Point of View

'These are freedoms my father didn't have': Hope for progress on National Indigenous Peoples Day

Canadians are used to freedom. Canadians expect it. But for Indigenous peoples, freedom has not been guaranteed since newcomers arrived.

'There are still too few Indigenous kids who have the opportunities that I've had'

Max FineDay is executive director of Canadian Roots Exchange, an organization that brings together Indigenous and non-Indigenous youth to promote reconciliation (John Paillé)

I turned 27 recently and couldn't help but reflect, over breakfast on a patio in downtown Toronto, on the freedom that my parents had given me.

Today I am free to practice ceremony wherever I want to, in the bush or in downtown Toronto. I have financial freedom from a good job that doesn't require me to leave my Indigeneity at the door to conform with contemporary workplace norms.

Most importantly, I have the freedom to be unapologetically nêhiyaw, something that my ancestors could only dream of.

These are freedoms my father didn't have at 27.

Freedom still hard-fought

Canadians are used to freedom. Canadians expect it. In fact, it symbolizes us internationally. People arrive from across the world to our shores and cities in search of it.

But for Indigenous peoples, freedom has not been guaranteed since newcomers arrived. In fact, for generations, that most fundamental of Canadian values eluded my family.

I am part of the first generation of my family in many generations to feel freedom.- Max FineDay

We already know why this is: deliberate policies and practices aimed at destroying Indigenous nations, removing Indigenous children from loving homes and removing Indigenous people from the land they had known for generations.

Too often in Canada, in this era of reconciliation, we forget that freedom was taken from Indigenous peoples long before residential schools. As terrible as they were, the schools weren't the only plague that came with colonization.

Freedom is still hard-fought today for Indigenous peoples who suffer from an inequality so deep that it has become part of our national identity.

A recipe for freedom

My father survived residential school. He spent much of his adult life still disrupted by it, trying to heal while still facing racism, unable to succeed as much as his non-Indigenous peers.

This was drilled home to me as a teenager when I sat in on the Indian Residential School settlement process he went through. After speaking with him for some hours, the adjudicator said, "Mr. FineDay, it's my opinion that had you not been sent to Residential School, your intellect would have enabled you to experience a great amount of success in this life."

I felt the impact of those words, almost more than the details of the abuse and mistreatment. My father never showed rage, hurt, pain or sadness when speaking about his experience in residential school. He presented the facts, stating exactly what happened to him and his siblings, no more or less.

But hearing the adjudicator's words made me realize that everything my father had worked for in life involved climbing mountains, defying expectations and overcoming.

Today we sit between injustice and freedom, between rage and reconciliation, unsure of just what path Canada is going to take.- Max FineDay

Dad had the presence of mind to seek out knowledge keepers who could teach him our history, ceremonies, sacred stories and more. I'm lucky to have grown up with my father and other role models, who made sure that I would have opportunities they didn't to take pride in my identity, learn the values of our people and be taught our stories from childhood.

My mother, a descendant of Norwegian farmers, instilled in my brother and me a strong sense of identity and all the tools we needed to be successful in the modern world.

This is a recipe for freedom.

A gift for all of us

I am part of the first generation of my family in many generations to feel freedom. It's an incredible honour that also comes with a tremendous responsibility to ensure that the work of my parents, and family, not only benefits me, but others. We need to take every opportunity to support the freedom of all Indigenous people.

It's important to mark progress as Indigenous peoples when it's made. But it's important to be aware that many Indigenous people still suffer from lack of freedom — literally and otherwise. All too many are incarcerated, in the custody of the government's child welfare system, or living in despair for lack of opportunities.

The story of this country is that there are still too few Indigenous kids who have the opportunities that I've had, who aren't taught to be proud, who are still removed from their communities, who still suffer from the legacy of colonization.

The excitement that comes from young people today is in imagining how we will do things differently for our children, how we will disrupt the echoes of colonization that still ripple down the generations into families across Canada.

Today we sit between injustice and freedom, between rage and reconciliation, unsure of just what path Canada is going to take.

What I wished for (and work for) this birthday, is for every Indigenous kid in this country to have what my parents were able to give me: Freedom. Because it will not only be a gift for me, but for all of us.

About the Author

Max FineDay

Max FineDay is executive director of Canadian Roots Exchange, a national non-profit that works with youth to advance reconciliation, and sits as a member of the interim National Council on Reconciliation