and their enduring impact.
- through reading or hearing stories from survivors.
- through film. The film We Were Children is recommended viewing, although not an easy one. You can view the trailer here.
- Read (and re-read) the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
- Contact your MP and MPP/MLA/MNA to voice your concerns and expectation of action.
One point of immediate concern might be demanding action on a comprehensive search for unmarked graves at all residential school sites, as clearly specified in the TRC’s recommendation #75.
- Support Indigenous artists, business owners, and community organizers.
This suggestion includes attending local Indigenous events to which the public is invited, such as public powwows, Orange Shirt Day gatherings and Reconciliation Day gatherings.
- Make sure that you, your children, and grandchildren are all learning the full history of colonization in Canada.
It’s not pretty, but it’s our history, and we can’t improve as a country without learning about and acknowledging the grave injustices of the past.
- Donate to Indigenous organizations working at the grassroots level to combat poverty, racism, and colonialism.
There are several reputable non-governmental organizations that you can find online, including The Orange Shirt Society and Indspire.
My fervent wish for next year’s National Indigenous People’s Day is that we will find ourselves in a position to celebrate many meaningful, successfully implemented steps towards true reconciliation. That by next June far more of the 94 TRC recommendations will have been completed, including major tangible results in improved access within First Nations and Inuit communities to clean water and acceptable standards of housing, health care, and education.