Stories have always been valued as a means of teaching and learning within First Nations communities. Stories are not just entertainment but power. They reflect the deepest, the most intimate, perception, relationship, and attitudes of a people, and can be used to bring harmony and balance to all beings that inhabit the nations' universe (Keeshig-Tobias, 1992, Gunn-Allan, 1983).
The development of a National Anti-Racism policy is a serious undertaking. Looking to the past to inform our future, I begin with a story.
On the north east coast of this land now known as Canada, there is an island. The island has come to be known as Newfoundland and the people who have lived there for the past couple of hundred years love the land and the sea; but they only came to call that island home after the near complete eradication of the indigenous peoples of the Beothuk Nation.
What happened on the island between the Beothuk and invading fishers and settlers is not an uncommon story. The demand for fish in Europe was high; each summer fishers came to the shores of what was for them new found land. The Beothuk were trapped in-land and with the loss of access to the sea, they lost access to the fish and to the coastal islands where, for generations, they had gathered eggs from the birds that nested there. The loss of access to food, meant their strength waned, they became especially susceptible to the diseases brought by the newcommers. For the Beothuk, tuberculosis was devestating.
Each summer the fishers came and returning to Europe for the winters, they left their fishing gear in their make-shift camps on the coastal shores. Once they were gone the Beothuk would visit the abandoned camps and take the gear left behind by the intruders. When spring came and the fishers returned to find their gear "stolen" antagonism between the newcomers and the Beothuk increased. For the newcommers the Beothuk were hethen and considered animal-like and, like animals, the Beothuk were hunted down, shot, and killed. When the erradication was near complete, settlers with an interest in uncovering and preserving knowledge of the orignal inhabitants formed a society called The Society for the Preservation of the Beothuk.
Members of the Society were committed to learning everything possible about the Beothuk. Fulfilling their mandate required that surviving Beothuk be captured and studied. Shawnadithit, who became known as the last of the Beothuk, was captured in 1823. She was kept for a time with the Peyton family but eventually was taken to live in St. Johns. On occassion, she was taken out for walks on the streets of St. Johns. On these walks town's children would tease and torment her, and Shawnadithit would turn, growl at them and laugh with delight as the frightened children screamed and ran away.
Before long, Shawnadithit had the cough that she knew too well and she knew that her death was immenent. Shortly before she died, Shawnadithit took from her small pack of belongings three rocks that she had taken from the shores of the river where she had lived with her family and where her people had lived from time immemorial. She gave the rocks to her captors.
This story of the giving of the rocks is told and re-told. It is said by the decendants of those intruders that the rocks were a gift of thanks from Shawnadithit to her captors turned protectors. But I ask, what if they were not a gift of thanks but an assertion of enduring presence, an assertion that the land now known as Newfoundland was and always will be the traditional territory of the Beothuk Nation.
I retell this story here as a way of drawing attention to the significance of Aboriginal presence, and Aboriginal rights, in the development of a national anti-racism policy in Canada. The history of the relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people is marked by policies and practices aimed at the eradication of distinct First Nations cultures and identities. This includes, for example, the relocation of Aboriginal people to reserve land, residential schools, and the Indian Act. These oppressive actions informed by racist ideology had, and continue to have, devastating consequences for Aboriginal people, families, and communities.
While Aboriginal people have survived and are working to recuperate and transform their lives much work remains to be done. The relationship of domination that was initiated by colonial governments and used to justify discrimination and exploitation of Aboriginal peoples has been perpetuated allowing non-Aboriginal people to reap the rewards and to maintain Aboriginal people in positions of colonial subjects. A national anti-racism policy must address the inherent right to self-determination, the right of access to land and resources, the right to develop and direct our own Education systems, and the right to determine status.