A good friend of mine told me that, for all of the time he had known me, it wasn't until recently that he learned that I am First Nations. It surprised him. The reason for that, I replied, may be because it wasn't always something I had shared. I am a member of the Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte First Nation on Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory.
I grew up off-reserve in a family system that, like so many others, had no accurate knowledge or understanding of the history, values and beliefs of my culture. With my reddish brown hair and fair complexion, I was afforded the privilege of being protected from some of the harsher levels of racism that I have heard other First Nations people describe. However, it did not shield me from wrongly being taught from a very young age that I should be ashamed of who I was. I learned this through the messages that I received in the media, from how individuals' behaviour toward me changes once they learned of my heritage, and from hearing people that I respected share negative thoughts and beliefs about First Nations people as a whole.
When I went on to have my own children, it was years before I checked the boxes identifying them as First Nations on their school forms — I wanted to protect them from the shame I was subjected to growing up. I was afraid that by exposing their identity they would be treated differently, less favourably, and I didn't want them to connect society's negativity to their identity. And yet this still didn't protect them from peers' demeaning words about Indigenous people. Negative ideas and beliefs are perpetuated, handed down from one generation to the next.
I wanted to learn who I was and where I came from, and to unlearn the shame I had been taught.
In an article published in Ottawa Citizen, Terry Glavin suggests that we have a race problem right here in Canada. Although not as easily seen as it is in the U.S., the situation is far worse here and is demonstrated in howCanada treats their most disadvantaged population. Glavin includes data to support his position, which shows that by almost by every measurable indicator Indigenous people in Canada are treated worse than the African American population in the United States.
This would indicate Canada isn't progressive at all.
Seven years ago, on a spiritual quest of sorts, I made the decision to leave a position working for an agency serving the surrounding area of my First Nationand returned to my original community. In spite of all the negative messages I had internalized growing up, there was a quiet whisper inside of me that said there was more to being an Indigenous person than the story I was being told. I was hungry for knowledge and understanding about our history and culture. I wanted to learn who I was and where I came from, and to unlearn the shame I had been taught.
More importantly, I wanted to learn enough to pass the knowledge on to my children, to be able to give them strong roots in who they are, their identity. I wanted them to be able to stand proud, regardless of what messages society might give them. It was in this time that I gained knowledge and understanding about the values, beliefs and traditions of my First Nation. I finally gained a positive sense of my identity.
This is not about governmental processes and systems. It isn't about money, or apologies, or who is right and who is wrong. It is about addressing the fact that, as a society, we impose shameful, negative messages upon people and children about what it means to be First Nations in Canada.
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This is about being conscious of our own learned biases and beliefs, and examining if they are an accurate or fair reflection of who First Nations people really are. It is about changing the conversations we are having and being aware of the way we talk about and treat people in this country, regardless of race. Let's change the conversation to speaking about strong and resilient First Nations communities. Let's talk about the revitalization that is happening through the restoration of the language, teachings, ceremonies and traditions of our First Nation communities.
As much as there has been some positive moves forward, we need to do more. It starts with being conscious of the words that we speak. Let's stop passing on the legacy of shame, and instead support people in being proud of what it means to be an Indigenous person in Canada. No child or person, no matter what their heritage, deserves to grow up being taught to be ashamed of their identity.
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