June is National Indigenous History Month; a time for all Canadians – Indigenous and non-Indigenous – to explore the history of Canada’s first peoples. For those who are settlers on this land, regardless of whether it is for 300 years or since last month, we need to learn about the history, cultures and the contributions of the First Nations, Inuit and Métis people.
The idea of a special month began with a special day. In 1982, the Assembly of First Nations suggested establishing “National Aboriginal Solidarity Day” as a day of recognition. In the 1990s Oka and Ipperwash standoffs with police over land rights highlighted the centuries old conflict between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. In 1995, First Nations leader Elijah Harper called on the federal government to establish “National First Peoples Day” as a day of unity and acknowledgment. The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples also made the same recommendation in its report. On June 21, 1996 Canada celebrated its first National Aboriginal Day. This day has been celebrated as a statutory territorial holiday in the Northwest Territories since 2001 and in the Yukon since 2017. Now a month of celebration recognizes and honours the achievements, stories and rich cultures of First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples in Canada.
The history of the Indigenous Peoples has been largely unknown outside of their communities. What was learnt by most of us was “whitewashed” or spoken about as a time long ago. Because of this, people across the country are shocked when armed standoffs occurred, rail blockages are set up, or as most recently as this past month, when the bodies of 215 children were found in unmarked graves at a Kamloops Residential School. Generations of Canadians lived their lives without knowing about residential schools, the impacts of the Indian Act, the significance and breaking of treaties, and the settlement on indigenous lands by force. We may not have known of those graves, but the families knew their children were never returned home. We have not learnt about the abuses, but we have also not learnt about the contributions of Indigenous Peoples to the history of our country.
Often it is heard that unions should stick to their job and not get involved in issues beyond the workplace and collective bargaining. Not surprisingly that comes from people who often disagree with the stands that are taken. But what if in 1876 the young labour movement in Canada had spoken out against the Indian Act? What if we had been educated over the generations about the abuses of the residential schools system and stood in solidarity with our indigenous bothers and sisters? Could we have helped them end a system of cultural genocide, the sexual abuses, or the death of thousands of young children? Shockingly the last residential school only closed in 1996. That is within our lifetimes. This is not ancient history.
The PSAC National Indigenous Peoples’ Circle (NIPC) was created in 2003 to give Aboriginal members the opportunity to come together and discuss issues that affect them in the workplace and in their communities. This happens at the local, national, and international levels. It provides a strong voice inside our union to help educate us so that we can better fight for our members both on the job and in society. The work of the union’s Indigenous members helps to strengthen the labour movement’s commitment to Indigenous Peoples’ rights through research, education and advocacy. We get to stand with them in solidarity.
Each First Nations, Inuit and Métis Peoples have their own unique stories. There are also common histories that we share. This year’s Indigenous History Month has unfortunately begun with a nation in grief. Flags on public buildings are flying at half mast as young bodies are dug out of hidden graves. Learning about our history is often uncomfortable because it exposes the ugly truth but that is the only way we can learn to be and do better.