Indigenous peoples no longer invisible

By Maurice Switzer

Maurice Switzer, Bnesi, is a citizen of the Mississaugas of Alderville First Nation in southern Ontario where his grandfather Moses Muskrat Marsden was chief in 1904-09.

At various times he has been a member of the Ontario Human Rights Commission, publisher and editor at five Canadian daily newspapers, adjunct professor of Communications and Indigenous Studies on the Laurentian University campus, and communications director for the Assembly of First Nations and Union of Ontario Indians.

He lives in North Bay, Ontario, where he serves on the boards of Nipissing University, the North Bay-Parry Sound Public Health Unit, and the North Bay Indigenous Friendship Centre.

His son and grandson are officers in the Royal Canadian Air Force. He also has a granddaughter and great-granddaughter.

Most Canadians are not aware that the overwhelming majority of people who identify as Indigenous in this country are more than likely their neighbours.

The most recent census figures revealed that over one million of the 1.8 million people in Canada who identify as First Nations, Inuit, and Metis are now living in urban centres. Only about one third of registered Indians still live on the reserve lands of 634 First Nations.

Once out of sight and out of mind, the result of assimilationist government policies for most of Canada’s first century, Indigenous peoples are becoming much more visible.

Leading up to June 21st, National Indigenous Peoples Day, residents of most communities across the country are starting to see local pow-wow celebrations that signify the start of Canadian summer. In 1996 the federal government designated the solstice to celebrate Indigenous cultures, appropriately choosing the longest day of the year to honour peoples who have been on these lands the longest.

Larger cities like Toronto may be venues for major special events. There used to be a pow-wow that attracted thousands of dancers and spectators to the SkyDome, and the city still hosts imagineNATIVE, the world’s largest Indigenous film and media arts festival.

But it’s in smaller centres where the Indigenous presence is having a more noticeable and sustained impact.

For example, here in North Bay, organizers of the 16th annual Maamwi Kindaaswin (“Learning together”) Pow-Wow were aiming to surpass last year’s two-day attendance of 10,000, a significant turnout in a city of 52,000 residents.

The pow-wow is one of a number of public learning events staged by the North Bay Indigenous Friendship Centre, which is celebrating 50 years of providing services to the growing urban Indigenous population, currently over 8,000 in number. Their ranks include doctors, lawyers, university professors, accountants, and journalists.

Census-related data indicates that urban Indians are contributing over $300 million a year to this small city’s economy, more than Nipissing University and Canadore College combined.

The Friendship Centre now requires a staff complement of 50 to deliver over three dozen culturally-relevant programs, ranging from pre-natal classes for expectant parents to workshops on traditional bereavement practices.

Indigenous groups are giving the lie to the stereotype of Indigenous peoples being takers, rather than givers to Canadian society.

Like most North American cities, North Bay is experiencing a homelessness and affordable housing crisis. Every night 300 people in this city experience the trauma of not knowing where they can sleep in comfort and safety.

The Friendship Centre’s board of directors, mainly a group of senior citizen volunteers, felt an urgency to help address this urgent community problem. They lobbied for and obtained funding to build a $7 million transitional housing residence that can accommodate 30 Indigenous men.

Some residents have been living precariously on city streets for eight years and longer. While living in Suswin – “Nest” in Anishinaabemowin – they are building structure into their lives, learning coping skills, good working habits, cooking, computer capability – wraparound services in a culturally-appropriate context.

Suswin residents volunteer for events like the pow-wow and help staff at the Friendship Centre across the street welcome city residents to join them in celebrating June 21 with program displays, kids’ games, musical entertainment, and cultural presentations.

These activities benefit all city residents, and help to erase another stereotype – that Indigenous peoples are historic, as opposed to contemporary beings.

One of the problems with designating June as National Indigenous History Month is that it sometimes reinforces the notion held by too many Canadians that Native cultures and values are no longer relevant, a sentiment that led to the creation of residential schools and other genocidal policies for which federal and provincial governments have issued public apologies.

There is certainly value in learning the historic contributions that first peoples have made to Canada, not the least of which was serving as the main defence force to repel American invaders in the only war ever fought on Canadian soil.

Historians are virtually unanimous in agreeing that Canada would not likely exist in its current form if it were not for warriors like Meskwaki, Assiginak, Oshawanoo, Shawundais, and Pakinawatik, names that have been absent from school texts that preferred to single out Sir Isaac Brock as “the hero of Upper Canada” after the War of 1812.

Yes, it is important to know the past of one’s country, warts and all. But during June’s celebrations, it would be nice if Canadians began understanding that North American Indians have been – and will continue to be –artists and world curling champions, playwrights and Stanley Cup winners, neurosurgeons and even astronauts.

One Dokis First Nation household recently had a doctor, lawyer, and Indian chief as family members, all women.

When Indigenous peoples succeed, everyone in Canada benefits.

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