Sarah Makowsky: News Editor Ω
Everyone will get along better if we take the time to gain better understanding of each other’s differences.
This is the simple, but strong message that former National Chief Phil Fontaine wants people to take to heart. “I hope that we come to appreciate that even though people are different, they’re worthy of respect,” he said.
Drums pounded and melodic voices filled the Grand Hall on Thursday, Feb. 16, as the Secwepemc Honour Song was played to welcome the guest speaker from TRUSU’s Common Voices Lecture Series.
Young and old, TRU students and other residents of Kamloops and surrounding communities came to see Fontaine.
“[Fontaine] is a vital and cherished leader in Canada,” said TRUSU president Dasha Moryakova. “This is a man [who] stands for no less than justice for Aboriginal Peoples.”
Fontaine, who grew up on an Ojibwa reserve near Winnipeg, began his lecture with a brief history of Aboriginal Peoples in Canada to “give a sense of the progress of First Nations People in comparison with mainstream Canada.”
He said his words aren’t meant to offend anyone.
“Hopefully this will make people think about whatever assumptions they have about indigenous people and why they have them.”
He spoke about treaties and the lack of common knowledge surrounding them.
“It is of utmost importance that we develop a better understanding,” said Fontaine. “It will put us on a healthier course.”
Indian lands are being alienated due to wrong, improper and illegal surrenders, he said.
He also addressed one of the most contentious issues affecting First Nation Peoples today, residential schools.
Approximately 150,000 students attended residential schools over a span of 150 years. Residential schools were meant to “kill the Indian in the child,” said Fontaine. Schools were the easiest way to accomplish this because children were removed from their families’ cultural influences.
Some children were physically and sexually abused at these residential schools, or even lost their lives.
Fontaine is quick to point out that most of the people who ran the residential schools were good, dedicated and committed people who had the children’s best interests at heart, but there were those who had malicious intentions.
Residential schools created dysfunction in families. Children became alienated from their parents and had difficulties raising their own children because they were removed from a family setting.
Part of the federal government’s recognition of the wrongdoing in residential schools comes in the form of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
During its inception five years ago, Fontaine was asked to speak at the floor of the House of Commons. “It was an opportunity for the first time in Canadian history to speak in our own voice,” he said.
Justin Young, a self-proclaimed Warrior of Peace, walked from Kamloops to his home in Manitoba last year to raise awareness about healing and forgiveness.
“You have inspired me to do what I’m doing,” he told Fontaine.
Young believes more needs to be done for healing. “I can’t seem to walk far enough,” he said.
The journey to healing has begun, but a long road lies ahead. The solution lies in mutual respect and understanding, according to Fontaine.
“If we don’t reach out both ways, we will have failed future generations,” he said. “We have this incredible opportunity to create a new understanding, to make us proud to be Canadian.”