There’s no doubt aboriginal people were treated badly as Canada came of age. Other groups, such as the Chinese and Jewish people – who have also been the subject of intense discrimination – have managed to put this dark history behind them. They have moved on. But this is not the case with most aboriginal people.
So reconciliation is necessary. The question is how to bring it about.
Many ideas have been advanced. For one, we can all learn more about aboriginal history and try to understand the special challenges aboriginal people faced when the way of life they had known for millennia came to an abrupt end, with the sudden intrusion of the modern world.
The federal government can – and is – playing a major role with a variety of programs aimed at improving the lives of aboriginal people. Churches and other organizations are involved in many projects with the same goal. In fact, a great deal is being done from the non-aboriginal end to achieve reconciliation.
But reconciliation is a two-way street. What can aboriginal people do to make it happen?
Aboriginal leaders need to adopt a more balanced and realistic view. We all live in the greatest country in the world. Modern life has improved all of our lives tremendously in terms of health and longevity. We should all embrace our extreme good fortune in being able to live in this peaceful and prosperous country.
I recently listened to an interview of Romeo Saganash on CBC Radio. Saganash is an aboriginal MP from Quebec. He is also a graduate of a residential school and he advocated successfully to rename the Langevin Block in Ottawa. He clearly saw himself as a victim and described feeling hurt every time he walked by that building.
It didn’t seem to occur to him that he was able to live the highly privileged and comfortable life of an MP due in no small part to the fact that he received an education at schools that Langevin helped to establish. (A fact that is true for almost all of the aboriginal leaders of the past century.)
Canada is the generous and progressive country it has become in large part because of the admittedly flawed giants of Canadian history, like Hector-Louis Langevin. Aboriginal leaders need to get a grip. A little more balance in their perspective, please.
Although a growing number of aboriginal people are productive members of the workforce, far too many rely on the government for support. Welfare has become an entrenched way of life on most reserves. Entire communities rely almost exclusively on transfer payments from the federal government.
It’s incumbent on able-bodied people – particularly young people – to break out of this trap of dependency and begin to support themselves and their families. In many cases, that will entail moving to where the jobs are and starting, as others do, with entry-level jobs. Waiting for a government – federal, provincial, or band – to hand them jobs condemns their descendants to lives of poverty.
Canada has a vital interest in seeing young aboriginal people gainfully employed and prosperous. It’s probably unrealistic to expect that the older dependent people can break the cycle, but the young people can and must. In the words of Calvin Helin, businessman, author and member of the Tsimshian First Nation: “Just do it!”
This country is working for a steadily increasing number of aboriginal Canadians, like Helin, who have successfully integrated into the mainstream economy, but in a way that has allowed them to retain their aboriginal identity. These people should be role models for those who are still finding their way.
It’s this successful integration, achieved through individual effort, that brings an end, once and for all, to the unhealthy gap between the two populations.
That’s what reconciliation needs.
Brian Giesbrecht is a retired judge and a senior fellow with Frontier Centre for Public Policy.