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A scholar’s perspective on National Indigenous Peoples Day

By University Advancement and Communications Posted: June 18, 2021 5:00 a.m.

Natalie Owl is the 2021-2022 recipient of the Queen Elizabeth II Centennial Aboriginal Scholarship.
Natalie Owl is the 2021-2022 recipient of the Queen Elizabeth II Centennial Aboriginal Scholarship. Photo: Arthur Ward

The recent discovery of a mass grave containing 215 Indigenous children at the Kamloops Residential School has once again amplified the national dialogue around Truth and Reconciliation. According to the 2015 landmark report by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), there were some 4,100 deaths of children at Residential Schools in Canada, although the number could be considerably higher. For many of those deaths, the student’s name, gender or cause of death was never recorded.

Natalie Owl is a University of Regina doctoral candidate whose research focus is Indigenous health and education. Owl, who grew up on the Sagamok Anishnawbek First Nation in northern Ontario, also studies traditional Indigenous concepts of health, health disparities, social determinants of health, cultural appropriateness, Indigenous language education and historic trauma transmission theory among other Indigenous research. As a U of R master’s student, Owl focused her research on impacts of the residential schools system. Owl says that the discovery of the burial site is yet another example of historic trauma transmission that Indigenous peoples face.

“It [the discovery] is part of that historic trauma,” Owl says. “I recently listened to Senator Murray Sinclair talk about the federal government's refusal to further investigate deaths that occurred within the Indian residential school system and to me that's part of ongoing Indigenous oppression.”

The TRC hearings concluded there were 51 deaths at the Kamloops Residential School. Members of the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation community, where the residential school is located, had long claimed that there were more children buried at the school site and for more than two decades had attempted to locate them. Owl says the acknowledgement of the deaths can help ease the pain that survivors have carried for a lifetime.

“Because it was never fully acknowledged, that historic trauma has been allowed to manifest in Indigenous communities,” says Owl. “There has also been the suppression of Indigenous traditional healing methodologies which would have helped resolve some of the trauma. For many of today’s survivors having that acknowledgement, while painful, is also healing. During this time, it is also important to remember the resilience and resistance of Indigenous people that has helped our truth be known.” 

Owl was the recent recipient of the 2021-2022 Queen Elizabeth II Centennial Aboriginal Scholarship, an $20,000 award presented to an Indigenous graduate student for academic excellence.

“There aren't a lot of Indigenous graduate students and to receive this award acknowledges that my research is important,” she says. “Many Indigenous students struggle financially through post-secondary. It will definitely help me to finish up the rest of the rest of my doctorate so I am so thankful.”

As we approach National Indigenous Peoples Day, Owl reflects on measures that will move Canadians towards reconciliation.

“To have a day that is set aside helps raise awareness and it is important for Indigenous people and non-Indigenous people,” she says. “We need to learn each other's history and also the history we share. Some of that's not very pleasant but I think that you need to acknowledge that history and instead of dismissing it you need to understand it.”

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