By Nasreen Pejvack
I arrived in Canada as a new immigrant in the 1980s, and soon began my life by learning about the education system and planning my options.
Whenever I had free time, I would look for people who might be the native peoples of this land that I had learned about in my birthplace, but I didn’t seem to see them around. They should be speaking different languages, or they might look darker with beautiful long black hair. I wasn’t sure.
Later, I learned how they had been pushed out of many communities and were living on the outskirts in places called Indian Reserves. Hearing over and over that Canada is a multicultural country, I thought perhaps they had wanted to preserve their cultures and languages and had chosen to be with their own. Nevertheless, being a very curious young woman, I eventually found that many of their circumstances were not determined by their own choices. Wishing to know more, I sought out one of these reserves and went there to see how they lived their lives.
The details of my eye-opening experience are related in the first narrative of my book of short stories, “Paradise of the Downcasts.” In that short trip I learned that, yes, they did want to be with their own people, but not in the conditions where I found them.
I returned to Ottawa sad and very irritated about what I learned. Before Europeans arrived, the First Nations were living near water and in fertile forests and lands. But when the Europeans arrived, many were slaughtered and pushed off their lands. Then as the indigenous peoples grew weaker, Europeans became stronger. Thereafter, First Nations were pushed out onto harsher lands. Conditions worsened as they became like prisoners. Even their children were taken away from them, with residential schools staying active
right up until 1996.
After that experience, the busy life of a newcomer took over, and even though I was still learning, I couldn’t do anything about it. The days and months passed by in a hurry. Another decade passed and one day, in 1995, I heard on the news about contaminated water on some reservations and that people had to be moved out of their homes.
I knew Canada to be a country rich in fresh water, yet these people in this modern day were still being moved out because their water was unhealthy and contaminated. How is it that my government and the policy makers could not correct this?
I remember from time to time a PM or some high official formally apologized for the bad treatment of the First Nations. But if they know about the wrongdoing, and they admit to it, then why are they still not treating these people as true citizens of this country? Why are they still living in such difficult circumstances?
After all, these people had been living here for thousands of years. Then, over just a few hundred years, Europeans came and took over, pushing them off their lands and settling themselves in their place. They then began developing their cities and promoting European culture, meanwhile pushing aside the First Nations more and more.
It hurts to see evil in the various parts of this world, including in what I thought was my little haven, Canada.
If Canadian governments during these past hundred years or so have been smart enough to stay away from most belligerent wars, that should mean there are many ethical humanists here. So why don’t they correct these mistakes properly? Why are the natives of this land living this poorly?
I saw the news of the day that boil-water advisories were put in place, and First Nations were forced to import bottled water at an annual cost of $100,000. Plans and programs were promised to correct this.
But that was more than 20 years ago, and here I am today watching news about yet another disaster on a reserve. They were again interviewing Indigenous residents, and there was the same sad story. We saw a little boy crying and saying, “We are people of this land, we are not animals. Why do we have to live like this – why we do not have drinking water ….?”
I found myself crying in disbelief. It is almost 35 years that I have been living here; witnessing/reading/hearing about how these people are living in exceedingly difficult conditions and still begging for their basic life necessities.
I feel ashamed, even though I have nothing to do with it. I feel mortified to see how people live their comfortable lives and do not know anything about this situation, or if they do know, they sure don’t care. First Nations were living here in their own way long before Europeans arrived and destroyed the livelihood of these nations. I read that 73% of First Nations do not have access to clean water. They don’t even seem to have the beautiful parks for their children such as I see in every neighborhood of cities all around the country.
Of course I see and have met many wonderful Canadian writers and journalists documenting the conditions of the First Nation of this land, but the majority here are so involved with themselves and their own lives, that they actually love to forget what their ancestors did here, and they bring up their children uninformed about how their parents and grandparents came here and took over.
The status quo seems so normal and natural to many of those of European descent here who call themselves proud Canadians. But should you be? If this is important enough to many living here, they should be pushing the government to correct all the wrongs and make sure we are all living here as equal citizens of Canada.
I am a writer now, and there are different events and programs I attend. I see that they often begin with the presenters first thanking the Indigenous peoples of that particular territory for allowing them to be there and live on their land. Really?
They did not allow you to be here on their land. The first settlers took it from them in many bloody clashes. How could they be happy with you? How many of you have seen first-hand the awful conditions of different reserves? It is nothing like your clean pretty neighborhoods!
Water is life, and Canada has it abundantly. Why then is it that the water insecurities in indigenous communities and the resulting multiple health consequences followed after European arrival?
My questions as a citizen of this country are:
Why is the quality of water in many First Nations communities below that of the general population?
If we all are one nation in this country, then why are some Indigenous communities living in the most unimaginable conditions?
Is it because many still think, believe and act as if they are in entitled?
Is that why not much has changed for the Indigenous peoples?
It seems as if they live as outsiders, not natives of this land! Above all, how is it that in a country with only 37 million population, one with the most and the best drinkable sweet water, there are communities living with non-drinkable water?
It’s most important to finish by again stating that these are people that were here long before any of us arrived here. We must honor them with better conduct.
Nasreen Pejvack began writing as a Canadian author in 2014. Her debut novel “Amity” was published by Inanna Publications in October of 2015 and was a finalist for British Columbia’s 2016 Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize. Following that successful novel, she went on to complete “Paradise of the Downcasts,” a collection of short tales and essays inspired by her experiences of life in Canada. She also has a collection of poems entitled “Waiting,” and both books were published/printed by McNally Robinson in 2018. In Nasreen’s stories, her characters give expression to her life’s learning and experiences in order to relate narratives relevant to the concerns of our time. “Luyten’s Star” is her newest publication, a sci-fi novel.
Nasreen’s other interest is the research, design, development and presentation of a variety of workshops on various aspects of our society. Nasreen was a judge for the 2018 BC Fiction Prize, as well as President of Royal City Literary Arts Society, May 2016 – July 2018. Prior to writing, Nasreen studied computer programming at Algonquin College in Ottawa, and worked in the field for over eight years (Programmer, Application Developer). She then moved to California to work as a Systems Analyst/Project Manager for CNet during the tech boom of the 1990s. After several years she returned to Canada and BC, where she left the IT field and decided to start a new chapter in her life, studying and working while pursuing a degree in Psychology. Thereafter she employed her years of learning and observation with two separate educational institutions over a span of 12 years. Since 2014 she has dedicated her time to writing, applying her life learning and experiences in developing vibrant characters and stories in novels, short tales and poems.