It’s one thing to talk reconciliation, between Indigenous people and other Canadians; it’s another thing to make it happen. We’re being reminded of that lately on an almost daily basis as many in the country celebrate this brave, and relatively new experiment in multicultural living called Canada.
I count myself as one of those proud of Canada’s growing reputation around the world as an open-hearted, increasingly diverse community that welcomes people of many different cultural backgrounds and offers them the opportunity to renew their lives in freedom and peace.
I’ve certainly often noted that – while expressing that hopeful view of Canada as a positive model for a troubled world – as proof that people of many different cultural backgrounds can live together, and mutually benefit from this good country’s diversity.
In fact, as I say that it occurs to me I am a living witness to the truth of it: I saw how the continuing influx of immigrants from many cultural backgrounds helped immeasurably to transform my home town, Toronto, from narrow-minded, provincial backwater dominated, and kept under wraps by a white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant (WASP) establishment, to a city with international status.
Yes, there were and still are growing pains. But the sky did not fall, and Toronto is a far more vibrant and interesting city than the one I knew growing up. Thank God I at least had Glenn Gould, jingle, jangle mornin’ Bob Dylan, Mississippi John Hurt, and Prokoviev’s 9th piano sonata to console me or I might never have made it. They gave me hope in the human spirit. Thanks guys.
Just a few days ago I noticed a young man apparently having car trouble down at the end of my road where people park to hike the Hope Ness to Hope Bay section of the Bruce Trail. Janis was from Cologne, Germany. He had been on a cross-Canada road trip, as much a journey of self-discovery as an exploration of this spacious country where, he noted, it was actually possible to see the stars in all their dark-sky glory, and be far away from the constant hum of civilization.
He had been to Vancouver and was on his way back to Montreal to catch a flight home to German in a few days. He wasn’t going to have time to visit Toronto. I said that was a shame, because it was such a multicultural city, or as I put it, “you can travel the world,” just by walking down one of the main streets, or sampling the great cultural diversity of food.
Of course that got me going about Canada’s emerging leadership role in the world as an example of how the people of the “global village” can indeed live together in a mutually beneficial community.
I summed it all up by saying, “human beings have to learn to live together; otherwise, there is no future for us.”
I admitted I was struggling to feel hopeful about the future, for one thing, because of the dangerously divisive political situation in the U.S., and how it might impact Canada and the world.
I didn’t get into it with Janis, but I’m worried too about the extent to which First Nation’s protests regarding Canada’s recent 150th anniversary celebrations reveal a level of distrust that might be insurmountable for the process of reconciliation to overcome. That’s especially if the long-standing prejudice of many non-Aboriginal Canadians toward First Nation people is aroused by their growing assertiveness.
The Grey-Bruce-Owen Sound area, part of the Saugeen Ojibway Traditional Territory, has first-hand experience with just such a backlash. That was more than 20 years ago, when the two local First Nations which comprise the Saugeen Ojibway, won back their priority fishing rights in area waters.
There’s plenty of evidence racist attitudes toward First Nation people is still Canada’s shame. As recently as this past week came the news that a young First Nation woman in Thunder Bay who was hit by a trailer hitch thrown from a passing car last January has died.
Last Sunday a group of off-duty members of the Canadian Forces confronted a First Nation protest in Halifax at a statue of Edward Cornwallis, the British general who founded Halifax in 1749 during Britain’s then ongoing conflict with France. The Mi’kmaq First Nation regarded the new settlement as an invasion of their territory and resisted. In response, Cornwallis put a bounty on Mi’kmaq scalps.
The group of young white men who contronted the protest were dressed in identical, black shirts and were members of The Proud Boys, a right-wing, activist group started last year in the U.S., and now in Canada. They describes themselves as “a fraternal organization of Western Chauvinists who will no longer apologize for creating the modern world.”
High-ranking Canadian Forces officers quickly condemned the action and apologized to the First Nation community.
That’s the sort of thing that does not bode well for the future of the Truth and Reconciliation process.
The Saugeen Ojibway have steadfastly followed a peaceful path in asserting their Aboriginal rights with considerable success.
I found the conciliatory spirit Saugeen Ojibway leaders expressed at the dedication of a planned “reconciliation garden” at Kelso Beach Park in Owen Sound encouraging and hopeful. That was despite the truth of history, that the Nawash people were displaced from their home to make way for the expansion of the newly-founded city of Owen Sound in 1857.
“I want to start out by not chastising anyone,” said Chppewas of Nawash Chief Greg Nadjiwon.
“I feel that a celebration of Confederation is warranted,” he said, as quoted in a Sun Times article this week. “I wish these celebrations all the best. It’s just that wer have a totally different perspective on the history and we will not, as the elder (Saugeen First Nation elder Shirley John) said, be silent.”
Everyone involved in this crucial moment of Reconciliation in Canada should be similarly conciliatory in attitude, and willing to listen and learn with an open heart and mind.
It can work. It must work. And Canada will be the better for it.
A version of this was originally published in The Sun Times in July, 2017