An Open Letter to Indigenous Peoples of Canada

If your fun isn't fun for everybody, it's not fun for anybody. Blog written about 150th Canada Day birthday celebration to acknowledge colonization and indigenous suffering

Dear Indigenous Peoples of Canada,

I feel like I have to write this letter. I’ve been apprehensive about writing it because I fear that my white privilege will be shamefully obvious for all to see. White privilege creates blind spots in thinking, which by their very nature, are beyond a person’s ability to see. I am concerned that might inadvertently have me write something ignorant and offensive. What if I look foolish or naïve? I am not as knowledgeable about your struggles as I think would be responsible of me.  Slowly, I’m working at it.

I’m thinking, though, that the only worse than making mistakes in the writing of this letter is to not write it at all.

If the fear of making mistakes prevents people from saying anything at all, then the dialogue that needs to happen to fight the effects of colonialism won’t happen.  I’ll risk making mistakes in this letter because I think we all have to start somewhere.  Please, look past my clumsiness to see my heart’s intentions? I’m also hoping you’ll help my understanding by writing in the comments section to advise me about I’ve made errors or been insensitive. I want to learn.

Let me tell you something about where I start:

When one of my Junior Tribe Members was a boy, he was loud, gregarious cheerful little boy. Actually, when he was a toddler, he wasn’t so little–he was tall for his age, and had the heft to match. He would run hard, play hard, and when something was fun, he would do more of it. His delight in enjoying all of life was endearing to watch as a mother.

However, let’s just say his own desire to do what he thought was fun obliterated his ability to see the impact of it on others:

  • If he was having fun sitting on a fellow toddler on a playdate, he would continue to sit on the the other boy, even if the boy was crying and upset.
  • Even in his elementary school years, when he might be wrestling with another boy, he would continue to wrestle long after the other boy started to show discomfort or fear or started crying. My JTM was a good size for his age, and strong. What might have started out for fun for both of them, often became uncomfortable for the other…but my son had trouble picking up on the cues of other’s fear or panic, and he would just continue, merrily enjoying his play.
  • Or he would tease his brother. Endlessly. Say he poked his finger on his brother at the supper table while he made a joke. And you know how sometimes, something is funny the first one or two times, but then it starts to be annoying? And maybe not just annoying, but actually disrespectful.  Even mean. So the younger JTM would nicely ask the older JTM to stop, and he wouldn’t. And then he ask him to stop strongly, and he wouldn’t.  By this time, he would likely be crying. And the littler JTM was small for his age…and given that the older one was big for his age–well, it was no match.  He didn’t have a lot of options other than me intervening.

The thing of it was this: My older JTM wasn’t being malicious.  He wasn’t taunting the toddler he was sitting on. He wasn’t trying to enjoying the tears of the boy he was wrestling.  And he wasn’t trying to drive his brother to distraction. He wasn’t trying to be evil at all.  His intent was just to enjoy his own fun.

But the intent did not change the result: pain, fear, and hurt.

He was oblivious to the other’s discomfort, pain, and fear in the middle of him blissfully enjoying his own fun.

I could see he wasn’t being sadistic in making others cry for his own enjoyment, but that provided small comfort as I would often see others hurt by my JTM’s play. It was disturbing to watch.

I’m a mom, concerned about raising sensitive and thoughtful boys who would be attuned to others. Thus, this trait of enjoying his own fun at the cost of others disturbed me terribly. I had a mantra that he heard me repeat often:

If your fun isn’t fun for everybody, it’s not fun for anybody.

I would encourage him, to look around and notice as he was playing:

  • Are others also enjoying playing with you?
  • What reactions are your playmates having?
  • Can you adjust what you are doing so that everyone can enjoy the play?
  • If you are hurting somebody, you need to stop your fun immediately!

I tell you this story, because it’s been niggling at me what this must be like for you, as an indigenous person, as so many Canadians are gearing up to celebrate the 150th anniversary of  Canada this weekend.

It’s hard for me to celebrate the 150th birthday on Canada Day this weekend because it feels like you’re not having fun with this.  It just seems mighty insensitive to blissfully celebrate when so much of this country’s history has been so hurtful to you.

I’ve been reading that Canada’s 150 birthday is downright offensive to you.  And if you’re not having fun about it…and you live here and you’re part of Canada…then it’s should not really fun for any of us.

I’m conflicted though, to be honest. Because the thing of it is this:

I love living in this country–Canada.

My grandparents on my dad’s side, and my mom came from other countries.  They came here because of persecution.  Grandparents on both sides fled Stalinist Russia…and they all knew people who were killed out right or disappeared. Canada took us in, and gave us safety. I’m deeply grateful.

I love democracy. There is a profound freedom in being able to consider political candidates and vote.  I love knowing that we each have a voice in making our country a better place.

I love that we have socialized medicine where, when one of us gets sick, we as a society make sure a person gets the care they need.

I like that we can have mosques, synagogues and churches in the same neighbourhood, and those who attend these different places of worship attend the same schools, work at businesses, and shop together at the same stores during the week. I like public libraries and city parks that we all enjoy.

Canada is far from perfect, and there are frequent mess-ups. We’ve got a lot to work on, no doubt.  But I love that Canadian ideals and goals and dreams are for us to look after each other, respect each other, and celebrate differences.

So, I like to celebrate the country I live in.  There are so many good things that I am deeply, deeply grateful for.

But…

I recognize that the land my grandfather farmed on when he came to Canada was yours first. I recognize that so many of the things that I enjoy are at your expense.

Many of you have been telling us that 150 Birthday thing on Canada Day, is downright insulting for you. Deeply hurtful at a level that I have been trying to understand.  I’ll never really get it, because I’m a descendant of immigrants. But I’m trying.

My people weren’t born here centuries ago, living here and enjoying the richness of this country. You guys have always been here. It seems more than odd then, that the official founding of this country happens when the immigrants sign an agreement that now this country has started. You were here all along and celebrating this land. It’s a little contrived isn’t it? or maybe…more accurately, a lot insulting.

The more we uncover parts of history that we never learned in school, we hear that the Canadian government has disregarded treaties, and sought to assimilate “Indians”.  It may not have been malicious intent on the part of the forefathers of the Canadian government, but their best intentions still meant untold suffering and pain. The Truth and Reconciliation Process I suspect only begins to touch on the many, many stories of individuals and families affected by the cultural genocide that colonialism attempted to carry out. The National Inquiry of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women is now only beginning to tell painful, horrific stories of lives lost. Stories that you have lived with and whose pain you have held for years, generations even.

As a therapist, I realize the incredible power of family.

I know the power that parents have in their children’s lives.  A child learns how to love others by being loved by their parents.  I know how a child learns to value themselves by being valued by their family and community. Deep in my bones, I know how important it is for a child to be raised by the family that loves them and community they are born into.

And, as a therapist, I have listened to stories of clients who are indigenous who themselves, or their parents and grandparents, were not given the opportunity to be raised by their parents in their community. Children were ripped away from the only home they had every known. The residential school system stripped so many of the indescribable value of being loved and valued by their parents. Being forced to attend a school away from their community and not being allowed to speak your own languages, celebrate your own traditions…well, it makes me weep.

It shaped so many of you in such deeply significant ways.  How is a person supposed to know how to love in close relationships when they didn’t grow up in close relationship? How is a person supposed to value who they are, when they were not valued and prized as children? How are following generations supposed to know about love and connection and their own value when the generations before never had a chance to know it themselves?

You have many strengths and there is still much to celebrate amongst your peoples. I see the pride that you have in your language, culture, traditions. But that has been in spite of Confederation, not in any way because of it.

Indigenous peoples…you are not enjoying or valuing the idea of 150 years as a country.  To celebrate that day disrespects your presence here that long predated us. It celebrates the beginning of a system that didn’t uphold it’s agreements to you, which you made in good faith. And it celebrates the establishment of a system which has been catastrophic to the wellbeing of you.

This Canada’s 150th celebration isn’t fun for you.

And that has to matter to all of us. Because if it’s not fun for you, it’s not fun for anybody.

With respect and compassion,

Carolyn

 

1 Comment

  • Carolyn Klassen

    At my weekly conversation with Brett and Greg on 680CJOB, I had the opportunity to meet with Trevor Greyeyes, an indigienous writer and editor of the First Nations Voice. I asked him what he thought of this blog and he hesitated. I asked him to “give it to me straight”. He told me that he thought this blog was “clunky”. (I hope I represent his thoughts accurately) In first telling the story of two Junior Tribe Members and the dynamic between them, he said that I was drawing a parallel between indigenous people and children. It is the indigenous experience that history has placed them as child like and needing to be taken care of. To perpetuate that here is not helpful. Then I used that story of the message I gave to my JTM on how to treat others as a message to settlers. When using a parent’s message to a child as something settlers need to embrace, there is a distinct danger, he said, the message to settlers can be oversimplified and trivialized as needing just a simple parental-like scolding, when wholesale change is needed. Both of these comments were helpful to hear…please read the blog in light of this feedback. We are all learning…and I learned richly from Trevor’s feedback. I am grateful for the learning opportunity!

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