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We all Need to Atone for Canada's Mistreatment of Aboriginals

06/19/2015 05:20 EDT | Updated 06/19/2016 05:59 EDT
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You simply cannot live in Canada and ignore the past. It's a pretty strong statement but reading the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission into aboriginal residential schools, that's the conclusion I've come to.

Early European explorers and colonists encountered in Canada a rugged and beautiful land with bountiful waters. French and British settlers brought their traditions and waves of new Canadians have been adding to Canada's rich cultural heritage for four centuries. In one sense being Canadian is a product of all those layers, an identity born of many waves of settlement and immigration.

When my parents immigrated to this country, they too brought with them their own contribution to this great Canadian mosaic. They learned from those who'd come before and adapted, while also adding to the mix. My brother and I, and now our children, have benefited greatly from this shared pluralistic environment and have been afforded untold opportunities that simply would not have been possible had our parents stayed in India. We have been contributing to, and reaping the benefits of this country without, admittedly, fully understanding our history.

Being Canadian is also, of course, the product of something else. This land was no blank canvas waiting to be shaped by outsiders. There are citizens among us descended from people who beat even the oldest of old stock here by several thousands of years. Some 1.8 million Canadians are of First Nations, Metis or Inuit descent representing over six hundred diverse nations. Our shared history is not a source of pride.

Canada is not America, many will say. Yet the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission reminds us that mistreatment of our indigenous citizens is not an historical anomaly that was the regrettable product of 17th century empire building, mass migration and war. This mistreatment has been institutional, sustained, and has continued to present times. The report calls Canada's program of forced residential schooling "cultural genocide." Not a term we're used to hearing in reference to the true north, strong and free. But that's what was done. That too is our history.

It's important we use "our" because this legacy belongs to all Canadians regardless of ancestry. Removed from history and hidden by our diversity, it is easy for aboriginal issues to seem remote and abstract living in the GTA. New Canadians particularly may think this great embarrassment belongs to others living in a distant time, as relevant to their own lives as the Boer War. Yet for those who come and embrace Canada as their home, taking advantage of all that this land has to offer, means embracing the good as well as the bad.

As a father of two young girls, reading the revelations of what we did to aboriginal children has made me sick to my stomach. My family who enjoy all the benefits of Mississauga-Malton must understand that our own prosperous community is partially underwritten by that historical pain and suffering. I want my daughters to understand that. And in turn I want them to know they also have a role to play in atoning.

The truth may be out but the reconciliation is going to take a while. So just as all Canadians share accountability for what is past, we also share a responsibility for making things better. Where can we start, what is our obligation? First we need to learn from where we went wrong and set out to make it right.

National Chief Perry Bellegarde of the Assembly of First Nations recently reminded us that while Canada traditionally scores near the top of all countries on the UN development index, those same measures would see our aboriginal communities' place 63rd, just ahead of Lebanon and Venezuela. That's not our past, that's our present. That should be unacceptable in a country as prosperous and as generous as Canada.

Let's tackle living conditions, education, health care, child welfare, and justice -- all areas where Aboriginals continue to lag. Let's share the resources needed to accomplish these tasks and understand that doing so is not about privileging one group over another but rather about simple fairness and about a belief that the measure of a civilized society is how we treat the marginalized.

Whether you are a newer Canadian or one whose family has been around for a while, this duty belongs to us all. We can no longer continue to reap the benefits while ignoring the consequences of the past. The report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is a call to action for all Canadians.

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