This spring I drove up five hours to visit friends in a Northern
Saskatchewan Métis community. The crosses that mark the side of the highway,
more frequent the further north I go, remind me that these small communities
have suffered too much loss the past winter. But I don’t see that once I
arrive; the community is beautiful, a hub for fishing, hunting. “The rink
burned down a few years back”, Lou, a friend who has lived here for a good part
of his life tells me. “Many suspected it to be arson, some kids messing around.
The community sure went downhill after that.”
In Northern Saskatchewan, a rink can determine the health of an
entire community. For mostly young men, sport gives an opportunity to
stay out of trouble, for others it’s a pastime, to cheer on the home team and
help fill the bleachers. But it’s also more than that: “dances, hockey
tournaments, Mothers Day, all used to be a huge celebration at the rink and now
the community does nothing.” He tells me about more young people getting into
harmful activities, the same things I saw my friends get into in high school. I
worry about their futures. Fundraising has been explored, but it’s not going
anywhere. Another friend reminisces about watching high school games there when
he was in grade 3. It inspired him to join hockey.
I get the impression from these young men, from their own experience and
from the experiences of those close to them, that if you’re not picking up a
hockey stick, you’re picking up a bottle.
Perry Bellegarde knows about all of this first hand. He’s served at as a
Band Councillor, Chief, Tribal Chief, Chief of the Federation of Saskatchewan
Indian Nations and, since December, the National Chief of the Assembly of First
Nations. Being one of a few people to serve in so many different capacities has
given him a unique perspective, one might even say the burden, of seeing the
state of First Nations.
His reminder, “6th versus 63rd”, is a comment Federal and Provincial
governments are becoming more and more accustomed to hearing. Canada
ranks 6th on the United Nations Human Index; 63rd is where Indigenous
communities are, among many third world countries.
This has been a key theme in many of the speeches National Chief Bellegarde
gives across the country. The index, which uses health, education, and literacy
to determine the overall health of a nation, shows that Indigenous peoples
have the same quality of life as people in Libya, or Romania.
With Indigenous people its fastest growing population, this isn’t
particularly good news for Canada. This expanding population, which could be an
answer for an economy facing the mass retirement of baby-boomers, is still
subject to systems and institutions that perpetuate colonialism. Colonial
doesn’t just refer to the first white people to land here. It is not all about
how men with mutton-chops legislated the forced removal of First Nations
children from their families. Colonialism is alive today, treating
First Nations as if they deserve less for education, health, housing, and
safety while Canada and Canadians continue to benefit economically from
Bellegarde speaks of closing the gap that exists between Canadians and First
Nations, to get Indigenous communities up to the same levels on the index as in
non-Indigenous areas of the country. He’s six months into a three and a half
year term, and his message is beginning to get to where it will have the most
impact: to Canadians.
This country is suffering from amnesia, not recognizing that Canadian
policies toward Indigenous peoples have not changed much since first contact.
It’s time to try something new.
Indigenous peoples are suffering from colonial attitudes that have no place
in this generation. To fix the inequalities in health we have to fix the
unequal relationship, heavy on paternalism, that exists today. Only then can we
begin to realize the true treaty relationship that this nation was forged on:
partnership, cooperation, and a mutual respect that leads to progress and
health for all.
Some may be discouraged, after seeing too many years of the same mistakes
being made, the same outcomes. But this generation will build on the quiet
resiliency of our parents and ancestors, and lay claim to all that Canada could
be. As I write this on the café patio in a well-to-do neighbourhood, a young
First Nations couple with the look of working-professionals, with matching
braids, walk past while sharing a laugh.
Yes, certainly there is hope.
This article originally appeared on Upstream.