We thought we had it figured out.
We, the white Canadians, were finally ready to roll up our sleeves and right the wrongs carried out by our ancestors for the previous 500 years. We were going to extend a hand of healing to our indigenous brothers and sisters, and rebuild a relationship tarnished by countless abuses throughout our country’s history.
We elected a Prime Minister who put reconciliation as one of his party’s top priorities, launching a National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls shortly after his election victory. He even appointed an indigenous woman from British Columbia as his Justice Minister.
We started to get the sense that perhaps we were sharing this land we had branded as our own personal fiefdom for far too long. At public events, church services, schools and even hockey arenas, we would routinely begin the proceedings by announcing that the piece of land in question was unceded Mi’kmaq territory. Here in Port Hawkesbury, our mayor even launched a campaign to have Unama’ki – the Mi’kmaq word for Cape Breton – incorporated into the welcoming signage for the swing bridge on the Canso Canal.
We hung our heads in collective shame for one of the greatest wrongs of this or any nation, the residential school system brutally designed to rob Canada’s First Nations of their identity, security and humanity. We saw a sea of red dresses fill up windows up and down our streets, as we struggled to understand how a young mother could have her life cruelly taken away while her two infant children watched, in a Mi’kmaq community so close to many of our own hometowns.
We felt we were finally mature enough as a nation to heal wounds, end indignities, and join forces with our true founding peoples – our friends, our neighbours.
Until it inconvenienced us.
Barely two weeks after angry indigenous protests put a damper on that swell party the feds were throwing for Canada Day (that giant rubber duck on the Toronto waterfront was sure worth the $120,000 we forked out for it, eh?), public anger over the statue of Edward Cornwallis in Halifax’s Grand Parade boiled over to the point that it was removed and put into storage months later, with its ultimate fate still undecided.
There are still a significant number of people, including some sitting on HRM Council, that want Cornwallis back out in the public eye. Sure, he put a bounty on Mi’kmaq scalps, but that was three centuries ago, right? What’s a little genocide between friends?
Yeah, we were all sad about Cassidy Bernard, but did that big protest have to happen at the Canso Causeway? Why do these people and their causes always wind up at the Causeway? Sure, there were 1,181 murders of indigenous women between 1980 and 2012 across Canada, with 225 of these still unsolved, and Cassidy’s case went without an arrest for a year. But do we have to deal with that today? Imagine, having to sit and wait in traffic so I can think about something important like ending cultural injustices. The nerve!
And, sure, none of us wanted Northern Pulp to empty its untreated mill waste into the water supply at Pictou Landing. But what’s with this crazy idea that they’d shut down the Boat Harbour effluent treatment plant, even if it meant the mill might close too? Sure, we want everybody treated equally, but not THAT equally. No wonder somebody scrawled “N.S. NEEDS MILLS” across that big sign at the border welcoming drivers to “The Land of the Mi’kmaq.” That’ll fix ‘em!
And this all happened before the rail blockades. Imagine, people in B.C. being upset because they weren’t consulted about a pipeline going through their backyard! The audacity of people across Canada standing up for something and insisting that industry and government do the right thing! Criminals, every one of them! I had my heart set on that mid-winter train ride from Truro to Sault Ste.-Marie.
Okay, let me hit the pause button. Yes, I’m being a bit sarcastic. Yes, thousands of people lost their jobs at Northern Pulp, VIA Rail and CN Rail. Yes, essential goods like propane aren’t getting to their Atlantic Canadian destinations just as the winter takes a decided turn for the colder.
Let’s face it, folks: This is the price we pay for not taking aboriginal concerns, from land issues to potable drinking water, seriously. It may ease up. It may get more serious. But anybody who thought it wouldn’t eventually come to this was dreaming in Technicolour.
We should be so lucky if this is the biggest headache that emerges from the wounds left by 153 years – five centuries, really – of abuses that our indigenous friends and neighbours would never describe with a word as innocuous as “inconvenience.”