I never expected to make a home in Canada. When my wandering feet led me to leave Manila, I was thinking of France or America— Canada just seemed too cold for someone used to tropical climates. Yet after 14 years around the USA, I made my way across the 49th parallel. After a month, I knew that I would stay.
By a stroke of good fortune, I landed in the Nass Valley, home of the Nisga’a First Nation in NW British Columbia. My Provincial Nominee and work visa papers were processed so quickly that I wasn’t ready to go—I’d expected it to take a year or so. But no, it only took 40 days! Was it because Indigenous communities living in remote locations badly needed teachers and my application was fast-tracked? I couldn’t tell if it was that or just Canadian efficiency. I had to leave my husband and twin sister to pack up our house for sale.
The Nisga’a are warm, generous people, and Gitlaxt’aamiks, the capital, is small but surrounded by awe-inspiring beauty. It takes an hour and a half to drive to the nearest city for provisions—no public transportation is available—and the roads that wind around majestic mountains and luminous lakes are treacherous in winter. But the children are all so lovable, and the Elders worthy of reverence. For a person who’d lived in cities all her life, this was such a privilege to experience.
I became active in the teachers’ union, mainly because we were such a small local that it was all hands on deck. Within my first year, I was made professional development chair and secretary. In my second year, I was social justice chair, and active at the provincial level, facilitating regional meetings. In my third year, I became the BCTF representative to the Canadian Teachers’ Federation Advisory Committee on the Status of Women. A little past my fourth year, I became Chair of that committee.
I never would have expected to participate so much in public service in Canada. After all, I was barely active in any of the teachers’ associations I paid dues to while I was still in the States. However, Canada became my true land of opportunity. I feel very lucky to be here and to have the chance to contribute to this vast country, far from my tiny, native Philippines.
At the same time, I can see what Canada still needs to strive for. The majority of Canadians are settlers in unceded (a more palatable euphemism for “stolen”) traditional territories of its Indigenous Peoples who have lived here “from time before memory,” as the Nisga’a say. It took the Nisga’a 113 years to recover their lands from the Crown and gain independence to govern themselves. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission put out its Calls to Action in 2015, but how many of the calls have been implemented? Though there are more and more land acknowledgments, without commensurate actions to provide recompense, these remain empty platitudes.
Indigenous Peoples have a way of governance and gatherings that are naturally rooted within Turtle Island (aka North America) and connected to holistic ways of being. They are intrinsically attuned to nature and its life cycles. The values of communal living and interdependence are key to understanding what it means to exist on this planet. As Stan Rushworth, an Indigenous Cherokee Elder, once pointed out, there is “the difference between a Western settler mindset of ‘I have rights’ and an indigenous mindset of ‘I have an obligation.’ Instead of thinking that I am born with rights, I choose to think that I was born with obligations to serve past, present, and future generations, and the planet herself.”
This state of living was interrupted by colonizers, with their greedy acquisition of the land’s rich resources and the imprisonment of the natives, whether in residential schools or reservations. For folks who relied on oral tradition to keep their culture, history, and language alive, this would be a nearly fatal blow. Children were stolen for more than a century, with the last residential school, in Saskatchewan, closing as recently as 1996. Many, if not all, of those who were punished in residential schools for attempting to keep their culture, have become disconnected and lost. The Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) have a philosophy that decisions made today affect the next seven generations. It will take a long time for Indigenous Peoples to heal. My colleagues in the Nisga’a Elementary Secondary School, where I was Elementary Head before I left, are still unable to speak of their traumatic experiences as residential school survivors. Orange Shirt Day is just a step on the long flight of stairs to true justice.
Future Canada is a country that commits to its obligations to the original inhabitants of this land. It’s past time for all of us uninvited settlers to actively seek native wisdom and contribute towards the well-being of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit peoples upon whose suffering our prosperity has been based. This is especially relevant in the light of the current climate crisis which threatens doom to the entire human race. We need to do more, or there will be fewer than seven generations in our future. Reading this essay is simply a beginning. What’s your role in ensuring fairness and equity for the First Peoples of Canada?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Regie Plana-Alcuáz is a special education inclusion teacher in Surrey, BC.
This article is featured in Canadian Teacher Magazine’s Spring 2022 issue.