At a tour of the First Peoples gallery in the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), the guide explained, using these words, that the First People owned all of what is now Canada before the settlers did. Today’s Canada, while it has been going in a positive direction, still has a lot of truths to face and apologies to make.
Hearing this at the beginning of the tour from a white Canadian set the tone perfectly, but it also surprised me because I could not imagine hearing something similar at an American museum, let alone at one of comparable prestige like the Museum of Natural History in New York.
At the ROM, and everywhere else I went to in Montreal and Toronto, it was clear that Canada has started on a path of facing up to its horrific treatment of the native population of what is now Canada. First People, encompassing Inuit, Métis and First Nations — including more than 600 recognized groups — are not relics of Canada’s past but part of its present and future. In my short trip, I saw an exhibit by contemporary First Nation artists and galleries dedicated to Inuit art. Even history museums showing artifacts First People made always reminded the visitor that these cultures, languages and the people carrying them are still alive, making up almost five percent of the Canadian population. First People have a presence in everyday Canada outside the museums: in cultural spaces, native-owned businesses, community health centers and political demonstrations outside government buildings.
Canada needs to do better still and continue atoning for its awful treatment of First People generally and the shameful residential school system designed to end native cultures more specifically. This is not only an issue of historical remembrance but also of serving the needs of a long-oppressed minority, from basic security to healthcare. This truth facing Canada is new; the Truth and Reconciliation Commission dealing with the residential school system was only started in 2008, and its work brought larger issues to the fore.
The rapid move by Canadian government and society from nothing to some action and self-criticism is promising. It gives hope that the United States, socially and politically, can learn from a similar society how to begin apologizing to its Native population and giving them the respect and services they deserve.
The responsibility for this cannot be on Natives alone; other Americans need to take action, to apologize. Changes and improvements will have to include everything from the Bureau of Indian Affairs (for example, changing that name) to the wall cards at the Museum of Natural History, discussing people of the Pacific Northwest who made totem poles as if they withered away with time.
The United States has much to learn from Canada on many fronts (healthcare), one of which is facing its history and present with its Native population. Hopefully, many Native leaders can be in positions of power to lead the charge for change.