'It's better to build': Indigenous MLA makes case against cancelling Canada Day
'I think that we should confront this head on,' B.C. politician Ellis Ross tells Checkup
Cancelling Canada Day celebrations won't solve the challenges that Indigenous communities face, says Ellis Ross, a member of the legislative assembly in British Columbia.
"I do acknowledge the past. I lived it. My parents went to residential school. My friends went to residential school. My family went to residential school," Ross, who is a member of the Haisla Nation and lives on reserve land in Kitamaat Village, B.C., told Cross Country Checkup host Ian Hanomansing.
"But I can't just sit back and watch Aboriginals suffer the way they've been suffering for the last 50, 100 years with all their social problems."
"I've got to be the one to be the bad guy and say, 'No, something's got to be done in real terms to address our social problems.'"
Many have called for a hold on Canada Day celebrations this year in the wake of announcements by First Nations in B.C. and Saskatchewan that preliminary findings indicate there are hundreds of unmarked graves on the sites of former residential schools in those provinces.
B.C.'s capital Victoria cancelled its July 1 plans in early June, with regions across the country following suit.
Ross spoke with Cross Country Checkup about why he believes that Canada Day celebrations should go forward.
Here is part of that conversation.
Why do you feel cancelling Canada Day events is the wrong approach?
I've been actually through all this about 17 years ago in terms of what had happened to Aboriginals in general. And when I found out the dark history of Aboriginals in the formation of Canada, I was just like everybody else. I was angry. I was sad. I was vindictive. I was in a very dark place.
But then I started to open up in terms of what actually Canada is today. Not 100 years ago, not 150 years ago, as bad as that was, but how can I get to a better place where I can actually help people get out of poverty, get away from incarceration rates, get away from suicide?
And for that, I figured I have to figure out a new path and not just dwell on what happened in the last hundred years.
How should we mark Canada Day?
I go back to the court's definition of reconciliation. I don't use the politicians' definition. The judge said we must reconcile our societies because, let's face it, none of us are going anywhere. It took me a long time to understand that. But ultimately, what better time [than] when Canadians want to be side by side with Aboriginals and join in their pain and their celebration?
I was at Indigenous Day in Terrace just a few days ago. It wasn't even a formal event, just a bunch of people had gathered along with truck convoys. And the amount of people hugging, crying, laughing, joking and just being around each other, it only proved to me that it's better to let the citizens come together, share some stories, and kind of start this healing process together.
I'm sure it would actually guide the politicians' way of thinking in a big way if we are allowed to gather on these days. And by the way, if you're going to consider doing this, cancelling Canada Day, you better consider cancelling B.C. Day as well because the provinces were just as complicit in what happened to the Aboriginals in Canada. It wasn't just Canada.
The B.C. capital of Victoria, as you know, is one of the cities that is postponing its Canada Day celebrations and certainly cancelling what the original plans were. Members of the lək̓ʷəŋən nations, whose traditional territory includes Victoria, were originally going to take part in those events. But after the remains were detected at the former Kamloops Indian residential school, they announced they were no longer going to participate.... What's your reaction was to that?
That's [Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps's] decision and that'll come down to the decision of every single First Nation across B.C. and across Canada, for that matter. In fact, every single group, whether it be ethnic or non-profit or whatever you're talking about, they all have that choice.
I think that we should confront this head on. I think we should actually take a look at what happened 150 years ago, 100 years ago, 50 years ago, and confront it. But at the same time, take advantage of this opportunity where for the first time in my lifetime, non-Aboriginals want to be with Aboriginals, the citizens of Canada.
When we're talking about this [cancelling Canada Day], I got to keep coming back to the idea of what does this do in practical terms to keep Aboriginals from being the biggest population in our prisons in Canada? What does it do to be, per capita, the highest rates of suicide in Canada. Per capita, the largest number of kids going into government care, and the largest group of people living in poverty and unemployed? What does it do? It doesn't do anything.
I do acknowledge the past. I lived it. My parents went to residential school. My friends went to residential school. My family went to residential school. But I can't just sit back and watch Aboriginals suffer the way they've been suffering for the last 50, 100 years with all their social problems.
I've got to be the one to be the bad guy and say, 'No, something's got to be done in real terms to address our social problems.'
Within the Indigenous community, particularly in your riding in Skeena, in northwestern B.C. ... is it difficult for you to articulate your point of view?
Yeah, definitely. In the same way that I came out very positive and strong for economic development to resolve our unemployment and poverty issues. I got hate mail all the time. I got threats all the time. I'm getting them now, today, given my position here.
But here's the thing. I learnt a long time ago, instead of giving in to my anger and my thoughts of revenge, it's better to build. Anybody can tear down, anybody can rip something apart. It's easy. It's easy to say no. It's much tougher to build something, and I've got the scars to prove it.
And being the bad guy to stand up and say, "No, Canada is not what it was, the same thing it was 100 years ago, 150 years ago." Yes, there are some things that we have to resolve.... especially in terms of residential schools — it's an open wound.
I've got some ideas behind that and how to help heal that wound, but not with all this rhetoric going around. I don't really support anything that causes divisiveness.
Written by Jason Vermes. Interview produced by Steve Howard. This Q&A was edited for length and clarity.