Posted in Opinions, Top Opinions

Our portrayals of indigenous struggle are far too narrow

Focus on residential schools tokenizes and ignores current Aboriginal issues

EV - Jasmeen Virk
Image Credits: Jasmine Virk

In response to the challenges ahead, our new prime minister Justin Trudeau has promised to meet with indigenous leaders before year’s end and hold an inquiry into missing and murdered Aboriginal women. Although these are important steps in government-indigenous relations, they’re not aimed at remedying a pervasive culture of tokenism and narrow representation that saturates Canada’s conversation on Aboriginal issues.

The fleeting acknowledgement of being on ‘unceded First Nations’ territory’ or noting Canada’s history of racism, including the legacy left by residential schools, is not enough. I have serious concerns about the state of equality, multiculturalism, and ultimately reconciliation in Canada, and the TRC has not eased my apprehension.

I think there are some unpleasant assumptions held in regards to Canada’s Aboriginal history. As a result, the portrayal of the indigenous struggle in Canada is very narrow. Over my years attending SFU public lectures, I have noticed that conversations on First Nations topics invariably lead to someone injecting the lingering tragedy of residential schools into the discussion — even when the transition feels strained.

This seamless association between the indigenous experience and residential schools does little more than construct a very narrow and overwhelmingly grim narrative of the place of indigenous people in Canadian history.

The commonplace reputation of residential schools is illustrated by John Milloy’s A National Crime. This book would go on to influence a generation of anti-racism activists — however, its depiction of colonialism’s ugly legacy makes it too easy to forget that residential schools were not the pinnacle of racism for many Aboriginal persons.

Acknowledgement of being on ‘unceded First Nations’ territory’ or legacy left by residential schools is not enough.

It makes it easy to forget that some indigenous persons, such as Nisga’a chief Frank Calder, went to residential school in order to prepare to lead their nation in land claims. It also makes it too easy to forget that many First Nations — to the tune of over 60 per cent — did not even attend residential school.

There has been no large-scale effort made to uncover the ‘truth’ of Aboriginal day-schools or the consequences of relegating people to reserves in an effort to reach ‘reconciliation.’ Maybe these wider issues are not acknowledged because Canadians only want to speak about this ‘shameful’ episode in past tense.

It is possible that the dialogue focuses on specific schools in order to lay blame on the government and churches, and deny one’s role in a racializing culture. Whatever the reason, it is assumed that an innately harmful ordeal at residential schools is integral to the indigenous experience. I think to lump a diverse people together based on one identity is to discredit their experience as a whole.

Canada needs to put more effort into actually understanding current indigenous issues. The general neglect of Aboriginal communities, as illustrated by the ‘discovery’ of the substandard living conditions at Attawapiskat First Nation in northern Ontario in 2011, is something that continues to this day.

Lost within the media coverage of residential schools are those who did not feel they were profoundly impacted by their time there in a negative way. Denied by the Common Experience Payment (part of the Residential Schools Settlement Agreement) is any validation that the same abuses happened at Aboriginal day schools and to residential school attendees to various degrees.

My aim is not to discredit those who were subject to abuses in residential schools, but only to acknowledge that the scope of inequality in Canada is much larger than many would like to believe it is. Canada has a long way to go before we can reach reconciliation. We need to not assume a victimizing narrative so that we can move past what remains a dark period in Canadian history.

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