Opinion

On this Orange Shirt Day: What has changed?

On this Orange Shirt Day, this is the question we must consider: What has changed? Today marks our second National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. It has been two years since the death of Joyce Echaquan. It has been 16 months since the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc community took it upon itself to use ground-penetrating radar to confirm long-held knowledge that hundreds of little children were buried in unmarked graves on the grounds of the Kamloops Indian Residential School. Since then, the haunting reality of more than a thousand additional radar “pings,” with each ping confirming the body of a little child lying in an unmarked grave, on the very grounds of the school they were forced to attend.

It has been two months since Pope Francis stepped onto Canadian soil to ask forgiveness on behalf of the Catholic Church for the genocidal horrors of that school system. It has been three weeks since Queen Elizabeth II, head of the Empire for whom all of this colonization took place, passed away, sparking questions of the “relevancy” of the monarchy today. Note she was reigning sovereign for nearly 71 of Canada’s 155 years.

So much has happened . . . but what has changed?

Inequities, unfairness, disparities remain the narrative of our lives.

There is no doubt that the sheer depth of inequities faced by First Nations, Inuit, Métis and Afro Indigenous people continues to be alarming. Indigenous people, by design, have the lowest amount of socio-economic privilege and political influence in this country. There continues to be a parallel universe in which we co-exist: despite our shared land we do not share a common history, we do not share a common present, and we do not share a common understanding of what our coexistence has meant.

Inequities, unfairness, disparities remain the narrative of our lives. As a country, we went from learning close to nothing about Indigenous people to learning a long stream of horrors: racism, mass graves, shortened life expectancies, over involvement in criminal and child welfare systems, abuse, oppression, exclusion.

We have narrowed on the most deficit-based narrative possible to frame our view of Indigenous people. Bias and stereotype continue to be serious issues that Indigenous people must mitigate. We have to anticipate racism and strategize on how to protect ourselves before interacting with any form of health or social services, including education.

The genesis of these disparities is extremely specific: this country was founded without the consent or contributions of Indigenous peoples. It was specifically designed to advance and advantage colonial life, wellbeing and wealth. The root cause of the parallel universe is so specific, and it requires equally specific solutions.

Through the Indian Act, the origins of which predate Canadian confederacy, the erasure of Indigenous knowledge was legalized and enforced with brutal aggression. The Indian Residential School System was created because Indigenous knowledge was so completely devalued. There was seen to be no way in which an Indigenous person could raise a child that would be of any use whatsoever to the Canadian economy or society. This resulted in the mass, race-based apprehension of Indigenous children for re-education.

As a country we have struggled to find solutions that would crack open the pathway to Reconciliation. This is largely because that deficit-based view of our communities and our people remains the dominant view. We have not fully realized the astounding strength and breadth of knowledge that exists within Indigenous communities. We have not appreciated the depth of kinship relations and Indigenous ways of knowing and being.

When we focus on the deficits, we cannot appreciate the strengths.

Almost every time an Indigenous solution is brought to the table, the first reaction is ‘no.’

Solutions already exist within Indigenous knowledge and kinship systems. Indigenous people have the strategic vision, intention and ability to address these gaps. This requires an ethical redistribution of resources that have been hoarded in non-Indigenous communities. Almost every time an Indigenous solution is brought to the table, the first reaction is “no”: No that does not fit; No that is not how we do things; No that is not fair to others; No that is not how it works. As Paul Farmer so beautifully expressed, we are living in the House of No. Every day, leaders and ordinary people alike enforce the daily status quo, using all the weight and inertia of our existing systems, and then on Orange Shirt Day we decry the slow pace of change.

Recently, I had a conversation with a professor about how to influence health policy in Canada. I expressed my view: the only way to truly impact change is by having political influence and socioeconomic power. He looked at me and explained the importance of having an open mind to alternative realities. He explained that he had come from a background of having an MBA, and it took him a long time to be able to look at policy problems without seeing only the financial lens. Then he said “and you come from a background of being Indigenous, so you have …”

His voice trailed off, leaving me to wonder what it is exactly that I have. Is my mind rigid, inflexible, indignant and angry? Able only to see reality through the lens of oppression? Do I exist in an intellectual wormhole of marginalization, seeing systematic exclusion at every turn?

That would be incorrect. My mind is not only the product of a people who survived the Indian Residential School System, it is a product of a knowledge, kinship, wisdom and love that is thousands of years older than colonization. And it will be this – the wisdom and love of our Elders and Ancestors – that will be the source of the change we impatiently await. 

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3 Comments
  • Carrie Bernard says:

    Can we please acknowledge the artist, Lisa Boivin, whose images you are using?
    Thanks!

    • She is acknowledged in each piece we have used her art for. She is listed under the author as ‘artist.’ in fact, this is a custom piece of art made specifically for Dr. Shoush by Lisa.

      If you are unable to see it, perhaps hard refresh the page in your browser.

  • Tania says:

    Yesterday I hesitated. I questioned how to explain. As I put an orange shirt on my three year old I asked, what do I say? What does he need to know at his age? What will he learn at school? What will he comprehend?

    Unsure, I focused on what his shirt said – Every child counts. Yes, what I must start with is the vision, the essence of what is true. Every child is important. Every child is beautiful. Every child is valuable. I told him, We where orange shirts to say that we love everyone that every child counts. And he needs to know that this must be our way every day of the year.

    That each day forward, we must make decisions and take action to prove this belief. For a three year old, that means teaching him kindness, empathy and to lead with his heart. He needs to see the importance, beauty and value of the Indigenous peoples before he can comprehend the atrocities. The hopefully he’ll grow into a true ally and activist.

Authors

Suzanne Shoush

Contributor

Suzanne Shoush is a family doctor, an Indigenous and Black mother and an equity advocate. She is the Indigenous Health Faculty Lead for the Department of Family and Community Medicine at the UofT, and a co-founder of Doctors for Defunding Police and Call Auntie.

Artist

Lisa Boivin

Artist

Lisa Boivin is a member of the Deninu Kue First Nation in Northwest Territories, Canada. She is a bioethicist and a Doctoral Candidate at University of Toronto Faculty of Medicine. She uses digital images as a pedagogical tool to confront colonial barriers Indigenous patients navigate in the healthcare system and offers Indigenous teachings to resolve them. Lisa strives to humanize clinical medicine as she situates her arts-based practice in the Indigenous continuum of passing knowledge through images.

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