This summer, I did something very unlike myself and worked away from home on a construction crew in Western Canada. We initially started out in Alberta (I flew from Toronto) and from there we drove—trucks, equipment and all—to Manitoba. We started out near Brandon, but as the summer wore on, we progressed further north and ended up staying on an Aboriginal reserve at one point.
As much as I try to stay aware when it comes to various social issues, I’ve really never been exposed to the challenges and oppression that this now minority group in Canada face. Having the chance to live in a geographically isolated region—for a short period of time, granted—I feel now was a necessary life experience that briefly allowed me some insight into the systematic marginalization of an entire population over multiple generations of time.
The reserve that my crew stayed on was about 8 hours north of the Manitoba-North Dakota border, a small town called Grand Rapids. As we drove in, it was apparent from the trailers and houses with boarded up windows and parts of some homes even burnt down, that the living conditions were terrible. The thing is that even if you haven’t gone to a reserve in Canada, you still hear the stories about how dangerous they supposedly are. Stories laced with fear perpetuate themselves among those who are far removed from the actual living experience: “Those Natives are up to no good, sniffing gas and doing all sorts of drugs. And why? Because the government will just keep paying for them to do it.”
Even those who don’t have racist intentions still keep these negative stories in rotation. “I heard once from a friend of a friend that they were driving through a Native reserve when these boys hailed them to stop. Once they did, the boys started flinging rocks at their car. It’s unfortunate, but these people have nothing else to do but start trouble, and that’s why I never want to go to a reserve.”
Even as these stories may contain some grain of truth, the one constant in all of them is the fact that the problems erupting within these neighborhoods are inherently ignored and pushed aside, something to be feared and not fixed. Each story ends with its teller placing blame on those who are troubled and not looking at the entire picture, why in fact many of the reserves have grown to be this way.
I always knew a minimal amount of history concerning the residential schools in Canada, information I learned but never thoroughly absorbed, through my first years in Gender Studies. I knew that many Aboriginal children were taken from their parents by social workers in an attempt to assimilate them into an idealized “Canadian” society, a process that later became known as the 60’s Scoop. I think for me, what was missing was actually experiencing First Nations culture and living situations first hand in order to gain a true understanding of this history. Living on the edge of a reserve brought this history alive for me.
While in Grand Rapids, I lost cell service and the only radio station we got, although fuzzy and inaudible at times, was CBC radio. Upon listening, I learned of research performed on Aboriginal children in residential schools, where scientists came and studied the effects of malnutrition on the children living there, who were purposefully denied food at times and forcibly starved. These children were essentially lab rats.
I’m shocked at this news of course, but I am even more shocked at how blind I have been to many Aboriginal issues. I’m 22 years old and only JUST learning about this kind of stuff, and this is only because I was placed in a living situation in which I felt curious about how these living conditions came to be.
I mean, look at the ways in which Canadian history is predominantly taught in many public school curriculums: the emphasis is mainly on European explorers as heroes which works to simultaneously dismiss and conceal not only Aboriginal history, but also their suffering at the hands of these newcomers who attempted to eradicate them. We do not even mention the term colonialism at all, much less explain why this was a process not unlike the Holocaust or a genocide in many ways and how hatred for First Nations people has carried on in Canada through time.
Ultimately, the point I’m trying to make is that we seem to carry on these trajectories of, “We’ve helped them, we’ve given them what they want, we can’t do anything else, it’s now their fault that they are screwing up their lives,” and we place blame rather than admit how a history of oppression is still playing out today. We forget about First Nations history, and it becomes irrelevant over time. I know that the issue goes much deeper and is far more complicated than the basic background I’ve laid here but I feel that in beginning to at least discuss these things and bring these issues out in the open, we will be able to change things. But that can only start once we begin to remember this seemingly forgotten and hidden population of people.
Edit: Upon finishing up this blog post I came across a documentary about construction of a dam in Grand Rapids that devastated the lives of the people living there and disrupted the reserve without compensating the people. This is proof that there is no respect for Aboriginal land and that the government feels as though it is still entitled to make use of the land regardless of any treaties that are signed, all the while refusing to provide basic social services because that falls under the responsibility of a people designated to “govern themselves” in the government’s eyes.
*All pictures are my own from my trip except for the Manitoba map*