Why National Indigenous Day is important for all Canadians

Hill Times, June 14 2021

June 21 is National Indigenous Day, the summer solstice. Many Indigenous organizations and businesses will close. Some Indigenous people will pay more attention to this day than to Canada Day. And it’s not just for Indigenous peoples. It is a day for Canadians to pause and consider the experience of Indigenous peoples in Canada, both the good and the bad.

Following World War II, virtually every German family faced up to the fact that an uncle or son or grandfather fought with the Nazis, a difficult journey marked in pain and heartache. One can’t help but have respect for the earnest and painful work German citizens have done to heal from the past.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel modelled the leadership required for a country facing its past and finding ways forward. The country has many memorials to victims of Nazi atrocities. There are centres of research to document the impact of Nazism on the country and on the world. While she visited other concentration camp memorials, in 2019 Merkel visited Auschwitz for the first time. “Nothing can reverse the unprecedented crimes committed here,” Merkel said. “These crimes are and will remain part of German history, and this history must be told over and over again,” according to an NPR report on Dec.6, 2019.

Let’s not get into semantics here. Let’s focus on the facts that some serious acts of horror have been committed against Indigenous peoples. The kinds of horrors that stunned Canadians.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with a stunned silence as a response when one hears about the facts. But the problem is when silence is the only and lasting response. At some point, one has to say something. This National Indigenous Day, do not be silent. Take some time and read the TRC reports about the missing children in residential schools, and tell somebody who needs to know more.

There is something distasteful in a refusal to learn more. Guaranteed that Canadian schools did not teach the full history, good and bad, until quite recently, and even worse that some provinces have cut any Indigenous curriculums out. This National Indigenous Day, find out if your kids will learn from curriculums that respect the contributions and experiences of Indigenous peoples. If the curriculums are not good enough, write to your school board.

But it takes a certain meanness, a decision to pile on pain, to say “get over it,” or “but Canada’s so great,” or “it’s in the past.” One wouldn’t say this to a Holocaust survivor, why say this to a first or second generation survivor of residential schools?  The intentional dismissal of another’s pain built into these statements is on the same spectrum of racism that leads to terrorism against another race or culture. We prevent brutality done to others when we stop the casual dismissal of others. This National Indigenous Day, challenge people in your network who say such things. Don’t stay silent in the face of cruelty. Protect people who are at risk of racism. Challenge people to do better.

It’s time Canada did better. It’s time to sit down and process the facts of history which have just started to be shared. Six years ago this month, the TRC shared its report, and somehow many Canadians didn’t hear it. So we will tell it again. Our history must be told over and over again.

It’s time for Canadians to let go of the lines that residential schools was run by “the federal government,” or “it was the Catholic Church.” Absolutely, they certainly committed some serious horrors. But consider this: the truth is that 215 children were buried in secret unmarked graves by Canadians. They were somebody’s relative, grandmother, uncle, and ancestor.

No Canadian is free of history.