Niigaan Sinclair’s reconciliation message to Yellowknife students
Anishinaabe writer and broadcaster Niigaan Sinclair, in Yellowknife for the NorthWords literary festival, spent time with students and staff at École Sir John Franklin High School.
Sinclair used flooding in his home community, the Peguis First Nation in Manitoba, to address with students the subject of Canada’s relationships with Indigenous peoples.
Showing images of submerged homes and streets, Sinclair described how, in 1907, the First Nation was “forcibly removed by the Government of Canada and the province of Manitoba to provide land to Canadians.”
RCMP bulldozed homes in the community, he said, forcing the Peguis community onto land in northern Manitoba beside the Fisher River. When Lake Winnipeg rises, the Fisher River’s banks overflow, causing flooding.
Sinclair said when other, non-Indigenous communities, were affected by flooding, they complained to the province of Manitoba, which built a dike and diverted the water to the Peguis First Nation.
He described the resentment many Peguis people feel toward Canadians, who, he says, weren’t at fault.
“The most important generation in history is right here, in front of me. You are the ones that are going to be inheriting this,” he told students.
“We have some real history that’s complicated, that mostly comes from a situation that Canada has created because of residential schools, the Indian Act, the fact our communities are treated differently.
“There’s a message in this country that Indigenous people don’t matter and Canadians do matter. That means we pay attention to Canadians, we support Canadians, but Indigenous communities? We flood them out.”
Sinclair then showed images of Father O’Grady, a principal of the Kamloops Residential School in the 1940s, and a letter he wrote to the families of students at the time, offering them the “privilege” of seeing their children at Christmas.
“Obviously, every single person in this room can feel empathy for that situation,” said Sinclair. “But there are people who have had direct experiences with that. Who is that? That’s your friends, that’s your classmates, that’s your future colleagues in your workplace.
“Every single one of you is impacted by this history.”
Sinclair encouraged students to “study, think, read, go out and ask questions throughout the rest of your life. All of this, is all of our history.”
Canada, the village
Sinclair told students change starts with the recognition that Indigenous peoples face disadvantages.
He used the example of dentistry.
“I cannot work with Indigenous peoples the same way I work with non-Indigenous peoples,” he said.
“If I have two clients that come in, one non-Indigenous person and one Indigenous person, I can’t say to the Indigenous person like I would the non-Indigenous person: ‘Brush your teeth.’
“Because for the Indigenous person, the first question is: do they have healthy water in their community? Is the water safe to drink? If it isn’t, they’re probably drinking Coca-Cola, because it’s safer to drink than water because the water is tainted by mercury, or maybe they don’t have a toothbrush because they can’t afford one, or maybe they don’t even have a home.”
To be truly Canadian, he said – referencing the term Canada’s Iroquois origin in a word that means “village” – “doesn’t mean we flood out these communities to relieve these other ones. It means village. Everybody matters here.”
He told students: “I want you to commit to the idea that we are all in this together, and make a better world when you go become a dentist, a lawyer, a doctor, a nurse, a business owner. You are the most confident, educated generation in history. You know what the future needs.”
‘You have to talk about the hard stuff’
Sinclair later said he believes his role in pushing for change is a matter of giving students hope.
“This generation needs hope to see that things can change,” he said.
“Young people are not going to continue institutions the way they have in the past, like schools and universities and workplaces. They’re going to be making all brand-new ones.
“We can’t continue the violent legacies of the past, and much of that is imbedded in those institutions.”
One student told Cabin Radio the message was “stuff we don’t hear about enough, because people maybe don’t want to hear about or are scared to hear about it.”
They added: “I always want to help and contribute, but I don’t really know how, so I really appreciate conversations like this so I know how I can contribute and how I can help.”
Sinclair said: “You still have to talk about the hard stuff. You can’t not talk about residential schools, you can’t not talk about land theft, you can’t not talk about murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls.
“But you can do it in a way that is empowering, that isn’t guilt or pointing fingers, because for many Canadians this isn’t their fault, but it is their inheritance.
“It isn’t their fault that their ancestors stole land, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t living on stolen land, so we have to figure out what that means and then how we move forward.”