When I was growing up in Nova Scotia I was completely unaware of Aboriginal people – even though there was a small reserve less than 20 kilometres from where I lived and went to school. The houses were well back from the main road along a narrow gravel track, hidden by trees. The kids, I now know, didn’t go to regular schools but instead were taken away to residential schools. The only sign of native people in the province that I saw as a child was a small shop called GooGoo’s Gifts just off the highway near Truro.
My fist real encounter with Aboriginal Canadians came when I went to work in Northern Canada in 1982. The community of Frobisher Bay was more than half Inuit though whites still held most of the top jobs and ran all the businesses. But change was in the air. The territorial government had a new determination to increase native employment and one of the first things I got to do was to begin training people to take over my job. It seemed like an appropriate thing to do. I was clearly just passing through but this was their home (and native) land.
Meanwhile at the national level, the patriation of the constitution was dealing with the recognition of Aboriginal rights. Chiefs and leaders had travelled to England to petition the Queen. The government of the NWT travelled en masse to Ottawa to lobby the Prime Minister. Demonstrations were held and in the end Section 35 was added to provide recognition and protection to Aboriginal and treaty rights.
My education was more rapid after that. I went to work for the then-Premier (now Senator) of the NWT who was an active proponent of Aboriginal rights. Fluent in Slavey and in touch with the elders of his community he championed languages, employment and changes in government to more closely recognize and reflect the native majority in the territory. I learned about language preservation and recovery – I think the women who mostly ran the program liked teasing the poor ignorant young man from the south – and about the way affirmative action could ensure that talented Aboriginals could get the jobs they deserved. I also got to go to several national constitutional conferences in Aboriginal rights held by the Mulroney government, where I learned just how complicated the file was – a lesson repeated when I briefly worked for the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples in the 1990s.
For all that, my real education in the truth of Aboriginal issues really started 15 years ago when I came to work for Senator Sibbeston in Ottawa. There I discovered the failings of the federal government to deal with education, economic development, housing and a raft of other issues. I learned of the shackles placed on First Nations striving to fix their own problems by the antiquated Indian Act – designed more than a hundred years ago to oppress natives and destroy their culture.
And I learned about residential schools, not in some abstract way but directly by listening to my boss’s stories of the horrors he suffered and by working with individual claimants who were struggling to go through the byzantine process of seeking compensation. Their stories are their own but I can only say that many of them made me weep for the injustices perpetrated by our country.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission reported yesterday. I’ll spend the next few days delving into it. Because the one thing I have learned is that our biggest challenge in fixing history is to acknowledge that it happened.
And that’s a little more than ten minutes.