By: Chandrakant P. Shah
The road we travel is equal in importance to the destination we seek. There are no shortcuts. When it comes to truth and reconciliation, we are forced to go the distances.
Justice Murray Sinclair
Truth and Reconciliation Commission
I immigrated to Canada in 1965 as an intern in Vancouver General Hospital. As most immigrant, I had no knowledge about the Indigenous Peoples in Canada for almost ten years; I never met one, and even if I saw them in the emergency room, it did not register in my mind. Only glimpse of them I had was through “western movies” which did not depict “who they really were.” However, some sublime forces were working. My mentor late Dr. Geoffrey Robinson, a renowned pediatrician kept giving me book as gift about the Indigenous Peoples such as Guests Never Leaves Hungry: The Autobiography of James Sewid, A Kwakiut Indian by James Spradely and upon my departure from Vancouver to Toronto, he gave me a pair of silver Haida cufflinks depicting the totem pole. He was planting a seed in my heart which germinated later on. In 1972, I moved to Toronto at the University of Toronto as a professor in their newly created department of Preventive Medicine in the Faculty of Medicine; I as pediatrician was also crosse appointed with the department of pediatrics and the world renowned The Hospital for Sick Children (HSC). The chief of pediatrics (Late Dr. Harry Bain) had witnessed firsthand sorry state of healthcare for the indigenous peoples living in very remote and isolated First Nations Communities in Northwest Ontario leading to excessive deaths amongst infants and children and many individuals suffering from acute infections and chronic illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes, mental illness etc. Moved by these observations, in collaboration with the Federal Government he established a medical hub in the town of Sioux Lookout which attempted to provide services of family doctors and medical consultants to 26 First Nations Communities with total of 16,000 indigenous peoples. I learned about this program and volunteered my service as a physician. During my visit to these remote communities, I had to fly in small two to four seated cassena plane which landed on either water or ice depending on the season as there were no landing strips in many communities.
What did I find in these communities: Most of these communities had no infrastructure such as potable water, electricity, indoor heating and toilets, a cooperative store with exuberant price for food and household items as they had to be flown from south. Their homes were dilapidated and overcrowded, school were staffed by teachers from south and a small clinic staffed by nurses and community health workers. Winters were long and harsh, and summers were short. However, these community were tranquil and friendly and had at least one if not two or three Christian churches! Initially, I went to these communities at least once a year for one to two weeks and later two to three times a year. When, I was there, I not only provided medical services, but did research and a lot of soul searching ask a question: “why is my Canada so indifferent to the plight of Indigenous Peoples – the First Inhabitant of this beautiful land?” I read the history of colonization of this land by the British and French, the treaties signed by the Crown, our treaty obligations to them, impact of residential schools and its long-lasting effects on children and families, the Royal Commission Report on Aboriginal Peoples, Report of Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada and so on. I reflected on these facts. Coming from India and witnessing Independence movement, I also could associate with the Indigenous plight for self determination and self-government. Initially, as a first-generation immigrant with poor command on language and social connection, I felt helpless and hopeless. I was lost!
However, few things happened, and I realized that as a professor I had credibility when I spoke or wrote about an issue, I had a voice, which needs to be heard, I had an obligation and social responsibility as a Canadian to make wrong right! My research should address the pressing problems of our society. All I had to do, is keep my mind open and when I saw injustice or a need for change, I should act and not be a mere bystander! I should speak out as someone has said, “silence is a violence.” I decided to act with the tools I had in my toolbox. I will cite few examples of my actions.
In 1988, my family and I visited Europe. My two sons and I were Canadian Citizens, while my wife had still retained her Indian citizenship even though she was in Canada for more than twenty years – a common things amongst the first-generation Canadians. She encountered significant difficulties obtaining visa for different countries. Upon return from our trip, she decided to obtain her Canadian citizenship. For this, she had to study two citizenship booklets published by the Government of Canada to write her citizenship examinations. One day, I happened to read the guide and I was horrified to read what was written about the Indigenous Peoples. It stated,
‘The Indians and Inuit (also called Eskimos) lived in this country long before it was also known as Canada. They developed many languages and cultures. Their different ways of life developed in relation to the land and vegetation, wildlife and weather unique to different parts of the country. Corn, potatoes and tobacco were first cultivated by natives of America, and they invented the kayak, canoe and snowshoes.’ – Government of Canada, 1986
Being an immigrant myself, I realized that to develop a harmonious relationship (reconciliation was not in my vocabulary at that time) with the Indigenous Peoples, new Canadians need to know more about them. I started a single person letter writing campaign in 1991 to the ministers of day, leaders in opposition party, municipal governments, social organizations, head of the various Christian churches, indigenous organization and so on to change the content of the guide. I suggested that these changes be done in consultation with the indigenous peoples, and it should reflect in the citizenship examination. As a professor, I knew people remember their material if it was on examination. I also solicited head of the citizenship judge who agreed with my suggestions. It took three years of writing letters and a meeting with the assistant deputy minister of citizenship to change the guide which included a lot more content about the Indigenous people in 1994 and subsequent guides. I am proud to say that since the inception of this change, over six million new Canadian knows more about Indigenous history, residential schools, treaties etc. This change preceded the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Recommendation 93: ‘We call upon the federal government, in collaboration with the national Aboriginal organizations, to revise the information kit for newcomers to Canada and its citizenship test to reflect a more inclusive history of the diverse Aboriginal peoples of Canada, including information about the Treaties and history of residential schools.’
Let me cite you another examples. The next example deals with “unconscious bias” we carry about individuals or group. Unconscious bias refers to a bias that we are unaware of, and which happens outside of our control. The presence of such implicit bias among health and social service providers further suggests that it could play a role in health care disparities just as it plays a role in differential outcomes elsewhere in society. In 1980’s as a professor, I became aware of such bias towards indigenous people among undergraduate and graduate learners and researchers at the University of Toronto, healthcare workers in general and population at large. Realizing that the voices and “lived experiences” of aboriginal people were missing in curricula contents across health and social sciences faculties, a three-week program “Visiting Lectureship on Native Health” was developed in 1990. The objective of the program was that if the future and present healthcare workers were cognizant of aboriginal issues, their services will be more culturally sensitive; if they become policy makers, their policies will be more relevant; and in future they will become advocates for aboriginal people. The program ran for eleven years (1990-2001); developed a different theme of Indigenous issues each year; and knowledgeable indigenous speakers from all walks of life were recruited across Canada to deliver classroom sessions at three universities in Toronto; they also provided continuing education sessions to various teaching and community hospitals, health professional groups and delivered public for a at the university and Toronto City Hall. Evaluation of the program indicated indigenous speakers were extremely well received and contents of lectures were valuable; indigenous speakers rated the utility of program high for their audience and their personal growth. At the end of eleven years, and in 2000, an endowment fund of two million dollars was obtained to establish an Endowed Chair in Indigenous Health and Wellbeing at the University of Toronto, first of its kind in Canada to hire an indigenous professor. This initiative was congruent of what the Truth and Reconciliation Commission had recommended for education of healthcare professionals to remove their unconscious bias.
During this journey, I realized that I was not as helpless and hopeless, as I had thought earlier. I was able to carry out many actions as an “ally” for Indigenous cause. I realized that we all have unique talents and skills we can use to contribute toward Indigenous reconciliation. What many of us lack is convictions and sustained commitment! September 30th is a National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. To make our Canada truly just, each one of us need to act towards reconciliation. As Justice Sinclair has said, ‘Reconciliation is not an aboriginal problem, it is a Canadian problem. It involves all of us.’
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