Why does Canada hide its shameful history and its consequences for Indigenous peoples?
Travelling was my hobby before I emigrated to Canada. During my trips both within and outside Bangladesh, I always tried to taste local and regional food to appreciate the culture of the place I visited. Naturally, I looked for Canadian food when I arrived in 2016. I found the "United Nations of Cuisines", especially on the Danforth in Toronto. The neighbourhood, which is close to my new home, offers dozens of eateries specialising in culinary delights from countries all over the world.
My white Canadian husband, in reply to my interest, recommended poutine and dishes related to his Irish-Italian ancestry. His suggestions did not include the cuisine of Canada's Indigenous communities. In fact, none of the restaurants along the five-kilometre stretch on The Danforth between Broadview and Main Street served the food of First Nations, Métis, or Inuit communities. My husband, who has spent more than four decades in Toronto, couldn't name a place where I could enjoy a dish that carries centuries of history and heritage. Finally, three months after my arrival, with the help of Google, I found Tea n Bannock. There, I first came across wild rice and sipped Labrador tea with crunchy yet soft Bannock bread.
I am sharing this experience because I feel, as a newcomer, my exposure to Canada's Indigenous people and their rich culture and heritage has been very minimal.
I knew very little about Canada and its history before coming here. My exposure to North America has been mostly through Hollywood movies and TV shows. There were few examples of Indigenous people and mention of Canada was limited to the Mounties. That more than 600 First Nations communities, representing more than 50 Indigenous languages, as well as Métis and Inuit peoples, live on the land called Canada is a very recent discovery for me. I stumbled into that understanding through the news of the National Inquiry into the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, when it made international headlines just before my arrival here.
As a reporter at The Daily Star, I worked on stories of rape and murder of young Indigenous women and girls, while on their way to school or the jhum fields. Some of the incidents happened in the cities and suburbs where they would come looking for work. When I read the Canadian news, I was struck by the similarities that Indigenous women and girls face on opposite sides of the globe. How the crimes committed against them are often unaccounted for. No one is charged for their murders. No institution is held accountable.
In terms of percentage, Bangladesh has a smaller Indigenous population. According to the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs, 1.8 percent of Bangladesh's and 4.9 percent of Canada's population identify as Indigenous or Aboriginal based on each country's 2011 census.
Just like in Toronto, it is hard to find a restaurant that serves Indigenous food in Dhaka, the biggest city in Bangladesh. It is easy to find a burger joint, a pizzeria, Japanese, Korean and Mexican restaurants. But places serving the rice cakes or green bamboo shoots common in eateries in the Chittagong Hill Tracts remain absent from Dhaka's posh restaurant rows.
Bangladesh's history with its Indigenous people has been a difficult one. The state often took up the role of the oppressor in the name of development. Goons under the protection of various political parties flooded and burned homes of Indigenous communities, raped and killed their women, and forced them to escape to neighbouring countries. The crimes committed against Indigenous communities in North Bengal, the Chittagong Hill Tracts and other regions of the country has been more recent and direct.
In Canada, as I have learned over the last five years, the colonial definition of development has marginalised and broken Indigenous communities, torn them from their land, cultural roots, languages and families. The recent discovery of unmarked graves in residential school sites—751 in Saskatchewan and 215 in British Columbia—provides a glimpse into the scale at which a silent genocide against Indigenous communities were carried out in the 19th and 20th century. In the name of "civilising" or assimilating Indigenous children into Euro-Canadian culture, they were taken away from their families and put in government sponsored religious schools. The children were compelled to abandon their traditional way of life and belief system, they were not allowed to even talk in their native tongue. According to the Canadian encyclopedia, an estimated 150, 000 children attended the schools. Many died from isolation, abuse and trying to escape the tyranny of these schools, which were finally closed in the late 1990s. Till date, hundreds of children of these residential schools remain missing and unaccounted for. Until recently, the Canadian government did not make any effort to find out what happened to the missing children. Generations of missing Indigenous children remain hidden in the records of churches, which ran the residential schools, and have not been cooperative in releasing these records. Meanwhile, the First Nations, Metis, and Innuit peoples carry the grief of missing loved ones in their hearts.
What troubles me is how we try to hide such shameful history and its consequences. In Dhaka, Bengalis are reminded of the country's other ethnic groups mostly on days such as the International Day of World's Indigenous Peoples. Some cultural programmes are held here and there, and then all is forgotten.
To some extent, I feel the same thing is done here in Canada. Special programmes are aired on National Indigenous Peoples Day, but when I walk around Toronto, I do not come across a statue of an Indigenous hero or art installation representing a pre-colonial culture. Similarly, there is no road in Dhaka named after any of the country's Indigenous martyrs, who sacrificed their lives for the independence of Bangladesh in 1971.
I have been to a couple of heritage sites in Toronto, including a park in the east end, which features pioneer houses. Before the pandemic, visitors could see performers dressed in costumes acting out daily life in the 19th and the early 20th centuries. I have not seen any such interactive performance art in any of Toronto's parks or heritage sites that provide a glimpse of what life used to be like for the First Nations communities of Ontario.
I feel as a newcomer that our knowledge and perception of Canada's First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities is shaped by existing colonial narratives. Without meaningful exchanges, I wonder if our understanding of this country's Indigenous Peoples will remain as incomplete and prejudiced.
Tamanna Khan is a Master's student at Carleton University, Canada. She is currently doing an internship as a reporter at the Capital Current, an online portal in Ottawa, Canada, where a version of this article piece was first published. It has been tweaked by the author for a Bangladeshi audience.