At 15, Crystal Samms bubbles with the pride and anger of someone trying to find her way in a foreign land. St. Francis-Xavier's 1,000 students list 90 countries as their homelands, but she is the only native Canadian among them. "When you speak of Canada, I am Canadian," she says. "This is my country."
Which is why, in Grade 9, she represents the biggest emerging challenge for native Canadians. Once segregated and forgotten on remote reserves, aboriginal people are fast becoming urban people. But in the ethnic sprawl of Toronto or Vancouver, or even Edmonton, Winnipeg and Ottawa, they are finding a very new Canada that is not very white, not very homogenous and not very interested in their concerns.
At the mouth of the Credit River, where French traders first met Ojibway trappers, Mississauga brims with images that hardly speak of the white Canada that Crystal's native leaders so often demonize. The local native population long ago moved to another site to make way for farmers from Britain, and in their place there are now glass towers, expressways and, near St. Francis-Xavier, a shopping plaza with signs for Apna Halal Meats and Rama Market.
"Our land is right here and we had it taken away. I would like to find a microphone and scream about it, so people would understand."
For Crystal, there is an age-old struggle here to preserve her native identity as she grows more distant from her ancestral reserve in Southwestern Ontario. But there is also that new challenge: how to forge an identity as one minority among many.
Inside the main building at St. Francis-Xavier (which relies on portables to keep up with local population growth), the hallways are a river of colours and torrent of international concerns. There are posters denouncing Third World sweat shops, coffee slaves and sugar slaves, as though the school were preparing for a Naomi Klein convention. By the entrance, there are also sacks and sacks of clothes, toys and cooking utensils, collected by students as part of a drive to help families in Zambia and Malawi.
Soon after she transferred here in September, 2000, Crystal discovered that most students hang out with kids of their own race or colour. The school is proud of its diversity, even in the face of emerging ethnic gangs. ("I'm not racist, but there's a certain race that causes trouble," Crystal says of the Caribbean girls in her class.)
At first, many kids took her for Hispanic, with her lip gloss, long nails and dark hair slicked back into a ponytail. When she told them what she was, most of them stared blankly. "They said, `Native, what's that?' I said, `Hey, you're living on my land, you should know. We were very generous. We gave up this land.' "
Didn't the students understand, she wondered, that there is a Third World just down the highway, a place where she once lived?
"I want them to focus on our world," Crystal says as her teacher interrupts his lesson to listen to her. "This is our land. The Spanish people, their land is in Ecuador. The Jamaican people, their land is in Jamaica. The English, their land is in London. Our land is right here and we had it taken away. I would like to find a microphone and scream about it, so people would understand."
By the time math class ends, Crystal has calmed down and turned her attention to another conversation, to find out where the weekend party will be. She also needs to collect her books and hurry to the main building to find her friend Amber. They need to talk about lunch.
While Crystal may have to shout to express her native identity, she also has to cope with the struggle of every teenager, to find her own self in a world her parents did not know. On the reserve, it might have been dictated by elders and traditional mores. But in the city, she has only herself, in an ocean of choices.
When she was introduced at an assembly as the school's only aboriginal student, jokers began to call her "Running Water" and ask if she parked her canoe in the school lot
As Crystal goes in search of her best friend, she passes through the crowded school atrium, slipping by the taunts of a thuggish Hispanic gang. She hopes to find Amber at the entrance to the cafeteria, which is licensed to Harvey's, but the doorway is blocked by a group of African kids.
Crystal pushes past them too, as if she were at Square One, Mississauga's nearby shopping centrepiece. She's in a hurry, and afraid of no one.
When she was introduced at an assembly as the school's only aboriginal student, jokers began to call her "Running Water" and ask if she parked her canoe in the school lot. Others showed reverence. "I wish I could be native, it's the coolest culture," she remembers one girl saying to her. "It's so spiritual.' "
But most simply shrugged. Those who knew anything about natives seemed to get all their images from television, from Hollywood stereotypes and shocking nightly news clips, like the ones last year that showed children sniffing gasoline in Sheshatshui. At the time, someone asked Crystal why the Labrador gasoline sniffers did it. She said she didn't know. They weren't her kids. She said she was "disgusted" with the media for focusing on one negative image of native life.
"I had friends come up to me and ask me, `So what's that all about?'
"I said, `How am I supposed to know?' "
" `You're native.' "
"I said, `Because I'm native, I'm supposed to know all the answers?'
"Then an Italian friend said, `Is it like that on your reserve?'
" `Like what?'
" `I heard there's lots of drugs and drinking on reserves.'
"I was disgusted. I told her to walk away. Then I said, `Oh, yeah. I heard Italians are fat and eat a lot of pasta. Is that true?' "