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Why Should You Care About Attawapiskat?

Posted: 12/22/2011 12:02 pm

You can see them coming easier than a hailstorm in Saskatoon. One of my favourites is the cock-and-bull Ezra Levant uttered in his recent Sun TV editorial. If the man has a gift it's parroting reactionary Canadians. He definitely nailed the "It's not my fault" grumble I've heard so often in the wake of Attawapiskat.

I know you've heard these self-exonerations lately; maybe you've even thought or said them yourself. If you haven't be honest and ask yourself if you agree with statements like, "this mess in Attawapiskat isn't my fault" or "I wasn't here when all this started" or "Why should I feel guilty they can't manage their finances?"

We are a nation that says sorry with saccharine regularity but we balance this with a love of blame. Boy, we blame with the best. Of course we wake periodically from our blame binges and realize this has done nothing for the problems we have tried to blame our way out of. Then we hit the bottle again.

Attawapiskat is the portmanteau of Canadian blame (quick quiz -- when was this quote uttered in Attawapiskat? "In some cases, we have 12 to 17 people sharing a (small) bungalow without indoor plumbing." That's right, 1992). And the longer this continues the more neurotic, blame-happy and internationally noticed Canada becomes for all of this .

What do we do?

First, let me tell you a story. My parents own a cottage near Lake Huron in Ontario (those are both aboriginal place names, by the way). In my adulthood I've learned the cottage is on Saugeen First Nation traditional territory (and my childhood home, near Kitchener, is on Six Nations of the Grand River traditional territory, though not a single teacher mentioned this or showed me this sort of map of my country).

When I was a boy I'd ask my dad why one part of the beach near our cottage was free and one part cost money to visit. "That's the Indian beach," he would say of the latter and then say nothing more. He rightly assumed my young mind had absorbed Ontario's subliminal messaging that "Indians" were people we just didn't discuss outside of movies, even though they were all around us.

I tell this story because I'm no different from any other non-aboriginal Canadian. My ancestors are from somewhere across an ocean. What this settlerdom did to a place with nations already established, well, was largely hidden from me in school. But my parents' cottage and home shows that though I had no personal part in Indian residential schools, the Royal Proclamation, broken treaties, the hanging of Louis Riel, or the forced relocation of Inuit people in the 1950s to solidify sovereignty in the Arctic, I am still rather linked to it all.

So I am involved just like other Canadians. I won't presume how you feel about this, but I'll tell you that in some twisted way I hear my inner Ezra Levant when I think about it. This isn't my doing. I didn't want this to be how my country treats people. I didn't want there to be a piece of law that still uses the word "Indian" and a government agency overseeing that law whose minister can be ignorant of quite a lot but still keep his job.

Following Ottawa's official apology in 2008 for residential schools (more than 10,000 proven claims of sexual abuse, and more than $2.8-billion in compensation), the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) was created to offer all of us, aboriginal and non-aboriginal alike, a way out of our blame quagmire.

That's what happened in South Africa with the commission ours in Canada has been modeled on. I'm assuming that's what someone in Ottawa thought should happen here, too. Of course South Africa's commission was better attended by all involved and probably better funded.

Mandy Wesley with the TRC says she realizes it will not achieve reconciliation in its five-year life. The hurdles are bigger and more elementary than that, after all. The first is to get people to know the Commission exists, she says; the second is to make them care.

When non-aboriginal people do come to one of the hearings, three of which have been held so far, she says they say things like, "I had no idea that it went on for so long." Indeed, Canada's last residential school closed in 1996. Wesley says:

It is a big challenge to compel people to care. How do you compel them to care? You explain the reality. Aboriginal youth are the fastest growing population in Canada. In terms of the success of this country, it's to everyone's benefit if those youth succeed, to the economy of Canada. That's why they should care -- for the greater good of Canada.

Wesley, who is Cree, says education is likely the root of the hostility towards Attawapiskat. She notes Manitoba is the only province with mandatory education on the history of residential schools in its curriculum.

Why is that? Well, Ezra Levant is on to something: It's not my fault my education system tells only part of my story. But until our curriculum changes and our children learn the less happy truths of Canada's history, or until more of us decide to be like Bob Rae and go see Attawapiskat for ourselves, it's up to us, non-aboriginal Canadians, to step away from blame.

Another way would be to take advantage of the TRC. Until then, as Dullah Omar, a former Minister of Justice in South Africa said of the truth and reconciliation process there, all Canadians will not have "come to terms with their past."

 

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