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  • Shannen's Dream

    You must speak straight so that your words may go as sunlight into our hearts. 

    -Cochise, 1866



    The Canadian Government has long promised new (real) schools for First Nations’ students. Today, four years after Stephen Harper put on his sombre face in the House of Commons to publicly and officially apologize to former students of native residential schools, a group of Ottawa-area public schools banded together under the sun beating down on Parliament Hill and called him on his bluffs. School-aged children from various grades denounced Harper’s inaction on the deplorable state of education infrastructure in First Nations communities. The students and their teachers were motivated by the legacy of Shannen Koostachen who lobbied tirelessly for equitable funding not only for the lost children who were being educated in ramshackle portables on toxic fields in Attawapiskat, but across the country, before she was killed in a tragic car accident at the age of 15. 

    That the current government continues to ignore the plight of First Nations schools is, regrettably, not surprising. Nothing could be surprising after what we’ve seen this past year, including the omnibus mess that is Bill C-38 (but that’s another issue entirely, as pressing as it is right now). Somehow, Harper’s Conservatives believed 4 years ago that they could fool us with tender words (words Harper apparently admitted Jack Layton pressured him into saying) -- and the apology he offered in the House of Commons in 2008 was taken as a sign of monumental shift in government policy, not only by the small group of aboriginal leaders and former students who surrounded Harper to lend authenticity to the long overdue admission of responsibility and guilt (though perhaps some of them were public servants in disguise). 

    But talk is cheap. At the time the apology was made, all the opposition leaders and many First Nations community leaders voiced their concern that there was an urgent need to ‘live the words’ of the apology. And at first it looked like that might happen; however, funding for various organizations designed to deal with this issue, including the successful Aboriginal Healing Foundation (AHF) has been slashed in recent years. Too quickly after reaching out to former students and publicly encouraging them to come forward and open up old, agonizing wounds, the wounded are finding roadblocks everywhere. This type of healing spans generations - and that's after the injustices cease being perpetuated.

    I feel this deeply because an acquaintance of mine is one of the walking wounded. This man who battled with addiction decades ago had been clean and sober for 25 years, working on his recovery and enjoying his life. After that announcement he was yanked back to what had happened to him years ago; forced to face it, all he could find in Ottawa were bureaucratic answering machines, redirections to different  numbers, and, unluckily for him, zero care or concern. The last time I saw him he was an emotional wreck. I searched online and through my connections but couldn’t help him. I haven’t seen him in months. I don’t know where he is now. 

    Many of the trauma-stricken former students of residential schools suffer from PTSD, anxiety, depression and/or addiction, and these people who carry Canada’s shame have been left to confront a wall of Public Service automated switchboards and bureaucratic red tape that leads endlessly to, often, nowhere. Yes, there is help for certain people in certain communities at the grassroots level; as admirable as this grassroots level help is, it is hardly enough.

    To get some more background on this issue, I called Jonathan Dewar, longtime friend and current Director at the Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre at Algoma University. He recently left his post as Director with AHF because the organization's mandate expired this year and new funding was denied. Notwithstanding recommendations by parliamentary committee to extend the mandate of AHF (based on its ongoing success and the clear need established for its programs) this organization was allowed to sunset right on schedule. It clearly shoudn't have been. While the Conservative Government lauded the AHF for a terrific job, they ignored the ongoing need and argued it made more sense for First Nations people to reach out to Health Canada, which is, after all, a proper bureaucracy under the auspices of a Minister with--yes--a more established and widespread presence. Advocates citing clear proof that AHF was making a difference were dismissed.

    For the sake of context, Mr. Dewar brought me back to the Oka crisis, during which time I was a 18-year-old gunner with the 30th Field Artillery Regiment at Dow’s Lake and had to work on rotational shifts throught a large portion of my summer guarding the Regimental Armouries against possible attack by First Nations peoples. The quartermaster issued me a C-7 rifle, an empty magazine, a flashlight, a grey fire blanket, and an army cot to accomplish this task. 

    Oka was a crisis that spurred Canada to look inward, giving birth to the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP) who were mandated to find an answer to why there is so much unrest in Native communities. It took them four years to produce a report citing the ongoing effects of colonization, the cultural impact and meaning (much of which we’ve missed or ignored) of the Royal Proclamation (which guaranteed First Nations’ sovereignty but was interpreted as something tantamount to apartheid) and, crucially, the devastating impact residential schools had had on culture, language, and identity. 

    We can’t forget that the Prime Minister who offered this very public apology is the same man who killed the Kelowna accord, and (some sources say) tried to kill the settlement agreement that was brokered under Paul Martin’s government, and when that couldn’t happen, they went after the healing funds. The Conservative government had apparently been called upon to apologize after the settlement agreement in 2007, but refused to do so. 

    So, how realistic is it to expect that this government will ‘live the words’ of the apology? That was never their intent.

    After publicly assuming responsibility for the policy of assimilation that was, in effect, a cultural genocide on a national level, and which saw widespread and routine human rights abuses including rape, emotional terrorism, physical abuse, forcible separation from family and sexual exploitation, the Canadian Government has shirked this same responsibility under the cavalier action of ‘budget cuts.’ This is unacceptable to all Canadians, whether all Canadians know this or not.

    Back in 2008, Gilles Duceppe was politically seasoned enough to smell a rat, and underlined that true regret would be represented by concrete action, and that “the federal government has not invested enough for young aboriginal people." 

    It still hasn’t.


    One way they could start, said the impressive cohort of Ottawa area students on Parliament Hill today, is by supporting Shannen’s dream. The children read letters in French and English, with the odd ‘megwich’ thrown in; their voices were clear and authentic, very moving, and undeniably on the mark.   

    Among these students was my son, Jackson, who took the stage bravely and read a letter that he had written, similar to First Nation’s tradition, from the heart. 

    Parental love takes many forms: fear, joy, play, laughter, discipline, encouragement, honour, respect, tenderness, warmth; today, the predominant expression was pride. When he read it to me last week after being told it was chosen from many at his school, it moved me to tears. I was already proud of him, of course, but to see this kind of creativity and eloquence come out of his pure heart is profoundly moving. Jackson and his little sister Samia, who puts her heart into the most stirring artwork, are part of the vanguard of shifting consciousness on this planet, and I am humbled by their vast and immediate capacity for compassion.  

    Jackson (right, blowing bubbles) relaxing post-speech: 

    The source of our difficulties through all this was how we perceived ourselves. 

    -John Ralston Saul, A Fair Country: Telling Truths About Canada

    If you do not decide who you want to become, others will decide for themselves who you are. This is true not only for individuals but for Canada as a nation as well; we are long past due in a national effort of self-examination and truth-telling in the interests of reconciliation and healing. What has been done to date, while admirable, is barely a beginning. We need to carry our full intention of self-expression and our unity in diversity in all respects, in every facet of our living--not just the shallow buzz of political claptrap. How do we look at ourselves as a nation? We practice; we start by looking at ourselves as human beings.

    Our memory is so fickle; the “Native issue” is the real elephant in the living room here; it lives with us. It always has. I’ve heard it, you’ve heard it. The people (usually homeowners with full medical benefits and a full belly) who complain that “we give ‘those people’ so much...what is it--$9 billion dollars a year?--and it’s just wasted.” 

    To that, Mr. Dewar argues that most people do not understand how First Nations communities are funded. “This isn’t a simple question of the old stereotype of a few unscrupulous Chiefs stealing from their reserves, as many people would like to believe. We fund under the obligation of the Indian Act and then there are the very complex arguments about obligations under Treaty, a concept and a history that is woefully misunderstood, ignored, or unknown to most who complain, if not most of the citizenry. This is not about petty corruption.” Instead, it’s about a massive and sometimes misdirected bureaucratic nightmare. One just need think of how many millions of dollars remains in Ottawa to pay for public service overhead and the footprint of the entire program here, which is fenced as First Nations funding, and how many millions of dollars more it takes to run one community – essentially a tiny municipality – with all attendant infrastructure (like a school, for example, pretending for the sake of argument there would actually be one there) in a fly-in area. Let’s not forget that municipalities in the broader Canadian sense draw funding from multiple levels of government and can rely on – lean on, in fact – others funded in a similar manner; it’s a network of support. Most reserve communities are wholly dissimilar. They are meant to stand alone. Canada essentially says, “We are obligated to fund these things; here’s the formula based on your community’s profile; and here’s the cheque.” Band councils have to figure out how to build and staff it all, to say nothing of the other factors that may or may not make a given community a so-called viable reserve, the argument amongst some Conservatives like Tom Flanagan. 

    It comes down to seeing and being seen, hearing and being heard. 

    “For reconciliation we have to be able to understand each other,” Dewar says before he has to leave for a speaking engagement in London on this very topic. “Kids do this instinctively. Kids can immediately understand lack in another child, like ‘Why doesn’t that kid have a bike too?’ They’ll often come up with a good answer, too. Poverty. But it makes absolutely no sense to them that other children in this country don’t have real basics--like a school. Even kids who have to take long bus rides to get to the school they’re told to go to can understand that that is very different than being told, ‘We gave you money for education; if you can’t make it work then your kids will have to leave your community and live somewhere else to go to school.’ That’s seriously what we’re talking about. Even after the PM’s apology for Residential Schools.” 


    That type of disparity, to quote, um, Stephen Harper, “has no place in Canada.”


    “We are a métis civilization. What we are today has been inspired as much by four centuries of life with the indigenous civilizations as by four centuries of immigration. Perhaps more. Today we are the outcome of that experience. As have Métis people, Canadians in general have been heavily influenced and shaped by the First nations. We still are. We increasingly are. This influencing, this shaping is deep within us...this talent, we seem to be saying, for living comfortably with diversity, is our particular contribution to Western Civilization. Yet we never seriously asked ourselves how that came to be. After all, if our civilization has been built out of the Western inheritance, how is it that the rest of the West is struggling precisely where we find the challenges quite easy?”

    -John Ralston Saul, A Fair Country: Telling Truths About Canada


    Much to the chagrin of many of our political elites past and present, the “Native problem” is not going to die out and be laid to rest under a heap of jaundiced history texts. World consciousness is shifting, the First Nations peoples today boast one of the fastest growing populations in Canada, and a time is coming when we will need to see and feel the world as our cultural ancestors did.  The economic costs of moving us forward in this direction are among the wisest investments we can make as a nation. 

    I am heartened by the fact that our children understand this instinctively, and write directly to Stephen Harper telling him of their shame and embarrassment. Let’s hope our systems don’t pressure them to fall prey to political amnesia, too.

    One people. 

    To Jackson and Samia: my heartfelt thanks. You are both an inspiration.


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