When thirty-one new Canadians swore their allegiance to the Queen in June this year, there was a slight revision to the Oath they took.
The revision to the wording in the Oath, introduced through an Amendment to the Citizenship Act, was made possible by Bill C-8 which became law on June 21, 2021.
The revised oath now reads: “I swear (or affirm) that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, Queen of Canada, Her Heirs and Successors, and that I will faithfully observe the laws of Canada, including the Constitution, which recognizes and affirms the Aboriginal and treaty rights of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples, and fulfill my duties as a Canadian citizen.”
The amendment fulfills the 94th Call to Action recommended by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) set up in 2008 to collect an oral and written history of Canada’s residential schools systems and identify methods of reconciliation. In terms of the Citizenship Oath, the final report of the TRC states, “Precisely because ‘we are all Treaty People’, Canada’s Oath of Citizenship must include a solemn promise to respect Aboriginal and Treaty rights.”
Interestingly, the June citizenship ceremony was presided over by the first Métis citizenship judge, Suzanne Carrière.
That’s not all; responding to Call to Action 93, the Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Commission (IRCC) is also updating Canada’s Citizenship Guide to help new immigrants gain a better understanding of Indigenous people and their place in Canadian history. The book is set to be released by the end of 2021.
Chapter three of the guide will include information about the Indian Act and the treaties between former Canadian governments and the Indigenous people, as well as residential schools and the abuse inflicted on students.
One may ask why Indigenous people are important, and what residential schools are all about.
Canada is home to everyone who has moved here whenever that happened. But, before the first European settlers arrived in Canada, the land was already inhabited by people who have lived here for centuries.
Collectively known as Canada’s Indigenous population, they are made up of three groups; the First Nations, Métis, and the Inuit. According to the 2016 Census, these three groups account for more than 1.67 million of Canada’s population. They have their own traditions, cultural practices, and beliefs.
But new settlers arriving in Canada required more land, and soon the indigenous population found itself dispossessed of their own. Not only were they forced to live in smaller areas of land, but also, the governments of the day, along with Christian groups, the United, Presbyterian, Anglican, and Catholic denominations began programmes to ‘civilise’ them. Residential schools, funded by the government and run by these Christian denominations, primarily by the Catholic Church came into being. It is reported that nearly 60 percent of the schools were managed by the Catholic Church.
Established in the 1880s the last such school closed its doors in 1996. Believing that indigenous people were savage, ignorant, and needing guidance, children were forcibly removed from their families and taken to these schools, where they were forbidden to speak their language or observe any of their traditional practices. Schooling for these children, who had to endure long months of separation from their families, was a mixture of studies and labour, though it is reported that, there was less of the former. According to available reports, at age 18, these children had the academic knowledge of a grade 5 student. Removed from their families at a very young age, reports state, that as adults, they had no skills or the knowledge required to raise their own children.
With the introduction of the Indian Act in 1920, it became mandatory for indigenous children to attend only residential schools and illegal to study anywhere else. Many children are reported to have died while at the schools or even soon after being sent home, owing to a lack of nutritious food, and physical, emotional, and sexual abuse.
It was in the 1990s that both Christian institutions and the government of Canada acknowledged the negative impact residential schools have had on indigenous populations, resulting in a formal apology by the government of the day, in Parliament on June 11, 2008.
But that dark history of Canada is not yet over.
The homes, office buildings, roads, schools, and religious centres, and everything else is built on land that belonged to the Indigenous people. And of late, acknowledging that fact has become common practice.
It has, however, always been a custom amongst Indigenous people. The Canada School of Public Service, which guides public servants in the discharge of their responsibilities teaches that, “territorial acknowledgment is rooted in an ancient Indigenous diplomatic custom. When an Indigenous person came to be on the territory of another Nation, even if only passing through, they would announce their presence by saying something like, “l acknowledge that I am on the traditional territory of X Nation.” It was a way of saying: “I acknowledge that you are the Nation responsible for preserving this territory and I come in peace.”
Every acknowledgment pays respect to the people and territory on which that particular event takes place. And there are certain elements that must be observed; for instance, as there are hundreds of First Nations, it is important to determine on whose traditional territory the event takes place. If it is on Métis land, the word ‘traditional’ is dropped and only territory is used. The Inuit do not have a tradition of acknowledging territory. They do not live in one large area, but in separate regions: Nunawik (Quebec), Nunatsiavut (Labrador) Inuvialuit (North West Territories and Yukon), and Nunavut.
Often, society portrays Canada’s Indigenous people negatively and overlooks the many contributions they have made, be it in academia, business, science, or politics.
Canada’s current Governor-General is an Inuit woman, Mary Simon, the first Indigenous person to be appointed to that position. There have been several people of Indigenous origin who have served as Lieutenant Governors at the Provincial Level, such as Russell Mirasty, in Saskatchewan.
As immigrants begin their journey to becoming full-fledged Canadians, it is important that they learn the history of those whose lands we live on. Attending a Pow Wow or a Round Dance, reading books, or attending discussions on Indigenous history, would be a good way to start.