When faced with seemingly intractable challenges, I feel myself pulled between piercing cynicism and uncompromising hope. The danger in times of crisis or prolonged struggle is to lose sight of the good things in life or to give into anger at the world for not listening. (And that’s a completely valid response to prolonged suffering and injustice). There have been times when I have thrown my hands up and declared “I give up!” in the face of critics from all sides who try to dismiss my narrative– or the narratives of my family, friends, colleagues — as irrelevant or inauthentic.
But there is something that keeps me holding on, trusting that eventually something’s gotta give. As I sit on the train, hurtling through the English countryside towards cold, grey Aberdeen, I listen to A Tribe Called Red’s “Woodcarver” and I feel a chill of hopelessness and anger. The song details the untimely and wildly unjustified killing of John T. Williams by a Seattle police officer. The first time I heard of the police brutality that led to Williams’ death, I wept. I imagined my Dad or Uncles or cousins or friends in his place – their bodies easily inscribed with all of the stereotypes and fears of non-Indigenous folks who look upon Indigenous peoples with a mix of derision and contempt. The fact that this type of outrageous racism still happens speaks to just how serious the inequities and injustices in North America are. If you think First Nations, Inuit or Metis peoples need to ‘get over it’, just look to the myriad instances of sustained or acute discrimination that people face today.
Only a short generation ago, Metis people had to worry about being called a Halfbreed, the word spat on the ground with curled lips, spoken with the hatred we reserve for those we genuinely despise. Many Metis families hid their identity because it was better to be Italian or Mexican or French Canadian or anything other than Indigenous to the prairies. Other people didn’t hide their identity and dealt with discrimination on an ongoing basis. Common knowledge held that Riel was a traitor and that the Metis were greedy (but when the prairie provinces demanded devolution of resource rights, that was somehow more acceptable than Indigenous people asking for similar recognition). Furthermore, Canada was shaped by people who believed Indigenous people were dying out and thus needed to be saved through benevolent Government interventions: the charity of the Victorian era that bred a world that embraced eugenics, measured skulls to determine intelligence and thought nothing of ‘salvaging’ precious and deeply sacred materials around the world because Indigenous people were going to assimilate anyway. In the face of such discrimination and hegemonic governmental and societal power, it’s taken a long time for some people to re-declare their roots, to bear their identity with pride. My generation of Metis people is the product of long, hard fought struggles by the visionaries who came before us. Legal battles, artistic interventions, and an unyielding belief that eventually justice would be served has kept our stories and our hope alive.
It is easy to dismiss the actions of past bureaucrats and politicians as merely ‘of their time’, but to this I point out the conscientious objectors who have always questioned the oppression of the “Other”. There have always been those who disagreed with the way Indigenous peoples (and others who were discriminated against) were treated. It is not enough to simply dismiss the past as finite and our past complicity as ‘natural’ because of social mores. Women’s rights, the abolition of slavery, even socialism were born of people’s realization that ‘business as usual’ was not serving the great bulk of humanity. (Of course, we can’t ignore that even these ‘noble’ struggles were borne at least in some part of people’s self interest, too. That’s because we are human! We fight for things that benefit us). There isn’t some magical quality of modernity that somehow makes it more just. It is the hard-fought and sometimes bloody objections of people who see the forest for the trees who keep the world aware of its own brutality.
In recent weeks a parade of pundits have offered a mix of tired tropes in response to Idle No More. “Get over it” they tell us, “your traditions are dead”. “Enter the modern world. Business is the only way forward”. What they gloss over, however, are the binding and ongoing (living) relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canada that make our country what it is today. Whether you signed Treaty or not, you are bound to the agreements that were made between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples since the very first European person set foot on North American soil. Just as we honour the spirit and substance of the Magna Carta or the myriad treaties that have shaped all aspects of modern political and legal discourse, we are all bound to the Treaties signed between Indigenous peoples and the Crown. That is an ineffable truth, one that many people would prefer we ignore. Luckily, there are some journalists and politicians who see beyond the current discourse and offer a different take on the issues.
It is our duty – all of us – to learn the Treaties. It wasn’t until University that I was exposed to real scholarship on these agreements and relationships. I was taught the radical notion that perhaps the written history of the Treaty process erased much of the nuance of the actual negotiations and ignored the oral history of what First Peoples agreed to (and demanded) when Treaty was signed. Few people get the opportunity to learn about Indigenous issues from a point of view of Indigenous peoples, and this is evident in how Indigenous issues are currently being framed by folks such as Christie Blatchford, Andrew Simpson, John Ivison and others.
What I overwhelmingly see in the public consciousness today is a country that does not know its history. That is dangerous, because it allows us to pretend that we are not complicit in discrimination against marginalized peoples in our country. This marginalization includes Indigenous peoples, as well as others who were or still are discriminated against. Japanese internment, the Chinese Head Tax, Alberta’s eugenics policy: these cannot be brushed aside as ‘products of their time’. They are products of human power relations, and as such are not relegated to the past but always living with us, capable of re-merging in different forms.
Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman wrote of the Holocaust that to treat it as either the inevitable outcome of modernity or as an aberration borne of unique circumstances that could never re-occur was a useless approach. Such narratives removed our responsibility for what happened, allowed us to place blame on someone else while ignoring how many ways people could have intervened earlier. He argues instead that the behaviours and beliefs that bred the genocide of millions of Jewish people in a brutal, calculated and routinized way is entirely possible again. And we, today, bear the responsibility for acknowledging that our bureaucratized society is capable of committing such atrocities. It is our duty to face this horrific thought and transform our detached observations of the past and instead acknowledg our capacity to destroy, given the right circumstances:
the gnawing suspicion that the Holocaust could be more than an aberration, more than a deviation from an otherwise straight path of progress, more than a cancerous growth on the otherwise healthy body of the civilized society; that in short, the Holocaust was not an antithesis of modern civilization and everything (or so we like to think) it stands for. (Bauman 1992:7)
To argue that the past is the past and we have to move forward ignores the fact that we, as a Nation (Canada), still possess the capacity to harm. All of the sociological and political tools that were employed to build and run Residential schools, to kill of Inuit sled dogs, to offer Metis scrip in bad faith — these are not historical relics. They resonate today in legislation enacted without meaningful consultation; in the cancellation of the Aboriginal Healing Foundation despite ovewhelming need for many Residential School survivors to access treatment and counselling; in political discourses that try to deny Indigenous rights because ‘too much time has passed’.
What is equally dangerous as mischaracterizations of the past is misrepresentation of the issues today. While I fervently believe we all need to remember how complicated Canadian history is, and how that history has impacted some people with great brutality and injustice, we also need to remember how complicated our own contemporary narratives are. What I view as problematic are characterizations of Indigenous peoples as entirely virtuous and harmonious (the Noble Savage ideology of Rousseau and the Enlightenment re-packaged in Indigenous terms). Some would have us believe that Indigenous people always got along before Europeans arrived, or that oppression of Indigenous people by Indigenous people is merely a consequence of colonialism (and thus we are not to be held responsible for harm done to one another). I argue instead that we are human, and with that comes the capacity to build up or tear down relationships, communities and goals. Colonialism may be a reason for the challenges we encounter within our communities, but I do not accept it as an excuse to perpetuate the status quo. Power circulates outside of Indigenous circles (and this has been evident in the horrific legacy of colonial rule), but power also circulates within and between Indigenous groups, and this has to be acknowledged if we are to develop the tools to articulate, enact and re-configure our place in the world.
Hayden King wrote a great piece that explains the diversity and divergence of Indigenous peoples’ goals and beliefs. He points out that ‘We’ don’t necessarily agree on everything, and that should not negate our attempts to address ongoing political, legal and economic inequalities. This being said, I do think we need to work hard to create space for honest and respectful dialogue within Indigenous circles. In recent months, I’ve struggled with the realization that in many ways there is not space to question hegemonic discourses that circulate in Indigenous political and academic circles. I am expected to respect other’s stories, but the same reciprocal respect is sometimes not offered to me. Each person has agency to decide how and when they will engage with me, and that is their right. However, I do not accept that to question issues such as domestic violence or financial mismanagement makes me complicit in the “Conservative Agenda”. Bull carp. We need people to question injustice within our communities (respectfully and from a place of humility) just as much as we need people to question injustice outside our communities. We owe it to ourselves to hold one another accountable, to make space for issues to be addressed in the ways we see fit. Ignoring challenges such as violence, trauma and power relationships also allows the Conservatives to dominate the discourse around these issues and set the agenda, to use these challenges against us, and to craft responses that further disenfranchise those affected by these problems. We also need non-Indigenous Canadians to see these issues on a continuum: violence and corruption exists across the nation — it is evident in every part of our society. Canada is guilty of racializing violence, corruption, and ignoring the pervasiveness of these issues in contemporary politics and business. The very failure of police and politicians to react to hundreds of missing or murdered Indigenous women speaks to pervasive and unacceptable incompetence and rhetorical violence within our political and justice bodies that should outrage every Canadian.
Sometimes the argument offered against critical discourses of Indigenous issues within Indigenous circles is that this will only further serve colonial masters. Offering up critiques of Indigenous leadership or scholarship is often immediately dismissed as racist. My position as a Metis woman is usually immediately pointed out, suggesting that as a ‘mixed’ person I can offer no ‘authentic’ insight into Indigenous issues. (Or worse, I am told Metis are not really Indigenous because they didn’t exist at contact). I am the first to admit that I am in no position to speak for the experiences of others, but I do have a narrative that is rooted in my lived experiences as an Indigenous woman. To deny me the space to question issues from my own lived reality, or to bar me from articulating questions that I see as fundamental to building up a powerful and lasting resurgence is frankly ridiculous. We need to honour our differences, respect the different ways that we exist. My questions may not have much impact all on their own, but they are not inauthentic just because I don’t embody a narrow and divisive ideal of what an Indigenous person ‘should’ be. Indigenous people have many ways of being, and that should not be used as a way to silence stories.
My experience is firmly rooted in governance and community-organizing in my homeland (the prairies). I’ve spent the last ten years working to solve abstract and complex challenges and to bring about positive change through community-based work. I have endeavoured to change the views of people in power towards environmental, global political and Indigenous issues one interaction at a time. It is exhausting work, but I’ve come to realize that in addition to the concerted, nation-wide work of thought-leaders who push for changes to political and legal discourses at the Federal and International level, we also need people to change hearts and minds one cup of coffee or novel or film at a time. There are many paths to justice, and we need to acknowledge that these different journeys each have value in the radical transformation that I know Canada is capable of.
I promise I’ll bring this back to that uncompromising hope I mentioned 1800 words ago. What gives me hope are the stories. The songs. The women who started Idle No More, who have inspired people around entire world to speak out and be heard. The people working to articulate and enact a political, legal and economic alternative to Canada’s current realities. The young people sharing their thoughts, their visions for the future. For every ignorant internet troll telling Indigenous people that they need to ‘get over it’ or ‘stop living in the past’, for every Indigenous person telling me I’m too settler to speak, there is someone else who gets it, who is trying hard to grasp 500 years of colonialism (and its legacy) amidst the sound-bites and political posturing. The people who realize that this isn’t just an Indigenous issue, this is something that touches on every aspect of Canadian life. The omnibus bill that inspired the initial Idle No More protests is a piece of legislation that attacks the fundamental rights of all Canadians.
Water flows across our country, carrying with it the memories of the mountains and plains it traverses. Water doesn’t care for boundaries or dichotomies. It rushes over those man-made constructs with joyful abandon, racing to the rivers and coasts of our vast country. Water binds us all. We are all Treaty people. And we are all bound to the sacred waters that fill our bodies. Without water we are nothing, and without Treaty Canada has no standing on the lands it claims to own. The attack on water in Bill C-45 is not just a political attack on environmental protections — it’s a symbolic attack on the very thing that sustains life.
I have realized that I’ll never be accepted as ‘authentic’ by many Indigenous and non-Indigenous people alike. I’ll probably always have to dispel beliefs that Metis are frauds or that I’ve been irrevocably inculcated into ‘white’ society and thus can speak with no authority on any issue pertaining to Indigenous rights. But I’ll let those who prefer to spend their time trying to wrangle me into the settler/Indigenous heuristic to figure out who I am for themselves. In the mean time, let’s get down to the business of acknowledging our challenges, celebrating our strengths, articulating our rights, listening to one another’s stories, honouring our responsibilities, and putting aside our egos and changing this damn country for the better.
Bauman, Z. (1992). Modernity and the Holocaust. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.