What it’s like to live as an Indigenous person in Canada in 2020

For National Indigenous Peoples’ Day, we reached out to Indigenous people in Prince Albert and beyond about what it means to be an Indigenous person in Canada today. We asked about their own experiences; why National Indigenous Peoples’ Day, celebrated on June 21, is important, and how they think society should move forward as the nation has a tough conversation about systemic racism. We heard back from a teacher and writer, a professor and a politician. Here are their thoughts, in their own words. Not everything they say will be comfortable to read. But that’s exactly why it needs to be said.

Kevin Joseph: “Because it’s not delivered with a white hood and a Nazi salute, a lot of times it becomes very easy to dismiss”

What is it like to live as an Indigenous person in Canada in 2020?

Let’s take the word reconciliation. 

It’s a buzzword. It’s an important word and it’s a great word. I love the positive words, but just like systemic racism — does anybody really get it? Especially those who – I’m going to flat out say on the white side. We are far beyond sugar coating it when people start taking to the streets. We’re not sugarcoating anything else. 

I’m not sugarcoating anymore. I’m not saying people of colour and the other people. It’s people of colour and white. 

I say that even with the most well intentioned non-people of colour, I still don’t think quite get systemic racism. I still don’t think they quite get that the world I grew up in does not reflect me. It does not reflect my culture, does not reflect my people, does not reflect my history. In fact, it speaks of a people that were. The Plains Cree were this. Were hunter gatherers. Not who we are, not of how we’re still thriving. 

Not of how we’ve come back from attempted genocide. Not how we’ve fought and come back from residential schools, from the sixties scoop.

The the fact that in 2020 it’s announced that they’re going to be teaching residential schools in the school system – in 2020! 

You’ve got people saying “yay!” but for the rest of us — my dad went. I’m happy my dad survived that. But we’re only talking about it now, and still treading, testing the waters to see if it’s okay?

I’m a dad now. That’s where I’m coming  from.  I’m at the point now where  we’ve got to hammer this into the education system, into the curriculum starting in Pre-K.

In institutions, in schools, city hall —in everything. When you waltz into those buildings, when it reflects the population out on the streets inside the buildings, then I will know we don’t need a day anymore to talk about National Aboriginal Day or national Indigenous or national Indian — whatever you want to call it, I’ve been called far worse.

For me, it’s a drop in the bucket. We want to get rid of the day because we shouldn’t need a reminder to remind people that we are people as well.

Is it, almost quaint, to see white people suddenly declaring and realizing racism exists when it’s been there the whole time?

Because it’s not delivered  with a white hood and a Nazi salute, a lot of times it becomes very easy to dismiss the racism that is in every corner of Canadian society, and is in every corner of this city. 

If that makes people uncomfortable, I’ll gladly be the person that has those uncomfortable conversations. 

One of the best ways I can frame it is when people talk about “the race card. “

They say “why does it always have to be about race,” or “there you go again blaming it on racism.”

There was a meme going around about not seeing racism. It was about George Floyd. It had crossed out white and Black in a while cop killing a Black man and changed it to a corrupt cop killing an innocent man and said at the top, “this is how you end racism.”

I said “Ohhhhh, is that how you end it. It’s that easy, with a meme.”

Even the most well-intentioned non-people of colour are doing their best — but again.

When I talk about being stopped by the police dozens of times growing up and my white friends say it can’t be that bad, they realize they have never been stopped.

Because it’s not delivered with a white hood, because it’s not delivered with a “F’n Indian” tagline, it’s our word against everyone else’s word.

When you’re in line and you see ten white people go ahead of you, and you’re the only one who has your bags searches — I saw it happen to my son at Walmart.

When you see ten white people in front of you being treated with smiles and jokes, and you’re greeted with “what do you want” — yeah, it’s all speculative, but we know on this side of the fence.

We’re past playing nice. When I say we, I mean me, as a dad. 

Regarding those memes — I don’t get a choice whether or not I get to experience racism.

I get a choice now whether I’m going to attack it and I attack it every time. I walked away for years, but being a dad, I don’t have that choice anymore. Being a dad is where I got my voice from. I don’t want my son to go through half of what I went through. He’s already been through a lot of it.

What can we do, as a society, from here? Where do we go now?

The biggest thing, when you talk about reconciliation, that’s an acknowledgement of a relationship that once worked, and it did work, when you go back and see the first friendships between Indigenous people and white people. 

We have the beautiful Métis Nation, which to me is a walking testament to what this country can be.

Even if you take the visualization of the North Saskatchewan River and the Diefenbaker Bridge — you have one foot firmly in the north representing the Indigenous people, and one foot firmly in Prince Albert representing the white people, and they’re connected , going back and forth.

To me, reconciliation means we can fix this relationship. But just like any relationship, where there is damage, — and there is a lot of damage that has been done, — it takes uncomfortable conversations.

I see those conversations happening now. That makes me excited for my grandchildren’s future. You have to look on a long-enough timeline.

In the past couple of months, how many Indigenous people have been killed by RCMP? I don’t know what happened, but that is a big deal for us.  It’s not even the fact it happened. It’s the fact that it’s never talked about.

We have to go to the streets and yell “this is happening.”

People say “are you sure?” and we’re yelling. We’re being killed and arrested, our kids are being taken away and the greater population is like “are you sure?”

For the first time, they’re beginning to listen.

We have to look on a long enough timeline. In my 43 years, I’ve seen enough that gives me wind in my sails, gives me fuel. It makes me do what I need to do to make the world a better place for my kid, for my grandkids, because I’ve seen the change.

We are doing things. Sometimes it isn’t easy to see. But, in a nutshell, it’s a whole bunch of uncomfortable conversations.

Kevin Joseph is a father, teacher, writer, musician and Daily Herald columnist from Prince Albert.

Priscilla Settee: “We have a long way to go. It’s optimistic in some respects, but it’s not optimistic for everyone

What is life like as an Indigenous person in Canada in 2020?

It’s pretty interesting to say the least. All the events that have led up to this moment reflect that interesting part of history. For example, today (June 19) is the anniversary of the day slavery was abolished in the United States in one form, and it’s also a very intense period of time with COVID-19 restrictions and impact.

A lot of the contradictions come full circle around those two issues as they relate to Indigenous realities.

The quality of life for our people is still concerning. The most marginalized are the most vulnerable in times of economic distress, and that’s no exception for Indigenous people. We’re still seeing the provincial government announcing the building of a $120-million remand centre without giving full attention to the socioeconomic needs of our people on the ground, in the community, in rural and urban areas.

We’re being governed from a very reactive sort of perspective in the sense that people are not being supported to live productive lives given things like the high unemployment rate and all the other socioeconomic issues we see in our community.

Having said that, there is also a really amazing movement afoot by some of our youth. Certainly in places like where I work, at the university, we are seeing tremendous movement forward in many ways, in education, in curriculum development, in some of the hiring. It’s not nearly enough It’s just scratching the surface.

We have a long way to go. It’s optimistic in some respects, but it’s not optimistic for everyone. There are far too many people who fall within the cracks and are left with no support and no resources.

I’ve identified some places we’ve moved forward. I’ve seen a lot of change in my lifetime. But it seems that it is still troubling on the ground in many respects.

Others have said it’s curious how some people, especially white people, seem to just be discovering racism for the first time, but it’s been there all along.

I don’t know if you saw what happened to (Federal NDP leader Jagmeet Singh) in parliament.

(Singh was kicked out after calling a Bloc Quebecois MP  racist. The Bloc MP did not support a motion calling to identify systemic racism). 

The Bloc MP is a clear example of someone who’s never had to face racism, denying or putting a vote against the issue that Singh had put forward. That kind of blatant ignorance is still afoot in too many leadership positions.

I think it’s incumbent on all good people to speak up against that. It’s not good enough that there’s this class system that still creates to much suffering among he marginalized. Not just Indigenous people, but growing numbers of non-Indigenous people see the economy is in the tank. We see young white people frustrated with the fact that the governments and our system has just marginalized them as well.

We see young people in great numbers demonstrating because they don’t want to inherit this mess. We should be able to rely on a health care system to produce excellence in a COVID-19 situation. Nut it’s not. 

We’re not the worst in the country, but just the fact that the numbers are highest among Indigenous people per capita is of concern. That certainly points to a certain form of racism.

Where do we go from here?

We have these conversations to get to know each other.

There’s a heck of a lot of white fear of the red nation, of Indigenous people. You would see it even more than I do because people don’t say it to my face. They say it to people who look like you. We have to start by having these conversations, but not just end it there. Talk is cheap.

We need to be understanding. What is the cause of so much inequality and racism?

For one thing, it’s employment practices, development programs that prefer certain comminutes over others. There is no reason that all the wealth of the north — all the minerals, the timber, the water that crates wealth for Saskatchewanians —is taken out of the north to create wealth for the southern part of the province while the north is left in absolute poverty. Our communities are left in destitution with growing numbers of COVID-19 infections.

I’m happy to say students flock to my classes because they’re looking for solutions as well. They want to understand how inequality is developed and what can be done about it.

That’s gratifying to me, to know that so many young, white people want to share in the solutions. They ask, how do we move forward together, because it’s our inherited collective.

Priscilla Settee is a professor in the department of Indigenous studies at the university of Saskatchewan and a David Suzuki fellow. She has a Ph.D and has studied education and sociology. She is a Cree from Cumberland House and advocates for native rights, women’s rights and environmental rights.

MLA Buckley Belanger speaks in Prince Albert in November of 2019. (Peter Lozinski/Daily Herald)

Buckley Belanger: “Always be proud of who you are”

What does it mean to be an Indigenous person living in Canada in 2020?

I just think that we’re so proud of our historical contributions to the country as a whole.

You look over time to how Canada settled, and I think a lot of the Indigenous people, through treaty, made the country very strong.

Anytime you have a transition, there’s always challenges along the way, whether it’s racism, segregation or the lack of resource development and job opportunities — these are some of the issues that need continual efforts to try to resolve.

You have successes in certain areas, you have challenges in others. But by and large, I think the Indigenous community has come a long way.

Are there other challenges for you as a politician who is an Indigenous person?

The biggest problem I have — I don’t use the “r” word too much because it’s not something that anybody is proud to be called. But as a politician who’s Indigenous, I’ve bumped into that quite a bit.

It doesn’t’ deter me, because the fortunate reality is there are a lot of good people in the province and they make up for those that still have their horrible ways of being racist to any minority,including Indigenous people.

The good ones keep me focused and  continue believing Saskatchewan is great because there are a lot of people out there … that genuinely want to be helpful. Those good people really displace the anger, and in some cases, hatred, of minority groups in our province.

When you look at, for example, incarceration rates, Manitoba and Saskatchewan are very much alike. They’ve got similar population numbers and density of Indigenous population. 

What they also have in common is the incarceration rate is quite high for Indigenous people. They’re pretty consistent and similar in their percentages. Some of these areas need to be addressed, why incarceration rates are so high for Indigenous people.

We’re not talking about serious crimes, we’re talking about young people getting involved in the law the wrong way and then all of a sudden they become part of the penal system and it gets carried on from there.

One of the other things I’m paying attention to is land allocation.

A lot of Indigenous people want to have a piece of land to build cabins, or go trapping. They seem to face resistance from the province to allocate these lands. Recently we had two cabins forcibly removed from the sites trappers had built.

We’re seeing a lot of systemic racism that exists within these areas. That’s going to take a lot of work.

Where do we go from here?

The first thing that’s going to happen before we address these gaps is people have to put aside our differences. A lot of people are very uncomfortable dealing with the issue of racism. Sometimes they’ll withdraw or stay away. But we need to not withdraw or stay away or be silent.

We need to address it as a society.

As society is evolving, it needs to be a lot more tolerant to minorities It makes a lot of sense. One of the arguments I use is there was a study done that showed, with proper engagement and equal engagement of Indigenous people in the province of Saskatchewan in the economy overall, it’s a $90 billion opportunity for the province. That’s in the billions.

Whether it’s our social fabric, or the economy, or the spirit of cooperation amongst all people, it makes a lot of sense to treat people fairly and consistently and get beyond this colour of my skin argument because that’s so 1930s. 

It’s time for us to shed what some people have in terms of dealing with people of a different colour or different minority groups. We have to get rid of that.

Why is Indigenous Peoples’ Day important?

I think it’s important for us to celebrate who we are. I tell a lot of Indigenous kids, and i tell my grandkids, always be proud of who you are. It’s who you are.

Sometimes, a lot of Indigenous kids may be shamed into not liking their own people. I tell them, don’t let that affect who you are. 

My grandkids, I really stress the importance of always being proud of who you are. I say you are a northern Métis person of Cree ancestry, always be proud of that.

Celebrate the history. We’ve had successes as well, but reinforce to the younger generation there is nothing wrong with being an Indigenous person. There is absolutely nothing wrong with being an Indigenous person. 

Let’s celebrate who we are, be proud of who we are and continue fighting to build a better society and a stronger world. That’s why it’s so important to celebrate.

Buckley Belanger was first elected to the provincial legislature in 1995. He’s the MLA for Athabasca. Prior to provincial politics, he served three terms of mayor of Ile-a-la Crosse. He has also worked as a journalist with the aboriginal publication new Breed and with Missinippi Broadcasting Corporation. He’s a northern, Métis resident of Cree ancestry.