A critical look at Canada 150: Qwul’sih’yah’maht (Robina Thomas)

Features Series

Canada-150-Feature-TitleWe asked community leaders and educators about Canada’s sesquicentennial anniversary, to reflect on this country’s present, past, and future.

Qwul’sih’yah’maht (Robina Thomas) | Director of Indigenous Academic and Community Engagement and Associate Professor at the School of Social Work

I am a mother and a grandmother, and I think that’s really, really important for me, and important for the work I do, and important for my identity and some of the questions you’re going to ask. I will answer them from the perspective of an educator, but also from the perspective of a community member, of a parent, and of a grandparent.

The Martlet: What does it mean to you to be a Canadian, and what is a Canadian identity?

I think this is a really big question. I’m trying to think about where do you begin to answer a question like this. For Status Indians in Canada, we did not get the right to vote until 1960 despite the fact that we were the first people of this land. Both on the island Valdes Island where I belong to now, but also from the traditional Snuneymuxw and Stó:lõ territories, we have proof that we have been here since time immemorial. But as far as our position in Canada, we were wards of the court until 1960. So from the arrival of settlers and then the need to settle Canada, we became the wards of the Crown. So what does it mean to be Canadian? We were not considered ‘Canadians’ until 1960. So when we think about Canada 150, it actually makes me really sad. It makes me really sad to think that my grandmother and my mother were not considered Canadian citizens in their own lands, and so, what it means to be Canadian is very, very complicated for Indigenous people. I actually identify as – so our word for our own people is xwulmuxw – and so I identify as being a Leey’qsun mustimuhw, or I identify as being xwulmuxw.

So it’s very, very complicated. It’s a really complicated question, and I think it raises lots of real, deep emotions for many, many reasons . . .

My identity is rooted in my Indigenous roots, and my Indigenous ways of knowing and being, as opposed to Canadian identity, because the Canadian identity, I think, excludes an identity that’s about the land, not just people, and in about our relationship to all things, and so that my identity would be rooted in that.

In the context of your work, what does Canada 150 mean to you?

I’m a social work educator. [One example of the work] that we’ve been doing a lot at the University is delivering Indigenous cultural acumen training. So what does Canada 150 mean? What we do in the training is try to lay a foundation for people to think about our relationship with Indigenous people. Because we’re here at the University of Victoria and our relationships are strongest with the Lekwungen and SENĆOŦEN-speaking people, we really focus on [them], but we also tell people, ‘if you’re anywhere, you can focus on the Indigenous people of your territory.’ And what we do in here is a couple of things. So this is what it means to my work, is we really, really focus on understanding the territory. So we talk about the territorial acknowledgement, we talk about the land, the absolute land that you’re walking on. And so we have maps and we show the nations in the area surrounding the university, so the Lekwungen and the W̱SÁNEĆ people; we show maps and we talk to people about these lands. And then we talk about the three big nations on Vancouver Island and really encourage people to think about diversity.

We have a number of principles that we talk about in the work that we do, and we state that in order for anyone to work effectively with Indigenous people in Canada we believe that they have to understand Canada’s policies and practices. And when I say that, what I’m saying is that a lot of people sit back and say, ‘well, I had nothing to do with what happened to Indigenous people, I wasn’t involved in any that.’ And having been hands-on involved, most of us weren’t. But all of what has happened to Indigenous people in Canada has been rooted in Canadian policies and practices. So as Canadians, they are the policies and practices of our governments, of both federal and provincial governments. And so we do have something, we are responsible for something, and those are the policies and practices that govern our country.

We also say that in order to understand these policies and practices that you have to reflect on ‘how do you know what you know?’ And we say to people, ‘how do you know Indigenous people in Canada, or Indigenous people in your community, or the area that you grew up in? … How do you know those Indigenous people? What did you learn?’ And we say to people, ‘we want you to think about your socialization, and we want you to think about what you’ve internalized by how you were socialized.’ So [it’s] a real call to action about understanding how you know what you know, and a commitment to learn if how you know what you know isn’t accurate, how to relearn or unbecome, and learn the true history of Indigenous people in Canada.

And then, lastly, [we teach] the principle [of] asking us all to work across difference, which we believe will make the university a better campus for everybody if we all spend the time to think about ‘how do we work across difference?’ And so those are really big, huge principles, but they’re things that we do in the work that we do everyday.

And one of the things that we do here — and I’ll just give two examples, because it’s huge; it’s rooted in teachings and we do all kinds of things — but we go through little sections of the Indian Act and we share with people specific things about the Indian Act, and we ask them to consider them.

So we start in 1869. We could have started before that, because Indigenous people were living on this land and comfortable on this land and living really, really prosperous lives on this land prior to European contact with our lands. And so we could have gone back that far so say what happened, but, as a way of looking at what the Indian Act did, we talk about 1869, [when] the Enfranchisement Act states that Indian women who marry non-Indian men would, along with her children, lose their status. And so you see the very, very purposeful and intentional displacement of Indigenous women and children. But what better way to stop a race of people than to start to displace the givers of life? It seems very intentional.

In the same year, band election systems were imposed in our communities that said women could not vote and they could not run for band elections, and so you now have – not only are women systematically displaced from their communities, but they also now can’t run in band elections or be involved in band systems when many of our communities across Canada were matrilineal. So again, a real systematic displacement of Indigenous women.

In 1876, an Indigenous person who earned a university degree would automatically be enfranchised, or lose their status. Also in 1876, a pass system was put in place where Indigenous people were not allowed to leave the reserve without the permission of the federal government. So we’re displacing people, we’re confining people, and now we’re completely isolating them.

In 1884 . . . the potlatch and the sundance were banned. But what’s really important about thinking about traditional ceremonies, because not all of us called them potlatches . . . is our traditional ceremonies were our absolute form of governance. That’s how we recorded births, deaths, marriages. That’s how we passed on our culture, our traditions, our songs, our dances, our drums, our masks. But we did it in a way where we invited people from all of the surrounding communities, and we asked them to witness the work that we did, so that they would then take it home, so it was our department of vital statistics.

But also, we gathered. So people got together. And you know what it’s like when you go to a gathering and you see a friend and you say, ‘what have you been up to? What’s going on?’ Well we were doing the same thing. So we would be saying, ‘so we have this guy named Douglas coming into our community talking about treaties. And he’s telling us that we should be signing these treaties, but our Elders don’t think we should. What’s he saying to you?’ So we would talk about the land issue, we would talk about the federal government, we would talk about the Indian Act, we would talk about, ‘this isn’t okay, these are our lands, we need to do something about it.’ And so to begin with, there’s a pass system … but [in 1884], even in our own communities, we’re not allowed to practice our traditional ceremonies.

In 1927, because we still continued to try — I mean, this is our way of knowing and being — . . . the Indian Act again was amended [and] prohibited [us] from raising money to hire a lawyer; because we were hiring lawyers to pursue our land claims. And not only were we prohibited from raising money to hire lawyers, anyone else was prohibited from raising money on our behalf. So then we go on to 1949 when we got the right to vote in B.C. and 1960 in Canada in the federal elections. And so there’s a very short period of time here where very much has happened. So in our work, here at the university, we try to share with people about understanding this history and understanding our role and our responsibility that this was actually legislation.

We talk about real specific areas but I’m not going to talk about all of that in this interview. But the last thing that we really spend a fair bit of time doing was that part I talked to you at the beginning about: how do you know what you know? So that piece, we ask people to consider how they were socialized and what they internalized. And I say this a lot — and I won’t speak for everyone, I’ll just say this for me — that if you add new information on a fundamentally racist ideology, that’s new information on a racist ideology… By looking at socialization and internalization, by adding all of this fact about the Indian Act and Indigenous people in Canada, and how systematically excluded we’ve been, and specifically what’s happened to Indigenous women and children, our hope is that, with this ideology, we start to poke holes. And we start to make people say, ‘wow, I didn’t know that. I need to look into that.’ … It’s the poking holes that makes new information to start to come through, and so our purpose is [making people ask], ‘what do I do? What is my role here?’ It’s this constant poking at ideologies and the way people have been socialized [in order] to say there’s other ways of knowing and being that are absolutely valid, that are absolutely true, that you need to consider. And so that’s my role here.

When I think specifically about social work, I think about the children. Fifty per cent of the children in care in Canada are Indigenous, despite the fact that we make up somewhere between 4 and 5 per cent of the Canadian population. That’s really absolutely unacceptable. And our elders have told us that they say that our child welfare system has completely taken over where the Residential School system left off, so we still have this system of taking Indigenous children, and it’s very, very unacceptable. And so we really need to look at our child welfare system across Canada. I don’t think it’s good for non-Indigenous children either, but it’s really, really, really an awful system for Indigenous children and families.

And then the other piece that is really, really critical to the work I do in social work is the murdered and missing Indigenous women, girls, and two-spirited people. And I don’t think that in a country that prides itself on social justice and multiculturalism and first world classifications that we should have 1200 plus women in a category where there is not an outcry, a national outcry, to figure out how we can be in a country where women can go missing on the streets. Indigenous women at alarming rates can go missing on the streets.

And these two things are things that in my social work practice are really critical for me in the role that I do.

And the last thing about in my role is that everything I do is around creating an environment around creating space where Indigenous students can not only succeed but flourish. Where they can come to the University of Victoria and where their ways of knowing and being are embraced. Where they can leave with their xwulmuxw identity completely intact, and they can come and enjoy education like other people do. And sometimes these institutions are really difficult for us to manoeuvre. And not just grades: the institution itself. And I know lots of students [who] suffer with different things. Maybe it’s the stress of academics, or courses that were not what they expected, and all of that, and I know that many students struggle, but I am talking about coming in and having your identity embraced, and being able to leave after a degree completely rooted, still, in your xwulmuxw ways of knowing and being. So that’s the other thing that is really, really why I do the work that I do.

How do you feel when you see people celebrating Canada’s 150?

I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about it because we’re in this year. And I’m listening to it, now I’m seeing my neighbour across the street has this Canada flag; you know, one of those great, big, massive ones. And I look outside and I smile and there’s a couple of things I think of.

First of all, I think, ‘I wonder, all of these people, if they really understand the history of Canada, and particularly, the history of Canada in relation to marginalized people.’ It’s not just Indigenous people … but I think of our treatment of Japanese people, I think about our treatment of immigrants, I think about the Doukhobors, you know, all of these other marginalized people, and I wonder … ‘everyone [is] out buying their red and white and so proudly hanging their flags — I wonder how much they know of this.’ And again I go back to my mum. It makes me so sad to think that my mum and my grandma had periods of their lives where they were not eligible to vote. That they weren’t equal to other Canadians, despite the fact that their roots are way more than 150 years on these lands. I can go to my cemetery and find my great-grandpa’s grave that’s way more than 150 years ago. And yet my mum wasn’t considered a Canadian citizen until 1960. That’s wrong. That’s really wrong.

The other thing that makes me giggle sometimes is that on Canada Day, I’ve been to events where we never actually talk about Canada Day: we just party. And so that’s the other part – we’re making a big thing of it, but July 1 for many, many people that I’ve been able to witness [is] a day off. Whether the 150 will be different – I’ve never been to a July 1 event where we all sit and do a round on what it means to be Canadian, you know? We go listen to music, and they might be Canadian bands. So I think about those two things a lot. But really this year, thinking about my ancestors, and thinking about how they would feel, whether they would feel respected with the Canada 150. And I don’t think they would.

What would you like to see Canada be like in the next 150 years?

Well you know, we had the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2015 … and there’s 94 amazing calls to action. But calls to action have to begin in going backwards first. And our elders have a teaching that you can’t move forward unless you know where you’ve been. And so, for many Canadians, I think for us to move forward, truly in the spirit of reconciliation — if that’s what we want, because … reconciliation, by definition, is the action of making one’s views or beliefs compatible with another, so is this something we’re doing collectively, Indigenous and non-Indigenous — I actually think the non-Indigenous Canadians actually need to do more of this work. I think they need to figure out how they create space in their ways of knowing and being for the Other; they need to figure out what work they need to do. So I think about the calls to action and I think that we must first step backwards before we can go forwards in a good way.

And you know, the foundational work I was talking about in this Indigenous cultural acumen training, I think we need to do some fundamental work first. We need to find our place. We need to find our identity. And I shouldn’t say us – Canadians need to find their place. They need to find their identity. They really need to focus on how they know what they know, and how they can create space for Indigenous ways of knowing and being, for the Indigenous history, for the history of Indigenous people in Canada, and how they can move forward in the spirit of reconciliation. And I can’t answer that question, right? I can tell you what it means to me. And I think this is work. We need to go back before we can go forward. We can’t talk about reconciling residential schools if you actually don’t know what they were. And our late elder Joyce Underwood who passed away, who was on our Elder’s Voices and was just an amazing woman, said to me after the release of the [TRC] report, she said, ‘you know Robina, I’m so afraid that we are all of a sudden now so focused on reconciliation that we’re actually going to not ever learn what happened in a residential school.’ And she said, ‘Canada, Canadians need to know about residential schools and what happened.’

And I guess it’s moving back to that teaching of we can’t move forward if we don’t understand where we’ve come from. And that was Joyce’s real fear. So where do we go? We need to take many steps backwards. We need to be open. And so we have a saying: /tth’ihwum tseep ‘i’m’istuhw thun’ ‘uy shkwalawvns/ – bring in your good feelings. And our elders tell us, ‘you come into important places, sacred places, ceremonial spaces,’ they tell us, ‘you come in /shkwalawvns/ with a good mind and a good heart.’ And they also tell us if you come in with a good mind and a good heart, you will be open to learning new things. You will be open to learning new ways. You will be open to seeing things differently, hearing things differently, speaking differently, and feeling, most importantly, in our spirit, feeling things differently. And I think it’s a really important teaching about moving forward, is challenging Canadians to bring in their good feelings, and to bring in being open to new ways of knowing and being. And being open to understanding and not being afraid to go back in order to move forward in a good way.

Education is key. You know, for everyone, not just thinking here about students because we’re in a university. Education is key straight across the board.

To read more interviews from the feature, click here