This article is a response to the letter to the editor published on March 27, 2013, by the Nanaimo Daily News, written by Don Olsen, which has since been removed from their website. An apology was issued by the newspaper after the racist letter sparked outrage and a protest.
It was at least 16,500 years ago (according to ethnographers mapping genetic lineage) when the first peoples began moving from the Beringia into what we now know as Canada, and indigenous people know from our oral history that we have been here since the time period we call time immemorial.
This should be considered, and in all the years since then, First Nations people in Canada have done and continue to do the following:
- Did not domesticate animals and use items such as chariots and machinery, instead intimately understood the various local living species and their interconnectedness, and took animals and other living creatures for nourishment and sacred purposes, letting the natural ecosystems thrive for millennia.
- Have between 52 and 65 distinct language groups across Canada, with 32 different indigenous languages in British Columbia alone, and many more local dialects of these languages. Languages revitalization is taking place despite previous efforts to eradicate our language by doing things like physically abusing children who spoke their mother tongue in schools.
- Used astronomy as a part of Traditional Ecological Knowledge, which is documented in oral history and many scholarly articles.
- Have a complex and integrated way of learning, understanding, and teaching what is known as "science," including studies of geography, physics, botany, biology, mineralogy, geology, entomology (the study of insects), and ichthyology (the study of fish).
- Used various forms of mathematics including geometry, visual-spatial relationships (more than simple arithmetic) in complex tasks such as estimating resources needed and designing and building longhouses.
- Used ethno-botany for survival, medicine, and nutrition, and used this knowledge to help the early settlers survive. We indigenous peoples kept ourselves in good health and thriving for generations until contact and colonization introduced foreign diseases, such as smallpox, which killed entire communities. Even then, traditional medicine has still survived and is practiced today.
- Have nation-specific songs, for social and ceremonial purposes, which have been carefully taught from one generation to the next in aural style, which is a challenging type of inference learning
- Have used many types of drums, rattles, as well as flutes and whistles, in traditional music, and contemporary First Nations artists incorporate other instruments and electronic music into traditional songs. We have maintained our social and ceremonial songs despite the fact that the potlatch, a key ceremony and celebration and cornerstone of our societies, was illegal in Canada for 65 years.
- Designed, built, and used canoes as a long distance travel system through rivers. For 200 years the canoe was used universally by European explorers, missionaries, traders, and soldiers. First Nations people also developed two other outstanding forms of travel for the Canadian landscape: the snowshoe and the toboggan, which we used for survival and practical purposes, and which also allowed early settlers to explore and enjoy our vast territories.
- Knew the value of a strong work ethic and equally as important, a commitment to the wellbeing of one's community and nation.
- Have been working for the last 400 years to ensure the survival and wellbeing of our communities amidst arriving settlers that disrupted our governing structures, justice systems, and societal structures. This is despite the fact that we've been prevented from voting for the most of the time that Canada has been a country.
- Have a history that is notable for creativity, adaptability, and longstanding resistance strategies in the face of oppression and genocide.
Are our people astoundingly resilient? Yes.
Do we need help? No. Do we need equitable and fair treatment? Yes.
Are we sovereign nations with the right to self-governance? Yes.
In case you didn't know, yes, we do pay taxes. We have had our resources stolen, yet the services that are provided to most Canadians (through all taxpayers' money) like education, health, and infrastructure, are embarrassingly underfunded and of lesser quality in aboriginal communities. That's called systemic and institutional racism. (We could speculate and say that is one reason why there's been a lot of commotion lately about the Indian Act, which is a separate set of laws that only applies to one group of people in Canada.)
The only way to fix this situation is to continue to build empowerment of our people, with the support of our allies and fellow justice-seekers. It would also be useful for the average Canadian to educate himself about the true reasons for the current circumstances. Because in reality, indigenous people have been advocating for equity, justice, and fairness since the first treaty negotiations began on our land in 1763. (That was 104 years before Canada even became a nation.)
Turn off the ignorance. Do away with this "handouts" and claims of "special treatment" nonsense.
Instead of foolishly insisting that everything to do with First Nations was either "primitive" or a long time ago, let us stand together to create a better future for the next seven generations of people who reside in this land.
Just like indigenous nations have been doing all along.