North of 70

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Editor’s Note: Our occasional contributor Robert Miller has a cottage on Lake Huron in Southampton and spends his summers there. He sent in this account of Canada Day. 

by Robert Miller

“Oh, Canada”

I decided to begin Canada Day by driving out to the Saugeen First Nation just over the bridge two miles east of Southampton. I wanted to find a member of the community to whom I could express my personal regrets for Canada’s treatment of the indigenous people and my hope that together we would do better in future. I hesitated because I was afraid of making a fool of myself but then I thought, so what, I have plenty of experience doing that. So off I went.

I drove from one end of the small community to the other then turned around. On my way back I saw a woman and three children hanging a string of small Canada flags along the hedge in front of their home. I parked along the side of the highway, walked over to them, introduced myself and said what I had wanted to say – I was sorry and hoped we would do better in future. The children, who ranged in age from 10 to 4 looked at me a bit suspiciously but carried on putting out the flags. The woman said she wasn’t enthusiastic about what they were doing “but the children wanted to do it”.

In a quiet voice and looking off into the distance, she then began to recount her story. Her mother had gone to residential school and experienced abuse. She spoke of the stealing of the land and the breaking of treaties. Looking at me, she explained that the children were her grandchildren who had been placed in her and her husband’s custody because their son had problems with alcohol. She said that in previous times the authorities would just come onto the reserve and take children away, often with no explanation and no opportunity for the family to care for the children. Throughout, the woman spoke quietly with a mixture of anger and sadness in her voice and eyes.

As our encounter came to an end, she said that I should speak to her husband who was a Deputy Chief and “knows more about the politics.” I found him at the gas bar he owns and waited for a few minutes while he served a customer. Then I walked up to him and said that I wanted on Canada Day to express my regrets for the past and hopes for the future. He smiled, extended his hand to me and thanked me for coming. He said there were not many who knew his people’s history. I said more are trying to learn but they are afraid to acknowledge or talk about these things. He said the same was true of his people who keep what happened inside themselves. He asked my name, again thanked me for coming, we shook hands and I drove off for the rest of Canada Day.

During the official Canada Day celebrations that afternoon, as we listened to the speeches and awaited the raising of the huge flag on which hundreds of us had signed our names, I was reminded of my encounters at the beginning of the day. Not one of the local officials who spoke, including the Member of Parliament for the area, made any reference to the history of the indigenous peoples of Canada or the harm done to them by our great country during the last 150 years. So far as this Canada Day celebration was concerned, it was as if the first peoples of Canada did not exist. I thought to myself this is more than ignorance and I wondered, Oh, Canada, why we are so afraid to acknowledge the wrongs we have done?