Madam Speaker, I am honoured to be here today to speak in support of Bill C-5. I wish to honour the important work of sister Georgina Jolibois that initiated the development of the bill, and to commend the government's effort to ensure that this legislation is realized. This is a critical piece of legislation: a small piece of justice as we begin to move forward learning about the true history of Canada. These are stories I also possess as somebody who has had to work through her own intergenerational impacts.
My mother was from Wood Mountain Lakota First Nation in Treaty 4 territory in the province of Saskatchewan. She was a street kid who ended up in child welfare after my grandmother abandoned her and her younger brother in a motel room in Moose Jaw when she was five years of age. Due to the fact she was the eldest child, my grandmother left her in charge of her younger brother with specific instructions to ration a loaf of bread and a jar of peanut butter and jam for the five days she had to leave them in search of money.
There were no supports for indigenous women in the 1930s. There were no social safety nets. There were no human rights. Sexism was rampant and racism was fierce. My grandmother had no one to turn to, especially as an indigenous single mother, so she left her children. I remember my mother telling me how she, along with my uncle, gleefully ate the loaf of bread, resulting in a complete depletion of their food ration in only one day. Hungry, scared and alone, my mother decided to contact the Children's Aid Society. At five years old, my mother had become street savvy and, having no other relatives to turn to at the time, contacted the Children's Aid Society. My mother and her brother needed to eat. They were hungry.
It is beyond most people's imaginations, especially those persons who have been privileged with human rights, how a mother could leave her young children in a motel room. It is beyond the minds of many privileged persons to genuinely appreciate what events in my mother's life led her, at five years of age, to understand how to deal with her and her brother's hunger. My mother knew who to call, and how to work with the bureaucratic child welfare system, to get fed. She had learned to survive just like my grandmother, who had absolutely no resources or supports to assist her. I am sure my grandmother's struggle rang so loudly that she could not hear the musical and healing reverberations of the jingle dress. The jingles were too faint and muzzled to hear above the noise of the struggle she faced every day. There was no time for healing or inner reflection. She was hungry and alone while the Canadian government wilfully perpetrated acts of genocide, making it impossible for her to survive.
My grandmother's choice to leave her young children in a room did not stem from a lack of love. My grandmother started living on the streets as a child and eventually became an alcoholic in adult life as a way to deal with the violent genocide she experienced as an indigenous child and then woman. Dislocated from her family for reasons directly impacted by the Indian Act of 1876 and the institutional disruptions to my family, including residential schools and the child welfare system, she did not have anyone or anywhere she could turn to. She was not even considered a human being by the Canadian government under the 1876 Indian Act, which defined a person as any individual other than an Indian. This violent colonial history has often been invisible to settler populations, due to the masterful way governments have hidden their dirty little secrets of genocide. This has supported a level of cognitive dissonance in Canada that has paved the way forward for ongoing human rights violations against indigenous peoples.
It is not surprising that many indigenous people suffer from unresolved colonial trauma today, and continue to suffer as a result of the wilful human rights violations perpetrated by governments. One only has to look at the number of indigenous children currently in care, more now than at the height of residential schools, to see the long-term impacts that violating indigenous people's fundamental indigenous human rights has had on indigenous nations.
The contemporary child welfare system, or what I like to refer to as the dumping ground of society, is there so that no one has to see the legacy of cultural, social and family disruption that has resulted from colonization.
Understanding the impacts of colonialism in Canada is imperative if we are going to move forward in a manner that honours all persons. Going back in our shared history and reflecting on historical disruptions to better understand why things are the way they are today is imperative. For Canada, it is about exposing truth and working through all the cognitive dissonance that keeps it sick. For families and communities that have experienced genocide, it is about relearning how to be together as families, communities and nations. This is the journey I have had to follow while trying to understand my grandmother's reasons for causing such pain towards my mother, whom I love dearly. This has been a very difficult journey for me.
As a result of my family history, for most of my younger years, I grew up without extended family. In fact, we were so devoid of family connections that my parents asked a close friend if we could call him “Uncle” Larry. He was not a biological uncle; however, they wanted us to experience having family outside of our own immediate unit. I remember how excited I was to meet Uncle Larry. It was my first time ever being able to call somebody “uncle”, and I remember talking about my Uncle Larry to my friends. Finally, I was able to participate in playground conversations about weekend family engagements with extended family members. I was not close to Larry. In fact, if I saw him today, I would not even know what he looked like. I do not even remember his last name, but our relationship made me feel normal.
I was pretty much without extended relations until my mother's side of the family had a reunion when I was 13 years old, and I was reunited with my aunts, uncles and cousins who had been separated by child welfare. It felt like I had known my relatives my whole life. Our instant closeness flowed through our blood members' shared stories of resistance, struggle, survival, hope and pride in our ancestors.
We are the descendants of Sitting Bull: one of the most revered leaders in North America. Our nation's history, in fact, has become a Hollywood story, often romanticized in movies like Dances with Wolves, which chose a Caucasian woman to star as the leading Lakota lady. Painted in brown theatrical makeup, she was swept off her feet by the white soldier who was part of the U.S. army. They fell in love, and she willingly chose to leave her family to build a new life with this heroic, white settler. I vividly remember that, for at least two years after Dances with Wolves was released, any time I mentioned I was Lakota, I would frequently hear, “Wow, Dances with Wolves.” That comment would make me nauseous, because it epitomized the myth of the kind white settler who lived side by side with indigenous peoples resulting in a respectful, lasting and loving relationship: the great colonial lie.
This myth makes a mockery of the violent colonial attacks against the Lakota Nation, and contradicts historical accounts passed down orally by my ancestors who settled in Wood Mountain after the Battle of Little Bighorn. This battle between the U.S. army and indigenous nations, including the Cheyenne Nation, occurred as an act of resistance to the wrongful dispossession of our ancestral lands. Led by Chief Sitting Bull, indigenous people bravely fought to defend our lands from the U.S. army. Under the barbaric racism and violent leadership of General George Custer, white settlers attempted to encroach on our territory.
Although I often hear about the sad death of Custer during this battle in history books, rarely do I hear any discussion about the many women and children who were violently murdered while the army attempted to attack one of our camps. To me, Custer symbolizes the greedy white settler with a compromised moral character who stole our lands.
Our story was not of great white saviours, but of a massacre led by the racist American army under the leadership of the violent and savage General George Custer. Canada has now celebrated over 150 years as a nation on stolen indigenous lands and talk about reconciliation with indigenous peoples seems to be the new trend.
However, there is no reconciliation in the absence of justice and it is becoming clearer that the present Liberal government is unwilling to move beyond mere rhetoric. I have become increasingly annoyed each day watching the news, seeing my indigenous brothers and sisters fighting for justice without action by current governments. Who really needs to reconcile?
In the case of the Lakota nation, our only goal was to stay on our lands, maintain our families and our culture. We did what any community members would do if a group of people came onto their land, forcing them to move without cause. Of course, their first action would be to defend their lands. Moreover, if the same party continued to violate their human rights, tensions would continue to rise, resulting in a need to take action. That is exactly what we did.
The experience of my beautiful Lakota nation was violent, exploitive and marked by grotesque violence against our women and girls by our colonizers. Great leaders such as Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull, our women and girls, children, grandmothers and grandfathers were murdered or forced to flee our ancestral land to make room for the settlers. We were forced off the very lands we had lived on since time immemorial. Our beautiful way of life was disrupted by violent colonialism, and it is not over.
In Canada, governments continue to violate our ways of life with wilful and violent acts with almost a complete disregard for our fundamental indigenous human rights. That was the kind of violent colonialism my grandmother experienced throughout her lifetime. She was born into colonial violence and as a result never lived a life where she was honoured as a life-giver and a human being. Unlike the main character of Dances with Wolves, she could not wash the brown off her skin and enjoy all the privileges that one's pigment can offer. She had to endure the violent racism that was perpetrated against her every day. In spite of all her barriers, she survived. It may not have been a story of My Fair Lady, but she survived. That does not speak of her weakness, but to her resilience as an indigenous woman finding her way through daily human rights violations.
My grandmother was a human being, deserving to be loved and to experience joy. This was made impossible through the insidious violence and racism enacted by the Indian Act of 1876. She did not have many choices. When people are stripped of the basic necessities they require to have joy such as housing, food and safety, growing into a whole person becomes difficult. That was also true for my grandmother, whose life journey was defined by the systemic impoverishment of indigenous people that began with the dispossession of our lands. Based on justifications rooted in the doctrine of discovery, they deny our right to self-determination and continued to wilfully violate our fundamental indigenous human rights. It is exactly that belief, enforced through colonial policies and legislation, that left my grandmother homeless.
I only met my grandmother twice. The last time was when my mother welcomed her to stay in our home prior to a lung operation that would end her life. My mother, in spite of being abandoned in a hotel room, took her mother home. She shared love, compassion, laughter and care with my grandmother in her final days, in spite of her own struggles that resulted from her being a child in care. My mother's kindness came from a place of non-judgment, a place of love and a place of compassion.
I remember asking my mom how she could take my grandmother into her home when she had abandoned my mother as a child. She responded by saying her mother was pretty much on her own when she was 12. She was completely alone in the world. She had no rights and no way to support herself. There were no social safety nets at the time and she did the very best she could with the tools she had.
That was the most powerful teaching of forgiveness that I have ever heard in my life. As I sit here and think of my grandmother, the very thought of the isolation she must have felt brings me to tears. How sad that due to racist, paternalistic and misogynistic policies, my grandmother was never given an equal chance to have joy. Instead, her life consisted of finding ways to survive the obstacles of human rights violations that continue to be enforced under the Indian Act and within Canadian policies.
My mother deeply understood the realities that my grandmother faced and instead of becoming resentful, she focused on the love her mother demonstrated while she was pregnant with her. Although my grandmother was an alcoholic, she sacrificed her addiction to alcohol to support a healthy pregnancy with my mom. I remember my mom saying that in spite of the fact that my grandmother was an alcoholic, “she abstained from alcohol while she was pregnant with me, gifting me with all the physical tools I needed in life to succeed and it was for that reason that I would always love her”. My mother understood that as a result of colonizations, relationships became messy and that ethical decisions extended beyond an individual's choices because injustice left individuals without choices.
I often wonder if people could physically see what a heart looks like when it has been broken or wounded. Maybe it would encourage them to be a little kinder, a little more gentle, a little less judgmental, a little more loving and a little less hurtful. Unfortunately, the life of my grandmother reminds me that when we completely dehumanize a person, we can begin to justify unthinkable acts and are able to turn a blind eye to human suffering.
I think I carry some of her pain and sorrow in my blood memory. It is the kind of intergenerational trauma that brings on feelings of being unlovable and unworthy of joy. These are the words we learned in Canadian institutions that tried to assimilate us. I still hear those voices in my mind and heart at times, but I have found ways to overpower those voices. It is the resiliency I inherited from my ancestors, the kind of resiliency that was emulated through my mother's spirit.
Unlike the trauma that overtook my grandmother's life, my mother managed to overcome great obstacles. She became a statistical miracle and because of that, I was afforded the good life. Can anyone imagine living through the trials and tribulations that my mother did and making it out sane? This was in spite of the genocide and the gross human rights violations she experienced early on in life. She was one of the first indigenous psychiatric nurses in Saskatchewan, an awarding-winning researcher, a scholar and a social justice warrior who assisted in changing child welfare legislation to support former children in care and rights for persons experiencing mental health issues. My mother was a woman of beauty and grace.
I honour my mother and grandmother today. It is a day, one day of remembrance, one day to honour. We need that day, as do thousands and thousands of Canadians who are open to learning about Canada's true and consistently evolving history in our relationship with indigenous peoples. There is no reconciliation in the absence of justice, so I am here to state loudly that we need to honour this little piece of justice.