Tomorrow, June 21, is “National Indigenous Peoples Day” and June is also “National Indigenous History Month.” Google tells me that National Indigenous History Month was declared in 2009 by the Government of Canada to “recognize and celebrate the heritage and ongoing accomplishments of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis communities.” While it’s a good start with regards to recognizing the harms perpetrated against Indigenous people in Canada, it’s only a start because there are a LOT of wrongs to right. Case in point: just over one year ago, the unmarked graves of 215 children were discovered near the Kamloops Residential School. This discovery, and many more since then, have all left a sick feeling in my stomach and hurt in my heart.
I have lived in Canada’s North for most of my life: near several Cree and Dene First Nations in northern Manitoba as a child, near the Netmizaaggamig Nishnaabeg/Pic Mobert First Nation (Marathon, ON) as a teenager, on the Yellowknifes Dene Traditional Territory as a young adult (Yellowknife) and finally, on the Traditional Territories of the Kwanlin Dun First Nation and Ta’an Kwach’an Council in Whitehorse, where I currently reside. Unfortunately, these Traditional Territories were rarely, if ever, acknowledged back in those days.
As a white child of mining parents, I led a good life. This life wasn’t perfect given that I was raised in a home with alcoholism and very little money, but I always had a roof over my head and nobody tried to steal me from my family so, compared to what Indigenous people have suffered in this country, it was downright privileged. So much so that I was unaware of the impact my family’s presence likely had in these small towns, particularly in Leaf Rapids which was coined an “instant town” due to the fast construction of the town and the large population that moved into the area for mining. How this mass influx of people who came extract resources from the land of the Cree and Dene people must have affected them and their way of life! I was a kid and I was busy trying to adjust to living in a new and strange place so I was blind to the bigger picture but I sure felt it. I had a few close Indigenous friends but generally, relations were tense between us kids. I didn’t understand why my blonde hair and blue eyes made me the target for some bullying, but I do now. Our government was pulling some shady colonial bullshit right under our noses and even as it was felt through strained relations, it was largely unseen (by me at least).
I’m now an adult and I am no longer blind to the cultural genocide that was happening all around me as I grew up. Although I love the rugged beauty and space of this country and particularly this Territory, I no longer feel good about celebrating Canada Day as more and more unmarked graves continue to be found. Taking children from their parents and telling them that the essence of who they are, their culture, is wrong is unforgivable. As a white person who was born and raised in northern towns, I lived on the other side of this shameful coin and I unknowingly benefitted (through my privilege) from this abhorrent treatment of other human beings. It truly saddens me but that sadness is not enough. The fact that I didn’t know it was happening doesn’t absolve me from trying to do what I can today to make it right.
To do better and make sure that history doesn’t EVER repeat itself, we all have to learn, support and listen. I am now proud to work for a Yukon First Nation and I intend to put the full force of my education, experience and heart into supporting them in whatever way I can. In order to continue to learn and evolve as a human, I’m also going to keep doing something that I already love to do, and that’s read. There are so many excellent Indigenous authors out there! Here are a few of my favourite with some brief reviews:
- Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese: Written with grace and honesty and a gift for story-telling, Wagamese tells the shocking story of a young Indigenous boy growing up in 1960s Canada and the abuse he endured, both inside the residential school system and out. It’s a story about the love of hockey and how it belonged to all Canadians, despite the rampant racism. (“Honky Night in Canada” is how one of the Moose players described our national pastime.) But most of all it’s a story of hope and healing in the face of incredibly sad circumstances. I think that every Canadian should read this book.
- From the Ashes, My Story of Being Homeless, Metis, and Finding My Way by Jessie Thistle: This is a brutally honest memoir written without sugar-coating or a trace of self pity. It’s so sad to read about the effects of colonialism and the inter-generational trauma it perpetuated. His loss of culture was such a gaping wound in his soul that he became one of the “broken-hearted people with nowhere to go”. It’s wonderful that Jesse was able to climb out of the chaos of Indigenous homelessness to share his story.
- Medicine Walk by Richard Wagamese: This is so beautifully written. It took a while for me to warm up to the story, but once I did I struggled to put it down. Wagamese was a wonderful author who could tell heartbreaking tales in such a classy way, all while making no apologies or trying to solicit pity from the reader.
- Five Little Indians by Michelle Good: This is the 2022 Canada Reads winner and for good reason. It’s a compelling story that follows five residential school survivors and documents, with disturbing detail at times, how it has impacted their lives.
- Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden
- Kiss of the Fur Queen by Tomson Highway
- An Army of Problem Solvers – Reconciliation and the Solutions Economy by Shaun Loney: Although not written by an Indigenous author, I HIGHLY recommend this book! It’s a refreshingly realistic take on how to tackle some of society’s most daunting issues such as poverty and lack of food security while contributing to the healing of wounds left by colonialism. The ideas in this book can inspire everyone to start turning problems into solutions in meaningful ways – it certainly inspired me!
- Life in the City of Dirty Water: A Memoir of Healing by Clayton Thomas-Muller: I’m currently reading this book which was written by a man who lived in the area of Northern Manitoba where i grew up. It’s painful to read about what he went through during the time when I lived in Leaf Rapids, but I’m glad to learn.
- We Remember the Coming of the White Man by Elizabeth Yakeleya, Sarah Simon and other Sahtu and Gwich’in Dene Elders: I’m listening to this audiobook and am about 1/4 of the way through it. One of the ladies I work with is from Tulita so I want to learn more about her culture. It’s a privilege to know her; now in her 70s, she’s a resilient and graceful human who has maintained such a great sense of humour.
- The Last Mooseskin Boat by Raymond Yakelaya – This is a 1982 video that was recommended to me by a Ross River Dena Elder. It was made about the Shotah Dene people and their traditional way of making a boat to travel down the Mackenzie River. I highly recommend watching this video!
This is obviously not an exhaustive list -there are so many excellent books about Indigenous experience and history with colonialism. There are also excellent writings about the rich culture of different Indigenous groups across Canada. I intend to never stop learning as I attempt to read ALL the books! 🙂
Let’s try to open our hearts on June 21st as well as the other 364 days of the year and aim for true reconciliation and healing in this country.
Happy solstice, everyone!