Blog by Sarah Martens, Youth Health Educator with Teen Talk
The 150th anniversary of Canada is just a couple of months away. Many people and communities across the nation are planning celebrations and thinking about what this represents for them, celebrating ideals of what it means to be ‘Canadian’, such as peacekeeping, diversity, multi-culturalism, the love of hockey, maple syrup and maybe wearing plaid. It is also an opportunity to reflect on and learn about the true history of this land and how Canada came to be a country. In essence, we can look at the name of the country to begin; Canada, from the Indigenous word Kanata, a Huron-Iroquois word meaning “settlement” or “village”. The name itself reminds us that ‘our home and native land’ of Canada is in fact ‘our home on native land.’
As an Indigenous woman, Ininiw (also known as Cree) and Ukrainian, Canada 150, for me and many others, is a reminder that this land was in fact settled forcibly through a process of colonization, violence and attempted genocide of the Indigenous people who have lived here from time immemorial.
It is important to remember the true history of this land in a time when there is a national call for action from the Truth & Reconciliation Commission as well as a ‘national commitment’ to reconciliation. In a recent article entitled ‘Canada 150 is a Celebration of Indigenous Genocide’, Pamela Palmater, a Mi’kmaw citizen, member of Eel River Bar First Nation and Indigenous lawyer says:
“The prime minister spoke at National Aboriginal Day ceremonies in 2016 about “the importance of reconciliation and the process of truth-telling” in healing Canada’s relationship with Indigenous peoples. He has no right to speak about reconciliation before he takes the necessary steps to make amends. Canada has no right to ask any one of us to talk about moving forward until the prime minister and all premiers take responsibility for what their institutions have done – and continue to do – to Indigenous peoples. No amount of token showcasing of Indigenous art, songs or dances in Canada’s 150th celebration will stop the intergenerational pain and suffering, suicides, police abuse, sub-standard health care, housing and water, or the extinction of the majority of Indigenous languages.”
In the spirit of true reconciliation and honoring the true history of this land, it is imperative that we remember that, for some, rather than a celebration, Canada 150 is in fact a reminder of the loss, trauma, violence, racism and generational effects of colonization that Indigenous people have continued to survive & resist over the last 150 years.
It is also an opportunity to honor and celebrate the first peoples of this land. To acknowledge their continued resilience, strength and resistance in the face of ongoing attempted assimilation and genocide for over 150 years.
It is an opportunity to look deeper and deconstruct those ‘rose-colored’ Canadian ideals that we hold so dear and acknowledge that these colonial processes are still happening today through:
- The Indian Act, which continues to define who is legally an “Indian”, a racist tool which was used to assimilate, segregate and denigrate Indigenous peoples. Isn’t it awful that the only people that need a ‘card’ to confirm their identity on this land are the people who are actually from this land?
- Non-consensual resource extraction on Indigenous lands (pipelines, mining, hydro dams, etc.),
- High rates of missing & murdered Indigenous women across the nation
- The continued expectation of Indigenous people to ‘just fit in’ to white systems, world views, education and ways of being in the world.
- Racism that exists subtly as well as blatantly in our schools, communities, workplaces, health, education, legal and governments systems.
- The lack of clean water, liveable housing, quality education, access to fresh food and health services in many Indigenous communities.
- Racist and oppressive policing of Indigenous people as well as over-representation and persecution in the legal system.
- The assumption and underlying rhetoric that white /western ways of knowing, relating and being are more logical and superior.
So now that we’ve talked about what colonization looks like, let’s talk about what decolonizing means. Decolonizing is the process of unlearning colonial and racist ways of thinking and being, uncovering and telling truth, as well as actively challenging colonial systems and ways of relating. For non-indigenous folks, this means acknowledging your unearned privilege & power, the ways that you benefit from the history of stolen land, resources and genocide of Indigenous peoples. It is not about getting stuck in guilt about what has happened, but more about acknowledging that you hold colonial and racist beliefs by simply being socialized into a colonial society. The sooner you admit that, the sooner you can do the hard work of being a real ally. It means taking steps to learn the true history and acknowledging where you fit in this shared history. It also means listening, asking questions, learning and practicing humility, giving up some of your power and privilege, as well as challenging colonial systems and relationships.
It means ‘passing the mic’: stop discrediting Indigenous voices, ways of knowing and being. In fact, work on centring their voices in your personal relationships, communities and workplaces. Give them the space, spotlight and power that you might be used to having simply because of who you are in this colonial system. Remember that ‘speaking truth to power is an act of love’. This means if you are being called on a mistake that you made, acknowledge that it took a lot of courage for that person to tell you, especially if you hold more power in that relationship or in society in general. Calling people on their stuff takes courage and shows that people trust in you to listen, learn and hopefully change to be a better human.
Okay, so what does decolonizing look like in the work that we do at Teen Talk? What have we done so far and how do we keep learning and changing? Good question!
- We have adopted decolonizing as one of our Teen Talk Operating Principles, which we hope to be another reminder that can keep us accountable to this process.
- As a program, we ask for and receive teachings from Indigenous teachers, elders as well as Jessica Danforth from NYSHYN.
- We asked for help from the Native Youth Sexual Health Network (NYSHN) in developing our Teen Talk North training & manual.
- We integrated a land acknowledgment into all of our workshops, trainings, etc and do it everywhere we go.
- We acknowledge colonial intergenerational trauma in our mental health workshop as well as Indigenous teachings and ways of healing.
- We talk about colonization, cultural appropriation & decolonizing in our Appreciating Diversity workshop.
- We attempt to build relationships and be open & flexible when in communities. This sometimes means getting involved after workshops in community events, socializing or helping in practical ways.
- We continue to reflect, review and integrate concepts of decolonizing in our workshops as well as in our approach:
- When a difference in world view arises, recognize the importance and right of Indigenous ideas and beliefs to guide over western ways of thinking.
- Recognizing our privilege and trying to identify where power imbalances stem from. Think about how this can be transformed to create more equitable relationships.
- Spend time in the community with people beyond the scope of your job
- Ask what you can do to be helpful and follow through. Ask when unsure or don’t know about something. Don’t assume you know what others need.
- At events, try to take part in the ‘little things’, or do jobs such as cleaning, setting up or giving rides in humble ways.
- Invite and create space for Indigenous voices, cultural practices and ways of running things. Look for, value and trust Indigenous worldviews and perspectives especially when it’s challenging us to understand.
- Know you are not the only expert. You have an expertise in your field as do others in their respective roles. Believe a person’s lived experience over textbooks written by professionals or “experts”.
- Do not declare yourself an ally. It is up to those you aim to support to bestow that honor upon you should your actions and behaviors actually be helpful.
- Recognize that allyship is hard work because we have to look at things within ourselves and our society that are uncomfortable and work to change.
(This list can be found in Teen Talk’s Service Provider Manual.)
* We are just beginning and we have a lot more work to do. We continue to learn individually and as a program. Decolonizing & reconciliation is a process and we all make mistakes in these things. Though the more open we are to hearing feedback with humility and learn from our mistakes, the better we are able to learn & do this work.
What are some more practical ways to commit to a process of decolonizing in our own lives or workplaces? Reflect on and acknowledge your place in the shared history of this land and make a personal commitment to the process of decolonizing. (This means reflecting and being honest with yourself about who you are and where you’re at now). It also means remembering that you will make mistakes and practicing humility when you do. Decolonizing means asking questions, listening and doing some serious self-reflection. It’s about taking real action; beginning with acknowledging the privilege that you have, and then giving some of that up in practical ways. For example, that could mean taking up less air time in meetings and making space for Indigenous voices and other often silenced voices; inviting Indigenous people and people of color to the decision making table, or to be part of important conversations and committees. Examine who holds the most power in your organization; if they are all white, it might be time to ask yourselves why, and what that means for the kind of work you want to be doing. Challenging colonial systems and relationships is about the way we treat people in our personal and professional relationships; as well as who we lift up and give power to over others in our workplaces in blatant ways like who we hire, and more subtle ways, like who is listened to and what voices are given the most weight and power. Finally, take responsibility for seeking out and learning about other ways of decolonizing and being a better human being. Don’t expect Indigenous people and people of color to continually bear the responsibility of teaching and calling out mistakes. Practice being self-reflective, humble and critical and remember that this is your work to do. It is both our individual and collective responsibility to take initiative to learn and to ultimately be more respectful, decolonized and compassionate human beings.
“ ‘Understanding the world through a Relationship Framework … we don’t see ourselves, our communities, or our species as inherently superior to any other, but rather see our roles and responsibilities to each other as inherent to enjoying our life experiences,’ says Amadahy. From Turtle Island to Palestine, striving toward decolonization and walking together toward transformation requires us to challenge a dehumanizing social organization that perpetuates our isolation from each other and normalizes a lack of responsibility to one another and the Earth.” – Harsha Walia
Links & Resources for more information:
 Pamela Palmater. Canada 150 is a Celebration of Indigenous Genocide’. <https://nowtoronto.com/news/canada-s-150th-a-celebration-of-indigenous-genocide/#.WN0TnUCHjao.twitter>
 Vanessa AnakwudwabisayQuay. Being an Ally to Indigenous Peoples, Communities & Nations. Teen Talk Service Provider Manual, Pg. 21.
 Harsha Walia. Decolonizing Together: Moving beyond a politics of solidarity toward a practice of decolonization. <https://briarpatchmagazine.com/articles/view/decolonizing-together>