21 Jun MORE THAN SKIN DEEP
Disclaimer: The author would like to emphasize that the experiences mentioned throughout the article are their own and do not indicate the experiences of ALL Indigenous peoples.
Timmins, Ontario never felt like home. Ongoing racism, discrimination, and lack of progression made it difficult for an individual like myself to prosper and value my aspirations. I felt trapped, unmotivated, and alone.
Timmins is accustomed to ongoing racism and discrimination, a slight difference made you an outcast. Those of different sexualities, genders, ethnicities, truly didn’t fit it and wore a target on their backs. Timmins is also widely known for its dense Indigenous population. It’s sad to admit but, the Indigenous population in Timmins are considered low-class individuals. The systemic barriers initiated by Canada’s cruel history ultimately shaped the Indigenous population today, increasing the susceptibility to poverty, mental health issues, and substance abuse. Over a third of the homeless population in Timmins identify as Indigenous, whereas others face little too extreme poverty. Some of these individuals are also involved in local crime and substance abuse, therefore being well-known to our community authority figures. Growing up, surrounded by these individuals caused me to have an incredibly negative outlook on my people. I started to believe that the stereotypes and misconceptions were true and unavoidable. Individuals that lacked the facilities to lead a prosperous life were often depicted as “drunks,” “uneducated,” and “savages.” This was all in all a category that I did not want to be labelled as.
Although this reality wasn’t necessarily the case for me. My parents are of Indigenous descent; my mother registered with Garden River First Nation and my father, Moose Cree First Nation. They were motivated to leave the reserve to receive an education and guarantee a career that would be financially suitable and stable. Through their efforts, my mother became a teacher, and my father became a pilot. From where I come from, we were not your “typical” Indigenous family. It seemed as though the success within my family was threatening to lower-income Indigenous households, which led to internal discrimination.
My family has always taught me to be a high-achiever and never settle for less. They produced continuous support no matter how outrageous my dreams were. Following my parents’ footsteps, I always intended to become a successful individual, whether that meant putting my heart and soul into my education or becoming an individual they could be proud of. I wanted to strive through the systemic barriers that were moulded through the years of colonization. But somehow, my culture frequently got in the way of that.
Throughout my life, I rarely had Indigenous friends. I was often scrutinized by the other Indigenous students for being successful and acting “too white.” Thus, I immersed myself amongst the people to which I felt in which I belonged, amongst the non-Indigenous students.
Despite being unintentional, I did frequently experience bouts of racism that often caught me off guard. Students would say remarks such as “you’re not like other natives,” a statement delivered so freely, intending to cause no harm, however, rooted with the ongoing burden of being an Indigenous person. Throughout this time, I let these remarks slip my mind, paying no mind to it. Over time, this one sentence caused me to question myself: if I’m not like other Indigenous peoples, can I even be classified as one?
Situating myself as an Indigenous person here in Canada has always been a challenge for me. At the age of seven, I was diagnosed with Vitiligo, a skin condition that causes the body to lose pigment cells (melanocytes). This skin condition results in large discoloured patches present amongst the body and can also lead to the loss of pigment within hair, mouth, and eyes. I was always told by my family that “it was better to be pale, you won’t experience racism”. However, that wasn’t my issue. I wanted to feel accepted by my people. I wanted to feel included. I wanted to feel Indigenous.
It was at the age of seven when I learned how cruel the world truly is. The diagnosis of my condition led to years of bullying, covering my body in layers to hide any inch of skin that was visibly losing colour, and led to appointment after appointment to analyze the progression of my condition. At that time, I realized I would no longer be one of the “normal” kids and this would be something I’d have to live with for the rest of my life. Despite the ongoing stares from strangers and rude remarks from classmates, I barely batted an eyelash. I gave those individuals the attention I thought they deserved, none. Being a child growing through such a condition, I didn’t understand why I was treated the way I was. But, I guess that’s just how society works, society doesn’t like “different.”
It wasn’t until I was at the age of 16 that my Vitiligo affected me in a whole new way. I sat in my Indigenous History course surrounded by fellow Indigenous identifying peers, who all had one unique thing in common: their skin colour. I had already been the odd one out, big dreams, excellent grades, and a financially stable family but, lacking the one identifying feature of indigeneity was a whole new form of alienation I endured.
Over the years, I tried to get involved with my culture, learning more about Canada’s relationship with Indigenous peoples, and embracing traditions such as beading and spiritual gatherings. Despite my efforts, becoming more involved with my culture only made me feel more dissociated. I felt as though I was an imposter to perform such traditions as I was lacking the identifying feature of a dark complexion. It was as though I would never be validated as an Indigenous person
Following graduation, I attended Queen’s University. Entering a new city whereas I did not know how I would be treated as an Indigenous person was terrifying. Due to the absurd amounts of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women in Canada, I did not want to put myself in a position where I felt unsafe. I feared being stereotyped and wanted to eliminate any forms of racism towards me as I could. Queen’s University as a school was founded on colonization whereas, I felt as through past experience it was best not to identify as Indigenous due to ongoing fears. Through this period of time, if asked what my ethnicity was I would lie, I would pose as a different race and state that I was “just white”. It is something that I deeply regret doing and felt so morally wrong that I couldn’t keep it up for more than one week.
When the time came around, I sat down with some of my friends and told them that I identified as Indigenous. I told them where my family came from, how Indigenous people were treated in my hometown and the reasoning behind my pale complexion. To my surprise, they had no reaction. All of those were completely supportive of where I came from and my personal hardships.
From that moment, I felt some sort of small acceptance. As a Global Development major, here at Queen’s, I had numerous opportunities to be involved with Indigenous-based classes and learn more than I ever could have within my small, northern Ontario town. Through the acceptance and curiosity of my peers, I have been able to share such experiences with them and ultimately engage in my culture in new ways.
Now at the age of 21, I am still learning through experience and slowly but surely embracing my indigeneity. I am now able to feel as though my successes and failures count for being an inspiring individual for the Indigenous youth today. I am proudly now able to state that I am an Indigenous woman of Garden River First Nation who sees that indigeneity is more than skin deep, it’s a process, a learning curve, and an opportunity for change. But, most importantly it’s resilience to the colonial ties that Canada fails to cut and the barriers that we as a whole are able to overcome and prosper.
HEADER IMAGE SOURCE: SADIE LEVINE (MUSE ONLINE ILLUSTRATOR)