Why native issues are actually Canadian issues, and why we should all be Idle No More.
A Canadian ‘secret’ is hiding in emblazoned current affairs, written between lines that bound endlessly through the twitterverse, opaque under bold, sensationalist buzzwords typed through bursts of confidence and caps-lock. Whispering through screams, waiting voiceless in that empty space between impatient news bites and the anonymous online comments below that are wrought with benighted calls for assimilation and sociopathic rants fueled by the fires of personal insecurity. Waiting in that empty space that research, analysis, exploration, reflection and real discussion have left dormant and dire; an exodus spawned by an insatiable appetite for the unlikely bedfellows of direction and distraction. That empty, lonely zone is where our gut-wrenching, startlingly sly, growingly grotesque and slovenly secret hides, blanketed in the assuaging warmth of cultural camouflage. The secret I’m talking about is transparent. A secret only to those who don’t know where to look, in the darker pages of Canada’s history. That’s plenty secret enough for the establishment of power that fears the education and empowerment of the masses more than a thousand scholars or a million damning essays.
Perhaps the headlines so effectively conceal our secret, though, because we don’t read them to begin with. Not all of us, not these ones. After all, these ‘top stories’ are not for us, the white middle class Canadians who dominate the corridors of commonplace dialogue between the misleading theatres of emaciated media stories and filler for the silence of our infamous complacency. These headlines are not for us, because they are not our concern. These, the media insists, are ‘native issues’.
Idle No More, Theresa Spence, Reconciliation Walk Recounts Atrocities, Anger in Attawapiskat, Crisis in Oka, Violence Erupts in Elsipogtog. Countless lawsuits between native bands and commercial projects from Fort Mac to the Queen Charlottes. Of course, these things are affected by history, but weighted, viewed, valued in the context of now. The past, after all, has passed, and these are current conflicts between private interests and the opinions of current communities. ‘Happens all the time.’ In this mindset, and our evaluation, our passive attitude is understandable. Not our private companies, not our communities. Live and let live. But lost beyond the blinkers of this perspective is a continuity and complex interconnectedness. CBC might tell you the common link is what makes these things all ‘native issues’. Natives might tell you it’s what makes them all symptoms of a disease swept under the carpet.
Yes, that’s right, our secret is a societal disease. Not the pretty kind, either. No wonder Canada has been too shy to talk about it. This disease is equally embarrassing and shaming, damaging and damning. It’s the kind of disease that no one really wants to chat about. The kind that constantly threatens to infest civil discussion at the dinner table, breeds unappetizing realizations and eventually plugs up the public john with a line up of nauseous witnesses. If it bubbles to the surface of diplomatic discussion, other nations avoid the awkward silence by talking trade agreements, pipelines, pandas or golf. They leave early, in fear of being asked to aid in the recovery. This disease, see, is not only an ugly growth that threatens to bilge our patriotism and pride, to crumble the pillars of our livelihood and debilitate our industrial progress and prosperity. This disease is also the master of a ruthless addiction. It’s our cultural crack cocaine, and we fear nothing more than the day that the video of us smoking it outside a row house in Etobicoke is leaked to the media. I hate to gossip about our pal Canada, but we owe it to the guy to acknowledge its issues and – unlike its international ‘allies’ – practice some tough love. But to really help Canada to divulge and eventually dissolve its dark secret, the nation needs a better diagnosis, starting with an acute review of the symptoms that never end.
The most recent symptom, it could be said, literally flared up among the dramatics of molotov cocktails, rubber bullets, pepper-spray and burning police cars. Let’s look back. Hundreds of members of the Elsipogtog first nations band, including chief and members of council, have set up a partial road block to protest the research activities of SWN, a private company with its heart set on opening up the region to industrial fracking for natural gas. Between these two parties, marching like soldiers dressed in camouflage and armed to the teeth in riot gear to protect SWN’s access to the land are hundreds more RCMP officers. And under their feet, at the heart of this controversy, is crown land. Commonplace summary: Canadian natives, fighting the protectors of Canadian rights and freedoms on Canadian land to protest an industry that insists it will benefit all Canadians. Who do the Elsipogtog think they are, anyways? Well, for one thing, the Canadian land thing isn’t quite so clear-cut. You see, under treaty agreements, unoccupied Crown Land must be reserved for the use of the first nations. This isn’t a personal statement or belief, it’s Canadian law. Further to that, the Mi’kmaq (the First Nation to which the Elsipogtog band council belongs) never surrendered any rights to lands or resources in the 250-year old ‘Peace and Friendship’ treaties drafted for their region in the first place. Based on this fact, and a complete lack of consideration for the Mi’kmaq entitlement to the land, the Elsipogtog chief and council issued an eviction notice to SWN weeks before the infamous clashes with police ever began.
So, maybe this crown land isn’t exactly our land after all. But what’s so bad about temporarily harnessing the region for its natural gas resources, an industry that SWN argues would bring work to the area? Why would a small band of 2000 natives hold hostage a 4000-acre piece of land with the potential to provide heat and power for thousands? It’s actually nothing to do with the economic rights to the prosperity generated by the project which the Elsipogtog would be denied. It’s not even the fact that dozens of resource projects in Canada have largely failed to employ the owners and inhabitants of the very land on which they’re situated. Even if every job in Elsipogtog was given to native residents, it would only be a fraction of the estimated 260 potential fracking-related jobs created throughout all of New Brunswick. Instead, the people of Elsipogtog, like the Nuu-chah-nulth and Hesquiaht of Clayoquot Sound in BC, the Mohawks in the Oka Crisis, the Ahkwesahsne in Ontario and dozens of other nations across the country, are fighting for the protection of something far more critical to our collective well-being than financial stability or job creation: the environment. In Elsipogtog, New Brunswick, the fracking that SWN intends to do will contribute to climate change while endangering the local ecosystem and human health. And these aren’t just accusations or speculations, they’re facts, proven over and over in virtually every community where hydraulic fracturing has occurred. Even Canada’s largest energy union has called for a moratorium against fracking.
The detrimental environmental impacts of things like fracking, oilsands, pipelines and old-growth logging are often measured against their benefits for providing revenue and energy to the rest of Canada. But those are benefits that communities like Elipostog and Nuu-chah-nulth never see. And they’re activities that condemn those nations – unlike our colonized cities and suburbs – to an unsustainable reliance on support and funding that simply doesn’t exist. You see, Mi’kmaq peoples drink the water that might soon be wrought with the arsenic bleeding of natural gas extraction. For them, the land is a food source, a home, and a spiritual epicenter. In every which way, they rely on that land, and it’s theirs to rely on. Could they move somewhere else? Why should they when they’ve been planted there for thousands of years. Granted, most first nations in Canada have already been confined, restricted, moved, banished or driven from their original homelands, and may attest to the fact that it’s a ‘solution’ only for the interests of our European autocracy. They have been robbed by urban sprawl and constraining treaties of the ability to migrate and travel as necessary to live in the sustainable ways of their ancestors.
Contrary to popular belief, most indigenous nations never traded away these freedoms. They never sold this land, much less gave it away. There are massive swaths of ‘crown’ land over which the Canadian government cannot even claim true legal sovereignty on the basis of treaties (including, ironically, Parliament Hill) because there are none. At best, we consider this territory in ‘legal limbo’, although according to many natives who have stories of ancestors in these regions predating our entire colonial history, there should be no ‘limbo’ about it. Morally, historically, legally, it was never ours to take. And where Canada does suppose categorical, legal ownership of ‘our’ land, water, wildlife and energy, girded by the seemingly indisputable foundation of written contracts endorsed by Royal representatives, there are gashing, fundamental flaws scarring its argument from deep within.
Simply put, our treaties with the indigenous peoples of Turtle Island weren’t negotiated in good faith. Some historians question whether they were negotiated at all. British settlers made sweeping assumptions about the structure of native societies and loosely interpreted agreements in principal from select representatives of native communities as legally-binding contracts. Language barriers were ignored and misunderstandings were corrupted in the favour and fervour of eager settlers with commercial interests. Any shortcomings in the integrity of our negotiations were excusable under our belief that natives were quite simply and scientifically less than human. It was John A. Macdonald himself – prime minister at the time the first treaties were formed – who said “we cannot change the barbarian, the savage, into a civilized man.” How could a government lead by someone with such views possibly be trusted to create and accurately document fair, objective agreements that truly reflected the complex needs and demands of those ‘barbarians’? As if that wasn’t enough to cast doubt on supposed justifications for our occupation of Canada, a brutish trail of racism, murder and savage plunder stains our broader history of colonization. Where treaty agreements could not be met, in instances where indigenous nations exercised their right to bar us entry to their lands or refuted inflated treaty promises, we resorted to violence, chemical warfare, and genocide. It was us who initiated conflict in the 18th and 19th centuries. And it was us – through our presumptuous granting of exploration rights to SWN without due consultation, through the deployment of camouflaged RCMP officers, and through their aggressive removal of peaceful protestors – that initiated conflict in 2013. And that very self-assured right to determine the fundamental ‘laws of the land’ is at the heart of the societal disease which marks our addiction to abusing an unwarranted power for brief, ecstatic plumes of giddy financial highs.
True, that our colonial conquest was not without gestures of good-will, even genuine cooperation with select leaders of the First Nations that came before Canada. True that today, a small percentage of Canadian tax dollars fund social services in native communities, and true that we have come closer to treaty negotiations inclusive of genuine informed consent than any Canadian predecessors. True, you may even say, that our colonialist addiction is ‘under control’. We know how to temper and tame our reliance on profiting off historic crimes, and we know how to smooth over the crude legacies of racism with apologetic appeals. But the problem is far from behind us, and in holding up government initiatives to ‘improve’ the lives of natives in Canada we tread dangerously close to retreading the supremacist suppositions of Macdonald, who preceded the aforementioned quote with the defence for taking an adversary position against the ‘Indians’ based on their own lack of gratitude for the ‘kindness’ of white settlers who used foreign ideologies and laws to brutally oppress native traditions and governance. “Forgetting all the kindness that had been bestowed upon them,” said our founding father, “forgetting all the gifts that had been given to them, forgetting all that the Government, the white people and the Parliament of Canada had been doing for them, in trying to rescue them from barbarity; forgetting that we had given them reserves, the means to cultivate those reserves, and the means of education how to cultivate them – forgetting all these things, they rose against us.” In reality, natives in Canada have never had much in the way of white Canadian kindness to forget about.
Between the time of the Royal Proclamation of 1763 – that prevented entrepreneurial wild-west speculators from gobbling up so much land that opposition from first nations would literally overwhelm the ranks of King George III –and the 40-plus arrests of Elsipogtog band members who refused to step down to SWN after their calls for its eviction were bluntly ignored, a series of unforgivable and unforgettable injustices against native people have ensured their continued reliance on the limited scraps of land that we consider their cultural reserves. Unforgettable injustices that ensure their relative powerlessness; the lack of opportunity and prosperity that we mock and criticize. Unforgettable injustices that we have somehow forgotten. Without the right to practice or respect their religious beliefs, we forced them to worship at our churches. We forced them to become reliant on our westernized economy where survival through food and shelter and freedom, through time, became dependent on commercially appointed labour, and we proceeded to undervalue their effort, manufacturing an income gap that continues to this day. Without the right to vote or own land, we relegated native people for hundreds of years to our racist visions of a decrepit agency.
With residential schools, we destroyed their rights to educate their own. We stole their children, and desecrated their culture by robbing them of their spiritual practices and beliefs, their societal morals, their stories and history, their knowledge and even their appearances; cutting off locks of childrens’ hair in an attempt to wring them dry of fundamental native identities. We turned a blind eye to sexual and physical abuse and murder. We hid children, we hid their scars, and – after murder and manslaughter, blatantly neglecting to contain disease and prevent fatal fires – we may have even hid their graves. We literally conducted experiments on the children of residential schools to test the limitations of malnourishment. And all of these monstrosities continued unto the last century, while our parents consented through passive ignorance, execrable naivety or simple apathy. Many horrific injustices continue today, while we continue to consent through our sickening silence.
You may have heard that Stephen Harper offered millions of dollars to compensate residential school survivors. You may have not heard that he denied funding for reconciliation efforts aimed at restoring the damage done to indigenous cultures and at educating Canadians of atrocities committed through a National Research Centre, nor that he cut funding to the archives responsible for providing documentation critical to the legal process. You may have not heard that by offering compensation to individual survivors, our government excused itself from deeper legal implications of the horrific residential school saga that continue to devastate native communities across the country. You may not have heard that Canada continues to push its own top-down agenda for educating native students instead of funding an effective program they developed themselves. You may not have heard that recent omnibus bills have nearly obliterated environmental protection laws that hundreds of indigenous communities rely on for the health and wellbeing of their unique, remote and highly independent communities.
You may have heard that the rest of us taxpayers are subsidizing our native neighbours. You may have not heard that these aboriginal Canadians still pay PST and GST while buying goods and services that were once free in their own territories and struggling to find jobs in the private industries that use their lands irregardless of their will. Natives who rely on natural resources that have been desecrated by industrialized progress, who struggle to maintain their own standards of education while federal funding is withheld. Who are accused of laziness and drunkenness while battling serious depression and youth suicide rates 5-6 times that of our white communities, spawned from decades of racism, abuse and a lack of healthcare that also spurs substance addictions and mental illness. Who are more likely to end up in jail than finishing high school programs which teach hurtfully whitewashed versions of our dark history through the perspectives of white academics. Who cling to the vital fragments of cultures which they’ve risked their lives to preserve through our crimes of colonialism. And knowing all that, perhaps like me, you don’t see natives as a subsidized minority with special privileges, but as a resilient force that continues to fight terrible odds while subsidizing us and our industrialized society. And that, my friends, is Canada’s dirtiest, most shameful, nauseating, gnawing, saddening secret. That abuse of power is our Canadian addiction. That we allow it to happen is our disease. That Stephen Harper has the gaul to question our history of colonialism in any context is chilling evidence of how entrenched we are still in a toxic culture of crippling denial.
Less than two weeks ago, a 13-year-old girl was banned for wearing a hoodie at her Prairie Valley school printed with “Got Land? Thank an Indian.” It was teachers who made the call that the apparel was ‘offensive’. ‘Controversial’ would have been a better label, but in the end, does it matter? If history is offensive, or even just controversial, should it be banned from our education system? The same question might be asked of critical dialogue surrounding present realities. Even following inevitable retractions, decisions like this one by education professionals continue to suggest that the answer is ‘yes’. Of course that’s the wrong answer, and it’s perpetuated diligently for all the wrong reasons.
All those times our country has claimed that it’s cured this addiction to presumptuously tokenizing, psychologically demeaning, victimizing, and blatantly exploiting the indigenous nations on which it soundly sleeps, Canada has been lying through its teeth. We, the middle class, the white descendants of European settlers and the recent landed immigrants who are proud to enjoy this new home, are responsible for educating, informing, raising and reprimanding our teachers, our politicians, our reporters, and ourselves. It’s not good enough to blame the government. It’s not good enough to isolate our own from the so-called ‘native issues’ that we caused, and that effect all of us and our environment. It’s not okay to ignore these conflicts that are the direct result of ignorance, antipathy and apathy from dozens of generations and tens of millions of living non-native Canadians.
So next time you hear Elsipogtog or Oka or Idle No More are ‘native issues’ and let it taint your perspective of personal effect or responsibility, remember that we are all implicit in benefitting from the use, barter and trade of this hot property we call Canada. We all thanklessly benefit from the resources at the heart of these controversies, and we will all be effected by the environmental crises for which our native counterparts are standing up. Idle No More and associated movements aren’t just native solutions to common problems caused by issues of colonialism, they are native solutions to common problems caused by colonialist Canadians. Many now speculate, for instance, that the barrage of lawsuits and high-profile protests from native communities represent our only hope in blocking projects like the Northern Gateway Pipeline (which has enemies in 130 First Nations throughout BC) that the majority of white settlers in BC also vehemently oppose for widespread environmental concerns. These native communities, using every scrap of legal recognition and every crumb of mainstream public pull that they can muster – along with their inherent strength and natural-born poise – are filling in gaps left by our own contemporary, systemic blunders. First nations are doing for our nation what we never could, by challenging the dilution of our democratic agency by foreign corporate interests with VIP access to our civic institutions granted by our European capitalist ideology and our own unique brand of Canadian indifference.
Beyond its strength in combatting universal, pending environmental catastrophes, as white Canadians we, too, have a unique opportunity in Idle No More. For the first time, the majority of first nations in Canada have collectively embraced for global communication technology and mediums that we all use to communicate, and invited us to the discussion. They have not only welcomed our input but actually invited the descendants of settlers to stand in solidarity with the movement. A new Canadian community of native allies is forming, and its voice is raising. Partnerships with global and Canadian environmental organizations are bridging the gaps between Canadian environmental movements and native resources. Euro-Canadian celebrities are raising the international profile of the plight of first nations and the vital nature of the Idle No More campaign. That the founders of this movement have made the brave, weighted decision to invite the broader Canadian community to stand with them and the Defenders of the Land activism networks despite our bloodied history is the clarion that signals hope for a cultural rapprochement. If Canadians stand up en-masse and declare with open hearts, enlightened minds, tenacious backbone, conviction, and enough energy to reverse hundreds of years of racist exploitation, manipulation and desecration, maybe – just maybe – we could justify a genuine apology; the kind of apology with the potential to seed new relationships. We could expose Canada’s darkest secret with valiant admission, heal its disease with wisdom and essay, cure its addiction with consummate motivation for real reconciliation. But first, we, too, must commit to idle never more.
Other columns by Joseph Boutilier
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