I thought long and hard before writing this article and almost didn’t. I know that many people will disagree with me, and some will be angry. But there are times when things must be said, however unpleasant they are to hear, and to me this is one of those times.
We recently observed the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation in Canada. It has become an annual day of reflection and remembrance. I am good with that. The history of Indigenous peoples is an important part of Canadian history as well. Like many others, I wore an orange shirt on Thursday, and I spent some time reflecting on what truth and reconciliation really means.
One thing that has become clear to me is that you cannot have real truth if you sprinkle it with revisionism and you cannot have reconciliation without forgiveness.
The first truth is that Canada is a nation built on colonial principals. This country was settled, if not invaded, primarily by the English and French. Unless we are fully Indigenous, our ancestors were not born here. They came here and they colonized Canada. The fact is that we have a colonial past. We can be ashamed of it if it suits our current woke agenda, but we should also remember that most of us would not be here without it.
That Indigenous peoples have been treated woefully in Canada, not just in the past but in many aspects to this present day, cannot be disputed. In recent months, I have come to realize that it is much easier for us to deal with this unescapable inequity by focusing on the misdeeds of previous generations than it is for us to come to terms with the reality that in a time in which we are directly accountable, little has been accomplished to reconcile important and significant disparities between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in Canada.
Of course, the sad tragedy of residential schools should never be forgotten, and it is more than appropriate to grieve those injustices and others like them, and to remember them. But to focus solely on that, and to revise aspects of our history, as we have, to support that narrative is in itself an injustice. It is an injustice, because it allows us an arms-length opportunity to express our indignation related to our treatment of Indigenous peoples, to effectively blame others without accepting responsibility ourselves, or really doing anything about the inequities and racism that exists today.
One of my early memories as a young child was playing with my sister in the back yard of my great-grandfather’s house in Calgary when an Indigenous woman, dressed in traditional garb, popped out of the bushes with a large bowl in her hands. My great-grandfather had spent much of his career working with Native people and this woman, knowing he was ailing, had walked for miles to bring him food and comfort. I have never forgotten that.
I have an Indigenous daughter and, without going into detail, I have seen firsthand how cruel life has been for her, both within and outside of the Indigenous community.
And so as we talk about truth and reconciliation, it is at least equally important to me to talk about the present as it is about the past.
Why are so many Indigenous communities in Canada, more than 65 of them, still without safe drinking water? Why have only 14 of the 94 calls to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission been implemented? And why, in this day and age, do statistics show an inordinate rate of poverty, crime, incarceration, suicide, and substandard housing, healthcare and education among Indigenous people in Canada? And why, for Heaven’s sake, was the antiquated Indian Act not repealed decades ago?
The easy answer, of course, is to blame all of this on our current federal government and those that preceded it. And no doubt there is much for which they should be held accountable. But that is not the whole story.
It takes two to tango and the hard truth is that the Indigenous community in Canada has its own strong forum of complicated politics, often fractured and frankly focused less on actual reconciliation and forgiveness than it is on using these as a political platform to get the best bargain and achieve as much as they can, in relation to Indigenous issues, as they see them.
That is why the decision of Prime Minister Trudeau to leave the Canadian flag at half-mast until Indigenous leaders say it can go up is so wrong. For Indigenous politicians our national flag has just become another bargaining tool with which to negotiate. On that basis, it will sadly stay that way for a long time.
As columnist Lorrie Goldstein says, “When you lower flags indefinitely the gesture becomes meaningless in that it becomes commonplace, as opposed to being an exceptional practice about an exceptional event, in this case an exceptional tragedy.” Both the prime minister and First Nations leaders should think about that.
Indigenous politics in Canada are not perfect. I have seen the dark side of that for myself. It was reinforced to me when reading former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould’s book, Indian in the Cabinet.
While it may not be popular to say, I believe that both Canadian and Indigenous politicians are accountable for the lack of real progress when dealing effectively, fairly, and expeditiously with First Nations matters.
That needs to stop. We cannot just keep spinning our wheels. We cannot blame our lack of real action on the past. Nor can we use the past as a smokescreen to do nothing now. We are in our time, and we have collectively the power to effect significant change both for Indigenous peoples and for our country as a whole.
That would put real meaning into truth and reconciliation. The question is, are we up to it?
Hugh Mackenzie has held elected office as a trustee on the Muskoka Board of Education, a Huntsville councillor, a District councillor, and mayor of Huntsville. He has also served as chairman of the District Muskoka and as chief of staff to former premier of Ontario, Frank Miller.
Hugh has served on a number of provincial, federal and local boards, including chair of the Ontario Health Disciplines Board, vice-chair of the Ontario Family Health Network, vice-chair of the Ontario Election Finance Commission, and board member of Roy Thomson Hall, the National Theatre School of Canada, and the Anglican Church of Canada. Locally, he has served as president of the Huntsville Rotary Club, chair of Huntsville District Memorial Hospital, chair of the Huntsville Hospital Foundation, president of Huntsville Festival of the Arts, and board member of Community Living Huntsville.
In business, Hugh Mackenzie has a background in radio and newspaper publishing. He was also a founding partner and CEO of Enterprise Canada, a national public affairs and strategic communications firm established in 1986.
Currently Hugh is president of C3 Digital Media Inc., the parent company of Doppler Online, and he enjoys writing commentary for South Muskoka Doppler.
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