By Tobias Stoner
Many First Nations Canadians have been taken aback by Canada’s well-publicized warm welcome to Syrian refugees, says Karyn Pugliese, Executive Director of News and Current Affairs at Aboriginal Peoples Television Network, or APTN. “Not to be unwelcoming,” she emphasizes, “but because of a sense of ‘why aren’t people paying attention to our problems?’”
Canada’s history of relations between First Nations peoples and Europeans is long and fraught, explains Ms. Pugliese, and First Nations populations continue to face greater difficulties than white Canadians. That background, she says, casts Canada’s enthusiastic embrace of struggling newcomers as slightly hypocritical from many of the country’s original inhabitants. But Bob Cox, publisher of the Winnipeg Free Press, says “Canadians like to think they’re too nice.” And this may explain why Canadians have mostly accepted the newcomers.
Indigenous Canadians fall into three categories – First Nations, Inuit, or métis, with both First Nations and French ancestors – explains Sky Bridges, APTN’s Chief Operating Officer. First Nations peoples only received full voting rights in the 1960’s, he explains, and some people still reject their Canadian citizenship, seeking the creation of an independent state. Canada is currently holding hearings on the unresolved murder or disappearance of approximately 1600 indigenous women, an issue highlighted in APTN’s nightly newscast. Even the creation of APTN reflected the “ghettoization” of indigenous people, says Ms. Pugliese – “Back when we couldn’t get a seat at the table, we had to build our own table. Now, I don’t really want to go sit at somebody else’s table.” And Ms. Pugliese notes that the most recent government dramatically increased First Nations representation in the Canadian Parliament, to approximately 50 First Nations MP’s out of 338 seats.
APTN is proud of its imposing circular table built for its board meetings, says Sky Bridges. He emphasized indigenous traditions of welcome to strangers or other races. Many First Nations traditions, he says, include the symbolism of a wheel with four colors – white, black, yellow, and red – representing different races sent out into the world, as well as an aspiration to unify them. Ms. Pugliese also added that at least three indigenous communities have held welcoming ceremonies for refugees, and elders have helped to coordinate donations for them, though she notes that the ceremonies also helped to raise publicity about First Nations communities. This welcoming stance may also be influenced by the general identification of indigenous people with leftist parties, says Ms. Pugliese, partly because of a total lack of outreach or availability from Conservative politicians.
Ultimately, the First Nations response to new refugees may not be very different from that of Winnipeggers in general. Assimilation in Canada is made easier, says Mr. Cox of the Free Press, because “we don’t have something called a Canadian that you have to become.” In some ways, he says, the “fundamental definition of a Canadian is to be not American.” At a moment of rising xenophobia in the US, that may be good news for anyone seeking asylum, and a new home, in Canada.