“Part of the nature of First Nations people is sharing what we have. What we’re given we use, and in the process we give it back or pass it on. We don’t own the land, we use the land, and it’s not ours, it’s the next generation’s. A Muskoka bear doesn’t know where the boundary is, it just knows, ‘There’s the honey.’ This idea is probably the hardest idea to maintain in modern times, when we use labels: ‘This is my cup, this is my car, this is my parking spot.’ There’s such a property-divided line, it’s hard to remember that, by the way, this is ours to share.”
Earlier this month, for reasons I don’t need to get into here, I sat in on a meeting between representatives from the provincial government and about twenty Aboriginal Chiefs, Elders and leaders from across Ontario. The topic was healing and wellness, and in the course of just a few hours, my heart and mind raced through a gamut of emotions and reactions: humility, honour, annoyance, joy, indignation, warmth, disappointment, sorrow. I listened to the Aboriginal partners — many of whom had traveled from very far to attend this meeting — clearly outline the health (mental, physical, spiritual) issues affecting their respective and collective communities. Many of the same terms kept popping up: diabetes, domestic abuse, barriers to health services, century-old treaties being ignored — treaties where they’ve held up their end of the bargain, but have yet to see reciprocation.
They expressed a desire for partnership, government to government. They outlined the need for a Native health minister, and a sovereign organizational structure to properly tend to their vast and specialized needs. They stressed the importance of community-guided services, of complete healing (of the body, within the home, in school, etc), and lamented the misconception that all they wanted was handouts and money, money, money. “Don’t fund us because how bad off we are,” said one, “but because of how great we’re going to be.” Approach funding not from a place of scarcity, but of richness, of potential. We all stood up at one point and held hands in a circle, calling upon the example of sweetgrass — how one single strand will bend and break quite easily, but how several pieces (one for the body, one for the spirit, one for the mind) braided together become virtually indestructible.
Their presentations complete, it was then the politicians’ turn to speak. Very little of note was said, and absolutely no action was hinted at. One minister brushed them aside with a two minute speech than can be summed up as: “Ah, so you want more money. There’s an election in the fall, and if I’m elected (hint hint), I’ll see what I can do.” It was disheartening. So many come from so far away with solid points that needed to be addressed, and all they got was empty rhetoric in return. It was clear that nothing would be done. There would be no change. Meeting done, thanks for coming, and see you again next year for more of the same.
And for one brief window of time, I saw just what kind of uncompromising, cold brick wall these Chiefs and leaders had been struggling to communicate with for generations.
Was it so impossible for these government sirs and madams to recognize their basic humanity? To address how awfully the bureaucratic body they now represent had mangled Aboriginal relations throughout the entire history of this country, and for several hundred years before that? Was it so impossible to admit to the enormous role they had played in creating the infrastructure for diabetes, domestic abuse, depression, substance addiction, plummeting education levels, isolation and corruption to exist?
There’s no getting through a brick wall, especially when it knows it’s a brick wall. Meetings, negotiations, and speeches have barely made a dent, it seems.
“We’ve been trying to get the Canadian public on side with the issues First Nations, Metis and Inuit people struggle with. We’re looking for ideas, because the ones that we have used – land claims disputes, blockades and letter writing – have had little impact. The Day of Action is looking at a more positive new way of raising the issues. All Canadians are involved with the ongoing land claims disputes, and all Canadians will benefit from the economic growth that will come by resolving them.”
Fast forward to today, June 29th, Friday of a long weekend *and* the National Day of Action. A day of peaceful collective demonstrations that, hopefully, will allow a few more people a glimpse into the centuries-old problems at hand. NOW Magazine has just put out their First Nations Issue, and it features a number of news pieces, personal essays and interviews of note.
Drew Hayden Taylor (who I have to thank for my new favourite phrase, “people of pallor” — brilliant!) penned the cover story, reprinted in part below. His style is darkly funny, taking jabs at stereotypes and basic ignorance, but always with a nod to the violence, poverty, racism and historically sub-human treatment that has brought us all to where we are today. Here are his demands:
Remember, this October will mark the 510th anniversary of the introduction of illegal immigration to Canada. In that time, First Nations have managed to accrue a substantial list of complaints against those who sign agreements and then fail to deliver. I guess you could call this a form of bureaucratic Indian giving.
Come the Day of Action, expect a plethora of grievances and calls for redress. Here are a few of the lesser-known ones:
WE DEMAND that something be done about the belief that Aboriginal people get everything for free. This might seem to be true if you count the bad water in Kashechewan, illness from black mould in inadequate housing, linguistical genocide, diabetes and rampant sexual abuse. But trust me, we’ve paid for all this.
WE DEMAND that the feds actually appoint a native person as the minister of Indian Affairs. We humbly ask: isn’t the attorney general usually a lawyer? Isn’t the minister for the Status of Women usually a woman? Doesn’t the minister of Transportation have a driver’s licence? Isn’t the minister of Defence usually defensive?
WE DEMAND that filmmakers of any nationality be prohibited from using flute music on the soundtrack of any and all documentaries about native people. And no more feathers either. Or dream catchers.
WE DEMAND that white people (more politically correctly known as people of pallor) stop angrily saying, “They shouldn’t do that!” in regard to protests and blockades, and instead exchange it for the more understanding “They shouldn’t have to do that.” It’s technically more correct.
WE DEMAND that all commercials for Lakota medicine be pulled. Immediately.
WE DEMAND that the police of this country stop shooting, assaulting and otherwise abusing the civil rights of native people. It’s for law enforcers’ own benefit. There are substantially more native people in this country than police, and we have more guns.
WE DEMAND that the federal government apologize to survivors for over half a century of abuse at the hands (and other parts of the body) of residential schools. There are some things children should not learn in school.
WE DEMAND that instead of being forced to mark the passage of time by the dominant culture’s BCE (before the common era) and AD (anno domini), we use the more culturally sensitive TI (time immemorial) and PC (post-contact).
Oh, Canada! Our home on Native land…