Walking downtown one sunny afternoon with my 10-year-old daughter and her friend, we passed a bus bench where a lady approached us, asking if I had any spare change. Reaching into my wallet, I gave her a few dollars.
"That lady asked for money. Why didn't she have her own money for the bus," my daughter said, her voice betraying her fear.
"One day you might have to ask a total stranger for bus fare too," I replied.
"She was native," my daughter said to her friend, as though their suspicions had been confirmed.
Knowing that this conversation would and did serve as a platform for moral as well as historical teaching lessons, my greater concern involved the obvious prejudice already instilled in these young girls.
How come my 10-year-old daughter is racist?
Growing up in a multicultural area of south Montreal in the '70s, I listened to my parents speak of some of our ethnic neighbours, describing their culture and their diverse beliefs in derogatory tones and language. My racism at the age of 10, although not acceptable, was somewhat understandable. But my daughter's?
Shame seared into my soul as I quickly mentally scanned various conversations spoken in our home over the years, and realized that before my Aboriginal studies courses taken in university in the last few years, I probably never would have even walked by that bus bench, taking instead some kind of detour to avoid the woman.
Thank goodness for a university program which had, as a prerequisite for graduation, a course in Aboriginal studies, otherwise I wouldn't know about the devastation that the Aboriginal community in Canada has endured for centuries. I wouldn't know about any of it because First Nations, Metis, and Inuit history was not taught while I was in school. More to the point though, the Canadian government doesn't like to bring it up, isn't truthful about what Canada has done to its Indigenous people, and is still hiding the fact that genocide has occurred in this country by the hand of the white man.
Our country prides itself on its worldwide humanitarian undertakings, yet our government balks at criticism in the United Nations' human rights report which states, "dramatically disproportionate...access to government services such as housing, health care, education, water and child protection" in its indigenous population. Of course it would be too much to expect that accountability be taken, and that truth be spoken of the atrocities that have occurred in our history. Before any progress can be made towards breaking down the reigning prejudice, our society, and more specifically the next generation of Canadians needs to know not only exactly what Aboriginal people have suffered, but also what they have overcome, and how they are rallying against a Canadian government that has repeatedly hid the crimes done to them.
I grew up in ignorant times when degradation and social class were issued based on the simplest of cultural identifiers such as the language one spoke or the smells of ethnic foods wafting through open windows.
But today? Why aren't today's youth more knowledgeable than I was?
Wondering if Canadian schools are now, finally, openly teaching about the crushing blows the indigenous people have endured in Canadian history, when questioned about his academic learning on this topic, my teen replied, yes. He has been taught about the early conflict between Canada's First Nations people and the European arrival, casually stating, as though he has never heard me expounding upon the unfairness of the treaties, the brutality and criminality of the residential school system, and the abhorrent state of many reservations. "Yeah, I know about all that, but it's not our fault the Natives were unfit for the challenges of the Europeans."
Does the UN realize that it's easy for Canada to continue to ignore the oppression of its Aboriginal population and the avoidance of their human rights when even our children's curriculum has been twisted so that the most shameful part of our history does not cause our white children to squirm with discomfort in their comfortable classrooms.
The expectation would be that after a thorough history lesson, our children should be horrified by the treatment of the Aboriginal community, not rationalizing it by stating, "At that time in history, Europeans were doing the same thing to indigenous people all over the world. It's what Europeans did."
Oh. Well, that's a relief. Cue sarcasm.