Like every other person in Canada, there are significant experiences in your childhood or youth that become markers in your life that lead you towards the development of your identity. Mine started when I was about four or five years old in Red Deer, Alberta when I was with my late mom and dad at the grocery store around 1960s. My late dad was a WWII war veteran who spent 15 months at a POW camp in Germany and he was my hero until he passed away in 2003. He and my mom were speaking in Cree when a Caucasian woman came up to them, wagged her finger and said, “You’re in Canada, speak English”. Funny how I can remember that event in such detail: my late dad hung his head and my mom turned her face away so he wouldn’t see her witnessing his shame by this woman. I began to recognize that my emotion was embarrassment and shame for being anything that could identify me to being an “Indian”. I grew up being called a “squaw” and was told to walk behind my Caucasian husband when I was a teen mom/ wife living in Grande Prairie during the 1970s.
I have experienced racist profiling all my life by those in the dominant society who expect people from “other” ethnic backgrounds and races to conform to their Eurocentric standards. These standards were created by the dominant group who had the power and the authority through “white privilege” to state what is acceptable social norms and behaviors in the mainstream society as Western Settlers. I am the same as many other Aboriginal people when it comes to aligning my Aboriginal identity with the Canadian identity based on a colonial history with the Canadian government. I am not famous nor have I ever been identified as someone “important” by social media/news, etc. I was born a Métis Cree woman in a small town in Alberta that I feel has a reputation for racism and elitist cliques: the “in” crowd and I never belonged.
My parents instilled in me the values and commitments needed from community members to work together for the bigger picture of living together in unity. I listened to my late dad’s stories about having to ride in the back of the bus as a soldier and not being allowed in bars or restaurants because he was “Indian.” Still, he was so proud to be a veteran and active member in the Royal Canadian Legion. I witnessed these values in my parents as volunteers even though there were some organizations who wouldn’t accept them as members because they were “Indians” and I often wondered why their values were so community-based.
Neither of my parents had Treaty Status and that is the result of deliberate government colonial policies designed to reduce the Indian population through genocide. I decided to repatriate into my late mom’s birthplace, Maskwacis when I was 30 years old and was fortunate to have wonderful Cree teachers who taught me the traditional values and philosophies based on relationships, the land and community through our spirituality. My late aunt taught me that our Cree language is a living language built on the same foundation as those teachings. In reflection of my Aboriginal identity as an adult, I recognize I have been blessed to have teachers cross my path that have left significant positive markers in the development of my Indigenous pride and identity. These teachers almost always carried the same type of message: work together to live together in unity. I had invited the late Elijah Harper to be a keynote speaker at an event I organized several years ago and had several more opportunities to have discussions with him over the next few years after that. I once asked him if he ever got tired of explaining “us” to non-Natives and I often share his response whenever I speak about diversity. Elijah explained that it is in our teachings to take care of visitors. “They were dying on their boats when they landed on our land 500 years ago and we took them in as visitors and taught them how to survive the winters” he said. It is still our responsibility to explain our ways to Settlers so they can survive in our land. He then added, “We just didn’t think it would take them so long to learn.”
I recognize I am a statistic that is against the odds as an Aboriginal person who didn’t complete high school but did return to complete my equivalency and continued on to pursue and obtain my Masters in Social Work with an Indigenous Specialization from the University of Victoria. My dissertation was on Indigenous internalized oppression and learned benevolent behaviors in Settler populations that have perpetuated colonization into modern society.
Racism in Canada originated from pre-Confederate belief-systems based on British supremacy with a dose of white racism, and control over land. And this has continued because of resistance to change or fear of anything that is different. Fear prevents Canadians from experiencing the beauty of this land and inhibits people from seeing the richness gained from experiencing different cultures. However, as an Indigenous person, I believe Canadians are hungry for change and are resisting xenophobic fears because they believe Canada can be a welcoming country.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission opened the gate for freedom where I will continue with my passion for community development as an Indigenous specialized consultant. My role as an Indigenous academic and teacher will follow my parents’ and teachers’ legacies to promote values for community members working together to live together in harmony with respect towards each other and the land.