STONEY NAKODA FIRST NATION – Celebrating the rich history and culture of Indigenous people in Canada, June 21 marks National Indigenous Peoples Day.
The celebration of Canada’s First Nations, Inuit and Métis serve as an opportunity to learn about Reconciliation and the role all Canadians play on the healing journey.
Knowledge keeper Thomas Snow said there are two ways to look at the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in Canada.
The first is to explore the oral history he learned from his grandparents that has been passed down directly from those that have lived on the land for countless generations.
“There’s their lived experiences that they passed on to me and then there’s my relationship with Canada and the Town of Cochrane,” Snow said
The larger experience of Indigenous people and Canada is broad and encompasses hundreds of unique and individual experiences of tribes, families, nations and individuals.
“There’s no such thing as just 'a Canada' – it’s communities having relationships with other communities,” Snow said.
It is a complex relationship, he said, but for centuries it has been one grounded in white supremacy and colonialism.
“That is an uncomfortable truth for many people,” Snow said. “But, until we get to that truth and acknowledge that we cannot even begin to move forward in an honest and meaningful way.”
The history of Canada needs to be addressed and unpacked to break the toxic relationship that was established through colonialism, he said. Snow added there is the possibility to learn and build a new relationship going forward.
“We’ve all been colonized to an extent and we’ve all been traumatized to an extent,” Snow said, adding the trauma of this experience is so deep-seated it alters individuals and society as a whole.
The healing journey and path towards Reconciliation can begin by going online to learn the history and break the cycle, he said.
“There are so many books by Indigenous authors," Snow said, explaining that they offer separate insights that contrast what has been written by western professors documenting the history of Canadian settlers. “Read the books by Indigenous people because they’ll give you a whole other perspective.”
It is important to engage with Indigenous authors, he added, because they can challenge the norm set by settlers in Canada who glorify a nation built on white supremacy and colonialism.
It is critical to get that other perspective, and Snow said he would argue that it is a more honest perspective because they lived through the arrival of Europeans in Canada.
“Really dive deep into yourself and look at your own biases," he said. "While you’re reading through those materials check-in with yourself and find what resonates with you, what challenges you.
“It’s in the uncomfortable parts of ourselves that you have the most potential for growth. Growth happens when we're uncomfortable.”
People can then take the knowledge they have learned and turn it into action and bring it into homes and communities to facilitate change.
“It’s not enough to be non-racist, you have to be anti-racist,” Snow said. “That can be a very challenging thing.”
By doing this hard work now we are hopefully teaching our children how to have these difficult conversations and to be better prepared and effective in creating change in the future, Snow said.
Stoney Nakoda grandfather and Residential School survivor Helmer Twoyoungmen said every day can be a celebration of Indigenous people, their culture and their heritage.
“We are called nature's people,” Twoyoungmen said, explaining they have always lived in the beautiful landscape at the foot of the Rocky Mountains between the prairies and the sky surrounded by trees.
Twoyoungmen encouraged people to look at the trees like poplar, aspen, evergreen, pine, spruce, fir, willow and cedar to understand how they can work together.
“They stay side-by-side and they never argue,” Twoyoungmen said, explaining that people have the potential to live in peaceful co-existence.
Reconciliation is possible, he said, explaining that people can focus on how they complement and can learn from each other. He cited how the trees make beautiful music together because even though they are different they live in harmony.
Twoyoungmen said he still remembers when he was seven years old and taken from his family and forced to attend Residential School.
“My body was gone, but my spirit was behind where I was born and raised,” Twoyoungmen said. “I lost my culture.”
It was a struggle healing from the trauma of Residential School, he said, explaining that he never felt whole until he was able to return home to Stoney Nakoda.
Twoyoungmen said he came to understand that he had post-traumatic stress disorder from his time at Residential School.
He survived and has been able to start a new life by connecting to his culture and celebrating his Indigenous heritage.
Twoyoungmen said he teaches his culture to others, including students at local schools, and hosts guests at his home to share the knowledge he has learned. The goal is to reconnect people with their culture because it can serve as a way to help people heal from trauma.
Twoyoungmen said his dream is to unite and work together by sharing ideas and teachings because people are better and stronger together.
Stoney Nakoda Elder Tina Fox was one of the first Stoney Nakoda students to be bused to Cochrane High School. She attended Residential School from grades 1 to 8.
She still remembers getting off the bus that first day in September and walking towards the school.
“It was quite scary,” she said. ”Little kids lined up, saw us coming and started chanting, ‘Indians on the warpath.' ”
Fox kept her head held high and survived the experience. While the teachers treated her well, she said she was unable to connect with the students from Cochrane.
“Racism has existed since Columbus got lost and arrived on this side of the continent and thought we were Indians,” she said. “It started from there; they just didn’t think we were human beings.”
Canada has begun the process of Reconciliation and apologized for events like Residential Schools, Fox said, but these steps were made possible because Indigenous people have fought for their rights since colonization began.
“They apologized and gave us rights only because people fought for them,” Fox said. “It wasn’t because Canada compensated out of being sorry and out of the goodness of their hearts they had to made to do that through the courts.”
It is still a tiered system in Canada and at times more value is placed on the lives of non-Indigenous people, Fox said, explaining that the fight for Indigenous equity is an ongoing process.
She still deals with stereotypes everyday where people assume the worst.
“Unless people are educated about racism and systemic racism they're not going to know and they’ll think it doesn’t exist,” Fox said. “It does.”
Black Lives Matter rallies are drawing attention to systemic racism in Canada and the United States, Fox said, and she hopes it will inspire people to take time, reflect and understand how they feel about people of colour.
“They have to search their hearts,” Fox said, explaining that as long as racism is kept in the shadows and not talked about, the country can never heal
“I just want to see some positive changes in the system … and have our people treated fairly,” Fox said. “I think native and Black people have been the ones that suffered the most racism and being dehumanized by these systems.”
Celebrate National Indigenous Peoples Day with a good book:
21 Things You May Not Know About the Indian Act: Helping Canadians Make Reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples a Reality by Bob Joseph: The book serves as an essential guide to understanding how the almost 150-year-old Indian Act has affected generations of Indigenous people. Joseph unpacks how the act continues to shape, control and constrain the lives and opportunities of Indigenous people in Canada.
Starlight Tour: The Last, Lonely Night of Neil Stonechild by Susanne Reber and Robert Renaud: The book uncovers the racism, rogue cops and justice denied in Saskatoon after an Indigenous teenage boy was found frozen to death. It takes 10 years for the story to be fully unveiled when more Indigenous men are found frozen in mysterious circumstances.
Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and Teaching of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer: Potawatomi botanist and professor of plant ecology brings her experiences together to show how we can awaken a wider ecological consciousness. The book explores the required acknowledgement and celebration of our reciprocal relationship with the world.
We Remember the Coming of the White Man by Elizabeth Yakeleya, Sarah Simon and other Sahtú and Gwich'in Dene elders: The book chronicles the oral history of the Sahtú and Gwich'in Dene and the arrival of Europeans in the early 20th century. We Remember captures the stories of 10 elders and their recollections of the first contact with Europeans.
Our Story: Aboriginal Voices on Canada’s Past: A collection of work from celebrated Canadian Indigenous writers. The stories are inspired by pivotal events in the country’s history and important moments are examined from the Indigenous perspective. Stories are told from the Inuk, Cherokee, Ojibway, Cree, and Salish by novelists, playwrights, journalists, activists, and artists.
Mamaskatch by Darrel McLeod: A memoir that captures McLeod’s upbringing in Alberta by his Cree mother surrounded by siblings and cousins. McLeod explores how he learned to be proud of his heritage and shares stories of his mother surviving Residential School.
In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction by Dr. Gabor Maté: Explores addiction and how it can be a symptom of distress from an individual's painful trauma to family history to the experience of spiritual emptiness. Maté talks about trauma and unpacks its lingering effects.
The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Dr. Bessel van der Kolk: The Body Keeps the Score explores how trauma reshapes the mind and body effecting the ability to experience pleasure, engagement, self-control and trust. Van der Kolk talks about solutions, treatments and new paths of healing to become healthy and whole human beings.