Each June since 2009, we celebrate National Indigenous History Month to honour the history, heritage and diversity of Indigenous peoples.
OPSEU President Warren (Smokey) Thomas says this month is a great opportunity to recognize the strength of present-day Indigenous communities. Indigenous communities, peoples, and nations are those that, having a historical continuity with pre-invasion and pre-colonial societies that developed on their territories, consider themselves distinct from other sectors of the societies now living in those territories. Indigenous history on Turtle Island is a long and painful one of colonization, resistance and resilience.
With policies of assimilation and segregation, the Canadian government physically removed Indigenous peoples from their lands and forced them onto reserves. Their relationship with their traditional lands was the foundation of who they were as a People; the land holds their history. The settler government, with its laws and military power, tried to destroy everything that makes Indigenous Peoples who they are, including their cultural practices, languages, and spirituality.
Smallpox, typhus, measles and other diseases that were brought by Europeans ravaged Indigenous communities.
“The COVID-19 pandemic gives reason to reflect with empathy on the impact of diseases imported by Europeans into the Americas that decimated up to 95 per cent of the population of the hemisphere,” said Thomas.
Recognizing this history, the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous peoples, José Francisco Cali Tzay, recently called on all nations to ensure that indigenous peoples have access to information about COVID-19 in their languages and take urgent special measures to ensure availability and access to culturally appropriate medical services.
An estimated 150,000 Indigenous children were forced into the residential schools that operated from the late 1800s until the last one closed in 1996. While at the schools the children were taught or forced to accept that they, their families and cultures were inferior to European culture and lifestyle. The children learned to be ashamed of their identity. This practice of removing Indigenous children from their families and communities continued through the period commonly referred to as the Sixties Scoop. Thousands of Indigenous women, girls and two-spirits remain missing or were murdered, often with government inaction.
History reminds us that oppression creates resistance. Indigenous communities have always resisted and from this was born a resiliency that has enabled them to protect and preserve their teachings and way of life. Many individuals and communities are relearning, regaining, and revitalizing what was taken. The OKA uprising, Idle No More and solidarity with the hereditary chiefs of the Wet’suwet’en territory to defend the land are recent examples of an Indigenous resistance that refuses Canada’s genocidal policies of assimilation.
Krista Maracle, Chair of the OPSEU Indigenous Circle is proud of the efforts OPSEU has made to educate all its members through courses, trainings and Conferences to “make reconciliation more than a buzz word but a reality in the way we unlearn colonialist ways of thinking and acting.”
“When plagues and climate change challenge life on this planet, traditional Indigenous teachings provide a way forward that will heal Mother Earth and restore our relationship with the land and water. And this is in the interest of us all,” said Maracle.
Celebrating National Indigenous History Month and learning about Indigenous history is so important for all Canadians. It offers Canadians an opportunity to demonstrate their recognition of the important role Indigenous Peoples play in shaping this country. It also offers an opportunity to make a commitment to walking together nation-to-nation in peace and respect.
If you would like to receive regular updates from the Circle on Indigenous-Labour reconciliation, send a request to firstname.lastname@example.org and you will be added to the list.
Warren (Smokey) Thomas, President of OPSEU
Eduardo (Eddy) Almeida, OPSEU First Vice-President/Treasurer