Based on a speech given by Rose LeMay, at the public launch of the IRG.

As many political and policy wonks did, I watched Barack Obama’s televised speech in Montreal last month.  I thought about the timing of his speech just weeks ahead of Canada150, and I thanked the Grandfathers for Obama’s leadership.  We need leaders who challenge us to hold true to principle, and to dare to dream. Obama said, “Our freedom, our quality of life in Canada, in the United States, remains the envy of people around the world. That’s what was built after World War II, based on not just power, but on principle.”

Some of the principles we take for granted were written into international law and protocol following the horrors of WWII.

  • The United Nations Declaration on Human Rights came to be, a basic set of human rights that was missing for Jews and others, and now enshrined into law. It changed the world for Indigenous Canadians – for the first time it created expectation that we also share these basic human rights.  This Declaration provided the foundation for the American civil rights movement in the 1960’s for African Americans, and this advocacy movement was mirrored in Canada.  The UN Declaration was a gamechanger.
  • There were investigations and hearings about the role of medical professionals in the Holocaust who did medical experiments with non-consent and blatant disregard for those experimented on, and as a result the healthcare system has stringent protocols on patient consent and transparency.  Now it is a fact of the health system that patients have the right to give or withhold consent, for transparency in the procedures by healthcare professionals.

These are but two of the principles which Canada made a commitment, along with many other countries around the world.  We re-committed ourselves to democracy and human rights for all.

Principles.  Difficult to argue against, and ironically, difficult to enforce.

About Canada150.  As a First Nations individual, I struggle to find a balance in supporting the country’s wish to celebrate, and also my wish for reconciliation.  Now I won’t stand in the way of a party, the country legitimately has reasons to celebrate and there’s no need to protest others’ happiness.  I don’t see them as diametrically opposed, but I do see missed opportunity, and the potential for Indigenous Canadians to feel left behind.

I will stand for equity and principle – how does Canada show its commitment to Indigenous human rights for health equity, this year and ongoing? So Canada, can we talk about the next 50 years?  Can we talk about putting into practice the principle of equity?

Canada prides itself on principles like how we treat our children, but I want us to extend that to every Indigenous child.  The kind of practice in which we fund and provide high-capacity services to ensure that every Indigenous child has clean water, a functioning school just like any school in the south, safety from abuse and violence, and opportunities to prosper.

Canada prides itself for its public healthcare system, but somehow First Nations have worse outcomes.  It’s not news that some Indigenous Canadians do not benefit from Canada’s healthcare principles of universality (same level of healthcare), or accessibility (reasonable access).  I want the Canadian healthcare system to serve all Canadians, and to prioritize those who are most at risk.  It’s what we signed up for in the principle of public healthcare for all.

Canada prides itself on inclusion of diversity including immigrants, including LGBTQ2, but I want every Indigenous youth to find safety and a sense of inclusion.  How do we start building that future?  Can we start in our organizations, because our organizations are leaders in the sector?  Should we commit to walking the talk on workplace anti-racism policies and discipline, on challenging racism against Indigenous peoples when we see it?

Principles.  Canada, can we put this principle of human rights consistently into practice?

The principle that we care for children.  The principle of a healthcare system which serves every single Canadian, regardless of race or culture.  The principle that we support our kids to succeed, even Inuit kids in the far north.

We’ll need to have hope, if we want to make a change.  The thing with change, we have to envision how we break down the status quo.  The last 150 years of Canada has built a status quo which is remarkably resistant to change.

And here is one of the most contentious pieces of the status quo box which we’ve built for ourselves.  The concept of status and non-status, the concept of classism within Indigenous peoples.  Instead of supporting each other, and many of us are cousins despite the label applied by the federal government, instead of supporting each other we refuse to work together more often than not. The contentious online discussions of who belongs and who does not, the alarming hatred towards those who don’t quite fit into a checkbox or mindset. This is not how we used to be – First Nations, Inuit, Métis routinely adopted those who needed family and community, we did not leave people out.  This alarming trend is partly a factor of our history, oppression can do that to a people.

So I look to our youth who can envision their future.  Our youth are telling us that it is these divisions and conflict are making us sick.

I hope that we overcome the fear, the labels, the Us-vs-them within Indigenous communities, and go back to our original teachings.  Let’s come back to the fire together.  When one succeeds, we all succeed. We don’t leave anybody behind. Imagine the near future when Inuit are supported by First Nations, when Métis knit us back together as cousins, when we celebrate our shared experiences and our unique cultures together.

It’s the status quo which is holding us back from doing effective reconciliation.

I challenge you to think about a discussion you’ve had with peers on the challenges facing Indigenous Canadians, and imagine if the conversation was about any other Canadian group.  For example, the incarceration rate for Indigenous Canadians is many times higher than any other group in Canada.  Imagine if it were for Germans, or new immigrants, or young suburban females.  And the level of discomfort we all feel – it indicates the strength of the status quo, how difficult it is to step back and say, this is wrong, this shouldn’t happen to any Canadian subgroup. And sometimes, this discomfort is paralyzing, all the bad news of racism which creates real barriers to opportunities, of suicide, of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

Here’s where hope comes in.  Think about the dark dreary days of February and early March, and we’re all desperate for that first day when you can smell spring on the air?  That first spring wind, and you know that winter is going to end?  Hope is like that first smell of spring.  It’s what gives us the incentive to continue, to do more, to do better.  And suddenly the snow and dirt and ice is less important, because you’re focused on the future and potential.

Hope.

Do you hope that the families of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, will find closure?  Do you hope that the Inuk youth who is struggling tonight with finding purpose in life, finds connection and finds support?  Do you hope that the arts and music and stage all have amazing inclusion of Indigenous voices and perspectives, so we can all learn from each other? Do you hope that Indigenous Canadians lead us all into the next 150 years, a vision that we model what it means to care for every child and youth, that we don’t leave anybody behind?

It’s audacious, to paraphrase Obama.  This kind of hope challenges the status quo, and forces us to take a new look at ourselves, what we think is possible.  Audacity, we don’t generally use this word in Canada.  It’s possible that the last time we used it was to describe our role in WWII and the years following.  Canada stepped up to the challenge, kept hope that we could succeed.

I hope that Canada dares to dream, has the audacity to take steps toward supporting Indigenous Canadian success, and won’t stop until we make it.

We are faced with a new challenge, and it demands audacity.  Canada is faced with the challenge of doing reconciliation, which requires understanding of the past, requires action, and it requires hope. So that Indigenous Canadians feel like they belong, feel included, and have the same opportunities to succeed as do any Canadian. It’s time to put the Canadian principles to work for Indigenous neighbours.

Reconciliation starts when we put our principles into practice, when we have the kind of hope that challenges the status quo.

Thank you for your hope, and your work to envision a future we all can be proud of.  For all our children, gnualsheesh.