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When Canada Was Really Shitty

Snow Goose Gallery, 88 Sparks Street, featuring Inuit, First Nations and Metis works of art

As a freelance editor, translator and copywriter, I deal with all kinds of documents. The only two fields I avoid are medical and legal, the former because of liability issues and the latter because I’m not fluent in legalese.

I always learn something new and that’s the best part of my job. I’m access to information I’m not supposed to see. I know corporate strategies, HR’s dirty secrets, rationales behind comm plans and the multiple amended versions sent to different stakeholders. I know projects before they go live, I regularly “dumb down” documents for the general public (hint—crucial info is missing…) and I’ve prepared up to five different versions of a press release to best adapt to developing news.

I can’t tell you how many times I fell down a rabbit hole because I had to check a fact and something piqued my curiosity. My Google search history is weird. Just today, I had to find out how telegraphs work, research how many breaks truck drivers are entitled to in Ontario, check LED light bulbs estimated energy savings and assess the current economic situation in Alberta. Oh and let’s not forget a riveting search on the different types of sports bottle lids.

I spent most of September and October working on a very long assignment I’d call the “Inuit project.”

“The who?” my mom asked when I mentioned the workload that was keeping me awake until ungodly hours.

“The… Eskimos. But this term is considered derogatory, the proper terminology is Inuit.”

“I know how ignorant this is going to sound… but are there many Inuit left in Canada?”

My mom is smart and I didn’t laugh at her blunt question. What she meant was “are there still Inuit the way we picture them?”

I used to be French too and to me, “Eskimos” and “Indians” were exotic “New World” populations I had discovered through pop culture—portrayed in Tintin in America, as recurring characters in Western movies, as cruel bad guys who killed cute baby seals in cartoons.

It makes me cringe when I look back. These depictions were racist, paternalist and condescending, not to mention completely biased and ignorant. They reflected the dominant colonialist ideology.

But at least, most Western Europeans usually find Inuit and First Nations cool. They acknowledge the former thrive in a harsh environment and they kind of like Native American culture, even if they see it through a colonial lens.

I didn’t take long after I came to Canada to hear racial slurs and stereotypes targeting Inuit and First Nations. “Bunch of drunks with substance abuse issues who rely on government assistance programs and should just get over it” would be the kindest way I can report what I heard.

I was shocked. Canada, a country seemingly able to embrace cultures from all over the world, was apparently having issues with those who were here first and were colonized.

Worst, this attitude was just the tip of the iceberg (pun somewhat intended).

I spent the past two months translating documents related to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 Calls to Action (I don’t want to be too specific, confidentiality and all).

It started with relatively light and interesting fact about Inuit culture. Did you know that Inuit invented the kayak? Did you know that Inuktitut is a fascinating family of language?

Then I moved on to Inuit history, intrinsically and involuntarily linked to British, French and Canadian history. I was now exploring the dark side of Canada—the TB deportations, the Indian residential schools system, the High Arctic relocations, the sled dogs slaughters… Many nights, I’d stop working late (big project tight deadlines) and I would cry. I didn’t know much about Inuit history—now I did.

I’m European, so I’m not new to the ugliness of colonialism—different people, different lands but the same process starring invasion, conquest, occupation and a dominant culture swallowing the other(s). “Not fair,” as Mark would say. But my view of European colonization of North America was very naïve. “Half of the world colonized the other,” I thought cynically. “What’s done is done, it’s hard to blame French or British for what they did back in the 18th or 19th century.”

Except that colonization didn’t end “a long, long time ago.” I mean, the last residential school operated by the Canadian government closed in 1996—hardly ancient history.

It still hurt because it takes time, apologies and a real change to recover.

As pretentious as it sounds, we, immigrants, are part of the future of Canada. First Nations, Inuit and Metis are definitely not the dominant culture in Canada—not in major cities, anyway. It’s easy to pretend they aren’t there. It’s easy to think that hey, we didn’t colonize them, whatever happened wasn’t our fault.

Maybe it wasn’t. But it’s our responsibility to learn the history of this country, learn from the past and hopefully move forward in a positive way.

It’s not always easy to discover First Nations, Inuit and Metis culture. I went to several events a few years ago and I felt like I was crashing a private party. It’s not easy either to talk with Canadians about these dark pages of history—it’s a bit like asking Western Europeans on which side their grandparents were during WWII.

But the least we can do is move beyond stereotypes, let these cultures thrive and try to see their perspectives regarding current issues, like land claims or seal/whale hunting.

We’re part of reconciliation journey, after all.

We can do better than our ancestors.

Nunavut, The Flags of Canada, Elgin Street, Ottawa
Exhibition on the Arctic, Ottawa, November 2018

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