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Canada’s history with Indigenous people is cruel and unfair, but we need to own up to it

Saskatchewan·Point of View

Canada Day is different this year, and not just because of the pandemic. Conversations of systemic racism are happening not only in the United States, but here in Canada. I don't believe every Canadian is racist, but most don't have any knowledge about the real relationship between Canada and Indigenous people.

This June, Kerry Benjoe shared posts on social media about Indigenous people and their history as a way to celebrate National Indigenous History Month.(Bryan Eneas/CBC News)

On May 28, my daughter asked me a question that has taken me a month to answer.

"How can someone hate someone just because of the colour of their skin?"

Like many parents, I would have preferred she had not seen video of a police officer killing George Floyd, but she did.

Any other time, I would have brushed her off with a simple answer like, "people are dumb."

This time, things were different.

"I don't know baby," I said, as I hugged her tightly.

I wanted badly to protect her and make everything OK again, but I felt a responsibility to do something more.

Benjoe is Saulteaux/Dakota/Cree and is from Muscowpetung Saulteaux Nation.(Bryan Eneas/CBC)

Damaged by oppression but not broken

Canada Day is different this year, and not just because of the pandemic.

Conversations of systemic racism are happening not only in the United States, but here in Canada.

It all started on May 25, when the world watched George Floyd die while a police officer kneeled on his neck for almost nine minutes. Floyd had been accused of trying to pass a counterfeit $20 bill. It was captured on video and posted online.

The public outcry was swift.

Support for the Black Lives Matter movement spread quickly throughout North America and the rest of the world.

In the U.S. and Canada, Indigenous people were quick to join.

The fact is that I, as an Indigenous person in Canada, have more in common with Black people from the U.S. than I do with non-Indigenous Canadians, born in this land. We have paid a heavy price due to colonization.

We have been damaged by generations of oppression, but we also have not been broken.

It was something I wanted my children to know.

Education on Canada's 'hidden' history

June happened to be National Indigenous History Month. I decided the best way to combat ignorance was with education. For the entire month, I posted one fact about Indigenous people on Facebook each day.

<a href="https://t.co/gWBE1cTTw7">pic.twitter.com/gWBE1cTTw7</a>

&mdash;@kerryberryxox

Much of Indigenous history in Canada is not widely known. It is Canada's "hidden" history. It's cruel, unfair and hard to own up to.

Systemic racism exists. One just has to look at the Indian Act.

Although I started out with the intent to educate, I also learned some things.

Having been born in the 1970s, I have experienced segregation.

Yes, Canada had its own segregation policies. Prior to 1964, it was legal in the U.S. to have Black-only schools, hospitals, entrances, bus seats and even water fountains. In Canada, things were more subtle.

Under the Indian Act, First Nations people were confined to the reserve through the pass system. Education was segregated with day schools and Indian Residential Schools, as was health care. These rules were enforced by the RCMP.

Laws were changed, but the institutions remained in place. Segregation still existed, but now it was enforced by the citizens themselves through racist attitudes.

It still exists in 2020. It's not uncommon to hear people say, "go back to your reserve."

Indigenous History Month <br>Day 10 <a href="https://t.co/Xl8YSUQXaf">pic.twitter.com/Xl8YSUQXaf</a>

&mdash;@kerryberryxox

My parents did their best to shield me from the ugliness of racism. I attended Indigenous-only schools and went to Indigenous-only health facilities.

I thought this was normal.

It wasn't until I went to university that I learned my own history. It was not pretty.

The U.S. used an extermination policy to deal with its "Indian problem." Canada chose assimilation. In reality, the results were not that different even if assimilation sounds nicer.

But more than any lesson on policy or laws, I have learned how resilient Indigenous people are.

Over and over again Indigenous people have survived and, when given the opportunity, thrived.

Many traditional languages are still spoken and ceremonies are still practised.

First Nations people took the old Fort Qu'Appelle Indian Hospital and turned it into the All Nations Healing Hospital, a state-of-art facility that serves everyone regardless of race.

Once barriers to post-secondary education were removed in the 1950s, it only took 20 years for Indigenous people in Saskatchewan to establish their own college and now university.

First Nations have also succeeded in business, even with barriers created by the Indian Act.

Despite being exempt from mandatory military service when that existed, First Nations have voluntarily enlisted in every conflict Canada has been involved in and continue to do so.

Racism cannot be ignored

I don't believe every Canadian is racist, but most don't have any knowledge about the real relationship between Canada and Indigenous people.

I started this journey in June because I wanted my daughter to have the tools to deal with racism when she encountered it out in public or online.

I don't think we can ignore racism anymore. No one wants to watch another man call for his mama in his dying breaths.

The Indian Act is now 144 years old. Perhaps I will live long enough to see its eradication.


This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

Interested in writing for us? We accept pitches for opinion and point-of-view pieces from Saskatchewan residents who want to share their thoughts on the news of the day, issues affecting their community or who have a compelling personal story to share. No need to be a professional writer!

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About the Author

Kerry Benjoe is a former journalist in Regina. She is Saulteaux/Dakota/Cree and is from Muscowpetung Saulteaux Nation.

    Credit belongs to : www.cbc.ca

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