What's next for Canada's First People? - Michael's essay
First, they took away her name. Then they gave her a number. Bernice Jacks, a young student at a residential school in Kamloops, became Number 39. Wilbur Abrahams was sent to a school in Alert Bay, BC. He was designated number 989. Take away a child's name and replace it with a number and you have effectively effaced that child's identity. It's something of a cliché that in these frenetic times, we are all being reduced to numbers. But in the case of residential schools for aboriginal children, it was literally true.
For the most part, Canadians are aware of what happened over the decades to the 150,000 children who were taken from their parents and sent to these schools. In June, 2008, Stephen Harper made an eloquent apology in the House of Commons for what we as a country had done to our First People.
The most compelling question is, what happens now? Is there a political will to finally face up to and resolve what John Ralston Saul has called the most critical social issue in the country?
First of all, the government should scrap the Indian Act. Every Indian Affairs minister I've ever interviewed has called for its repeal, calling it a racist document. Then begin tackling the problems one by one.
Break down the jurisdictional barriers between federal, provincial and municipal governments so that living conditions on 2,300 reserves can finally be improved.
Focus on education by closing the discriminatory gap whereby non-aboriginal children are subsidized to a higher degree than Indian children.
Create urban task forces across the country to work with the 60 per cent of Indians who live in our cities.
And pray for municipal leaders like Winnipeg's Mayor Brian Bowman, who admits there is rampant racism in his city and is doing something about it.
Create provincial curricula in high schools which include courses in aboriginal history.
Establish a separate prison ombudsman's office to deal exclusively with incarcerated aboriginals.
Launch a fully-funded, national program to reduce the rate of diabetes among Indian people, which is twice the rate of other Canadians.
Focus on children. Tear down crappy schools on reserves and build new ones. Bring down the unacceptably high mortality rates. And suicide rates among youth, six times higher than among non-aboriginal young people.
On the day this week that the Truth and Reconciliation report was issued, a group of young Indian activists added Ojibwe names to the street signs of four mid-Toronto streets. Symbolic perhaps. But symbols are important; they mean something. Adding original Ojibwe names to a couple of streets signs reminds us that the aboriginal people were here first.
They are still here.