We’ve recently recognized two important days in this country: Canada Day, and Aboriginal Day. The contrast between the two tells us some important things about health and cultural equity in this country.
We mark Canada Day with fireworks and trips to the lake, anticipated by Canadians from coast to coast. It’s an opportunity to relax, enjoy the company of friends and family, and reflect on what it means to be Canadian as part of our identity.
National Aboriginal Day doesn’t hold such status. It’s designated to recognize the accomplishments of Aboriginal people and celebrate the diverse cultures of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis people, yet it isn’t a Statutory Holiday.
June 21st 2016 marked the 20th Aboriginal Day celebration in Canada, but unless you’re one of the 44,340 residents of in Northwest Territories you likely weren’t afforded the time away from work to take part in celebrations. Yukon is considering following suit, but, to date, none of their provincial neighbours have begun discussing the move.
"Improved relationships at all levels of society are key to improving the health of our communities."
We’re starting to really recognize the need for reconciliation. We’re starting to pay attention to our nation’s history of injustice. Reports, recommendations and calls to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission are starting to be implemented. That’s why the inaction of other provinces feels so inconsistent.
It’s been a year since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) released its report based on a six-year process that included the voices of 6,750 Residential School survivors. The report makes 94 specific and actionable recommendations across a wide spectrum of government, corporate, church, and community sectors.
Of particular relevance are recommendations #80 directed at government and #92 directed at the corporate sector:
“We call upon the federal government, in collaboration with Aboriginal peoples, to establish, as a statutory holiday, a National Day for Truth and Reconciliation to honour Survivors, their families, and communities, and ensure that public commemoration of the history and legacy of residential schools remains a vital component of the reconciliation process” — TRC Call to Action #80
"Provide education for management and staff on the history of Aboriginal peoples, including the history and legacy of Residential Schools, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Treaties and Aboriginal rights, Indigenous law, and Aboriginal-Crown relations. This will require skills based training in intercultural competency, conflict resolution, human rights, and anti-racism" — TRC Call to Action #92 iii
An independent National Day for Truth and Reconciliation is an important step. Further intertwining the existing National Aboriginal Day in the lives of Canadians through statutory designation is also an important step. As for education in corporate settings… it surely can’t be as simple as attending a celebration, or recognizing a day, can it?
It’s not. Education is a critical part of reconciliation. ‘Know better, do better’ they say. I envision effective corporate education being specific to the workplace settings and goals, tied directly to corporate operations. This will take some time to build the capacity to deliver. It must be built on strong partnerships and led by those whose communities have been most negatively impacted by broken treaty commitments and ongoing colonization. In the mean time, as far as first steps go, supporting workers to learn in a celebratory setting isn’t a bad one. A statutory holiday could help to accomplish that goal.
Reconciliation isn’t only about righting wrongs of the past. It’s also requires that we acknowledge and address current inequities. Colonization impacts health in diverse domains beginning with environmental relationships, social policies and political power. Improved relationships at all levels of society are key to improving the health of our communities. You don’t have to dig very far into Canada’s health statistics to find the devastating results of colonization. While the country as a whole ranks 6th on the United Nations’ Human Development Index, a measure of health and social factors, the First Nations population in Canada ranks 63rd. This ranking is in line with countries such as Romania and Libya.
"We need to raise the priority level on reconciliation."
Until National Aboriginal Day is recognized as a statutory Holiday, we continue to do a disservice to reconciliation efforts. The lack of status is a declaration that celebration, education and reconciliation are important, so long as they don’t cost too much. But until we’re ready to put other priorities aside to get down to the work of reconciliation, I’m hard-pressed to anticipate the kind of community-level and corporate-level change needed to re-establish relationships in a good way.
On June 21st 2016, Upstream closed it’s office in Saskatoon so that our team could participate fully in the celebrations and recognitions taking place in our community. I was able to spend the day in Victoria Park, just a few blocks from our office. I had never taken part in the celebrations so didn’t know what to expect. As I walked over, I reminded myself that as the bearer of significant privilege it’s my turn to join spaces where I might be uncertain or feel uncomfortable — others have been forced to do so for much too long. It was a beautiful and welcoming celebration. We shared food, and as I admired the intricate beadwork on traditional clothing I learned the names of the dignitaries in the Grand Entry. I watched as treaty payments were collected from Mounties in full uniform and for the first time saw a team of people erect a tipi.
"We’re fooling ourselves if we talk about colonialism in the past tense."
Later in conversation with a friend, I was reminded that some who pick up the $5 do so as a tradition and symbol of the agreements made, while others will rely on that money for a few meals. We’re fooling ourselves if we talk about colonialism in the past tense. The intergenerational impacts of residential schools and other colonial practices continue, and the health impacts are huge. Taking part in community-level celebrations and getting to know my neighbours helps me to remember that.
As Justice Murray Sinclair, the chair of the Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission, said during the release of the TRC summary report, “Starting now, we all have an opportunity to show leadership, courage and conviction in helping heal the wounds of the past as we make a path towards a more just, more fair and more loving country.”
The Upstream staff is a small team, and without direct clients, we have a bit more freedom than a lot of businesses and non-profits might. The Saskatoon Food Bank and Learning Centre, on the other hand has 30 full-time staff and growing demand for its services. That’s why when I learned that our partners there have been doing the same for a few years, the message was loud and clear. We are prioritizing this. This is important.
It’s time for us all to take the work of reconciliation seriously with a first concrete step.
Hilary Gough is the Operations Manager at Upstream.
Learn more about the Upstream team here.