Message from Michael Gottheil,

Chief of the Commission and Tribunals, Alberta Human Rights Commission

(June 19, 2019)

National Indigenous Peoples Day 2019: A Tough One This Year

June 21st marks the annual celebration of National Indigenous Peoples Day. It is a day to recognize, honour and celebrate First Nations, Métis and Inuit culture and tradition. All across the country there will be events marking National Indigenous Peoples Day, including ceremonies, music and dance. Yet, coming only a few weeks after the release of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls report, the celebrations may feel difficult to fully embrace.

As I sat down this weekend to write a message marking National Indigenous Peoples Day, I couldn’t stop thinking about a powerful passage in Thomas King’s book, “The Inconvenient Indian.” King speaks about North America’s difficulty in living with Indigenous Peoples as equals. He writes that we, non-Indigenous people, are much more comfortable with what he calls “the dead Indian.” 

Dead Indians are Garden of Eden variety Indians. Pure, noble, innocent, perfectly authentic, … not a feather out of place. Live Indians are fallen Indians, modern contemporary copies, not authentic Indians at all. Indians by biological association only.

Dead Indians are dignified, noble, silent, suitably garbed, and dead. Live Indians are invisible, unruly, disappointing and breathing. One is a heroic reminder of a fictional past. The other is simply an unpleasant contemporary surprise.

Of course, over the past number of years, particularly since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada report, Indigenous Peoples are sharing their traditions and cultures. Hopefully non-Indigenous Canadians can begin to listen and learn, embrace Indigenous culture and teaching, not as a spectacle of what King calls, “the dead Indian,” but as a communion between equals. That is a tough order to fill.

It’s particularly tough this year. More than just acknowledging that to work on reconciliation and respect, we must be willing to go to uncomfortable places, we have to recognize the impact of colonial policies over generations.

In 2015, legal philosopher Jeremy Waldron gave a series of lectures entitled “One Another’s Equals.” He said that pervasive injustice and depravation of one part of society may lead to divided nations, where each cannot imagine the life of the other.

Holding onto a conviction about equal dignity may be harder for us as the population grows into two nations, rich and poor, and as people’s ways of life become not just unfamiliar, but unintelligible to each other.    

Equality may become less and less credible to us and our children because we become less and less able to imagine what it would be like to live with these others on genuine equal terms.  

We might become so accustomed to economic inequality, so inured to the spectacle of it despite it being unjustified, that we cease to recognize those who are deprived as nevertheless our equals.

Among the many important and powerful aspects of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls report, is the demonstration in the clearest and most unambiguous terms, that for many non-Indigenous people, we cannot imagine a reality where so many of our family, our kin, our community, go missing or are murdered. We cannot imagine that those who work in law enforcement, in the justice system and in health care, would see our families and loved ones as so different, so lesser, so other.

Waldron goes on to say, “being one another’s equal is one thing, treating each other as equal is another thing.” There is much work to do.

Celebrating National Indigenous Peoples Day offers a positive opportunity to explore, understand, learn and embrace Indigenous culture and traditions, not just from afar, as if Indigenous people and traditions were, as King observes, a curious spectacle of the past, but as a living reality which has relevance and meaning for all Canadians .

As we recognize and celebrate National Indigenous Peoples Day this year, let’s remember whatever our merits, our status, our faith, our beliefs, as humans, we are still fundamentally, "One Another’s Equals."  Let’s use this day as a step on the path to making that inalienable, human rights principle, a reality.

Our vision is a vibrant and inclusive Alberta where the rich diversity of people is celebrated and respected, and where everyone has the opportunity to fully participate in society, free from discrimination.