In 2013, an unprecedented opportunity awaits us. The only question is, will we have the wisdom to capitalize on it?
With the #IdleNoMore movement burgeoning, and a New Year upon us, there is no time like the present to consider how Canadians and the Aboriginal people of Turtle Island can move forward peacefully, amicably, constructively, and together. But first, we need to dispense with the frustratingly persistent colonial mindset that continues to mar our progress.
IMPORTANT: Those of us who trace our heritage to Europe in particular, need to assume personal responsibility for our misconceptions, and work to rectify them. Decolonization starts with you and me.
And only now do you see the people. You were blind to their presence because their reality is different from yours. The people around you occupy space the way you occupy time. Their existence approaches transparency…These people do not dwell on the land the way you are accustomed to. There are many of them, they have been here in their millions over thousands of years. When the Great Sphinx of Egypt crawled out of the sands by the Nile, and Stonehenge was rising in ominous rings from the Salisbury Plains, these people were here. Their genius, to leave no monuments; their genius to envision the circle of creation as complete.
-John Moss, from “The Opposite of Prayer: An Introduction to Tomson Highway.”
The new year having dawned, I find myself reflecting on 2012, particularly on the hype that surrounded December 21, date of the so-called Mayan apocalypse. Indeed, the mass media had been circulating the fantasy for years, in typical sensational style. Hollywood even produced a ludicrous action blockbuster, starring John Cusack, in anticipation of Armageddon.
However, to the surprise of few rational human beings, the sun indeed rose on December 22nd. There was no catastrophe, no mass failure of technology as predicted in advance of Y2K. Storms, floods and volcanoes didn’t simultaneously tear our world to shreds, an asteroid didn’t plunge mercilessly into the planet’s crust, precipitating an interminable ice age. Once again, we can only resign ourselves to a familiar, if uncomfortable, reality – that the single greatest threat to humankind is we ourselves.
Contrary to popular opinion, the Maya are not an ancient, extinct people, comparable to the Sumerians or Egyptian pharaohs; they live on, inhabiting Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, and wide swaths of jungle in Central America. Many of them continue to speak the languages and maintain the customs and traditions of their forebears. And incidentally, Mayan elders recognized the 2012 “Armageddon” hype for what it was – an outlandish misrepresentation of their calendar, buoyed senselessly by a Western media establishment perpetually hungry for eyeballs.
Rather than the end of time, insist Mayan elders, their prophesies foretold that December of 2012 would mark the beginning of a transition, a change in consciousness, a re-awakening.
I can’t help but wonder if we’re witnessing it right now.
The hunger strike that set the wheels of Idle No More in motion
On December 10, Chief Theresa Spence of Attawapiskat First Nation announced that she would begin a hunger strike to persuade Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper (thus far unsuccessfully) to meet with her, to discuss the perennial squalour and disrepair endured by her people, on the remote Cree reserve. Little did she realize the response – both positive and negative – her act of defiance would elicit.
Some, like a few of the vulturine hacks at the National Post, doubled down on a bevy of supercilious tropes, maligning Chief Spence’s handling of federal funds for the northern community’s hardships – despite apparently possessing no concrete evidence upon which to draw that conclusion, despite the mountains of paperwork filed annually by Attawapiskat and many other First Nation communities across the country, and inspected regularly by the discerning eye of Canada’s Auditor General, and despite the fact the town had been mired in housing and infrastructural crises for decades. Evidently, for journalists seduced by the colonial mindframe, the knee-jerk temptation to incriminate Aboriginal leaders – whilst exculpating a spectacularly opaque and fiscally ham-handed federal government, mind you – is much too alluring to resist.
Perhaps the most egregious diatribes came from self-proclaimed conservative contrarian J.J. McCullough – who defamed peaceful Idle No More protesters as “marauding, riotous hordes” – reviving the spectre of odious Aboriginal caricatures that dominated Canada’s newspapers more than a century ago. Not to be outdone was the National Post‘s Christie Blatchford, whose affinity for horse manure, as Harsha Walia reveals, is superceded only by her penchant for logical fallacies.
By the way, it’s tempting to view Blatchford’s anti-Native hogwash as a form of intimidation, if not terrorism. But not really. I just felt like drawing an asinine moral equivalency. (In case you have any lingering doubts, let me be clear that the old adage about imitation and flattery does not apply in this instance.)
Anyway, enough about the manure meted out by maleficent mainstream minions. The hope, optimism and pride Idle No More has inspired, far outweigh its unwarranted portrayals. This movement is so much more than your parents’ Native protest. It’s an emblem of positive change. Aboriginal peoples in Canada, throughout the Americas and overseas, so long assailed by the manifold evils of colonialism, are rising like a phoenix from the fire, filled with determination to make things better, not only for themselves, but for all of us. Some revolutions are waged with guns, mortars and artillery, devastating communities and costing millions of lives. This revolution is being conducted with banners, drums, gatherings, traditional songs, round dances and hunger strikes, bringing hope to communities ravaged by despair. The possibility of a new beginning beckons, tantalizingly close, bright and lucid like the Northern Lights.
But make no mistake; First Nations – and Canadians – are facing the fight of a lifetime.
Breaking down the wall of denial
In the late 1980s, legendary blues guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan penned “Wall of Denial,” a song about that figurative barrier that separates each one of us from truth and enlightenment, the dismantling of which is a monumental psychic and emotional challenge. Though his lyrics pertained to a wholly different scenario, the premise is universally applicable – and apt for the Canadian context. Our wall of denial is high, it’s thick, and it’s reinforced with ample layers of ignorance and misapprehension. And the only way to bring it down is by working together.
To be sure, the issues inherent in the Canada-First Nations relationship are complex, but in the year 2013, I feel it can essentially be reduced to one overriding truth: Too many Canadians think we know what we’re talking about, but really have no clue.
Here are some of the notions that non-Aboriginal Canadians need to understand before we can meaningfully advance our discourse around Idle No More:
- Assimilation is NOT the answer.
The notion that Aboriginals will be better off if they just integrate into the Canadian mainstream has assumed many forms over the years, from Trudeau’s 1969 White Paper, to the genocidal Residential Schools, to bans on Indigenous art, ceremonies and potlaches, the ’60s Scoop, and the systematic eradication of languages and forms of knowledge vital to our First Peoples. Even the Indian Act itself, which infantilizes Aboriginals as “wards of the state,” is a document originally tendered with the nefarious object of assimilation in mind. Indeed, a campaign of cultural genocide has been the policy of our government throughout its existence, not to mention the various efforts at physical and biological genocide that preceded Confederation.
Although several overt policies of assimilation have been abandoned over the years, such as the Potlach Ban and the Residential Schools, references to assimilation still pervade our public discourse and the legislation our governments construct. Simply stated, since assuming control of the federal administration, Harper’s Conservatives have revealed, in hints and actions of varying subtlety, their intention to legislate First Nations cultures out of existence, one little amendment at a time. And they’re invoking the ghost of Milton Friedman as their PR rep, pushing a neoliberal, hypercapitalistic agenda, and speaking in coded language. When the Conservatives say they want to help Aboriginal people achieve economic success, it likely means they want to acquire traditional and/or Treaty lands for economic development purposes, and assimilate the inhabitants. Likewise, when columnists like the National Post’s John Ivison opine that First Nations communities like Attawapiskat have “no economic reason to exist,” this implies that the inhabitants of that community should just abandon their traditional territory and move elsewhere, to a place where money can be made, for the benefit of the Canadian taxpayer (in other words, assimilate). And don’t even get me started on Margaret Wente!
- Canada is a multiracial country, but there is a dominant, mainstream culture to which immigrant communities gradually adapt. And Aboriginals are not immigrants.
One critique I’ve heard fairly often in right-wing circles, is that Indigenous people ought to be regarded as no different from immigrants. Okay then. How many fourth-generation Polish, Russian, Italian, Indian immigrants do you know, who are fluent in the language of their ancestors? I’m guessing not very many. I’m a second-generation Canadian of largely Scottish descent, but I speak no Gaelic, I almost never wear a kilt or carry a sgian-dubh (dagger). I have never played the bagpipes, taken part in Highland Games, or shorn a sheep as my ancestors did. Most of the cultural traditions of my progenitors are lost on me.
Now, imagine you belong to a culture that’s been subject to various campaigns of systematic eradication over the past several centuries, that laws have forbade you to learn your language, wear your traditional clothes or partake of ancient ceremonies. Indigenous people have been persecuted for centuries by settlers intent on destroying their way of life. And many of them are doing their damnedest to revive what colonialism has striven for so long to obliterate.
If we accept that assimilation is not an option for Aboriginal people, and considering the fact that languages and cultural norms tend to fade rapidly with the passage of generations in a country dominated by secular, acculturated anglophones, let’s abandon this inane suggestion, shall we?
- The Indian Act changes in Bill C-45 amount to an underhanded land-grab, implemented with insufficient, if any, consultation with First Nations.
The modifications to the Indian Act inherent in the omnibus bill are small, but deeply significant, in that they reduce the threshold by which Treaty First Nations may lease or “designate” (conditionally surrender) their lands. Instead of a requiring a majority of title holders, or a referendum of the First Nation’s members, leases to resource extraction companies (let’s be honest; in most cases, they’d be the most likely bidders), or conditional surrender of the Indigenous lands, can now be approved based on a simple majority at a meeting of just a handful of Band members, and then rubber-stamped by the Aboriginal Affairs Minister. Combine this with deliberate, draconian program and infrastructure funding cuts by the federal government, and many Indigenous communities will be forced to carry debt, with their lands serving as collateral (in fact, in British Columbia, First Nations were saddled with more that $400 million in debt as of April 2012, accrued through the treaty negotiation process alone). To escape debt, according to the neoliberal mantra to which our government is committed, the best option is privatization and individual ownership. I can’t emphasize enough the threat this poses to First Nations territory and Treaty lands.
- And it gets worse – C-45’s unilateral Indian Act alterations are the tip of the iceberg
- The Harper government has amended the Navigable Waters Act, downloading this responsibility to the provinces and providing them with greater powers of appropriation over waters in First Nations jurisdiction. Structures (like bridges for pipelines transporting diluted bitumen) can also now be constructed with no environmental review.
- Evidently channelling Orwell’s 1984, though sadly not in jest, Harper and friends have also introduced a pair of bills whose consequences will be the opposite of their stated purpose.
- The first of these is Bill S-212: First Nations Self-Government Recognition Bill
This legislation, as the Vancouver Observer‘s Jenny Uechi reports, is a Canadian version of the American bill that led to the sell-off of 90 million acres of American Indian land – roughly 65 per cent of the total. The purpose of the Dawes Act, passed by the U.S. Congress in 1887, was to advance a “divide and conquer” strategy for the acquisition of Aboriginal territory – and from a capitalistic, colonial perspective, it was an overwhelming success.
The following are the six objectives outlined in the Dawes Act:
1) Break up the tribe as a social unit
2) Encourage individual initiative
3) Further the progress of Indian farmers
4) Reduce the cost of Indian administration
5) Secure at least part of the reservation as Indian land
6) Open unused lands to white settlers
I’m guessing that, if you’re reasonably informed about Aboriginal land issues, more than a few of these goals will sound familiar to you. Bill S-212 is a national disgrace waiting to happen, and it must be stopped.
- Bill S-8: (Un)Safe Drinking Water for First Nations
The Orwellian tenor of this bill would be laughable if it weren’t so detestably unjust and cruel. Bill S-8, rather than assuring safe drinking water for First Nations, would likely achieve exactly the opposite effect! This legislation would download the responsibility for providing potable drinking water on the reserve to cash-strapped First Nations governments, without providing additional funding for the infrastructural upgrades required. The federal government would also indemnify itself in the event of an outbreak of water-borne illness. The consequences of this bill, combined with amendments to the Indian Act allowing for industrial development of reserve land, and changes to the Navigable Waters Act precluding the need for environmental assessments, will likely entail the further endangerment of the health, welfare, and lives of Aboriginals on reserve, unless the federal government commits to providing funds to upgrade the dilapidated water infrastructure in many First Nations communities.
Then again, considering the closure of the Kitsilano Coast Guard station last summer, cuts to Aboriginal healthcare and to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency in advance of the 2012 tainted beef recall, our government is apparently not averse to endangering the health of its citizens in order to advance its neoliberal agenda of deficit-cutting (which, incidentally, doesn’t seem to be going all that well. Funny how austerity never works).
- Contrary to what at least one so-called “journalist” has asserted, Aboriginal people aren’t “whining about a whole lotta nothin’.” On the contrary, they are fighting for respect, for their pride, for their culture, for their Treaty and human rights, and for their very lives.
- The very least we can do, as beneficiaries of a colonial mass appropriation of land and resources that has made Canada one of the most prosperous countries in the world, is support their right to protest, and demand that our Prime Minister meet with Chief Spence.
Ok, that’s about all I can handle for now. My next post will illustrate that balancing the federal budget is a fool’s errand, and discuss three reasons why the squabbles over tax money “subsidizing” First Nations are a collective load of, um, horse manure.
For now, I’ll leave you with this: a cogent piece in the Globe and Mail that explains why audits of First Nations like Attawapiskat will do little, if anything, to resolve the crises afflicting those communities. We need to take a different approach, starting immediately. And it needs to begin with respect.