The ability to imagine, to empathize, to love are among the most powerful tools we have as human beings.
As the Dalai Lama said: love and compassion are necessities not luxuries, without them humanity cannot survive.
The shooting death of a young First Nations man, Colten Boushie, on a Saskatchewan farm in August 2016, and last week’s not guilty verdict, has given us reason to think about our humanity.
The decision by an apparently all-white jury, though this has not been confirmed — a jury allowed because the lawyers for the accused were permitted to dismiss every visibly Indigenous potential juror — has left many Canadians outraged, heartbroken and wounded. None more so than Indigenous peoples. For them, it is another tragic example of justice denied, another heart-wrenching injustice rooted in racism and privilege, another case of the legal system deeply failing them.
The death of Colten Boushie, the more than 1,200 missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, and the thousands of children who died in Canada’s residential schools are proof that if you are Indigenous the world is a considerably less safe place for you. Racism makes it so and Canada’s racism problem cannot be merely wished away with sympathies and apologies.
It was not sympathy Boushie’s family sought last week. It was action — tangible changes to Canada’s legal system.
As award-winning essayist, novelist and philosopher John Ralston Saul — who has written about Canada’s treatment of Indigenous peoples — said, “I think that if you insist on sympathy you’re trying to avoid action, and that’s when I say it becomes a new form of racism. Because you’re avoiding reality, you’re avoiding what actually needs to be done for people who have every right, every constitutional, historic and treaty right to these things and are not getting them.”
In June 2016, just a couple of months before Colten Boushie was shot and killed by Gerald Stanley, and a year following his Truth and Reconciliation report on Canada’s residential schools, Sen. Murray Sinclair spoke with Maclean’s magazine. He was hopeful, but stressed reaching reconciliation will require more than the truth.
Asked if he was happy with the progress Canada has made, Sinclair said: “Happy’s not the right word. I’m feeling that the train is slowly moving. But we still have a ways to go before we can get it up to any kind of speed. And we have a long distance to go once we get to that speed.”
The report included 94 calls to action designed to begin the process of reconciliation. The recommendations aimed to repair systemic and institutional injustices by the Canadian government, by our education, legal and child welfare systems and to move from “apology to action.” The recommendations were also aimed at Canadian society, a reminder that we can all do something to be part of reconciliation.
As an educator and advocate for Indigenous children, Cindy Blackstock has said “incremental change is no longer enough … reconciliation means never having to say you’re sorry twice.” She has repeatedly called on the federal government to comply with a Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruling which found that the federal government discriminates against First Nations children, failing to provide the same level of financial support for education for them.
The tribunal has issued three compliance orders to the federal government. First Nations children, according to Blackstock, are still waiting for reconciliation, for justice, for action.
The treatment of Indigenous peoples in our country is a legacy of ugly racism, paternalism, abuse, colonialism and humiliation. It is our collective shame.
As individual Canadians, what can we do? Perhaps you struggle with knowing what you can do, what individual acts you can take.
It, perhaps, can start with acknowledging the racism. It starts with understanding the injustices. It starts with admitting the shame. It starts with education, understanding treaties and the failure to uphold them. It starts with supporting and calling for reforms that will truly bring about institutional reconciliation. It starts with an act.
We can be sympathetic and apologetic. But we can’t be merely that. Not anymore. We must also be part of delivering reconciliation.
The inclusive, more equal Canada we dream of depends on it.
No more reports. It’s time for real action.
I end this column (one I hope is one small act) with an excerpt from the poem “Colten” by, written by Sen. Murray Sinclair last week:
I may grieve for some time to come.
But then to be true…
we have all been in grieving a very long time.
So long, it is part of our DNA
And so, this is why
No matter how hard we might try
we can’t “just get over it and move on”.
We all can easily say:
“My country won’t let me.”
Lana Payne is the Atlantic director for Unifor. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @lanampayne Her column returns in two weeks.