Her Excellency the Right Honourable Michaëlle Jean Speech on the Occasion of the Quebec Native Women Inc. Conference
Wendake, Saturday, June 21, 2008
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Joining me here at the table of panellists are Aboriginal women only.
Long-time activists, outspoken, committed women whom I salute on this National Aboriginal Day.
The fact that you have invited me to join you today at this conference—not only that, you have asked me to open the discussion—tells me that you see in me a sister, and I am deeply moved by this.In fact, our origins and destinies here in the Americas are similar and more closely linked than you might imagine.
Before the arrival of Europeans and the slaves taken from Africa, there were approximately one million Aboriginal inhabitants on the island of Haiti, where I was born. They were Taino, Arawak and Carib.
Those are our first nations, on the island of Haiti, Boyo, Keskeya, which, in the Arawak language, means “mountainous land.”
The Taino, the Arawak in particular, were known as an hospitable, open and warm people. In fact, this is what enabled the Spanish to conquer the island so easily.
This people had a queen, Anacaona, a woman who was said to possess great intelligence, a poetess, a “samba,” whose beauty was also celebrated.
Anacaona and her people opened their arms, and their hearts, and their spirits, and their lands, and their resources to the Spanish, the first Europeans to reach the island aboard three ships—the Pinta, the Niña and the Santa Maria—led by Christopher Columbus, on December 5, 1492.
But Anacaona was later hanged and burned on a cross; her people, reduced to slavery and massacred.
For the Haitian people, Queen Anacaona, the Taino, the Arawak and the Carib are heroes in the annals of history.
This is what allowed me to put down roots here.
When I hear your drums, your songs, your legends and your languages, I feel I have come home.
My roots go even deeper, like rhizomes reaching all the way to the North.
When the Europeans came here, they saw in the Americas a new world.
Because of this, they made a clean sweep of a world that was very real, that had been the cradle of ancient civilizations.
Among my ancestors are those who came from Africa, transported by force across the Atlantic to be reduced to slavery. In the living hell that was the plantations, they met the Aboriginal peoples, who had also been reduced to slavery on their own lands.
Each found that the other had suffered the same offence, stripped of their memory, of their languages and cultures, of their very names.
Thus was born an historic alliance.
These civilizations met in misery and recognized their shared and resolute desire to regain their freedom.
After 350 years of slavery, of degradation and daily resistance to unspeakable abuse, the plantation slaves rose up and took back the colony.
The first thing they did was give the land back its original name, Haiti. In so doing, they took a stand for all of humanity, in defence of the core values that prevailed elsewhere in the world and stirred other voiceless people to rebel.
What are those values?
Sadly, Canada has also had its share of these dark, painful chapters.
We are in the midst of recognizing one of our darkest periods, taking an honest, sober look at the residential school system, which lasted nearly a century.
On June 11, in front of millions of Canadians, words of sorrow and profound regret resonated in the heart of Parliament.
Those words gave way to expressions of hope and reconciliation, in a powerful admission of wrongdoing caused by the imposition of residential schools, which has had devastating effects on the First Nations, Inuit and Métis.
But I would add that non-Aboriginals, too, have felt the effects, deprived of the opportunity to connect with Aboriginal cultures, to experience these languages and this heritage, our deepest roots on this continent.
All of us, Aboriginals and non-Aboriginals, have been dispossessed of a heritage dating back thousands of years.
As we honour the contribution of women on this National Aboriginal Day, I would point out that it is women in particular who have been hardest hit by this wrenching experience.
When I visited the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nation’s cultural centre in Dawson City, Yukon, I saw a number of archived photos, part of an exhibit on residential schools and the way in which children were taken by force, far away from their families and communities.
How they were loaded by the dozen onto the backs of trucks.
They were so young. Some were not even five years old.
I stood transfixed, staring into the terrified eyes of those children. Feeling the helplessness of their parents.
Those heartbreaking and shameful images shook me to the core.
As a mother, I could not help but think of all of those mothers whose children were taken. Of all of those parents and grandparents who were told they had nothing to teach their children, nothing to offer them.
How many of those mothers, those fathers, those grandmothers and grandfathers never saw them again, never knew what had happened to them?
And when those women and men intervened to stop their children from being taken, RCMP officers held them back by force.
Until they unanimously refused to have anything more to do with that ignominious task.
And the police officers, who had stepped in, also refused.
The time had come to break down the wall of indifference and re‑establish the historical truth so that together, we could celebrate the richness of a heritage that has survived years of offence.
So that together, we could pave the way for hope and reconciliation.
I have always been deeply moved by the spirit of resistance of these peoples, particularly the Aboriginal peoples. And especially by your resilience—you, First Nations women, Métis women, Inuit women.
I learn so much from you.
From you, the guardians of ancient wisdom.
From you, the healers of bodies and spirits.
From you, female leaders, band chiefs, activists.
From you, young and old.
From all of you, who have taken control of your destinies and found your own voice.
I have said it before, but it bears repeating: when you give power to women, you will begin to see the end of poverty, illiteracy, exclusion, sickness and violence.
The future of humanity, our hope for a better world, life itself rest on women’s shoulders.
Even in the most extreme situations throughout history, we have continued to think, to speak, to act and to fight.
Alongside men and with men by our side.
It is fitting that the 400th anniversary of the founding of the City of Québec should also be an opportunity for us to join together in these efforts to remember.
To look into the face of History is to acknowledge the periods of rebellious unrest interspersed with the periods of peaceful harmony. It is to take its full measure, to see where it has been and where it is headed.
I see in this willingness to bring the past into the present the possibility of expanding our points of view, of changing mentalities and of constantly and forever improving the fate of humanity.
But enough from me.
I am eager to hear your point of view on the experience of women throughout history, on the richness of the cultures of Canada’s first peoples.
It is interesting to note that Canada, like Haiti, is an Aboriginal word, meaning “village.”
And now, without further ado, the floor is yours.