When One Day Isn’t Enough…

As Canada celebrates the 25th official anniversary of National Indigenous Peoples Day, what progress has really been made since it was first formally established?

This year, Canada marks the 25th anniversary of the official recognition of National Indigenous Peoples Day. It’s a muted celebration for many, still isolating in response to the COVID-19 crisis. With extra space for reflection, it’s time to take a longer look at Canada’s journey toward reconciliation.

For millions of younger Canadians, it’s perfectly normal to have a national day honoring the contributions and customs of the First Nations, Metis, and Inuit peoples of Canada. Why should these fellow Canadians not have a day?

And yet, for millions of Canadians who came before them, it was perfectly normal to remove indigenous children from their homes, deprive indigenous peoples of their lands and livelihoods, and forcibly seek to eradicate indigenous heritage and customs from Canadian life. Why should this threat to a growing nation be permitted to continue?

Within just a few generations, there has been a dramatic shift in perspectives and behaviors. That’s good. Undeniably good – yet this is no time for Canada to go rest on its laurels. Without taking further accountability for the actions of the past, Canada as a nation can’t pretend reconciliation will move forward smoothly.

Here’s what still needs to happen…

First, Canada as a country and many individual institutions at the local and provincial level must be honest about their role and actions in the past. Turning away from residential school atrocities or attempting to sweep greed-driven resource grabs under the rug is not being honest about what has happened… or the continued mistreatment of Indigenous peoples that continues where the past is not addressed.

Too many places and entities are foot-dragging down their paths of reconciliation. This is noticed. As one generation dies, it escapes responsibility while the other side is denied justice and healing. Being honest that the slow pace of changes and answer-seeking is driven by a desire to avoid hard truths (and consequences) can foster faster change and remove lingering points of pain.

From honesty comes the next step… trust. To build a truly shared and equal community in Canada, all parties must be able to trust each other. Not simply on a surface level, but at a deep level where it is possible to believe that even when there’s not a spotlight, monitoring agency, or regulatory requirement, fair, respectful, and equal treatment will occur.

This is not earned overnight. While there may be more trust on both sides now than 25 years ago when this holiday was first formally established, the trust is fragile. It has taken time to build and we must always be on guard against the bad actors who can easily tear alliances apart once again.

Finally – and continually – there needs to be action. Not short bursts as regulatory or legal deadlines loom. Not one-day “flashes” of enthusiasm for indigenous ways of knowing and being. None of this temporary, surface level integration makes a real, meaningful different.

Deep change is difficult. It’s especially uncomfortable when what needs to change are beliefs and patterns of behavior that have been entrenched over the course of centuries of the nation’s development. Yet this is work that must be done, and change that must continue.

Another 25 years from now, 50 years into formally recognizing the contributions of Indigenous Peoples across Canada with their own day, it is hoped that a more positive piece of celebration can be written in these pages. Until then, all of Canada needs to continue the work of being honest, building trust, and translating that honest and trust into the kinds of actions that repair and reconcile us all to each other.