Resistance vs resiliency: UNB elder to serve as Canada 150 ambassador

Resistance vs resiliency: UNB elder to serve as Canada 150 ambassador

Many First Nations people are boycotting Canada's 150th anniversary of Confederation celebrations this year, but Imelda Perley, an elder in residence at the University of New Brunswick, has agreed to take on the role of ambassador for Canada 150.

Perley, 68, admits she was surprised to get the email invitation from the federal government.

She suspects it may have been a strategic move intended to blunt the impact of #Resistance150, a social media campaign designed to highlight how Indigenous peoples have resisted what many see as discriminatory and assimilationist policies of the Canadian government over the years.

"I don't mind taking on that role," said Perley. "My response was 'as long as I can promote the resilience of my people as opposed to the resistance of my people, that I would be willing to showcase our resiliency.'"

First Nations are "still dealing with a lot of issues," she said, citing education in New Brunswick's public schools as an example.

Although high school students with First Nations backgrounds will be able to take advanced Mi'kmaq and Wolasoquey language courses starting this fall, they have to give up French in order to take it, said Perley.

"Why can't they take French? Why is Maliseet only for Maliseet children?"

Perley also contends more needs to be done to promote First Nations history and culture.

She said she worries because she sees a lack of pride in some students. "If we don't have our identity celebrated … how do we tell our children to be proud of their own culture."

That's why UNB's Mi'kmaq-Wolastoqey Centre held its third annual powwow with traditional songs, dancing and drumming on Wednesday, said Perley.

The powow celebrates the resiliency of Mi'kmaq, Wolastoqey and Passamaquoddy languages, teachings, traditions, ceremonies, world views, knowledge systems and philosophies.

Perley has also set up a Twitter account @askomiw150 and tries to tweet a word a day that deals with resilience. The word "askomiw" means "forever" — "as long as the sun shines, the grass grows and the river flows."

"I want to promote that and I guess showcase [for] our young people how proud we can still be because we have a language to protect, we have language to uphold, we have a culture that's still living and thriving, we have our celebrations. We just have to make sure the province makes room for that."

Asks premier for 'birthday gift'

To that end, Perley is urging Premier Brian Gallant to reconsider the policy on aboriginal education in the province and change a key word as a "birthday gift" to her.

Instead of policy stating the minister "may" contribute to promoting aboriginal cultures, she'd like to see it to state "shall."

"I think 'shall' has more promise than the word 'may' so that would be an awesome present."

Under the Department of Education's 10-year plan, designed in part to meet calls to action from the country's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, other Indigenous content that will be mandatory for all students throughout the K-12 system is still in development and the department did not say when it will be rolled out.