Signa Daum Shanks is a Métis from Saskatchewan. She is an assistant professor at Osgoode Hall Law School and director of indigenous outreach.
I have a question for you: Does it really matter that it's National Aboriginal Day? Maybe you're indigenous, but it's statistically likely – if you are reading this publication – that you're not. So my next question is: now that I'm reminding you of what today is supposed to commemorate, what are you going to do?
This question might be a hard one to answer.
First, we must learn more about "prior occupancy." The concept is not some unreasonable indigenous idea that is suddenly used as some political weapon. It's part of the history of common law and civil law and international law – all invented by non-indigenous peoples. Of course, the concept was also implemented by indigenous groups long before any explorer got over to North America. We should remember that when indigenous parties commit themselves to activism, negotiations and litigation, it is not anti-settler. It reinforces the rule of law.
Second, we think more fully about the implications of indigenous socio-economic circumstances. It's not about a different skin colour, or tenuous financial conditions or a history that disallowed a strong family system to develop. It's about all of those – and more. We all need to learn self-reliance. But what if you had eight times the amount of challenges in your life that you currently experienced? Would you be where you are today?
The public outcry for more indigenous participation can, sometimes, be accidentally punishing. If a board that wants more indigenous participation does not help make the path to the board less difficult, is it really solving the problem? As committed as you are to finding that helpful voice, put just as much effort to helping take down the barriers that that voice experienced. We are people that have, statistically, gone through very traumatic conditions. We can be funny and work hard. But, like you, we only have so much gas in our tank before our faith and potential is running on empty.
But perhaps the most important matter is to think about your closest circle of friends and wonder, if none of them is indigenous, why that is the case? What if you had an indigenous friend to turn to about an idea for work? What if that same friend could help you explain indigenous homelessness to your kids? If there isn't an indigenous face in your close circle, today is your day to start doing more to make that happen.
What exists in your life to make that not the case? What could change to make it more possible? How sympathetic are you – really? How good a listener are you? How much do you help others beyond your most familiar comforts? If you don't have an indigenous person you turn to as a confidante, a pal, a mentor, the time to make that happen is now.
Today, think about what makes you a great friend. But today, also think about what boundaries exist around you that just might make the potential of an indigenous friend improbable. Taking those boundaries down might not be easy, but like all important parts of life, it will help you develop a more accurate history and a better eye for modern conditions.
Today, and every day, it's clear you (and I) must do more. In doing more, we will all make mistakes. But that doesn't mean we have the moral right to just stand in our tracks. We are facing the right direction. Now, it's time to move. Take that first step. Then take another. I, and the rest of indigenous Canada, will cheer you on. And we will be your friends.