By Sheri Monk
Pincher Creek Echo
"Got Land? Thank an Indian”
That’s what a 13-year-old Saskatchewan girl wore to school in Balcarres recently. At first, school officials told her she couldn’t wear the hoodie, but they relented after meeting with her and band leaders.
But that was just the start of the story – since then, it’s exploded across Canada, igniting a firestorm of controversy. The young girl has been the target of support, but also hatred, and she’s had to deactivate her Facebook account. Some people found the message deeply offensive, and others found it inspiring. I read the story with interest, and found I felt all of these things, to some degree.
I thought about why – and it’s a pretty complex thing to come out of one girl wearing a shirt. But how could it be anything but complex? It’s probably the most complex issue our country will ever grapple with, and it’s not going to disappear anytime soon.
So why did it make me feel uncomfortable? Simply put, I don’t want to be the bad guy. Any offense I feel is because of my own sensitivity to the idea that our First Nations might hold me personally responsible for the travesties that were committed against their culture. And that’s ludicrous, right?
Ha! Again, it’s complicated. It’s only ludicrous if my beliefs today are completely inclusive of all Canadians, and if I can sincerely acknowledge how incredibly badly our First Nations were treated then... and yes, even now.
I know, I know, some of you as you read this are up in arms and you’re shouting, “But that was hundreds and hundreds of years ago! It’s time they get over it and get on with their lives!”
Well, you’re wrong. You’re so much wrong. It wasn’t hundreds of years ago. The first treaty was signed in 1871, and the last wasn’t until 1921... which was less than 100 years ago. The last residential school was closed in 1996. During World War I, members of some First Nations needed a permit just to leave their reserves – even to enlist in the army. It wasn’t until 1960 that Canada’s First Nations received the right to vote in federal elections. I have a friend who remembers being in school, lining up to receive the polio vaccination. The First Nations kids were segregated, and not allowed to get one because the provincial and federal governments couldn’t decide who was going to foot the bill.
It is difficult to overstate what losing their culture would have been like, but to have it so deliberately destroyed is almost unthinkable. It pains me that Canada’s history began with a band of bullies, but it hurts more to see that viewpoint perpetrated today. It wasn’t until the 1950s that First Nations were allowed to participate in their own culture through Sun Dances and other ceremonies. And the residential school system was perhaps the last cultural nail in the coffin. Even if you were to wish away the fact that there was widespread sexual and physical abuse, tearing apart families is traumatic enough to disrupt generations of people. The First Nations were systematically destroyed, one piece at a time, and yet somehow, their culture, their language and their will to heal has not fallen to ruin.
And somehow, there still exists a significant portion of the population that decries them for not “getting over it” faster. Therein lies the true tragedy because without empathy, without understanding, without taking responsibility, how can there be healing?
Perhaps what bothers me the most is how many people see First Nations – because they don’t really see them at all. All some people see are “Indians”. The broken soul passed out on the sidewalk is just an Indian who can’t get over what happened hundreds of years ago. What they can’t see is the paramedic who comes to their aid is a proud First Nation member, whose band-sponsored education is now helping an entire community. The smiling server handing out coffee through the drive-through window? Can’t be an Indian – because she’s working.
The fact is that First Nations are all around us, but unless they’re on the street in compliance with some hurtful stereotype, they aren’t seen as First Nations. They’re just seen as people, sometimes with brown hair or eyes. More First Nations are graduating than ever before. They are becoming doctors, lawyers, teachers, truck drivers, construction workers and scientists. If one stops to consider the shortness of time that has passed – especially in the West – how far our First Nations have come despite our treatment of them is nothing less than astounding. We should be proud, but more importantly, THEY should be proud. And you know what? Many are, and they aren’t afraid to show it.
For those that get upset at a 13-year-old youth for having an opinion and being aware of history and current events, shame on you. For those of you that still say, “get over it” – open your eyes. When our First Nation youth are taking ownership of their not-so-recent past, they are grabbing hold of the future – which many would attest is the very definition of “getting over it”.
One 13-year-old girl has been able to initiate a national conversation with just five words printed on a shirt. That’s more than what a lifetime of uttered “get-over-its” could achieve.