To me, October means that fall has really arrived. I see more pumpkins and fresh-picked produce, the leaves are changing rapidly, the air is cooler and crisper, and of course there’s Thanksgiving and Halloween. That’s what usually comes to mind when I think of October. However, this year I learned that October is also Mi’kmaq History Month.
While Mi’kmaq History Month is officially recognized in Nova Scotia, the idea of it is far more universal. Mi’kma’ki - the ancestral and unceded territory of the Mi’kmaq people - extends beyond Nova Scotia to include Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland, central and eastern New Brunswick, as well as the Gaspé Peninsula. Even outside of Mi’kma’ki, the land that we occupy is rich with Indigenous heritage and is theirs to rightfully claim. Many Indigenous people groups signed treaties with European colonizers, but these were mainly treaties of peace and friendship, outlining agreements on military alliances, commercial trade, and sharing the land. In fact, the Peace and Friendship Treaties in the Maritimes were quite unique in that land was not given up.
For hundreds of years, however, the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people has been characterized by anything but peace and friendship. From brutal wars and attacks on Indigenous villages, to the horrific treatment of children in Indian Residential Schools, to the countless Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women, to the ongoing racism and common misconceptions about Indigenous’ peoples’ lifestyles and government support. All these issues and our reluctance to deal with them highlight the broken nature of the relationship between non-Indigenous people and Indigenous people and land.
This brokenness and the cycles of oppression, abuse, and pleading ignorance cannot continue. Our failure to respect the dignity and rights of Indigenous people flies directly in the face of God’s affirmation that each of us is made in His image (Genesis 1:27). When we perpetuate false beliefs about Indigenous people, we stir up conflict that creates unnecessary division and defies God’s plea to “live at peace with everyone” (Romans 12:18). When we fail to love our neighbour as ourselves, and to stand up against the injustice that is plaguing Indigenous people we ignore God’s command to “uphold the cause of the poor and oppressed” (Psalm 82:3) and “to act justly [and] love mercy” (Micah 6:8).
Clearly, we have to do better if we are to live up to God’s call by building an equitable world in which people are respected regardless of race, ancestry or cultural association. But where do we begin? It can be overwhelming and emotional to navigate the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, especially given all of the past and ongoing trauma. Now is a great time to begin, especially if you happen to be in Nova Scotia, but the process of reconciliation will take a lot longer than just a month.
The good news is, you don’t have to deal with all of it and you don’t have to deal with any of it alone. We will make mistakes and have to go back and humbly ask for forgiveness again, but isn’t that the path we travel in any relationship? I have 3 suggestions for how you can start, alone or in a group, working toward right relationship with Indigenous people:
1. Educate Yourself: Learn about the Indigenous people in your area. Learn the names of people groups and local landmarks, learn about the treaties that were signed, learn about their history before and after European contact. Build relationships with Indigenous people in your area to make the stories and the reconciliation process more personal. Don’t be scared away by the dark history; it can be hard to learn but it’s also important to know the past so that you can discover how to move forward.
2. See What Others are Doing: Slowly but surely, Canadians are waking up to the realization that we need to reconcile with our Indigenous neighbours in order to build a strong, healthy society. Ask about what is happening in your community to build positive relationships with Indigenous peoples. If you can’t find anything, then look at what others around the province or country are doing and ask how you could partner with Indigenous people in your area to do something similar. Read the report of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (www.trc.ca) to learn what has been done and what needs to be done to continue the process of reconciliation and righting our relationship with Indigenous people.
3. Stand Together and Stand Behind: There are many issues that Indigenous peoples face, such as water shortage, poverty, environmental concerns, gender equity, or lack of employment opportunities, that non-Indigenous people also face. On these issues we can stand together to lobby for change, seek innovative solutions, and remind ourselves that ties of common humanity run deeper than culture, history or race. Do not be surprised, though, if there are times when non-Indigenous people need to step back to let Indigenous people tell their own story and shape the movement in their own way.
The truth is, as a non-Indigenous person, I can never fully grasp what it means to be Indigenous. That does not mean that I can’t support Indigenous people or ask questions or empathize with them, it simply means that I cannot always stand in their place. So, I will stand with them and I will stand behind them, knowing that change takes time, but together, as Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, we can build a society that mirrors God’s call to justice, mercy and reconciliation.