As I cycled around the central courtyard at the University of Saskatchewan’s picturesque campus this summer, I noticed banners listing individual calls to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada report on the lamp posts.
“Wow—The University of Saskatchewan is so woke,” I thought to myself and smiled. “Maybe things are changing!”
I have struggled with my own truth and reconciliation journey. I trained in prairie cities with large Indigenous populations, where I witnessed racism and had my own unconscious biases towards Indigenous patients.
I dismounted my bike and read a banner: “7. We call upon the federal government to develop with Aboriginal groups a joint strategy to eliminate educational and employment gaps between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians.”
Like a punctured balloon falling from the sky, my heart sank. I remembered a scene at the Saskatchewan Aviation Museum earlier that afternoon with my plane obsessed 16-year-old son. By sheer coincidence, the Canadian Forces Snowbirds happened to be performing that day. Fans filled the airplane hangar, lining up to get autographs from the pilots. I looked around and realized that my son and I were the only people of colour. There was no one that appeared to be Indigenous. Coming to an event like this was complicated. It was near the airport, in the middle of a weekday, and far from public transit. Admission was $10 each. What chance would a disadvantaged child have to meet a Snowbird pilot and aspire to become one themselves? How can we improve diversity and “eliminate educational and employment gaps between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians” when the system is so stacked against them? What if the organizers had reached out to Indigenous community groups to invite some kids to attend? Could that change the trajectory for a child to consider an aviation career? Those thoughts overwhelmed me as my son and I drove back to our hotel.
The next morning, as I ran on the path alongside the Saskatchewan River, I approached two dishevelled Indigenous men. My first instinct was to give them a wide berth. Immediately, I recognized this racist assumption and berated myself. Just as I passed them, one of their faces opened in the most incredible and gentle smile towards me. I felt even guiltier for my unfounded judgement.
This month, my son’s English teacher sent a welcome email to inform us of the new high school graduation requirement for Indigenous studies. There would be an emphasis to view the material through an Indigenous lens. There it was: an attempt at call to action 62. i): “[m]ake age-appropriate curriculum on residential schools, Treaties, and Aboriginal peoples’ historical and contemporary contributions to Canada a mandatory education requirement for Kindergarten to Grade Twelve students.”
As we approach the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, it is important to acknowledge that reconciliation is hard. It will take generations to undo the damage from centuries of colonization. But as I constantly remind myself, every journey starts with a first step. Each of us can give our Indigenous patients grace—just like that Indigenous gentleman in downtown Saskatoon gave me with his smile.