A teenage girl working as a page in Ontario’s legislature hears then lieutenant-governor, James Bartleman, talk about how, growing up as an aboriginal person in a small community in northern Ontario, books were his ‘ticket out of poverty’.
Bartleman went on to describe how the shortage of books contributed to lower education outcomes in many Ontario First Nations, and how the situation endures today. Determined to do something, the girl and her sister begin collecting books to send to remote northern First Nations. To date, their organisation, Books with no Bounds, has delivered more than 15,000 books to such Ontario communities, and earlier this month the sisters, Emma and Julia Mogus of Oakville, received the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal from Mr. Bartleman.
Good for them. I sincerely mean that. They are doing something, they are acting on their beliefs.
I know this is going to rub some people the wrong way. Some will label me a wrong-headed idealist, a cynical naysayer, a jealous failure, or far worse.
Isn’t there something wrong with treating Canada’s First Nations like the inhabitants of developing countries to which we send monthly donations? Isn’t it unacceptable that these Canadian communities should need individuals like the Mogus sisters to make extraordinary efforts to provide them with books as they grow up, which are pretty close to basic necessities for most children in this country?
I think it is. I think it is as unacceptable as the suicide rate among teenage boys in many northern First Nations – so high that the Northern Ontario Suicide Prevention Network was created to deal with this issue – the limp response by Canadian governments to violence against aboriginal women, and the appalling lack of potable water in many First Nations communities across this country, a country that we are all proud to live in when we learn that it ranks among the world’s highest for living standards – and when we can ignore these inconvenient truths.
So what would I do to fix these problems? Sorry if this is a cop-out, but I think the better question is ‘What will we do?’
At various points in our collective history we Canadians have taken stands: we decided it was not acceptable for slavery to legally exist, for Chinese immigrants to still pay a head tax to enter this country, or for women to be denied the vote. We also apologised for forcibly sending indigenous children to residential schools, where attempts were made to beat the ‘Indian’ out of them. In all of these cases, we decided that these situations were untenable because they violated the principles that Canadians believe in.
Let’s set aside the ‘why’, the finger-pointing and blame-apportioning. Some say it’s the fault of government(s), some say the chiefs, some say the Indian Act. I say isn’t it about time that we collectively decided that aboriginal people deserve the same treatment, the same respect, the same opportunities as the rest of us to grow up healthy, strong – and with a love for books?