I admit my initial reaction to the criticism heaped on Canada’s Governor-General David Johnston for referring to Indigenous people as “immigrants” in a CBC-radio interview was that he had walked into a thorny patch of political correctness.
But a moment of reflection soon set that knee-jerk reaction aside as I realized the absurdity of what the Governor-General had said on the recent the weekly episode of The House:
“We’re a country based on immigration, going right back to our, quote, Indigenous people, unquote, who were immigrants as well, 10, 12, 14,000 years ago.”
Governor-General Johnston was apparently referring to the theory that First Nation people did not originate in the so-called Americas, but migrated from the Asian land mass via an ice-age land-bridge across what is now called the Bering Strait between Alaska and Russia.
That may be true, or not. It’s actually surprising how little is still known about the origins of human beings and how they spread throughout the world over a period estimated to be anywhere from 100,000 to 300,000 years.
At a certain point the anthropological chronology of time becomes irrelevant, as people become part of the land they occupy. Exactly, when that happens is impossible to say. It’s essentially a spiritual relationship of a nation with the land, and thus a most fundamental part of who they are as a people. Calling Indigenous people “immigrants” diminishes that, big time, and caused great offence, as Johnston soon found out in no uncertain terms.
By the same token most Europeans could be called immigrants to Europe because their ancestors began migrating from the Eurasian steppes in what is now The Ukraine and southern Russia barely 5,000 years ago.
Tell that to the Italians, French, German, English, Scandinavians, Polish, and people of other European “nationalities” who can trace their ancestry in Europe back several thousand years, more or less, and you might just get a bemused response. Or, they too might take offence. After all, those people too have become actual, and above all, spiritual occupants of a territory they now proudly regard as their homeland, and celebrate as such.
I remember years ago as a young man attending a concert given by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra at a large church in downtown Toronto. My friends and I were in the front row of pews. I could have reached out and touched members of the violin section, we were that close to the orchestra.
The featured music was Vltava (The Moldau) a symphonic poem by the 19th Century Bohemian composer Bedrich Smetana. Described by the encyclopedia Britannica as a “devoutly patriotic work,” it is a wonderfully, evocative musical trip down the Vltava River from its source in the Bohemian Forest, through the Czech countryside, and the city of Prague. Bohemia is the largest historical region of the Czech Republic. The Vtlava is the longest river in that central European country, and a tributary of the larger Elbe River that flows north through Germany to the North Sea.
But The Moldau, as it’s most often called, is huge: great music that speaks of one, relatively small European nation’s deep spiritual attachment to their homeland.
It was without a doubt the most moving, memorable musical moment of my life, and one that no doubt helped shape my understanding of the human experience:
We are spiritual beings, nurtured by the Earth and its waters, who have received the sacred gift of life for a few precious moments.
The First Nation people who inhabited the land of a country now called Canada are called that for a reason: they are the First Nations, the “original” people whose roots in this land go deeper than time, even “time immemorial.”
That is an honourable distinction that by now should come clothed in self-evident respect. Those of us who, at best, have roots that go back a few hundred years cannot lay claim to anything like it. Not yet, and certainly not without honouring the special status of First Nation people.
I am proud to be Canadian. It’s the only country, the only land I’ve ever known. It’s my home. But I would feel prouder still, and, yes, even more at home if First Nation people were treated with the respect they deserve. Much would change for the better.
The truth is Canada’s history for most of its 150 years has shamefully betrayed the original people in that regard, for all the reasons we should all know by now and take to heart.
The First Nations welcomed our ancestors, helped them survive, fought to defend this land. But in return they were betrayed, time and time again. Why should they trust us? Why should they want to join us again in the creation of a country?
Trust, respect must somehow be restored, if that’s at all possible.
Otherwise, there can be no reconciliation, and “no better country we desire,” to quote Governor-General Johnston as he struggled this past week to apologize for, and clarify, his initial remarks:
“The better country we desire is above all a more inclusive one that supports, encourages and acknowledges the contributions of all peoples, including Indigenous peoples, the original peoples of this land. Let me apologize for not expressing myself correctly on this matter recently. Indigenous peoples are the original peoples,” he said.
Sorry, sir, but prepare to cringe, that doesn’t hit the mark either: First Nation people are entitled to more than inclusion.
The political situation in the U.S. has put a greater burden on Canada to help show a troubled, often hateful world a better way forward. We are a country with a remarkable opportunity to be an example to the world of how people with many cultural traditions can live together in peace.
That is the only way humanity has any hope for a better future.
But so long as Canada fails to do right by First Nations we can’t really lay claim to that vitally important leadership-by-example role.
For many years one of my historical heroes has been Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce, a First Nation that lived in the Paloose River valley of the present-day northwest U.S. I first learned about him and his struggle on behalf of his people from one of my all-time favourite books, Touch the Earth: A Self-portrait of Indian Existence, by T.C. McLuhan.
In 1877 Chief Joseph, of the Wal-lam-wat-kain (Wallowa) band of the Nez Perce, led a group of his people who resisted forced removal to a reservation. Hoping to find refuge in Canada, they conducted a long, fighting retreat against U.S. military forces.
They made it to within a few miles of the border before being forced to surrender. Chief Joseph vowed in his famous surrender speech, “from where the sun now shines I will fight no more forever.”
But he continued to speak eloquently in pursuit of justice for his people, including in a speech to the U.S. Congress. These wise words of his come to mind now regarding Canada’s relations with First Nations as the country celebrates its 150th anniversary:
“I am tired of talk that comes to nothing It makes my heart sick when I remember all the good words and all the broken promises. There has been too much talking by men who had no right to talk. It does not require many words to speak the truth.”
This is a good year to speak the truth in Canada and make good on the promise of reconcilation.
A version of this was originally published in The Sun Times in June, 2017