I grew up in a city touched by First Nations history. Streets bore indigenous names; festivals celebrated native culture; reserves dotted the surrounding landscape.
And yet, at school I never met anyone of aboriginal ancestry, nor did I learn anything about their history, or the continuing impact of European colonization.
Like many of my generation, my views were shaped by the distorted lens of popular culture. Television, film, even Saturday morning cartoons portrayed indigenous people as crude caricatures – the noble warrior, the blood-thirsty savage, the Indian princess.
So it was a revelation when, as a teenager, I read the book Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. Published in 1970, it came at a time of growing dissent, not just within the First Nations community, but in society as a whole.
But again, the perspective was entirely American. It told the story of how the western United States was settled and the toll it took on the native population.
The only reference to Canada confirmed my conceit that the indigenous people of this country faired far better. Our history was not tainted by the military subjugation of a people, I told myself, nor the lies, the trickery, the murders and massacres. Even Sitting Bull, author of General Custer’s defeat at Little Big Horn, sought refuge in Canada. Hunted and on the run following his bloody defeat of the U.S. Seventh Calvary, he crossed into Canada, only to be greeted by a handful of North West Mounted Police.
The story, which played as one of those “History Minutes” on television, drew a distinction between the brutality and connivance of the American colonization of the West, and Canada’s more peaceable approach.
Or so the story goes.
Canada’s treatment of its indigenous population is far from perfect. Certainly our history is not punctuated by the violence that characterized settlement in the U.S., but the results here were just as tragic.
Hunger, disease, dislocation, and cultural annihilation, all served to devastate – within a few decades – a population that had thrived here for millennia. Residential schools are the most telling example of this forced assimilation. And their legacy is still with us today.
None of that was part of my education.
But thankfully, that’s changing. Students today are learning more about our indigenous population, about their history and their culture and the impact colonization has had on their society.
At the United Nations in New York last week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau acknowledged “terrible mistakes” Canada has made. “For Indigenous peoples in Canada,” he said of colonization, “the experience was mostly one of humiliation, neglect and abuse.”
His comments have angered some.
But they offer a stark departure from the smug belief our history is somehow better than others.
If we ever hope to reconcile our hopes for the future with the failures of our past, we must recognize the impact of those mistakes on today, and work to do better.
Greg Knill is editor of the Chilliwack Progress