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in Our Own Land

by Troy Sebastian

Throughout the world Canada is known as a multicultural nation. Since the early days of Trudeaumania, multiculturalism has been the official policy of the nation. Yet since its adoption in 1971, multiculturalism has never adequately addressed or included the First Nations of Canada. Is this because of a First Nations decision not to be included, or is there another reason? Who benefits from having a multicultural policy that fails to include the founding First Nations of our country? To find answers, I spoke with Leslie McGarry and Janice Simcoe.

Leslie McGarry is the Directory of Culture and Recreation at the Victoria Native Friendship Centre, and liaison to the Royal British Columbia Museum. At the Museum, she is the fourth generation of her family to work in the area of cultural awareness. She is from the Kwakwa ka'wakn of Northern Vancouver Island, and we spoke at the Carving Studio at the Royal BC Museum.

In the most fundamental terms, McGarry believes multiculturalism should be the acceptance and appreciation of diversity, but that this rarely occurs.

"People tend to always look at the negative and see the 'chink in the armour.' That is why there is bitterness. If you bridge the gap between cultures with understanding (multiculturalism) should work, but if you force it ... well we are living proof that it doesn't work."

McGarry points to the history of three local nations that had multiculturalism long before white contact.

"I always find it fascination that the 'aboriginal' people on the island developed a language, Chinook Jargon, that all nations could understand, and that is a great example of multiculturalism."

However she says since first contact, and the subsequent colonization of what is now Canada, there has been an all together different, and detrimental approach to multiculturalism.

"The fact that two thirds of the First Nations coastal population were killed by smallpox was not a good start to multiculturalism," says McGarry. "Multiculturalism currently does not include First Nations. Canada jumped the gun because it had not dealt with First Nations' issues like residential schools ... This has never been addressed and it is an insult to the First Nations who have always been here."

McGarry strikes at the heart of the matter when she says it is the government that benefits from the current multicultural policy.

"When it all boils down to it, it is the government. We have to look like a flag-waving country - it is a charade. 'immigrants' came here to Canada, and suffer racism; is that what we want people to endure?"

This raises an interesting question: If it is so difficult for immigrants to be accepted in Canada, and so hard to effect change, then what is the true purpose of multiculturalism?

"Canada's form of multiculturalism is a band-aid solution to a big, big problem. There are a handful of people who believe in multiculturalism and want to bring people together. But they have to fight and scrap for everything. The government should look at these people, and realize that they are doing something that we should have done a long time ago!"

Furthermore, McGarry believes, Canada should approach First Nations People to offer a traditional welcome that immigrants may feel acceptance in their new country. As she puts it, "First Nations People are the best people to throw a welcoming celebration!" McGarry hopes to be a part of such a programme even if by that time she is an elder. It is this level of commitment on which multiculturalism thrives.

Janice Simcoe is the First Nations Education Coordinator at Camosun College and is an Anishwabe from Central Ontario. She is involved with the "Making History, Constructing Race" conference at the University of Victoria in October. Simcoe offers a more analytical approach to understanding multiculturalism and First Nations in Canada. Simcoe believes that multiculturalism has two opposite meanings. First, in theory, that "people of all cultures can work together in a meaningful and mutually respectful fashion." Secondly, the reality is "The singling out of recent immigrants especially those of colour, using various techniques to assimilate them into the euro-Canadian way of life."

Simcoe feels that "If we include ourselves in the second definition we are agreeing to see ourselves as immigrants in our own land. Some people hare a real hard time understanding why we haven't attached ourselves to the concept of multiculturalism. They think we should because we are dark-eyed, brown people who seem to have exotic rituals, languages and food. The difference is on this land we are not exotic."

Simcoe hopes that one day multiculturalism "could be used as a means of developing mutual understanding and enhanced knowledge for all of us living together on Turtle Island." She also stresses the fact that "we all live on land that is composed of the dust of thousands of generations of ancestors, and everyone that comes here has the potential to add to that sweet mixture."

An example of her involvement in adding to the "sweet mixture" is the development of the Wilna Thomas Cultural Centre at Camosun College. The Centre was developed from a policy that brings together First Nations students and international students to find out about each other.

"It was a really fascinating and rewarding experience," Simcoe reflects with pride. "The students found they had more in common than they had differences. The 'bonds' weren't just that they weren't 'white' but that they shared a respect for tradition, for elders, and a desire to share authentically who they were, and to build a sense of community."

In conclusion, Simcoe believes that "multiculturalism is a good idea but it has not lived up to its potential because people are not willing to explore and unlearn some of their assumptions. It is constructed on an artificial premise that we can all be equal without those who reap the greatest benefits form this social structure having to make any real changes." Once people recognize their bigotry and ignorance, true equality will be more realistic. Simcoe and McGarry are united in their belief that we still have a long way to go in bridging the gap between First Nations and the rest of Canada. Multiculturalism as an institution has entirely failed First Nations.

Despite this, First Nations people are ready, willing, and able to live in a truly equal multicultural society, even if the government of Canada and the people they represent are not. But if the past 10,000 years or so is of any indication, First Nations are here to stay. And the sweet mixture that is there for everyone will one day be savoured by all.

Troy Sebastian is a second year political science student at Camosun College. He is actively involved with the First Nations Student Association and loves jazz.

Art work by Randi Cook, N'amgis Nation
Supplied by First Nations Education, GVSD

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