Canada’s Oldest Internally Displaced Peoples [MSc guest blog]

Published 16 November 2016 / By Samim Lambrecht

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This blog is part of our MSc in Migration Studies guest blog series: Viewing Life Through the Migration Lens: experiences and thoughts post-MSc.

The routine has been set: Saturdays are for Maskwacis (say it with me now, MASK-wa-CHeez), a 4-nation reserve for the Cree people, in Alberta. It’s one of many, set up as part of the Treaties with Indigenous peoples of Canada. It’s accessed via the Queen Elizabeth II Highways between Edmonton and Calgary and is a main artery in Alberta. I’ve driven it countless times. In the mornings, my family and I pack-up our 7-seater beast of a SUV, pile in a box full of colouring pencils, glitter, glue, construction paper, folders, stickers, and a cooler full of fresh fruit, fresh baked banana-chocolate-walnut muffins, juice boxes, and mini chocolates, and (if I remember) my guitar. For good measure we sometimes bring Willis, our 50kg mutt who has separation anxiety. Off we go down the QE2. The conversation moves between which story we’ll read today: The Fox and the Crow? No, we did that one. Frogs falling into Cream? Much better. We take a seemingly hidden highway exit and make our way into the hamlet of Wetaskiwin, further still we go. The road changes from well paved to cracked to a mix of gravel and dirt. The last few kilometres see many more hitch-hikers, most of them needing rides to the Walmart in town for the weekly grocery run. We finally make it to the community centre. Two of us take the boxes in and the other two head off to pick everyone up. It’s impossible to miss the excited clamour that accompanies the children’s arrival. We’re greeted with “where are the muffins?!,” while other, shyer, hellos follow suit. Everyone washes their hands and grabs a snack. My sister and I proceed to make sure that the room of 15 kids are all staying safe, having fun, and remaining within eyesight. We open the book and read the designated story, the arts supplies get used, the kids laugh and relax, and after a riveting game of red-light/green-light, we take everyone home. We try not to remember the exhausted faces, the stories of the previous week, the too small jackets, mismatched socks, and the abysmal reading levels of 6th graders. We’ve confiscated shotgun bullets and razor blades, when the kids bring them out of hidden pockets. We’ve seen and heard things that permanently imprint into our minds. We always let them take seconds and thirds of snacks. We always re-tell them their favourite stories. We make them laugh and let them play. In the afternoon we make sure they are all returned home safe. By 3 pm, once we drive back up to paved roads to have our lunch, we’re ready to go to sleep ourselves.

This is a day at our Children’s Club with kids from the Ermineskin and Samson Cree Nation, a program we helped start over 18 months ago for Indigenous kids who live on the reserve as part of a social empowerment outreach program. This program is aimed at creating safe–spaces for participants to just be kids. We talk about the value of education, of being kind, what trustworthiness looks like, how to be a true friend, and the like. In all honesty, some days it feels like putting a band-aid on an open wound, other days we get a glimmer of hope when grandparents and guardians comment on a change in behaviours that they have seen in their kids since the beginning of the program.

Maskwacis’ four First Nations are the Ermineskin, Samson, Montana, and Louis Bull. For those of you unaware of Canadian history, I’ll attempt to summarize something impossible to summarize in a few sentences. The now Canadian portion of the North American continent was colonized in the early 1700s, thus creating a narrative of the “true north strong and free” and effectively ignoring the millions of people who lived here for centuries before anyone pale showed up. In the process of all this settling, both the government and businesses decided to erode, destroy, ‘assimilate’ (or “kill the Indian in the child” see also: Duncan Campbell Scott) any Indigenous person left standing after European diseases decimated 80% of the local population. Working alongside this community, with brilliantly resilient children and their stoic but hilarious grandparents, made me realize that the oldest internally displaced peoples in Canada have endured far more than many could imagine: from residential schools, the creation of grossly unfair and broken treaties, to the impacts of intergenerational trauma, and the institutional racism and limitations indigenous peoples still face daily. This is the part of Canadian history that sits darkly parallel to the espoused beliefs held by Canadians about ourselves, as a whole.

The impacts of these policies and racist perspectives from Colonialism have left deeply scarred tracks in the collective memory and current history of Indigenous peoples today. Canada has only just started to recognize the points of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), a set of recommendations on how to address the needs of the Indigenous communities in Canada. These action-items call for national standards for Aboriginal child-welfare legislation, to eliminate the gaps in education and employment between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples, to recognize and respect Indigenous languages and cultures, to recognize the widespread impact of residential schools ... and many more. The TRC has a total of 94 Calls to Action, and each one of them makes you realize the depth of pain, abuse, and structural racism generations of Indigenous peoples have endured.

If this is your first time hearing about concepts like intergeneration trauma, cultural genocide, and Indigenous histories, then maybe it’s time to find out more. A few names to know are:

Read and absorb what they’ve written and see through an entirely different lens that will make you question all of your assumptions (always a good thing). These are only a few, and I encourage everyone to start noticing and pay attention to the indigenous voices around them.

Like any giant political machine, the Government’s movements of adapting to these needs are akin to a slow, lumbering giant with a sprained ankle. But there is a growing grassroots awareness, there is a rising ferocity of fighters for Indigenous rights, there is a new dialogue about addressing these needs rising in volume. The lion's share of these efforts are lead by Indigenous leaders, artists, academics, and elders alike, whose efforts are gaining momentum in numerous spheres of Canadian society. Movements like Idle No More exemplify this charge to transform both rhetoric and perceptions on a wider social scale. Watching these events unfold, choosing to become more educated, and being willing to listen and let others speak their truths to you without fear of judgement, is the very least we can do. If you are gifted with a residential school survivor’s story, I’d argue you now have the responsibility to act: as their friend, as their support, but most importantly, act as the stage in which they can voice their reality if they so choose to do so (and they might not - respect that). It is not your story to share, nor do you have a right to it if its been told to you. You are only there to show that there are those in the wider community to value them, who will walk alongside them, and who will go beyond pity and see them for the complex individuals that we all are. Survivors are not just the stories they bare within them; they are incredible people despite their lived horrors. Learn their needs, don’t assume to know what’s best for them, and be their true friend throughout.

Wider society is always looking for the next big tragedy, and with migration being a hot topic on many forums, it makes you wonder what happens to those whose displacement and oppression have been happening for so long that it is seen as almost normalized. Worse still, where their issues are seen as ‘buzz’ topics that gain marginal social media attention until something else flashy arises; whose hardships are too historically old to be considered relevant today; whose cultures are the collateral of colonization; and, whose people are seen as more culturally appropriation-able than the complex systems and experiences they embody. It seems to me that as one of the oldest IDP cases in the world, Indigenous peoples are just too far outside of mainstream society’s collective comfort zone to be addressed. Or when they do arise (#NoDAPL), its aggressively ignored in the media. This is not to say that every single Indigenous person faces these difficulties, but the degrees of separation from colonially influenced traumas is much, much closer than anyone else.

The continued tragedy is that many Canadians still view this situation as inherently ‘not their problem,’ choosing to fall back on racially-based ideas about their neighbours, rather than choose to question personal assumptions. The concept of othering (thanks, Bridget!) is constantly at play. It’s insidious nature crept into the way we view our world(s), and rooting it out demands that everyone point it out and challenge it when faced with it. In order to reclaim its power over our framework of understanding we must shine a light on every instance of othering narratives and push back with all the threads that tie us together, not the parts that seemingly divide us. This feels a hundred times more relevant when working alongside Indigenous peoples. The existence of ‘us and them’ has pushed an entire swathe of people into the margins, making their perceived existence stereotypical and flat, and in doing so, setting arbitrary limitations to their potential and achievements. It has taken until 2016 for Canada to see the first Indigenous woman surgeon, Dr. Nadine Caron, which is a start and represents the plethora of other indigenous professionals who are pushing boundaries and thriving in their field. However, there is still so much left to do to bridge this racially-charged socio-economic gap. The fact that these issues are only now (in 2016) being discussed openly, is infuriating. How many brilliant minds have been prevented from fulfilling their potential since the 1700s?! I don’t even want to imagine that. The advance of one part of humanity means we all succeed and benefit, this also mean that if one side is failing, we all are also being limited.

Samim Lambrecht is a MSc Migration Studies alumna who currently works in Canada as a provincial government liason for international interns. She spends most of her free time volunteering. Twitter: @SamimLambrecht