On Canada Day around the country there were huge expensive parties aimed at celebrating the birth of a nation in1867. Over the course of 142 years, there are multiple reasons to mark this occasion but I know for certain that there was no flag waving or drum thumping at our house. We’ve seen too much of a resurgence in the seamy side of Canada lately.
For me it started with the refusal of government officials to send alcohol-based hand cleaner to remote reserves during a swine flu outbreak. There apparently was strenuous debate over allowing the Indians access to alcohol. The thinking was that Indians drink. Therefore, offering them a ready supply of alcohol-based solvent would only drive them into a boozy frenzy. So the shipments were delayed while people suffered and the outbreak spread.
I’ve lived in this country for 53 years. As a journalist I’ve watched my people struggle for political and social equilibrium and make fantastic gains. I’ve watched them battle stigma long attached to them through suspicion, assumption, gossip and just plain mean-spiritedness. I’ve watched them grow and offer the world lawyers, doctors, scientists, authors, politicians and philosophers. But some labels are permanent.
Indians drink. They’re all alcoholics. You get used to certain less enlightened segments of the population making such sweeping generalizations but it’s tough when your politicians make them. It’s hard to take pride in the Canadian mosaic when leadership says that all the brown tiles are stained. Sweeping generalizations kill. One needn’t look too far back in human history to see that. I, frankly, expected more of our leadership.
But what rankled me more was how quickly the issue vanished. No one said anything and it disappeared. Even our vaunted national chief let it go without raising a clamour. But then again, when you’re soon to be out of a job and arrowing toward a seat in Parliament or a plum diplomatic post you can’t raise the hue and cry. Job security starts sometimes long before you’re hired.
Even the minister of health, who is Inuk and has seen her people face the same stigma, said nothing. It was her office, in fact, that withheld the shipments. Yet no one asked for her resignation. No one questioned the rationale behind the debate. No one stood up in the House of Commons and asked the obvious question; how could we let this happen in a modern Canada?
The second thing that happened was the release of a UICEF Canada report on the state of aboriginal children’s health. The report stated that the infant mortality rate amongst aboriginal kids is three to seven times higher than the nonaboriginal rate. It goes on to say that immunization rates for on-reserve native kids are 20 per cent lower than rates for nonaboriginal kids. Then the stunning fact that the First Nations’ health budget has been cut by 13 per cent since 2001.
Yet our politicians wonder why our country should languish behind so many in the United Nations’ human rights survey. They query this while not questioning Canada’s refusal to sign the UN’s Declaration of Indigenous Rights. For those who don’t know, UNICEF stands for the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund. The key word is emergency.
It shouldn’t take an imminent pandemic to draw attention to the needs of a people. It shouldn’t take long debates in ministerial offices, the Senate or the House of Commons to address the specific and dire needs of Canadians. Were any of these conditions to exist in a nonnative community, there would be outrage. People would lose jobs, federal and provincial ministers would be ousted and governments would be voted out. But these are just Indians. No one will notice.
So emergency supplies are not delivered because of stigma. Innocent children continue to have their lives put at risk by a government that refuses to look at treaty documents promising health care. Native and nonnative politicians are willing to let things drop so that back room deals can be worked out. While this happens it becomes apparent that it’s not just the brown tiles that are stained in the Canadian mosaic.
So excuse me if there was no national party at our house on Canada Day. Excuse me if there was no flag over the front yard or the television tuned to a national celebration somewhere. Pardon me if the words ‘we stand on guard for thee’ leave somewhat of a bad taste in my mouth.
See, the hard part in all of this is that I genuinely believe in Canada. I love this country for the awesome social potential that it has and always did. I want to stand on guard for Canada and it hurts to not see it stand on guard for me or my people.
Richard Wagamese is Ojibway and the author of Keeper’n Me. He won the Canadian Author’s Award for Dream Wheels and his new novel, Ragged Company, arrives in August from Doubleday. He can be reached at email@example.com