I’ve been law-abiding, easygoing and polite, as our Canadian reputation outlines. Canadians are well accepted wherever we travel in the world, and I’ve been treated well. I have, however, been put on the spot on occasion.
I was having dinner with friends in Melbourne, Australia, in 2010. It was a hot summer evening and we were all feeling the effects of the weather. We were making our way down the sidewalk toward a patio when one of my mates announced, “Let’s cross, an Abo is coming.”
I peered over his shoulder and saw a very large, rather red-faced, dark-skinned man staggering toward us. He looked dirty, sweaty and rather unwell. I imagined the heat had a great deal to do with his condition but I suspected he might have been drinking, too. He was an indigenous Australian, or Aboriginal, and my friends (who were locals) advised me to avoid him.
I couldn’t get him out of my mind for the rest of the night. I’ve seen homeless people and I realize many people living on the street have mental health issues. This man met my eye as I followed my friends across the street, out of his path. He had the eyes of a scared little boy.
When I told my friend I thought his description of the man as an “Abo” was rather racist, I was met with quite a response.
“You’re one to talk,” he said. “You live in one of the best countries in the world and your aboriginal people are treated with no respect at all. They live in squalid conditions, cut off from the rest of the country. When they leave their communities to go to school or work in the city, they’re assumed to be drunken criminals. I’ve done my research on the subject. You should be ashamed of your country’s treatment of your native people.”
I’d like to think we’ve come a long way in the past decade. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s work is helping educate the country on our past. I think that’s the root of the problem. We’re raised with ideas and assumptions passed down from our elders and often we accept them as fact.
It’s okay to be a proud Canadian. But we need to understand and accept our past, just as Germans need to accept that the Holocaust is part of their history.
We have misunderstood our First Nations people. There remains a firm division between us. They have a rich culture that deserves respect and preservation. But they also deserve all of the advantages that we enjoy in our daily lives. They should not be living with undrinkable water, poor living conditions and high suicide rates in their communities.
The hype over Canada’s 150th has been well-planned and widely executed. Everywhere you look, brands have redesigned their logos and labels to incorporate a maple leaf, a well-placed “eh” or a beaver in honour of the birthday.
But the celebration is also receiving a fair amount of criticism from people who feel we need to take a closer look at our words and deeds before patting ourselves on the back for being around for 150 years.
We are by nature, I think, a humble country. On the whole, we accept others who aren’t like us and invite them to join us in this great Canadian life. After all, our ancestors were once new Canadians as well.
But we have among us people who are afraid that our native peoples will get too much attention or (heaven forbid) too much funding to fix their problems. We have neighbours, co-workers and friends who actually think we’re weak as a country to allow in so many immigrants and refugees. It amazes me that these people, many of them well-read, well-travelled and well-educated, continue to think this way.
If you’re raising a child in Small Town, Canada, I challenge you to introduce them to other cultures. Teach them about our First Nations people and new Canadians.
And if you meet someone who perhaps has led a sheltered life and maintains a narrow, outdated and inaccurate view of our indigenous people or new Canadians, remind them that it’s 2017.
“We did then what we knew how to do. Now that we know better, we do better,” American civil rights activist Maya Angelou said.
Happy birthday to all of us, old and new.
Diana Fisher is a freelance writer living on a 200-acre farm along the Kemptville Creek in Oxford Mills, Ont.
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