Yellowknife is a Canadian city north of the 60th parallel. It is a Saturday in November and the NWT (Northwest Territories) Wellness Society is holding a blanket exercise: a participatory workshop about colonisation and its effects.
The participants start with a trading and bartering activity, part of the ancestral way of life in community. They exchange medicinal plants, food, items such as Inuit knives, fur and birch bark baskets. A series of key dates and images are shown on a screen, including the 1876 Indian Act that still governs the way of life of Indigenous peoples in Canada today. The participants are gradually excluded, symbolically displaced or killed. The emotion is visible on their faces.
Maggie Mercredi is from the Denesuline Nation. She has been organising workshops on colonisation and the Indian residential school system since 2014.
“It is a way of sharing the truth about events that do not appear in our history textbooks,” she explains. In the space of just over a century, at least 150,000 children were forcibly taken away from their parents as part of an assimilation programme that has led to intergenerational trauma. Some underwent physical, psychological and sexual abuse.
In 2008, the prime minister at the time, Stephen Harper, presented an official apology on behalf of Canada. A truth and reconciliation commission was given the task of providing all those directly or indirectly affected by the repercussions of the Indian residential schools with an opportunity to share their stories and experiences.
In 2015, the commission presented 94 ’calls for action’. The blanket exercise is one example of the initiatives designed to work towards reconciliation. It enables citizens to take part in the national effort to build memory and understanding.
“The Indian residential schools were not there to provide an education but to take the ’Indian’ out of the children and assimilate them,” says Mercredi. She explains that the exercise is a way of awakening consciousness, telling the truth and helping people to use this knowledge.
Donald Prince of the Nak’azdli First Nation spent time in an Indian residential school, as did his father before him. “We, the Aboriginal people of Canada have lost our languages, our way of life, our culture, the ability to educate our children…all that has accumulated over 300 to 400 years.”
Prince estimates that almost half of the population from his community in Fort St. James went to the residential school. “The trauma is past on from one generation to the next,” he explains.
And the pattern is still being reproduced today. According to data from 2011, almost half of the children in foster care were Indigenous, although they only make up seven per cent of the country’s children.
Racism and poverty
Between the loss of bearings and the loss of identity, Indigenous (also known as Aboriginal) people of Canada are confronted with many challenges, in particular the “immense and subtle” racism, according to Maggie, who gives the example of how she does not receive the same kind of service in the retail outlets in Yellowknife as white customers.
“It happens to me all the time, because I am visibly Aboriginal,” she says. It is a reality that Donald confirms. “When I go into a store, I’m followed, so I go and talk to them and tell them that I’m not going to steal anything.”
Indigenous people of Canada continue to suffer from social exclusion. Four out of five Indigenous reserves have median income below the poverty line, according to figures from 2015.
Donald is all too familiar with the situation. As a social worker, he helps the 33 communities in the Northwest Territories to set up land-based healing programmes.
His everyday work involves listening to and helping Indigenous people of Canada with mental health or addiction problems. He tries to reconnect them with activities that are part of their culture and heritage: hide tanning, trap hunting, wilderness and survival techniques – ways of overcoming traumas that may have lay buried for decades.
For Maggie, another crucial issue is the invisibility of Indigenous women. Over the last 30 years, more 1,000 indigenous women have disappeared or been killed. “Here, Aboriginal women do not exist in the eyes of many. We are disposable,” she insists. “Still now, when I walk in the street, some non-Aboriginals avoid eye contact with me.”
Maggie does not celebrate the national holiday [1 July], not least the 150 years of Canadian colonialism, commemorated in 2017.
When she travels abroad, she tells people she comes from “Turtle Island”, as North America is called by some Indigenous groups.
The future of reconciliation
The federal government is currently promoting national reconciliation with Canada’s Indigenous peoples. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has pledged 8.4 billion Canadian dollars (US$6.8 billion) over five years for education and infrastructure. His government has also launched an inquiry into the murders and disappearances of Indigenous women.
The prime minister has also appointed Jody Wilson-Raybould, a woman from the We Wai Kai Nation, as the justice minister. Finally, in September 2017, in his address to the United Nations, Trudeau spoke of how Canada has failed its First Nations peoples and ensured that the country was working to dismantle the old colonial structures.
But reconciliation means different things to different people. “That means nothing to me,” retorts Donald. “Perhaps if they give us back half of our lands, our children, then…”
For Maggie, reconciliation is above all about “starting conversations and building relationships” between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. Despite “the Canadian dream being based on lies, wars, discrimination and racism”.
The discrimination generates anger. “I used to be a very angry man. I was angry at the whole world,” explains Donald. The reason he now takes care of those left behind is because he himself had a difficult past. “I was a bad boy. I spent time on the streets in Vancouver and was addicted to heroine and cocaine.” Donald has been to jail several times. Over 25 per cent of the inmates in Canada’s prisons are Indigenous, although they account for less than five per cent of the country’s overall population.
Today, at age 62, Donald Prince is lending a helping hand to those in need and does not hesitate to take homeless people into the bush to give them back some self-esteem. “Whatever can happen to a person, it’s happened to me. I have wandered down dark paths. I have been stabbed three times. I have been shot at…but I am still here, whilst my childhood friends have all disappeared.”
It was a prison counsellor who managed to help Donald turn his life around. “He asked me what had happened to me when I was a child.” A long pause follows. Donald will say no more, still moved by this life-saving encounter. For many Indigenous people in Canada, the trauma is still too great. And the silence, all too often, is deafening.