What I learned during Indigenous Awareness Week

As Indigenous Awareness Week comes to a close, I thought it might be worthwhile to reflect on what I and some of my peers learned. It’s so easy to go out to an event, listen to what was said, then forget all about it a day later. IAW was not intended to be one week of events to remind people that Indigenous issues exist, but was rather an opportunity for the Queen’s community to start a long-lasting dialogue about the realities that Indigenous peoples face in Canada and how Indigenous peoples and allies can work together to create a better future for all people in this country. So, without further ado, here are some of the things that were brought to my attention during IAW.

Apologies mean nothing without future action.

In 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued an apology on behalf of the federal government for the implementation of residential schools. This apology was long overdue, but it did help pave the way for the formation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. However, that doesn’t mean our work is done. The government’s apology was the start of a long journey to repair its relationship with Indigenous peoples, a journey that we are still on. There are still Indigenous people in this country without clean water, proper healthcare, or access to education. Words are not enough to fix these realities; we need action. Queen’s has a TRC task force, which will be releasing its final report on March 21.

The history of colonialism is much more complicated than what you learn in school.

QNSA put on a massive KAIROS blanket exercise in order to educate the Queen’s community on the history of colonialism in an interactive manner. The first time I did the exercise, I learned so many new things that I was never taught in school. For example, I did not know that Indigenous women who married non-Indigenous men lost their status and that non-Indigenous women who married Indigenous men could gain it. I didn’t know that if an Indigenous person were to become a doctor or a lawyer that he or she could not return to their communities to help. The history of colonialism is much deeper than any history textbook can outline, and the legacy is still pervasive today. More people should be educated on the true legacy of colonialism in Canada and the blanket exercise is a great way to do so. If you are interested in holding the exercise in one of your classes, please contact Four Directions.

Stereotypes hinder us from moving forward.

Often times, when I talk about the need to establish better relationships with Indigenous communities, I am often met with skepticism. Some common rebuttals I have heard from those who disagree with me are, “The natives don’t want to work,” or “They’re all drunks,” or “None of them pay any taxes, so why should we help them?” These statements, which are just a sampling of some of the outlandish stereotypes that are applied to Indigenous peoples, are what hinders us from making progress. Applying these broad, uninformed stereotypes stifles reconciliation. It prevents us from fully understanding the role that colonialism played in fostering the rise of those stereotypes. We must be able to understand the true reason as to why these stereotypes exist and why they are still used today.

Mental health can be viewed in different ways.

QNSA hosted a talking circle on the topic of Indigenous mental health where we discussed a number of topics. There were both Indigenous students and settler allies in attendance. We often associate mental health with a state of happiness. Indigenous ways of thought, however, associate mental health with the Four Directions present in the medicine wheel: the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. When mental health suffers, it means that you are not feeding one of these components. Sometimes, it can be valuable to look at mental health through a different lens. Western medicine may work for some people, but for others, traditional teachings may also suffice. It is important to be open to new ways of thought when it comes to mental health and all issues for that matter.

Identity is complicated.

For generations, Indigenous peoples were taught to be ashamed of their identity. The Canadian government went to great lengths to institutionalize Indigenous peoples and strip them of their culture, language, and heritage. It is because of this that many Indigenous peoples, including some of my ancestors, decided to marry outside of their Indigenous communities to ensure their children would not suffer the same institutionalized effects of colonialism. I have heard stories from people who hid their ancestry from everybody they knew out of shame. However, there is hope for the revival of Indigenous culture in Canada. There are people who are reclaiming their identity and heritage with pride, including myself. For those who don’t know me, I am French Metis with Algonquin roots but I have fair skin, blonde hair, and blue eyes. Many have questioned my identity, as do I from time to time. However, I have decided that not acknowledging my Indigenous heritage would mean lying to myself. This isn’t the path that everyone takes to identifying as Indigenous, and many people arrive at their conclusion whether or not they wish to identify as Indigenous in their own way on their own time. Nonetheless, IAW taught me that we need to create a climate in this country where being Indigenous is no longer something to be ashamed of, but rather something to be embraced.

There are differences that exist between individual Indigenous cultures.

“I know that there are roughly 130 First Nations in Ontario alone and while there are definite similarities, traditional, spiritual, cultural and linguistic practices are somewhat unique to each Nation. I really enjoyed seeing this at various events throughout Indigenous Awareness Week. At our Mental Health talk, many of the Indigenous students who were present spoke on different experiences from their communities and different medicinal practices employed among their people. As well, during our Solidarity Walk, I spent the whole walk talking to another Indigenous student from a First Nation several provinces away from mine and we compared experiences, traditions and knowledge. In this way, Indigenous Awareness Week was an opportunity and a reminder of the uniqueness and individuality of every First Nation. This take away reminds us that Indigenous peoples within Canada are not a monolith and cannot be treated as such. However, these differences do not divide us. Everyone I spoke to during IAW, despite being from different communities and nations than I am, were so willing to share their knowledge and to learn from me too. We have shared culture, shared experiences and certainly a shared future.”

– Chelsea Fennell, QNSA Social Media Director

We need dialogue.

The reality is that we live in a country composed of Indigenous peoples and settlers. This isn’t going to change. We need to create a dialogue where Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples can openly communicate their thoughts, feelings, hopes, and wishes for the future with one another. This is truly the only way we are going to progress as a society. We are at a critical juncture in history where we will pave the way for our next generations. I want to see a future where all people living on this land can live in perfect harmony. I want everyone to have prosperity, good health, and equality. In order to do that, our non-Indigenous allies must fully listen to the concerns of Indigenous peoples.  If we really want to put the “Truth” in Truth and Reconciliation, then we must create a dialogue that allows this to happen.

Natasha Kornak is a second year Métis student at Queen’s University majoring Life Science. She is the 2016-17 Blog Director for Queen’s Native Students Association.


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