This is a time of reckoning, a time to listen, a time to make space for Indigenous voices, and a time to support Indigenous solutions. Canada Day 2021 takes place against the backdrop of the tragic discovery of more than 1000 unmarked graves of Indigenous children that have been found on the grounds of residential schools. Until recently, the children of Canada’s First Nations were forcibly enrolled in 139 residential reform schools. These prison-like schools were institutionalized instruments of cultural genocide. They separated Indigenous children from their parents, deprived them of their culture, their language, and their identities. These children were physically and emotionally abused by both teachers and principals.
Canada is a paradoxical country, widely recognized for its natural beauty while being home to the tarsands, one of the most destructive fossil fuels on the planet. Canada is a mosaic of cultural diversity, including1.67 million Indigenous people and more than 630 First Nation communities representing more than 50 Nations and languages. While many Canadians point fingers at the racism of our neighbours to the south, they fail to recognize that Canada is the epicenter of racist white supremacy. Canada is a nation founded by white settlers. The English and French colonial powers stole the land of the Indigenous people who lived here for thousands of years before European colonization.
The Indian Act (1876), forced Indigenous people off of their traditional lands confining them to reservations and we continue to control most aspects of their lives to this day. The residential school system, which started around the same time, robbed Indigenous people of their culture and forced them to assimilate. We did this through a bastardized and corrupt rendition of Christianity that abused and then neglected Indigenous people in the name of Jesus. The depths of our cruelty and depravity have been whitewashed, and while it is hard to bear witness to our savagery, this is what we are called to do. To bear witness means more than acknowledging the crimes we have committed, it must entail both reckoning and restitution.
Those who claim to empathize with the plight of our Indigenous brothers and sisters must end the injustice that continues to this day. We must understand the history of colonial oppression and end institutional injustice. We must also provide restitution, both moral and financial. We cannot look away from our dark past or the evil in our midst if we are to create a better future. Reconciliation is about more than speeches and symbols, thoughts, and prayers. Reconciliation involves repentance and true repentance requires action. We must stand up to injustice wherever we encounter it, we must demand that political leaders institute structural changes that bestow justice not just in words but in deeds.
We need to have those conversations that make the descendants of settlers uncomfortable, but we need to do more than just talk. We need to change the enduring legacy of settler culture. We must take responsibility for the horrors committed by our ancestors and the vestiges of racism that persist today. Canada Day is about taking stock of what white settlers have done and what their descendants continue to do. This is a time of reckoning not just with the horrors of the past or the evils of White supremacy but with the subtler manifestations of ignorance and indifference that plague us to this day.
We must confront the broken renditions of Christianity that helped to justify this genocide. We must confront the unfounded superiority that is quietly lurking within us today. We must assume responsibility for what we have done as a nation and what we continue to do. So many Indigenous people are suffering and we must suffer with them. This is about more than clean drinking water or legal protections, this is about listening, learning, and supporting Indigenous solutions. We will not solve the problems for Indigenous people, but we can make space for Indigenous people to forge their own solutions and we must give them the resources they require to do so. We owe them this, whatever the cost because Canada’s wealth has been accrued at their expense from the lands that we stole. Righting the wrongs of settler colonialism will take billions of dollars, it will also require us to humbly own the sinful injustice both past and present. There is no easy way forward. Settlers can not do this without self-recrimination, this is a necessary step in a long journey towards justice.
In 2021 Canadians are given an opportunity to take a hard look at themselves and the legacy of their forefathers. It is also a day to begin the process of forging a new path. We must start with the realization that our technologically advanced civilization has augured ruin. We are seeing far-reaching impacts of climate change in Canada. Most recently this can be seen in the record-breaking temperatures out west and the melting of the Arctic permafrost in the North. Ecocide is a crime against nature perpetrated by Canada’s technological civilizations.
Indigenous people are on the front lines bearing the brunt of these relentless assaults against our climate. Our woeful disregard for the natural world is a tangible illustration of our brokenness. Indigenous spirituality stands out in stark contrast to capitalism and Christian conceptualizations of nature. Settler narratives divorce us from nature. Our propensity to subdue and dominate has led us to the brink of ruin as evidenced by biodiversity loss and climate change. Conversely, Indigenous spirituality places humans within the natural world.
Indigenous people provided life-saving guidance when white settlers first arrived in North America, we must humbly seek their guidance again so that we may learn to live more sustainably. Traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) forged over millennia affords a deeper understanding of the natural world. However, to learn we must humble ourselves, we must be contrite. There is no easy or quick way forward, it starts with the acknowledgment of centuries of injustice. We are in desperate need of such wisdom and through disciplines like ecopsychology, ethno-biology, ethno-ornithology, and biocultural diversity we are beginning to scratch the surface of this deep pool of knowledge.
We need to understand that in addition to cultural genocide Indigenous people’s traditional way of life is being further impacted by climate change. Cape Breton University research chair Ashlee Cunsolo Willox is working with Inuit to understand their communities’ climate-related mental and emotional health impacts, she is documenting anxiety, despair, hopelessness and depression, increased family stress, drug and alcohol use, and suicide attempts. Indigenous people are grieving the loss of their way of life. These climate-related ecological losses are causing Indigenous people to grieve for lost landscapes, ecosystems, species, and places that carry personal or collective meaning. Together with the Nunatsiavut communities of Labrador, Willox produced a documentary film, Attutauniujuk Nunami/Lament for the Land in which residents describe how ice, when it forms, is often not thick enough to hunt or fish. As described in the film the land is part of the identity of Indigenous people, it is a source of solace, peace, identity, and well-being. Spending time on the land helps Inuit people to feel grounded and happy. When they are prevented from being in nature they often feel “stuck”, “lost” and “less like people”. Simply put, the land is foundational to mental health. When Indigenous people are deprived of such experiences it gives rise to the concept of “solastagia,” described both as a form of homesickness while still in place, and as a type of grief over the loss of a healthy place or a thriving ecosystem. Indigenous people also grieve for lost environmental knowledge and associated identities.
If this is to be an inflection point in Canada’s relationship with Indigenous people we must do more than pay lip service. One of the things that settler-colonial nations can do is to return stolen land to Indigenous people or at the very least give Indigenous people access to their traditional territories. This is commonly referred to as the Indigenous Land Back movement and it is about more than just land, it is also about self-determination, that would give them a say in resource exploitation and land-use decisions. This is about confronting and correcting colonial abuse and forging a new path forward.
We can recognize and celebrate the heritage, cultures, and contributions of Indigenous people. We can teach people about the experience of Indigenous people in this country including the brutality of the Indian Act and residential schools. We can make justice for Indigenous people a national priority enshrined in both law and our cultural values. As explained by Jesse Wente (Anishinaabe), chairperson of the Canada Council for the Arts, “We don’t just need allies, we need accomplices.” To be an accomplice means educating friends, families, and colleagues. We need to advocate for land repatriation and tell government leaders at all levels that Indigenous voices must be listened to and when this does not happen these leaders must be held accountable. As Wente says, “Be outraged with us. Stand with us. Demand change.”
We also need to address the poverty that far too often afflicts Indigenous people. This involves the recognition that this poverty is a result of being stripped of their lands, their traditional livelihoods, and cultures, as well as a serious lack of educational opportunities (Neu & Therrien, 2003). Colonial powers used to accuse Indigenous people of being savages, but it is the settler colonialists who are the savages. Now is the time for Canadians to seek redemption for themselves and for future generations. It starts by acknowledging the wrongs perpetrated by settler colonialists and their descendants. But we must do more than just hang our heads in shame, don orange shirts or put a candle in our window. We must use all the tools at our disposal to make room for Indigenous voices and support Indigenous solutions.