‘How far have we come?’ asks honorary degree recipient Dean Jacobs

The former chief of the Walpole Island First Nation, Dean Jacobs, marked Canada’s 13th annual Aboriginal Awareness Day with a special honour. Jacobs was the recipient of an honorary doctor of laws degree during Spring Convocation ceremonies at York’s Glendon campus on Saturday, June 21. He received the honour in recognition of his pivotal role as a researcher and advocate for First Nation peoples in Canada.

Right: Dean Jacobs

Jacobs established the community-based research program at Walpole Island First Nation, a 5,000-year-old community located in the heart of the Great Lakes Basin northeast of Windsor, Ont. The program is recognized as one of the best First Nation community research offices in Canada. He also helped to implement a socio-economic and environmental research program called Nin.Da.Waab.Jig (Those Who Seek to Find) in 1982 and became executive director of the Walpole Island Heritage Centre in 1989. In 1995, the Walpole Island First Nation received an award from Friends of the United Nations for its exemplary record in environmental research and sustainable development. Jacobs served as chief from 2004 to 2006.

So it was perhaps appropriate that in a month that saw Canada’s prime minister give an unprecedented and historic apology to First Nation peoples for the government’s role in Indian Residential Schools, that Jacobs, one of the founders of Nin.Da.Waab.Jig, would be honoured by York.

In his speech to Glendon graduates, Jacobs outlined the difficult history of First Nation peoples in Canada. “I think today is an appropriate as it is the 13th annual National Aboriginal Day, to appreciate the many sacrifices and valuable contributions made by Aboriginal peoples to Canada" said Jacobs. "How far have we come? 

"Historically First Nation peoples signed treaties with other nations, including the imperial Crown, as equals. The nation-to-nation relationships which were built on mutual respect also had binding obligations for both parties and we were equal parties," said Jacobs.

"We [First Nation peoples] are also historically sought-after allies during times of conflict and peace. Not long after our sharing of our homelands with the settlers’ governments, the First Nations were treated as a domestic social problem and we were marginalized economically in our own homelands and were at the whim of social engineering experiments. These assimilation policies are truly a dark period in our shared history. We struggled to survive," said Jacobs.

Jacobs led graduands through a difficult history outlining the lack of recognition of First Nation peoples as "people", their long-sought right to vote in federal elections and the attempt to homogenize Aboriginals by the Trudeau government in the "infamous" White Paper of 1968.

"Thirteen years later in 1982, First Nation peoples turned the politics of Canada upside down when the rights of Aboriginal peoples in Canada became entrenched in the Canadian Constitution," said Jacobs. "We vaulted over provincial laws to the supreme law of this country. How far have we come?"

The story is still being written, he said. "Exercising our human rights continues to play out to this day. On June 11, 2008 Prime Minister Stephen Harper delivered a long overdue apology to children who were placed in Indian residential schools. He referred to the treatment of children in the residential schools as a ‘sad chapter in Canadian history’. His sincere apology in saying ‘we are sorry’ on behalf of the government of Canada was a profound statement, as was his request of the Aboriginal peoples of Canada for forgiveness," said Jacobs. "For me it was one of those days that will be etched in my memory forever. How far have we come? Where do we go from here?" 

Above: From left, York Chancellor Roy McMurtry, Dean Jacobs and York President & Vice-Chancellor Mamdouh Shoukri

The long term legacy of Indian residential schools and their impact on First Nation peoples is still being determined, said Jacobs. The newly established Truth and Reconciliation Commission is one way to educate all Canadians on the Indian residential school system, he said. "It is a significant step in the right direction toward reconciliation and healing. I urge everyone to take advantage of this unprecedented educational opportunity by following closely the work of the commission."

He asked graduates to find ways to further the commission’s work by sharing the lessons learned by the commission and passing them onto family and communities. He also urged graduates to work with First Nation communities.

"Much of my professional career has been devoted to public service," said Jacobs. "I have seen the value and benefits of working together and learning from each other. I see exciting new opportunities for First Nation collaboration with other governments, educational institutions, private industry, organizations and communities. Partnerships don’t happen spontaneously; we need people with vision and leadership who can see there are opportunities and make them happen."

There are 134 First Nations in Ontario, said Jacobs, who advised graduates to find out where each of Canada’s First Nations are located and get to know the communities. “I can tell you that it will be very rewarding for you. We are enriched by you and people working with us also are enriched."

A lot of university scientists and researchers “get it” said Jacobs. “They understand how to work with us for mutual benefit. I can say that York University is one university that gets it."

Jacobs shared with graduates his recipe for working with First Nation peoples. Based on mutual respect, patience and an understanding of the unique needs, similarities and differences, it would do much to enhance the working relationship of both parties involved in the partnership. "Get involved in the community and build relationships," said Jacobs. "Don’t expect results overnight. Understand why we might say ‘No’."

In the 1960s, said Jacobs, there were only 250 Aboriginal people in postsecondary education in Canada. Today, the number of Aboriginal students in postsecondary education is pushing 30,000. "So how far have we come!", said Jacobs. He also outlined gains in Aboriginal oil rights, the recognition of Aboriginal traditional environmental knowledge and the recognition of the significance of Aboriginal concerns over development, especially as it relates to treaty rights. Courts are also recognizing the unique needs of Aboriginal communities, said Jacobs.

"We have come a long way, but there is still much to do," said Jacobs. "There are many benefits and we look forward to moving forward together in ways that allow all of us to flourish."