Imagine that you’re looking to buy a new house. You’ve been living in a place that’s infested with bed bugs and mice, and it’s time to get out of there. So you start looking for realtors online and find this one guy, Carl, who’s offering a deal that sounds too good to be true.
Your jaw drops as you roll up to what looks like a mansion. You take the tour and think there’s no way you could afford it. So you tell Carl that you may need to start looking for something else. But before you can finish, he says that he’s been looking for exactly “your kind” to move into this house. He’s basically giving it to you, so you quickly sign the papers and the place is yours.
Over the next few years, you start a family, get involved in the community, and make the house your own. You invest in the landscaping and even renovate the kitchen. But one day, as you walk upstairs, you hear some footsteps coming from the attic. You check it out, and find out that there’s another family living in your house!
You quickly call up Carl who tells you that this family lived there before you showed up. But because they were different, Carl thought an owner who was more like himself deserved to have the space. So he forced them to live in the attic and found you to live in the rest of the house instead.
What do you do? You don’t want to move. This is your house and you’ve put your blood, sweat, and tears into it. You never knew the family was there and it’s not your fault that Carl did what he did. And besides, Carl apologized. But they are still in the attic and you still own the house. You feel awkward about it, so perhaps the best thing to do is for everyone to move on.
This is a ludicrous story, I know. But this isn’t meant to be a weird tale about a house you’ll never own. It’s an analogy for our Canadian context. The house of course, is the land. The family in the attic are Canada’s Indigenous people, Carl is the government, and your family are the settlers.
As European settlers made their way to Canada, they were welcomed to share the land through treaties that were signed from one government to another. The Indigenous population believed they would share their land and never thought they were giving up their sovereignty. Well, that quickly fell to the wayside, and the newly-formed Canadian government came up with creative ways to assimilate the Indigenous people into its own culture.
Indigenous people became wards of the state through the Indian Act of 1876. Reserves, residential schools, adoption scoops, and laws forbidding Indigenous culture paved the way for us to take control of the land. In some cases, especially in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, the government relocated Indigenous people in order to give the land to Mennonite farmers who were starting to come over from Europe. The farmers got a steal of a deal without ever knowing that others were forced away for their sake.
So what’s the big deal? Yes it was wrong, but that was so long ago. Land gets stolen; that’s just what happened back then. Am I expected to give back my property and what I’ve worked so hard for? Why can’t we all just forgive and move on?
I hear this sentiment quite often when people are confronted with Canada’s true history. We don’t like to think that our government and churches were involved in taking children away from their families in order to break down Indigenous family structure. We don’t want to hear about the abuse, intergenerational trauma, or violence.
If we were just talking about the past, things that happened a long time ago, then I think the “move on” argument has some sway. We all need to learn to reconcile, forgive, and move forward to a better future. But we’re not just talking about the past; we’re talking about the present.
The Indian Act is still alive and well. Although we’ve edited out the pieces that are most offensive to us, Indigenous people continue to be wards of the state. Treaties are still law, and yet they are rarely ever lived into. Reserves continue to experience disproportional funding for children and education. Basic human rights are being ignored while suicide, teen pregnancy, and incarceration continue to shake Indigenous communities.
Without taking personal blame, we need to understand that our current situation is a direct result of our past actions. Poverty, suicide, and family breakdowns don’t just happen. They’re in large part due to the policies and practices of our government and churches that tried to assimilate Indigenous people into Canada by taking their land, outlawing their culture, and destroying their family systems. That trauma flows from generation to generation.
Our situation in Canada today isn’t something we can wish away. Forgiving and forgetting doesn’t work when the same structures that brought us into this mess are still in place. Sure, there are many Indigenous people who have forged a different path. They’ve made their attic into the best that it can be or have moved out all together, finding their own homes to live in. But if we really want to make a difference, we need to address the power structures that got us here.
Enter Bill C-262. This bill, which is currently at the Senate stage, would affirm the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP). By passing this bill, Canada would ensure that our laws are in line with UNDRIP, which was one of the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It affirms the basic human rights of Indigenous people and is a framework by which we might really live into reconciliation.
Many organizations, including Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) and Kairos, are urging us to act by encouraging our senators to pass this bill to the next stage. On Tuesday, March 26, Canadian Mennonite University is hosting an event to raise awareness and support for this bill. Please come join us at 7pm to hear more and to join together for change. Also, check out the websites of MCC and Kairos to see how you can add your voice in this critical time.