The chair of the Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples broke down in tears Monday during a hearing seeking to improve Indigenous and non-Indigenous relations.
The committee heard from Indigenous leaders from across the NWT, including Premier Bob McLeod.
Following an address by Grand Chief Gladys Norwegian of Dehcho First Nations calling for the preservation of language, culture and aboriginal self-determination, Senator Lillian Dyck became emotional.
She said when Canadians can embrace the worldviews of Western society and Indigenous peoples, it will benefit the planet and save humanity.
“I normally don’t like to say anything personal, but I found (your presentation) enlightening this morning,” said Dyck, who is of Cree and Chinese heritage. “I don’t know my language and my mother was a residential school survivor. She was told not to teach her language and consequently I don’t know my language or my culture. What has kept me sane is going back to that, going to the Senate and being in my occupation as a scientist. ”
Dyck’s committee is in the middle of a pan-national study which is examining the history of Indigenous peoples in Canada and what it means to build a a new relationship between Canada and First Nations, Metis and Inuit people. The study has been going on for more than a year and hopes to provide the Government of Canada information from all regions of the country on what a new relationship should look like between the two.
Dyck said Norwegian’s emphasis on the need to preserve Indigenous identity really hit home for her because when she became a scientist and a Senator during her career, she was always ashamed of the Cree part of her heritage.
“I think for the first time I really understood the dilemma of doing this study,” she said. “We need healthy people. How do you in any situation bring all of your personal attributes and beliefs and how can we have a future where everything about you is valued, you’re allowed to express it and you don’t have to keep it hidden.”
Norwegian, who was elected in July, called for “a very independent First Nation” that allows for the Dehcho to fully govern themselves and allows them to prioritize language and culture for their youth. She said before a new relationship with Canada can be established, young people in the Dehcho need help with meeting the challenges of participating in Western society by allowing them to speak Dene Zhatie. It is also important the Dehcho can preserve its cultural practices, particularly those tied to the spirituality of the land.
“A lot of our young people are not very confident with our perspective nor are they with Western society, so we have a lot of our people that seem to appear to be lost,” she said.
“So what does it look like for us in the future? When I think about it….a lot of our young people are not ready to go into western society.”
Norwegian criticized the Senate’s setup for being too formal and not being responsive to the language realities of the NWT.
“(The relationship) has to be different from what it is right now,” she said. “It makes me feel uneasy seeing how formal this (Senate committee) presentation is. If we can meet halfway – if we can wear casual clothes and meet in a tent somewhere, it would be closer to what I would envision (a new relationship being). It is not this where there are only French interpreters.
“We don’t see nine other booths set up here.”
Premier McLeod also spoke during the hearing and highlighted the GNWT’s working relationship with aboriginal self-governments as an example for the rest of Canada to follow toward Indigenous peoples.
He noted the numerous land claims, treaty and settlement agreements completed and in process, as well as the Indigenous people who make up cabinet and the members of the Legislative Assembly. He also gave an overview of how programs and services are shared in the NWT with local governments and how language and culture is preserved through territorial policy.
“I believe the Northwest Territories is an example of how real partnership with regional and community Indigenous governments based on mutual respect and recognition can lead to increased political self-determination and economic participation for the North’s Indigenous peoples,” he said.
Other speakers throughout the day included Duane Smith, chair of the Inuvialuit Corporation with Bob Simpson, director of government affairs, Grand Chief Gladys Norwegian of Dehcho First Nations, Sherry Hodgson of the Norman Wells Land Corporation, and Ethel Blondin-Andrew, chair of the Sahtu Secretariat Incorporated, Chief Roy Fabian of the K’atl’odeeche First Nation and Garry Bailey, president of the Northwest Territory Metis Nation.