Chinese groups, First Nations relate
Chinese groups listened with an understanding forged by experience about the challenges faced by Canada’s First Nations’ aboriginal groups.
A symposium, Shared Cultural Pasts: A Comparative Conversation Exploring the Cultures of Multi-ethnic Chinese and First Nations Peoples in Canada, was held in Waterloo earlier this month.
Hosted by the Confucius Institute in Waterloo and the Institute of Ethnic Literature at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, it gathered 18 Chinese ethnic minority scholars and writers along with their North American counterparts to engage in dialogues of comparative multiculturalism in Canada and China.
Guo Xuebo, a novelist born in Inner Mongolia, discussed similarities in religious practices between Mongolians and the First Nations.
The First Nations comprise the various aboriginal Canadians, of which there are currently 634 groups across the country.
“I discovered that the religious beliefs of these people, including their customs and attitudes toward nature were similar to that of the Mongolian people, and this made me feel connected to these people,” Guo said.
Guo said that since the ancient Pleistocene glacial period, when the sea level fell, the Bering Strait exposed a narrow strip of land, which the ancestors of the Inuit crossed. Some of the first Canadians crossed the strait that connected Asia to North America.
“In particular, I found that the Inuit religion appellation is called ‘Shamanism’, which is exactly the same as Mongolian Shamanism,” Guo said.
Guo’s Mongolian group is just one of the 55 ethnic minority groups in China, in addition to the Han majority. All of the groups have traditions of written and oral literature.
“Ethnic minority literature came into a new era since the founding of a new China in 1949,” said Yin Hanyin, a Manchu ethnic writer, who was the editor of National Literature magazine.
Chinese ethnic minority literature began to flourish after the open-door policy was adopted, Yin said. In recent years, more ethnic writers have begun writing in their native languages.
“The multicultural nationalities in China have functioned primarily toward providing resources to maintain the vitality of the mainstream Han culture throughout China’s long history,” said Yan Li, director of the Confucius Institute in Waterloo. “In the past years, these multicultural nationalities have demonstrated their vision for preserving their worthwhile heritages, which the majority-group people should learn from.”
“North America is a relatively new nation, and it began its history by colonizing the indigenous people of the Americas, and that has had disastrous consequences for the indigenous peoples of the Americas,” said Darrol Bryant, director of the Centre for Dialogue and Spirituality in the World’s Religions at Renison University College.
“China on the other hand, has had thousands of years to deal with their multiethnic heritage; I think actually there are things as Canadians to learn from the current situation in China,” he said.
“There are a lot of interesting possibilities for comparative or cooperative education with students from China and Canada, to learn the tragic history and the consequences,” said Keith Carlson, a history professor at the University of Saskatchewan.
At the symposium, Lila Bruyere recalled her experience of being deprived of using her native language.
As a second-generation “survivor “of Canada’s residential school system, Bruyere was taken away from her home community of Couchiching First Nation in northern Ontario at age 6 and spent eight years at what she called a “feared” building that now houses the Aboriginal and First Nations’ offices.
Residential schools were set up to assimilate aboriginal children into Canadian culture.
“I was told not to speak my own language, because our language is bad,” she said with a quaver in her voice. “So I missed out on my language, but I think my language is still here, in my heart.”
Bruyere was accompanied by her son, Shawn Johnston. The cycle started from her parents and continued to her son, she said.
Bruyere said the trauma has affected so many aboriginal families like hers.
“I wanted the cycle of abandonment to stop; I started my own healing and kept myself in treatment.”
Despite those obstacles, Bruyere and Johnston graduated from the Wilfrid Laurier University’s Master of Social Work Aboriginal Field of Study program, and mother and son donned graduation robes at the same time.
Bruyere’s and her son’s stories are some of the wrenching tales that residential school survivors have shared since the notorious system was closed in the 1980s after almost 100 years in operation.
“The loss of language and culture is the loss of worlds as we know them,” said Wendy L. Fletcher, principal and vice-chancellor at Renison.
Members of the Aboriginal Education Center at St. Paul’s College play a traditional song of the First Nations on Oct 3 in Waterloo.