June 21 was National Indigenous Peoples Day across Canada.
Again this year, as we have done since I returned north 18 years ago, we gathered in Sombe K’e Park to enjoy the fish fry gifted to us by the North Slave Metis Alliance. We sat together listening to the drummers as they beat out the heart song of Mother Earth then enjoyed speeches and world class performances by local Indigenous people.
It was marvellous.
Under sometimes clear and sometimes cloudy skies, we relished in this great community event reminding us that we are all one, we are family sharing this time on Earth together. And some of us remembered we are only here on Turtle Island because of the First Nations people who graciously allowed us in here at all.
Remarkable considering how poorly we sometimes treat them. And they are still kind.
It wasn’t long ago that a city council here opted for a multi-million dollar swimming pool, foregoing a shelter intended to keep some of the First Nations living on our streets alive. We would rather go for a swim than think about their welfare.
Really, we shouldn’t have to have an Aboriginal Day at all. Better yet, every day should be an Aboriginal Day when we are called to remember what the term first people means and asking ourselves, are we really grateful and providing the support they need? Are we still basking in white privilege?
There is far more to National Indigenous Peoples Day than just a good fish fry. It is a time to remember that we are still failing to provide the services they need to enjoy a better quality of life, yet at the same time acknowledging our part in stripping away their long-standing survival traditions.
In a territory where half the population is Indigenous, it is embarrassing to remember that Third World conditions are the status quo in many NWT communities. Some do not have clean drinking water, others live in run-down overpopulated houses with three or more generations of people and families living together. Many of those homes freeze up in the winter because of poor quality building material which allows pipes to freeze and burst resulting in even more overcrowding.
We were worried to death during Covid-19 that one of these homes would be infected knowing that overnight, the entire territory could fall ill too.
And these same overcrowded communities are often riddled with mental health problems created by the poverty and despair. Suicide steals the lives of so many young who see nothing to hope for in the future.
While the education system may try to meet the needs of some children, the students often drop out because there is no support at home. With so many educators being white and fresh from the south, the kids are resistant to indoctrination, wanting instead to learn more about their own way of life. No, these young people would rather be on the land learning their own culture in their own community than learning what we think is best for them.
And we still do not have any treatment centres.
Though we tried, we cannot kill their spirit.
Too often we still think we know what’s best. We forget that they did just fine without us for thousands of years. Now with the impacts of climate change bearing down on us, it becomes clear that we didn’t know best and still don’t.
And even though hundreds of millions of dollars has been set aside to enhance community learning centres — thus giving young people hope — someone in Yellowknife focuses on a polytechnic as a legacy project that in the end just enhances somebody’s name instead of truly serving all communities. We need programs that serve the people whose land this is… programs that give them hope; programs that honour who they are and not change them into something more like ourselves.
How many others wonder if some members of those early welcoming committees who helped the first trappers and missionaries survive brutal Northern winters turn nightly in their graves asking, “What were we thinking?”
On the topic of hospitality… how many in our communities wonder if they will ever be able to eat in the healthy and adequate way they should? The country foods are quickly disappearing and all they have is Coke, potato chips and health problems. Healthier foods come at a cost many cannot afford.
And don’t get sick. Keeping the health centres staffed if they exist at all is a full-time job in itself.
Yes, Aboriginal Day is a day of celebration, but also a day for us to reflect on the work that still needs to be done. White privilege doesn’t cut it anymore.
We are one — all of us together — a hodge-podge family sharing Mother Earth and we need to act in ways that reflect that everyday,