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When Adrienne Clarkson was a Grade 6 student at 10th Street Elementary in Ottawa, she studied native Indians. As part of the curriculum, the students were given beaver board and asked to design a miniature Indian village.

The young Chinese immigrant went out and found birch bark and cedar to lend more authenticity to her setting. She made costumes out of wool and rabbit fur for plastic native figures provided to the students. It's as close as she would get to a real Indian community for years.

"And yet, 40 miles down the road you could find the Algonquin and Maniwaki reserves," Ms. Clarkson remembers decades later. "But there was never any thought given to going there so we could maybe talk to the native people ourselves and see their culture first-hand.

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"We might as well have been studying the Greeks and Romans. You rarely saw a native person in Ottawa. It was like they were hidden in a closet the way people once treated their handicapped children."

Years later, when Ms. Clarkson became a journalist, and then later as the country's governor-general, she truly began to explore and understand her adopted country's aboriginal ancestry.

Today, Ms. Clarkson is committed to helping new immigrants learn as much as possible about the indigenous foundation upon which their new country is built. And she is promoting a project in Vancouver she believes will help develop a deeper and healthier link between Canada's past and its future.

Much of the Aboriginal-New Immigrant Initiative is carried out through "dialogue circles" in which native leaders sit with new Canadians and tell stories about their families' past and their tribes' history. The tales are fascinating, sometimes funny, often sad. Afterwards, Canada's newest citizens can ask questions, or talk about a shared experience.

While it seems like a modest endeavour that wouldn't lead to a seismic difference in society, Ms. Clarkson would disagree. She thinks it's vital that immigrants, the fastest growing segment of the population, understand the aboriginal experience. Only then will they appreciate and begin to comprehend the debate that continues to swirl around so many aspects of native life in Canada. But she also thinks the dialogues will help create a bond between those coming to Canada and those who have lived here for hundreds of years.

"And that makes for a richer, more complete nation," said Ms. Clarkson, who was in Vancouver this week to attend a dialogue circle. "While so many countries have spent the last hundred years eradicating their aboriginal past, it's important that new Canadians understand that we don't believe in that here."

Since Ms. Clarkson left the governor-general's job in 2005, new immigrants have been a focus for her, and her for husband, John Ralston Saul. The pair set up the Institute for Canadian Citizenship, which strives to improve immigrants' knowledge of their adopted country. This is often done through citizenship roundtables; Ms. Clarkson has attended and spoken at hundreds. It allows long-time Canadians to tell some of the 250,000 newcomers we welcome each year something about their country they may not know.

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The former G-G is hopeful the institute can adopt, in some way, Vancouver's aboriginal-new immigrant program and bring it to life across the country, starting in Ontario. Ms. Clarkson believes it will lead to a far more culturally literate Canada. But she insists the conversations must include aspects of Canada's relationship with its first nations that aren't pretty, like residential schools.

A part of our history is so awful "it makes you want to vomit," she says.

"I tell new immigrants that you are part of our family and that means you have to accept the relative in the attic, old Aunt Jane, your drunken Uncle Bracken," said Ms. Clarkson. "So never let me hear any one of you say: 'I'm not interested in the residential school question because that happened before I got here so I'm not responsible for it.'

"You are responsible now because you are part of Canada and that is part of your history."

And there isn't anyone better to explain what it did to our aboriginal peoples than our aboriginal peoples themselves.

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About the Author
National affairs columnist

Gary Mason began his journalism career in British Columbia in 1981, working as a summer intern for Canadian Press. More

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