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Blair Cunningham, administrative assistant with the Aboriginal Centre at Bow Valley College in Calgary conducts a smudge ceremony. (Laura Leyshon for The Globe and Mail)
Blair Cunningham, administrative assistant with the Aboriginal Centre at Bow Valley College in Calgary conducts a smudge ceremony. (Laura Leyshon for The Globe and Mail)

Have Your Say: How can non-aboriginal Canadians help reconcile with native people? Add to ...

Craig and Marc Kielburger founded Free The Children and Me to We. Their biweekly Brain Storm column taps experts and readers for solutions to social issues.

We’ve rarely been as nervous as we were during the moments before our first smudging. We were meeting a group of aboriginal leaders, and we didn’t know what to expect or how to act during the sacred ritual in which negative spirits are slowly cleansed away with the smoke of burning herbs. If only a simple smudging was sufficient to erase the 500 years of dysfunctional relationships that stood between us and our hosts.

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But once we were through that thick social barrier between non-aboriginal Canadians and our country’s native people, we found a connection that we wished we hadn’t waited so long to seek. Growing up in the Thornhill, just north of Toronto, our awareness of aboriginal issues was limited to watching the Oka crisis on TV and reading about high-level political debates over the right to self-government. We heard about the shameful history of broken treaties and residential schools, cases of missing and murdered aboriginal women, and the “Third World” living conditions in aboriginal communities. We knew that generations of political and aboriginal leaders had tried in vain to resolve the challenges and mend the relationship, so it seemed there was very little we could do personally as average non-lawmaking citizens.

We’ve since visited numerous aboriginal communities across Canada, met aboriginal entrepreneurs and cultural leaders, and learned many lessons about respect, solidarity and friendship. We haven’t discovered solutions to the profound challenges we’ve seen firsthand or read about in news headlines. But we have taken our own tiny first steps toward a future together.

Justice Murray Sinclair, chair of the commission tasked with investigating the residential school system, once told us it will take “as long to heal as it took to inflict the damage.” He said that Canada’s political and aboriginal leaders must change the way they talk to and about each other, modelling a more respectful relationship for all Canadians.

But given recent political stalemates around pipeline approvals and aboriginal education, maybe this year’s National Aboriginal Day on June 21 is an occasion for individual Canadians to take the lead. There are aboriginal-owned businesses to patron, community programs to support, and opportunities to get to know each other and our shared, if storied, history.

So how do we move past that shame-laced awkwardness and extend our hand in a way that’s respectful and truly helpful?

This week’s question: How can non-aboriginal Canadians help build a better relationship with native people in our everyday lives?

THE EXPERTS

Paul Martin, former Prime Minister of Canada

“Become aware of the issues indigenous Canadians face, such as indigenous children being deprived of the education opportunities that for other Canadians are a right. If Canadians show that they understand the discrimination faced by the country’s First Peoples, it would be the greatest step forward in terms of progress.”

Jeffrey Cyr, executive director of the National Association of Friendship Centres

“Build healthy communities and relationships that foster reconciliation. Recognize the contributions of your Aboriginal neighbours, get involved in aboriginal community events, and ensure that aboriginal peoples are included in broader community conversations and events.”

Sean McCormick, CEO and founder of Manitobah Mukluks

“Buying aboriginal is a great way for Canadians to help correct the course of history – and the future. For instance, instead of buying from companies that appropriate aboriginal designs, vote with your dollars to support aboriginal-owned businesses that share their success and build capacity in the aboriginal community, while creating a new class of entrepreneurs who provide aboriginal youth with new visions for the future.”

Have your say in the comments section.

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