An Indigenous Encounter

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I am going to take a side-step today. Most of my posts have focused on actual classroom experiences. Today’s submission falls under the banner of life-long learning; specifically, my learning of late.

I was in Winnipeg last week. This city lies in the middle (east-west) of Canada and is often referred to as the Gateway to the West. Europeans first settled there in the 1700’s but First Nations have lived there for thousands of years. It has a large indigenous population.

Over the last thirteen years I have visited Winnipeg twenty-five times. During those visits I have become aware of many of the issues facing the aboriginal population. During the past several months, Canadian media has carried a number of stories, some of them quite horrific, regarding this same population. For several years now I have had questions in need of answers.

Last Tuesday I had the opportunity to meet with Dennis White Bird. He is a former Grand Chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs. I did not have an appointment but he welcomed me into his office to chat.

At my request he presented an overview of the Numbered (post-confederation)Treaties. He differentiated between land ownership and land stewardship. He talked of relations, old and current, with non-Aboriginals. He told me about promises made; some broken, some not fulfilled. He spoke of the residential school system and its devastating impact on his people.

I asked him, `Knowing what you know now, if you could go back in time and be present for those treaty negotiations, would you do things differently?”

“Oh yes”, he replied.

“We have a new federal government and the Prime Minister has vowed to form a better relationship between our two nations. Do you think in four or eight years things will be much different?”

“I have hope”

I said, “The Government of Canada is currently vetting Syrian refugees to determine which are to be allowed to settle here. It’s too bad your ancestors didn’t think to do the same thing.”

He smiled.

Personally, I can imagine the conversation going like this:

First Nations (FN): “Welcome traveller. Where are you from?”

European (E): “A place called Europe. It’s nice but we want a fresh start in this land of yours.”

FN: “OK, but first we want to vet you.”

E: “Go ahead. Shoot.”

FN: “Pardon?”

E: “Oh, sorry. It will make sense later. Go ahead and ask your questions.”

FN: “What are your intentions once you get settled?”

E: “Well, we are going to trick your people into giving us most of the land.”

FN: “I see. Any other big plans?”

E: “Well, once we get really settled, we are going to create these places called residential schools. We’ll tell you about them later.”

FN: “Hmm….. Do you have anything to declare?

E: “You should know that we are carrying these little, tiny bugs called smallpox and tuberculosis.”

FN: “Is that something we should worry about?”

E: “Welllll… In the spirit of transparency, I should point out that twenty-five to fifty percent of some of your nations will probably die.”

FN:”Sorry, you can’t come in”

My meeting with Chief White Bird lasted the better part of an hour. At no time did his body language or demeanour suggest that he was tiring of my presence or that he preferred to get back to the work I had interrupted. I felt a genuine warmth and connection. Although there were more questions I wanted to ask, I did not want to take any more of his time.

Before I left, he extended his hand and we shook. I thanked him for his time and told him I was sorry for the plight of his people.

I don’t know how often white guys like me drop in and say sorry; perhaps, more often that you realize. I’m glad I did.

What if we asked our First Nations if we should allow Syrian refugees in? I wonder if they would say, “No Syrian ever lied to us or ripped us off.”

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