In this six-part series of interviews, Canadians with a variety of experiences discuss the major challenges our country is facing and how best to address them. This instalment deals with making pluralism work.
Gabrielle Scrimshaw, co-founder of the Aboriginal Professional Association of Canada, was interviewed on Sept. 16 by Monica Pohlmann, a consultant with Reos Partners.
Pohlmann: What keeps you awake at night?
Scrimshaw: The relationship between indigenous and non-indigenous people in this country. When Canadians travel around the world, we say, "We're the land of opportunity." I believe that's who we want to be, but it doesn't actually reflect who we are today. The truth is there are a lot of people who have been left behind, who are living in our own backyard. My hope is that Canadians can sincerely begin to engage with aboriginal people across this country. Why is this important? The aboriginal population is the fastest growing demographic in Canada. By 2026, about 400,000 aboriginal youth are going to enter the work force. Three out of 10 aboriginal people are under the age of 14. We have a tremendous opportunity to educate and equip these young people from a place that's culturally centred. If we don't talk about this opportunity now and work to get it right, we'll be living with the consequences of our inactions for generations to come.
Pohlmann: What energizes you?
Scrimshaw: As I travel across Canada, I hear a lot of indigenous youth saying, "I am an activist," or, "I want to go to law school, because I want to help our communities." Because the 17-year-olds are fighting for what they believe is right, our community is in great hands. Idle No More was also a unique force for our community. With it you had a youth tweeting from northern Saskatchewan and somebody from Quebec retweeting it. There's a tremendous amount of empowerment through that process – the youth are engaging in a conversation and getting their voices validated by their peers. In the aboriginal community, our generation is what some consider the eighth fire, which is the generation that's going to change everything. I get goose bumps when I think about it because I believe it. I can see the tides starting to shift.
Pohlmann: If you look at where Canada failed in the past, what can we learn for the future?
Scrimshaw: We wouldn't be facing a lot of the challenges we face and be making a lot of the decisions we're making if we actually taught our true past and learned from it. For over 100 years, aboriginal children were put through residential schools, whose mandate from the government was to "get the Indian out of the child." Kids were taken away from their parents, separated from their siblings and not able to speak their language. Many suffered physical, mental and sexual abuse. It's because of the residential schools that I grew up without a mother. I've never known what it feels like to come home after a bad day and cry into a mother's shoulder. I don't speak my language. I live with the legacy of residential schools every single day.
In 2014, half of Canadians still don't know what a residential school is. If you don't know what it is, you don't understand the legacy it has for aboriginal people. If more people understood how Canada was colonized, I believe we'd be a bit more reluctant to celebrate our nation's founding. For myself, why would I want to celebrate John A. Macdonald when I understand how he colonized aboriginal men, women and children? He made decisions that led to the mistreatment and deaths of thousands of people, but we generally don't teach that in our history classes. If we really want to honour the past, I believe we should learn from it. If we avoid it, we're simply hiding behind our own ignorance. Do we want future generations to say that we avoided something because it made us uncomfortable, or do we want them to say that we moved past that feeling so we could make informed decisions for the future.
Possible Canadas is a project created by Reos Partners, the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation, and a diverse coalition of philanthropic and community organizations. To see longer versions of these interviews, or to join the conversation, visit possiblecanadas.ca