This Thursday, September 30th, marks the inaugural National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, a new federal statutory holiday. As per the Canadian government, this day “honours the lost children and Survivors of residential schools, their families and communities”. Undoubtedly, this is and should be the primary focus of the day. However, I put to you that it is actually about much more than that. It is about taking the time to take a critical look at our nation’s history – how it was taught to us in school, versus the reality experienced by our Indigenous populations – examining why that discrepancy exists, and contemplating the myriad ways in which our understanding of that history impacts the lived experiences of Indigenous people today.
Canada has a dark history that we are now reckoning with. This year has shown us, possibly more than any single year in living memory, that the impacts and effects of colonialism are very much felt today, 250 years after the Royal Proclamation of 1763, which set the foundation for relationships between governments and Indigenous peoples in what is now Canada. From the grizzly discovery of 215 children’s bodies in a mass grave on the site of the former Kamloops residential school in May, to the further discoveries of other unmarked mass graves on the sites of other former residential schools all over the nation (1802 bodies total found in Western Canada as of September 2021), we as Canadians have been stunned by the unimaginable horror of these “schools”, and are only now just beginning to truly understand.
We need to remember that while this is “news” for many of us, Indigenous groups have been telling us about this for years, and we simply haven’t been listening. It also behooves us to keep in mind that searches are ongoing and that the number of bodies found will certainly be greater than 1802 when all is said and done.
But it is not only our history which puts a stain on our national conscience: many Indigenous people today living on reserves across the country do not have access to safe drinking water, and this has been the case for many years. The federal government has known about this problem for years, and yet it persists. During the recent Federal election campaign, every major party had an item in their platform delineating how their party planned to address the issue, which points to how big a problem this truly is. However, the mere fact that they are coming up with action plans that have budgets allocated to them is in itself problematic, because why are we putting a dollar value on ensuring that those members of our society who already live in the margins have access to basic human rights, such as clean drinking water?
So the question then becomes, what is our role as healthcare providers, particularly as ED staff, when it comes to reconciliation with our Indigenous populations? Before we can start to answer that question in any meaningful way, we must accept the harsh truth that Emergency Departments in Canada have an established reputation of not being safe places for Indigenous patients (e.g. Brian Sinclair, Joyce Echequan). From there, we need to become more mindful and aware of the impacts that colonialism and the Residential School system have had, and continue to have on Indigenous patients presenting for care. They may have a very justifiable distrust of any system associated with the government, which our healthcare system most certainly is. Some of our older Indigenous patients may themselves be Residential School Survivors, and any institutional setting (such as a hospital) may be triggering for them. We need to familiarize ourselves with the Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, particularly those which pertain to healthcare, and actively participate in initiatives meant to enact these Calls to Action within our workplace and in our communities. But more than anything else, we need to show compassion and support for our Indigenous community.