Growing up, I knew only two things about aboriginal people in Canada: 1) they don’t pay taxes, and 2) their post-secondary education is paid. It’s sad and embarrassing to admit but unfortunately, this is relatable for many Canadians (and those two facts aren’t even necessarily true).
I grew up in a small French town in Northern Ontario, surrounded by people who are proud of their language and their culture. Despite being taught to be proud of my Franco Ontarian heritage, my community failed to teach me about the cultures of the Anishinaabe and Objiwe community, the Nipissing (Nbisiing) First Nations. For most of my life, I didn’t even know this community existed, let alone their culture, their past, and their ongoing challenges… and it’s only about an 8 minute drive from my house (15 minutes if you follow the speed limit…). Seriously though, something’s wrong with that.
Throughout my education, I was taught to honor the famous Jacques Cartier for having planted a flag and “discovering” Canada. He was celebrated, respected but more than that, he was a hero. It was only in an 8th grade history class that I was introduced to residential schools. In this hour long lesson, the teacher justified the actions and intentions of our European ancestors as ‘’good’’. They wanted to ‘’civilize’’ the first people who were here in Canada and it’s thanks to ‘’us’’ that Aboriginals today live such a “good life”. We were taught that the French came to colonize and civilize the indigenous people and make their lives better.
It was my first lesson on the Aboriginal people of Canada, but also my last. During my four years in high school, I was taught nothing about Aboriginal culture (unless racist jokes and discussions that went against indigenous movements count?). The educational system failed to inform me about the General Allotment Act, the Indian Reorganization Act, the Indian Act, the assimilation experiments on concentration camp, Dear Island, the 60’s Scoop, the Trail of Tears, the long-term effects of residential schools, treaty violations and so much more. Why weren’t those in the curriculum? Why weren’t those discussed in classrooms?
It’s in the course Introduction to Aboriginal Studies at the University of Ottawa that I got a glimpse of the history, misconceptions and stereotypes of Indigenous peoples, not only in Canada but all around the world. My first boyfriend and his family are aboriginal and I was able to learn more about who they are as a community and their beautiful way of life. My perception on Aboriginal peoples has changed drastically. If it hadn’t been for that little 3 credit bonus point, easy elective, last minute decision class…and the luck I had to be part of an aboriginal family through my boyfriend at the time, I still would live with the false ideologies and perceptions towards Indigenous peoples, and this is what I find truly concerning. There remains a large number of Canadians who are misinformed and I wonder how they are going to know the truth. I think of all those who do not have the opportunities I had, and how they will remain ignorant. Not necessarily their fault, but due to the lack of information and awareness in our Canadian societies.
I don’t blame my parents or my teachers for my lack of knowledge about our true history because I am aware that they learned it the same way I did. They, like any other Canadian, didn’t have the opportunity to learn about the true history of our country. That’s somewhat the problem isn’t it? We have generations and generations of false information about our history. And we seem to think that history is part of the past but that’s false. Our history is transmitted in the stories we share about the past to future generations. Over the years, we have placed the Indigenous peoples under a microscope, similarly the same way a scientist would do with an insect. The one who observes has the power to define. Then, we learn about our history and realities based on these definitions and interpretations that are most often false.
I now feel privileged to be learning about different Aboriginal cultures in Canada. I’m learning a lot about their defeats and sufferings, the challenges they have faced and the ones they are still facing today. Even with their difficult past, it’s amazing to see how they have been able to overcome the burdens placed on them and how they continue to defy their challenges. Sadly, the healing and rehabilitation process of these lost cultures won’t be possible if not all Canadians are mindful and aware of what went on and what is still going on today.
No one here should feel colonial guilt for what our ancestors have done and the mess and despair they have caused. We are not responsible for their actions, however, we are fully responsible for today and the course of this country. I think that together as a community, with the support of Government initiatives, educational institutions and organizations, we can properly educate our country about our history. Together, we can raise awareness and eliminate false ideas about Aboriginal peoples. Society’s fixed and most often discriminatory opinions towards Aboriginals people can be eliminated if everyone is given the opportunity to learn the facts – an opportunity I wasn’t given until the age of 19.
I know I’m just a ‘’white girl’’ talking about large matters that I have so much left to learn about. I might not fully understand what it means to be Aboriginal in our world today, but I’m trying. These courses, readings and discussions with Aboriginal individuals have helped me understand that whether someone is First Nations, Métis, Inuit or non-status, we are all united as one. I hope we walk into the future together and continue on this path towards mutual respect and reconciliation. There is still so much for all of us to learn.