A version of this commentary appeared in Toronto Star, the Huffington Post and Hamilton Spectator
Canadian Indigenous people have been described as “ghosts of history,” spectres lingering in the background, haunting our legacy. This refers to the fact that Indigenous people have been ignored to a great extent in Canadian history, yet Canadians are fully aware that Indigenous people were here long before the arrival of the Europeans. Canadians are also generally aware that Indigenous people were mistreated over time. Their lands and culture were stripped away through questionable means leaving generations traumatized.
For many Canadians, ignorance is bliss — it has been easier on the conscience to just ignore this unpleasant chapter in Canadian history and pretend that the displacement, oppression and trauma of Indigenous people never happened.
In the short run, ignoring this history may make it easier for Canadians to have pride in being Canadian. But, in the long run, ignoring this history rather than facing it head on, has costs. It weighs heavily on the Canadian psyche.
The eclipse of the Indigenous people by the English and French settlers by the time of Confederation has left present day Canada floundering with its identity — and even affects us on the world stage. Canada’s attempt to be a leader on the world stage as a champion of human rights is often ridiculed by its enigmatic treatment of its Indigenous population.
In 2014, a United Nations report showed that, of the bottom 100 communities in Canada on the Community Well-being Index, 96 were Indigenous communities. In 2015, the Conference Board of Canada ranked 117 health regions in Canada and found that Indigenous communities were at the bottom, mostly affected by social problems affecting health. That’s the effect of systematically undervaluing a whole group of people. That’s trauma in real life.
History also shows us how important Indigenous people were to the founding of Canada. John Ralston Saul argues that Canadian identity extends beyond the French and English and actually rests on a triangular foundation which includes Canada’s Indigenous peoples. Early exploration and settlement by the French followed by the English would not have been possible without the assistance of Indigenous people and whole Indigenous nations.
Indigenous people taught the rest how to exist on this land we call Canada. Indigenous participation in the fur trade enabled the establishment of the first major economic activity in this country.
Not only trauma, but solutions and new-found pride in the Canadian identity may be found in looking honestly and responding appropriately to the lessons of history.
The social problems facing many Indigenous people today because of intergenerational trauma are large, but the fact that the Indigenous population is the youngest demographic group in Canada offers opportunity to support change in a large generation of young people that could cascade forward into the generations to come. If we ignore the problems, the trauma will continue to grow exponentially. If we address the problems, the healing will grow exponentially.
So what are the solutions?
Many solutions come under the reconsideration of Treaties. Rather than keep our Treaties hidden under a cloak of shame, we should acknowledge and celebrate their existence with pride by focusing and emphasizing their original intent — that of an agreement between peoples about the peaceful sharing of lands in exchange for security: security from hunger, security from disease, security from obsolescence.
Recognizing the value of Indigenous people, inherent in the recognition of the intent of Treaties as agreements between two peoples will reduce the societal push for assimilation. If you value someone, you don’t see a need to assimilate that person. Indigenous people have always resisted being absorbed into the larger society through forced assimilation. Chief Sitting Bull once famously said, “If the Great Spirit had desired me to be a white man, He would have made me so in the first place.”
Indigenous people should not be written off derisively as a stone-age people without the wheel as opined by the Conrad Blacks of this country. In fact, Canada is criss-crossed by many rivers and lakes that were in summer traversed by light, efficient birch bark canoes by Indigenous people and by voyageurs after arrival by Europeans. In winter, snowshoes and toboggans were the only modes of transport over the deep snow which blanketed our lands for a good part of the year. The wheel was useless during this period of history.
Valuing Indigenous people also means that we are compelled to help them.
Only a handful of reserves, the lucky few adjacent to mainstream markets, have reached standards that are equivalent to the rest of Canadian society. Canada needs to pay attention to the Shamattawas and Attawapiskats of this country that are plagued by suicides, drugs and alcohol amongst other issues. Forced relocation is not an option; however, valuing people by enabling them to relocate if they want to, with government assistance, should be available.
Economic corridors linking these isolated communities to the nearest regional centre need to be negotiated — because jobs are lifelines to human purpose. Any new resource developments in the area must include some ownership by the communities. Most importantly, Treaty rights need to be portable and no longer used to restrict and confine Indigenous people within the boundaries of their designated reserves.
These are only starting points. But Indigenous people need to be recognized in history as a people who at one time had independence, territory, communities, governance, trade, culture, traditions and spirituality.
Rather than focusing on the shameful outcomes, recognizing and acting upon the original intentions of Treaties will go a long way toward restoring pride, respect and dignity to Indigenous peoples. It will coincidentally address Canadians’ divided conscience over the pride they can realistically hold in their identity as Canadians. These approaches would also help Indigenous peoples assume their rightful place as one of the three valuable pillars in Canada’s triangular foundation.
Together we can bring Indigenous people out of the shadows and they will cease to be ‘ghosts of history.’ Indigenous people can assume their rightful place as valued citizens of Canada.
This article was based on a keynote speech delivered by Len Flett at the Indigenous Healing and Trauma conference in Calgary, Alberta.
Leonard G. Flett is the author of From the Barren Lands and a member of the Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug First Nation (Big Trout Lake, Ontario). He is former VP of The North West Company, former Chair of IndSpire, member of the Order of Canada, and member of the Order of Manitoba.
Nicole Letourneau is the author of Scientific Parenting and a Professor at the University of Calgary’s Owerko Centre focused on children’s neurodevelopment. They are both expert advisors with EvidenceNetwork.ca.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.