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Presentation of the 1996 Native Role Models

Rideau Hall (5:00 p.m.)
Friday, February 23, 1996

Winners of the Award, Distinguished Guests, Mr. John Kim Bell,

Today we honour nine persons as Role Models for Canada's native communities. These nine have diverse careers, whether as educators or artists or athletes or volunteers or healers. But all have won recognition from their own communities as models of commitment, dedication, and hard work.

Now these nine will undertake a mission to other native communities across Canada, to help them rediscover their heritage and their health. On behalf of all Canadians, I wish them every success.

The Role Models follow the seven native traditions of wisdom, truth, honesty, love, respect, bravery, and humility. Many Canadians outside the Aboriginal community would like to think that we share some of the same attitudes.

We speak of Canada as a young and growing country, and in many respects that is true. Confederation reaches back only four or five generations. John Cabot and Jacques Cartier landed here less than five hundred years ago, and the Vikings less than a thousand years ago. But the aboriginal founding nations were here ten thousand years ago.

Our French and English pioneers came to a populated continent. The First Nations greeted us with generosity and friendship, according to their spiritual beliefs and way of life. From them we learned the medicines, the food and clothing we needed for survival; we learned to use their canoes, snowshoes, and toboggans for transport; and we learned from them the rivers and waterways that took us into the heart of the continent.

Those Europeans who took the time to observe native societies described a culture of consensus, co-operation, and sharing. In Aboriginal eyes, greatness came not from taking but from giving.

Yet those who gave us the key to Canada found the door closed to them at Confederation. Those who healed and guided us were sometimes sickened and led astray. Often our schools brought them not enlightenment but darkness. Members of ancient cultures based on sharing and respect for elders found themselves with the smallest share and the least respect.

Many Aboriginal persons have now succeeded in the new society that flooded their land; but many others have lost their way. I think of the young who see no future on their isolated reserves and who move to the cities, only to become nomads once again, without the warmth of belonging.

Today we in Canada take rightful pride in having built a society of tolerance, generosity, and compassion. Ontario alone in fifty years took in three million immigrants. Canadians have opened their hearts to refugees from Uganda, from Cambodia, from Eastern Europe, and from Latin America. But let us also remember those who opened their hearts and their land to us, and some of whom have now become refugees in their own country.

We owe the Aboriginal peoples a debt that is four centuries old. It is their turn to become full partners, in developing an even greater Canada. And the reconciliation required may be less a matter of legal texts than of attitudes of the heart.

I am not making a political statement, or advocating new budgets and bureaucracies. That is not my role. But I am advocating that Canadians encourage and recognize the Aboriginal people who long ago encouraged and recognized the rest of us. I am advocating an attitude of generosity and acceptance, so that the Canadian empathy which has impressed the world may heal some hurts at home.

Perhaps we are starting to repay our ancient debt. Today Aboriginal communities, with help from the majority, are taking more and more control of their affairs. I think for example of the Children of the Earth school in Winnipeg, teaching young people their traditional languages and culture, and where love and respect form part of the curriculum. And I think of remarkable individuals both outside and inside the Aboriginal community, such as the Role Models we honour today, all working towards a new sunrise.

The First Nations taught us how to survive in this harsh and beautiful land; but in their spirit of community and sharing, they also foreshadowed the Canadian identity. Four centuries later, we are still learning what the elders already knew. Wisdom, truth, honesty, love, respect, bravery, humility - may the Native Role Models carry those lessons across our country and into all our hearts.

Updated: 1996-02-23
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