New Canadians need to understand the First Nations’ story, too

Published December 8, 2009

Anglicans Alyson Hari-Singh and Jean Koning will help raise awareness about the legacy of the residential schools and the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Orillia, Ont.
Tears streamed down Toyin Agbaje’s face as she listened to Darlene Ritchie, a Haudenosaunee of the Oneida Nation, talk about the effects of the residential schools and the 1876 Indian Act on the aboriginal peoples of Canada.

Ritchie is president of Council Fire, a Toronto-based aboriginal group that launched its own community-based version of the Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) last year. Agbaje was one of 100 representatives of the Anglican, Presbyterian and United churches who attended the “Equipping Ambassadors of Reconciliation” conference to train volunteer leaders for faith communities promoting the work of the TRC.

Part of Richie’s job is to listen to residential school survivors tell their stories. She has been struck by the fact that when survivors begin to talk, they are instantly transported back in time. Once again, they are six years old, sitting in a classroom and reliving the trauma. “They were speaking to us as children,” said Ritchie. Despite the fact that the standard of living for Canadians ranks 8th in the world, there’s a grim parallel experience for our aboriginal people, who live in conditions that rank 74th in the world, pointed out Ritchie. “There are too many on the streets and many are still living in the past.”

Agbaje, who immigrated to Canada from Nigeria about 20 years ago, only heard about the residential schools recently when she took a course on the literature of native peoples. “I wasn’t aware of other abuses, like land being taken away from native people,” said Agbaje, who learned about it at the conference during a “blanket exercise” that illustrates the shrinking of land available to native people.

Agbaje, who is a member of the Rexdale Presbyterian Church in Etobicoke, suspects other immigrants are just as much in the dark as she was. Even worse, many have bought into stereotypes about native people. “I know people make comments like, ‘Oh, those people, they’re always drinking,’ ” she said. “I knew they’re the first peoples of Canada but I didn’t really ask more. But, I always wondered why people were making those comments.” Foreign-born Canadians account for 6.1 million or 19.8 per cent of the total population, according to the 2006 Census.

Alison Hari Singh, an East Indian immigrant who grew up in rural Saskatchewan, feels she has a unique perspective. As a non-white person, she knows about systemic racism, having experienced it first-hand.

She’s also witnessed the impact of racism on First Nations’ people. “New Canadians and immigrants who may have felt ostracized at one time or another in Canada need to realize that they are not the only ones (who) have experienced this,” said Hari Singh, who is Anglican.

She knows too that until very recently, the Canadian government has fallen short when it comes to giving new Canadians “the full story.” “Every person who lives in this country, regardless of the colour of their skin, bears the weight of this issue,” noted Hari Singh. “The only reason we live here is because of what was done to First Nations people in this land, including what happened in residential schools. It is difficult to hear, but we are all responsible….”

Last November, Citizenship and Immigration Canada unveiled a 62-page citizenship guidebook for prospective immigrants. Discover Canada: The Rights and Responsibilities of Citizenship talks about the residential schools for the first time.

It’s a critical piece of information; without it, the TRC would be hard-pressed to promote healing and reconciliation between aboriginal nations and the rest of Canada.

“If Canada didn’t open its doors to me, I won’t be here,” said Agbaje. “I should be able to open my heart to other people.”

(More stories about the Equipping Ambassadors of Reconciliation gathering will be featured in the January issue of the Anglican Journal. Photos of the event are available on Facebook,


  • Marites N. Sison

    Marites (Tess) Sison was editor of the Anglican Journal from August 2014 to July 2018, and senior staff writer from December 2003 to July 2014. An award-winning journalist, she has more that three decades of professional journalism experience in Canada and overseas. She has contributed to The Toronto Star and CBC Radio, and worked as a stringer for The New York Times.

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