by Gloria Welton
Senator Brian Francis recently spoke at an Inspiring Leadership Series event held by the Greater Summerside Chamber of Commerce (GSCC).
“We are encouraged by the response of the business community to Senator Brian Francis’ presentation,” says Jessica Cormier, Event and Marketing Manager, GSCC.
“It is evident that businesses desire to be inclusive, understanding, and respectful of the diverse cultures that make up our community, and the Senator’s educational presentation provided practical suggestions that can be easily implemented by local business owners.”
The Mi’kmaq Confederacy of PEI sponsored the event. Curtis Reilly, Senior Program Coordinator, the Mi’kmaq Confederacy of PEI Employment Services, was on hand to talk with GSCC members about connecting and developing partnerships.
Senator Francis shared some of his own experiences growing up, as well as some of his adventures and successes that began with becoming the first Indigenous person on the Island to receive his inter-provincial Red Seal trade certificate.
He hopes that people will take the time to listen, learn, and act in their personal and professional lives to make real progress toward reconciliation. “We are all in it together and we all have to move forward together.
“I would like to start my presentation by acknowledging that we are meeting today in Epekwitk, the territory of my people, the Mi’kmaq, who have lived and care for this land and its resources for more than ten thousand years, a fact which is supported by archeological and historical evidence.
“I do a land acknowledgement when I do speeches including in the Senate chamber, when I start the meetings of caucus or the Committee on Indigenous Peoples. Many colleagues are starting to do one now too. It is an important first step in terms of reconciliation.”
The Canadian constitution recognizes three groups of Indigenous People in Canada: First Nations, Inuit, and Métis. “These are distinct groups with unique histories, languages, cultural practices, and spiritual beliefs.
“In short, First Nations can be described as a large ethnic group. The term can also be synonymous with a specific band or a smaller community based on a reserve. For example, Abegweit First Nation and Lennox Island First Nation are part of the broader Mi’kmaq Nation.”
Senator Francis explained there are roughly 630 First Nations communities in Canada which represent more than 50 nations and 50 Indigenous languages.
There are also Inuit people who are the Indigenous people of the Arctic, including northern regions of Canada. “The word Inuit means “the people” in the Inuit language of Inuktitut. The singular of Inuit is Inuk.
With regards to Métis, the term does not encompass everyone with mixed Indigenous and European ancestry in Canada. Instead, it broadly refers to a distinct people with their own language, culture, and traditions. Senator Francis clarified that Indian is used because it is the legal identity of a First Nations person registered under the Indian Act which is still in effect today.
“However, the term is viewed as derogatory and outdated outside this context. In addition, Aboriginal is being replaced with Indigenous. Although complex, the terminology is important. If you do have done some research and still not know what term to use, ask.
“I’m privileged being in one of the highest offices in the country, but I still fall under the rules of the Indian Act as a status First Nations person who lives on reserve.
“When I became the Chair of what was called the Committee on Aboriginal Peoples, I said this name is outdated, and we worked hard to change the name to the Committee on Indigenous Peoples”
He says to understand what kind of country you want to become, it’s important to look to the past and present of Indigenous peoples. “You have to know where we came from to have a proper plan to go forward in life.
“Our history is complicated because while Indigenous People have much to be proud of, our lives continue to be impacted by more than 150 years of dispossession, assimilation, and genocide.
“Prior to the arrival of the Europeans, we had strong, healthy, thriving societies. We were self-governing and self-sufficient. We had complex and sophisticated cultures, identities, traditions, languages, and institutions. We also had a close relationship with the land.
“However, in the 1800s the relationship shifted to one of sovereign and subject. Europeans assumed that their own civilization was the pinnacle of human achievement. In their view, Indigenous people were ignorant and savage. We were seen as incapable of managing our own affairs and raising our own children.
“Both colonial and post-colonial governments used various ways to disrupt, displace, assimilate, and eradicate Indigenous people. A prime example is the Indian agents, who acting under the authority of the Indian Act, played a key role in the imposition of policies like the residential schools, reserves and more.
“I was born on Lennox Island and there was an Indian agent there then. He was not from the community but exercised authority over nearly all aspects of our lives and lands.”
Senator Francis says one of the most harmful consequences of the Indian Act was the creation of Residential Schools and Day Schools.
“First Nations, Inuit, and Métis Peoples were forced to attend these government-funded, church-run schools. Parents were threatened with jail if they tried to stop their children from going.
“At Residential Schools, Indigenous children experienced widespread neglect and abuse. Nutritional deficiencies and overcrowding led to regular outbreaks of disease at the schools and as a result the death toll was very high.
“I use the term Residential and Day Schools because that’s the names they were known as, but actually they were institutions. Their purpose was not education but forceful assimilation into Euro-Canadian culture by separating thousands of children from their families and communities.
“Children who entered Residential Schools in Grade 1 often reached age 18 with a Grade 5 level. It is tough to get along in life when you are behind in your education like that.
“Many of my aunts, uncles, and cousins went to Residential School. On PEI, there were Indian Day Schools in Rocky Point from 1915 to 1922 and in Lennox Island for 118 years from 1869 to 1987.
“I had no choice but to go to Day School on Lennox Island from Grade 1 to Grade 8. When you start off with a substandard education you spend a lot of your life trying to get caught up.
“I think I’m caught up now, but you have to work twice as hard when you don’t have that solid educational foundation. I didn’t get it on Lennox Island and that was the reason I left there as a young boy. Even then I saw a fork in the road, and I could have gone the wrong way which some of my friends did and it didn’t work out so well for them unfortunately.
“I took control of my life at a young age and made changes. Back in the day, Lennox Island was a very isolated community. Now it is a beautiful community and I have family there. They now have an excellent education system, controlled by the First Nation.”
He went to high school, became a journeyman Carpenter, and went on to work for the federal government. “My first job with the federal government was as a mailroom clerk at Veterans Affairs. I was happy but I wanted to find a way to move forward.
“I always look for chances to increase my skills and look at new jobs. I started at the low rung of the ladder and ended up in senior management over my career. I went from Veterans Affairs to Service Canada to Fisheries and Oceans.
“It is very important to always look for ways to improve yourself. I tell my children that life is what you make it. You have your own career path and there’s consequences to whatever you do, so do the best that you can. That is what I live by, and it is working out for me and my family.”
Truth and Reconciliation Commission: a way to move forward
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was launched in 2008 as part of the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement. “This was the largest class action lawsuit in Canadian history at the time. We must never forget the survivors from these institutions who fought for decades for the truth to be known and for justice to be pursued.
“The government fought tooth and nail and did not want anything to do with an official apology. They didn’t think there was anything wrong, so the survivors fought, and they won.”
In 2015, the final report of the TRC was released with 94 calls to action urging governments, businesses, and society at large to work together to repair the harm caused by residential schools and move forward with reconciliation.
The 94 calls to action can be broken into the areas of child welfare, education, language and culture, health, justice, and reconciliation.
“TRC defined reconciliation as an ongoing complex process of establishing and maintaining a mutually respectful relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in Canada. For that to happen there must be an awareness and acknowledgement of the harm that has been inflicted, an atonement for the causes, and action to change behavior.
“If we are going to move forward together collectively, we need a starting point and we are doing that now. I always say reconciliation is a marathon, not a sprint. It took us a while to get here and it’s going to take us a while to get through it.”
United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP)
UNDRIP was adopted by the United Nations in 2007 as the result of 25 years of collaboration between UN member states and Indigenous Peoples from around the world.
Indigenous leaders from Canada played a significant role in this development including drafting and negotiating. “UNDRIP establishes a universal framework of minimum standards for survival, dignity, well-being, and rights of the world’s Indigenous people.
“It includes both individual and collective rights, cultural rights, and identity rights to education, health, employment, language, and others. It also outlaws discrimination against Indigenous people and promotes their full and effective participation in all matters that concern us. It also ensures our right to remain distinct and to pursue our own priorities in economic, social, and cultural development.
“In 2021, the UNDRIP Act was enacted by Parliament. This federal law provides a legislative framework to advance the implementation of UNDRIP at the federal level in consultation and cooperation with Indigenous people. It responds to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.
Of particular importance to the business sector is Call to Action 92 which requires corporations to adopt the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as a framework for all future operational activities, including education, training and job opportunities.
“Some progress has been made in this area. However, not all individuals or companies are aware of UNDRIP or have taken significant steps to implement it.
“Companies should ask themselves questions like what kind of educational opportunities could be provided and how to improve Indigenous inclusion and engagement with Indigenous communities, people, and businesses.
“Research shows that Indigenous people are the youngest and fastest growing demographic in the country. We are creating businesses at nine times the rate of the average non-Indigenous Canadian.”
“Despite these trends, we always begin several yards behind the starting line. Some would say we have our hands tied behind our backs and some of us are not even allowed to run, so we need to look at ways to improve on that.
“The key is working together to make Canada stronger. It’s about a better future and an equal future. We are making progress, but Canada can and must do better by Indigenous people.”
The National Indigenous Economic Strategy: economic reconciliation
“The thriving economies and communities of Indigenous people were profoundly disrupted after the arrival of Europeans, including the displacement and dispossession of our land and resources and the violation of our dignity and rights.
“Economic reconciliation is a process of reconnecting our people’s communities and businesses with all aspects of economic activity in Canada through the creation of meaningful partnerships and mutually beneficial opportunities. We all share this responsibility.”
In June 2020, a coalition of more than 25 national Indigenous organizations unveiled the National Indigenous Economic Strategy. “It’s really an amazing document that provides a good path forward. Although I was not involved in drafting it, I had the privilege of participating in its historic release on Parliament Hill and I said then, it’s time for Canada to work together rather than against Indigenous people.”
The economic strategy is designed to drive positive change, address longstanding inequities, and achieve inclusive growth for and with Indigenous communities as well as to guide governments, industry, and institutions in their reconciliation work and in their collaboration in rebuilding Indigenous economies.
“The strategy outlines 107 Calls to Economic Prosperity which recommend specific actions and are divided into four interconnected themes which include people, land, technology, and financial.
“The strategy speaks to the tremendous potential for growth of Indigenous economy which will not only improve standards of living for our people and communities but benefit Canada as a whole.”
In line with the Calls to Economic Prosperity, Senator Francis highlighted the following ways for all communities to implement the strategy:
- Engage in a culturally appropriate manner and exercise genuine respect and recognition of our people and practices.
- Establish a pathway to train, advance, and promote Indigenous employees.
- Ensure that Indigenous Peoples are represented at all levels within organizations including senior leadership and on boards.
- Establish targets for Indigenous awareness training and invite Indigenous Elders and knowledge keepers to participate in the delivery of the training.
- Invest and build capacity in Indigenous businesses and local community economies.
- Enhance their ability to provide the goods and services you require, thus providing mutually beneficial economic opportunity.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
about Senator Brian Francis, visit www.sencanada.ca/en/senators/francis-brian
For more about the National Indigenous Economic Strategy, visit https://niestrategy.ca
For more information about business and employment partnerships, contact Curtis Reilly, Mi’kmaq Confederacy of PEI, at [email protected]
For more information about the Greater Summerside Chamber of Commerce, visit www.summersidechamber.com