To take a stand you have to stand up

I have been watching with interest the groundswell movement known as Idle No More and the events going on around the country. Some believe its a  short term response to recent legislation, but, while such may have been a trigger, I think there is much more to it than that.  Its about pride.

In order for any society to function properly and to its full capacity, it must raise and educate its children so that they can answer what philosophers such as Socrates, and Plato, and our Elders, call ‘the great questions of life’. Those questions are:

Where do I come from?

Where am I going?

Why am I here?

Who am I?

Children need to know their personal story, including that part which precedes their birth.  We need to know the stories of our parents and our grandparents, our direct and indirect ancestors and our real and mythological villains and heroes.  As part of that story we also need to know about the story of the community of people to which we are attached – our collective story – all the way back to our place in the creation of this world.  We all have a Creation story, and we all need to know what it is. We also need to learn that not all Creation stories are the same, but that all Creation stories are true. That is an important teaching about respect.

We also need to know where we are going.  Its a natural outcome of knowing from where you’ve come. Knowing where you’re going is not just about where you are going to be next week, or next year, or in 25 years.  It’s about that, but its also about what happens to us when we die. It’s about the spirit world, and life after death, and a reaffirmation of the role of the Creator in matters of life and death.  It’s about belief, and faith, and hope.

“Why am I here?” is closely related to the questions about past and future. Knowing one’s Creation story is always imbued with teachings about why the Creator made this Creation  and what our place as human beings was intended to be within it. But the answer to that question is also about knowing what role you play in the overall collective. Its about knowing whether your purpose is fulfilled through being an artist, or a leader, or a warrior, or a caregiver, or a healer, or a helper. Clan teachings and naming ceremonies in our culture provide answers about that, but the answer to that question is also influenced by knowing what your family and community need, and then, filling that need, and feeling the satisfaction that derives from that.

The fourth question, “Who am I?”, is the most important, because it is one that we are always asking and always answering. It is the constant question. It is influenced by everything and everyone. We fight to maintain the answer we like, and we fight to change and improve the answer we don’t. We strive to attain the perfect answer by the time we die, not realizing that in fact there is no right or wrong answer. It is a question about understanding our life.  It is about identity. It is about what you have become, but it is also about what you want to become.  That is why it is constant.  In many ways it is the answer that derives from knowing the answers to the other three questions.  If one of them is unanswered or the answer in doubt, then this question remains unfulfilled. Your life is not in balance.

For children in residential schools, those questions went unfulfilled.  The answers that they were forced to accept ran counter to much of the knowledge they carried. The schools were about changing their identities, but how can one do that, when there is so much information out there that is not consistent with the identity you are being told you must take on? The potential for internal conflict was enormous, and that potential was never recognized.  I was at a conference when I heard a young man complain “It’s hard being an Indian!”, to which an Elder, who is also a Residential School Survivor, quietly responded “It’s harder not being one, when you know you are.”

The way that we have all been educated in this country – Aboriginal children in residential schools and Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal children in public and other schools – has brought us to where we are today – to a point where the psychological and emotional well being of Aboriginal children has been harmed, and the relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people has been seriously damaged and is in need of repair. This is so, not just in terms of what was taught (or not taught) about residential schools, but also in terms of what Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people have been taught, and not taught, about each other.

In broad terms, while education has brought us to the current state of poor relations between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples in this country, education also holds the key to making things better.

Making things better will not happen overnight. It will take generations. It will take concerted effort over a number of generations. That’s how the damage was created and that’s how the damage will be fixed. But if we agree on the objective of reconciliation, and agree to work together, the work we do today, will immeasurably strengthen the social fabric of Canada tomorrow.

Most Canadians have been taught little or nothing about the Indian Residential Schools. But they were probably taught something, one way or another, about the history of Canada and the role of Aboriginal peoples in that history. They were probably taught, for instance, that the history of North America began “in 1492, when Columbus sailed the ocean blue”, or when John Cabot and Jacques Cartier landed on a small piece of land in the East of Canada, and claimed the entire place all the away to the West for a foreign power.

Penney Clark of the University of British Columbia, writes about how Aboriginal People are portrayed in English Canadian History Textbooks in her work entitled Teaching the Violent Past: History Education and Reconciliation. Dr. Clark divides the treatment of Aboriginal peoples in textbooks prior to 1970 into six general categories:

  • Aboriginal people as spectator or bystander – basically irrelevant to the main narrative of the text, and to the narrative of history of this country;
  • Aboriginal people as savage warriors; a danger lurking in the background of the settler story.
  • Aboriginal people as uniquely spiritual; followers of mystical beliefs, naïve to the forces at play around them and victim to their lack of astuteness.
  • Aboriginal people as problem;
  • Aboriginal people as protestor; and
  • Aboriginal people as invisible.

Nation-building has been the main theme of Canada’s history curricula for a long time, and Aboriginal people, except for a few notable exceptions trotted out as if to prove the rule, have been portrayed as bystanders, if not obstacles, to the enterprise of nation-building.

Dr. Ken Osborne is a (former) Professor of Education at the University of Manitoba. His specialty has been the teaching of history, and he is writing a book about the history of the teaching of history in Canada. He says:

In both English language and French-language textbooks the First Nations were typically assigned the textbook equivalent of a reserve: a segregated first chapter of a quasi-ethnographic nature in which they appeared to live in a timeless past that was now outdated and best forgotten. Before the 1970s, textbooks overwhelmingly saw Canadian history as beginning with the arrival of Europeans in North America. With the arrival of Europeans, the First Nations made an occasional cameo appearance in the early history of New France, in the context of the fur trade, briefly in the War of 1812, and finally as an obstacle to European settlement of the West. ….

Totally lost was any sense of Aboriginal culture as a successful adaptation to the physical environment and of Aboriginal life as self-sustaining and self-sufficient in its own terms.

Dr. Osborne goes on to mention that even when comment was made about the presence of Aboriginal People, it was not always done in a positive light:

Europeans had religion; Aboriginal peoples had superstitions and ‘strange ideas about the things around them.’ Europeans held ceremonies; Aboriginal people indulged in orgies. Europeans had technology; Aboriginal peoples used crude inventions. Europeans had doctors; Aboriginal peoples had medicine men who worked their cures, ‘by beating drums, dancing and howling.

The way Aboriginal peoples were represented in textbooks prior to the 1970s is important for two reasons.

First, many of today’s leading and prominent Canadians attended school and university in that era, long before educational authorities began to take their first critical look at curricula as it relates to Aboriginal peoples. That education has influenced each and every one of us. As an Aboriginal student it denied to me any sense of pride about the role of my ancestors in the history of this part of the world. For my non-Aboriginal classmates, it taught them that we were wild and savage and uncivilized, and that given the conditions of Aboriginal people in modern society, we had not advanced very far from that state.  My non-Aboriginal classmates were taught to be proud of the accomplishments of their ancestors in taming this “wild” country and wresting it from the “savages”. They have been educated throughout their lives to take pride in their ancestors’ having established this wonderful nation known as Canada and to take pride in the advanced civilizations from which their ancestors came. This so, even though the 17th century philosopher Thomas Hobbes observed that the life of the English commoner of his day was “…solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”.

My education lacked such relevance for me, and this was so despite my success at it. I was a very good student, but my success came at a price. The education that I and others received taught us that my people were irrelevant.  By implication it caused me to feel that I was too. It taught us to believe in the inferiority of Aboriginal people and in the inherent superiority of white European civilization, and in order to get the grades that I did, I was compelled to repeat that mantra. The educational system of my day did not teach us to respect Aboriginal people because it never told us anything about the Aboriginal presence in this country that showed the humanity of the people.  We were treated as no more significant to the evolution of this country than the rocks and rivers and trees and wildlife. We were all educated to be the same, and if we, as Aboriginal students,  rebelled, we were weeded out, or we weeded ourselves out.  Of the dozens of Aboriginal students I started grade school with, few graduated from high school, even though they were equal or superior in intelligence to many of my fellow grads. Even my brother and sister did not graduate from high school, and there are members of my family who will happily tell you they were, and are, smarter than me.  But though I, and other Aboriginal students, succeeded in that system, it was not without cost to our own humanity.

I can best illustrate that for you with a short story.

I have a grand-daughter – Sarah is her English name – Nimijien Niibense is her Spirit name and how I always call her. She is very special to me. She loves to hear stories, especially Nanabush stories – the stories of the trickster of our people.  Yet from time to time, I like to tell her other children stories as well: Goldilocks and the Three Bears, the Three Little Pigs, Little Red Riding Hood, and Jack and the Beanstalk are among her favorites, mainly I think, because I can be a pretty stern Papa Bear, or a believable Big Bad Wolf, or a scary Giant.  But the story I really I like to tell her is my favorite story from my childhood – the story of the Little Ugly Duckling.

The story of the little duckling who was mocked and teased and bullied mercilessly by his brothers and sisters and friends and all the other ducks for being ugly, is a touching one.  His sadness and humiliation and loneliness marked his life in the story.  He wanted so hard to be like all the other ducks but he was never treated well and he always felt like he never fit in. He was told he was ugly because he was too tall, and his beak was different and his feathers were not the right color and his neck was too long. He began to feel ugly. The other ducks would not play with him. He felt he was a failure. He felt rejected and lost. Even the love of the mother duck could not help him with his pain. He was a sad, and lonely, ugly duck.

And then one day, in his loneliness, something special happened. He discovered that he was not even a duck. He  discovered that he was in fact a swan, and he saw how beautiful swans could be. He learned to lift his head and to be proud of his long neck and shorter beak and of his different colored feathers and he learned how to carry himself in a beautiful, dignified, manner. He did not learn that from ducks, he learned that from swans.  He discovered who he really was, and he discovered that what others called ugly was, in fact, a thing of great beauty.  His happiness at that discovery was one that I felt too, as I read the story as a child, and which I felt when I first told it to Sarah and which I feel each time I tell it. It is a story about hope and redemption and self awareness that resonated with me and still does.

When I tell her that story, I always end it by telling her that she too is a beautiful, beautiful swan no matter what others might tell her, and it makes her feel good to hear that from her Mooshim.

But what I haven’t been able to tell her yet – because she’s too young – is that I grew up sad because I was raised to believe I was something I knew I was not.  Like the ugly duckling and despite my significant “duck” skills, I always felt shame and confusion and sadness because I did not feel like the duck we were told we all were to be. When she is old enough to understand, I will tell her about the day I became a swan – when I realized I was a strong Anishinaabe man – and that there were many things of beauty about being Anishinaabe that belonged to me. I think she will have to know that part of the story too if she is to know her Mooshim and where she comes from.

The second reason why I talk about the work of those academics is because it takes a long time and a great deal of concerted effort to turn around damaging public attitudes that were cultivated over decades and even centuries. Mainstream Canadians see the dysfunction of Aboriginal communities but they have no idea how that happened, what caused it, or how government contributed to that reality through such actions and policies as residential schools and the Indian Act, with its denial of basic civil and human rights. In that environment, it becomes easy to blame Aboriginal people for their lot in life, and for their failure to overcome the pain and consequences of their impoverished existence, as others may have.

All students, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, need to learn that the history of this country did not begin in 1492, or even with the arrival of Vikings much earlier. They need to learn about the Aboriginal nations that the Europeans met, about their rich linguistic and cultural heritage, about what they felt and thought as they dealt with such historic figures as Champlain, LaVerendrye and the representatives of the Hudson’s Bay Company. They need to learn why they negotiated treaties and that they negotiated them with purpose and integrity and in good faith. They need to learn why Aboriginal leaders and elders fight so hard to defend those poorly worded treaties and what they represent to them and why they have been ignored by Euro-Canadian settlers and governments. They need to know why First Nations want to do away with the Indian Act but want to be assured that Canada, before it does so, will not impose something even more sinister.  A history of breaking treaties and faith will create that kind of mistrust.

They need to learn about what it means to have inherent rights, what those are for Aboriginal people, and the settler government’s obligations, in those areas where treaties have never been negotiated in the first place. They need to learn  of the many issues that are ongoing and why.

They need to learn that the doctrine of discovery – the politically and socially accepted basis for European claims to the land and riches of this country – has never been accepted in Canadian courts and has been repudiated around the world, recently by the United Nations and the World Council of Churches.

But this is not enough. As I said before, mainstream Canadians see the dysfunction of Aboriginal communities but they have no idea how that happened, what caused it, or how government contributed to that reality through residential schools and the policies and laws in place during their existence. Our education system, through omission or commission, has failed to do that and misunderstanding, ignorance, and racism has resulted, on the one hand, and shame, humiliation, a lack of self-respect and anger has occurred, on the other.

The educational systems of this country bear a large share of the responsibility for the current state of affairs. But it can fix what it has broken. It starts with acknowledging that role, such as President Barnard of the University of Manitoba did when he issued an apology on behalf of the University for its contribution to this historical failure at the TRC’s National Event in Halifax in October 2011.

What our education systems also need to do is this: they must commit to teach Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal children – our children – how to speak respectfully to and about each other in the future. It begins with teaching them the truth about our history. Knowing what happened will lead to understanding. Understanding leads to respect.

Reconciliation is about respect. The relationship must be founded on mutual respect, but we must not lose sight of the threshold importance of ensuring that firstly, Aboriginal children (and adults) are given an opportunity to develop self-respect and show it off.  That must come first. When I observe what is going on around us today, I can see under the layers of all other things, people standing up, with pride. Best of all, I see the presence of other non-Aboriginal people sharing in that pride as well. All Canadians need to be able to share in the pride that comes about when respect is present.

Because, whether you’re walking the road of reconciliation, or just pushing back against a bully, you have to stand up first.

About Senator Murray Sinclair (retired)

Ojibway Anishinaabe Inini Mizhanagheezhik (n’dizhinikaaz) Namiigoonse (n’dodem) Lawyer, Mediator, Public Speaker Currently Canadian Senator for Manitoba Justice of the Court of Queen's Bench of Manitoba (2001-2016) Associate Chief Judge off the Manitoba Provincial Court) (1988-2001) Co-Commissioner of the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry of Manitoba) (1988-91) Paediatric Cardiac Surgery Inquiry Judge (1997-2000) Chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (2009-2015) Thinker, poet, writer, philosopher, speaker.
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13 Responses to To take a stand you have to stand up

  1. Allison Pauls says:

    The most concise and intelligent explanation for the strife between Aboriginal and non-aboriginal Canadians that I have read. Being from the education community, I see the implementation of these forward-thinking ideas in said institutions being the brick wall in bringing about change. I would propose using another avenue, today’s textbook, today’s entertainment, today’s forum; the internet. How can we get these ideas out there to every Canadian, and effect change at the speed of an e-mail? I for one want to aid in bringing about this change. The country need ist now.


  2. Holly says:

    I was waiting to hear from you on IdleNoMore. And as always, you bring a perspective that is like a “road map” for a successful journey. Now I am sure what I need to, and will, do.


  3. Jennifer Henry says:

    Thank you so much. This is a powerful reflection that once again shows us the way forward. We at KAIROS are so thankful for your wise leadership. Blessings in our continuing work together, as truth reconciliation, equity and justice is all of our responsibility.


  4. Susan Bruyere Koncan says:

    …very wise words… is so very important that we take a ‘stand’ to speak and follow what is in our hearts….be not afraid


  5. Beautiful words. Kitchi Miigwetch. Respect is where it begins.


  6. Marcia Mirasty says:

    wise words from a wise and gentle man…thank you…Chi Meekwetch!


  7. Paul Burrows says:

    Thank you for this very moving piece. It has already made my day!


  8. This is a beautifully written, moving piece that should be required reading in every school in Canada. Thank you.


  9. paulamat says:

    Thank-you. It has given me much to think about as a Canadian and educator.


  10. Nicole says:

    Nice to read an informed articulate article and not have to scroll down and read any horrible racist commentary. Loved the flow of words in connection to life as a First Nations person. A must read for all walks of life.


  11. John Cuthand says:

    I find most academics write to their peers. This piece, however, comes from a place of the heart and spirit. It resonates with me in a way that is immediate and real.


  12. I loved reading 📚your thoughts. You have made my heart ❤larger. Thank you. Now I know a little more.


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