When I first started blogging, I mentioned something that I’ve only talked about occasionally, since.
I wrote about being Métis but passing for white and living in urban Canada. This brought with it an escape from most serious forms of discrimination that First Nations people face, and something that should be acknowledged as privilege, even if it wasn’t consciously pursued. It also brought many occasions of people letting fly the judgmental assumptions and beliefs that they have about Aboriginal peoples, thinking it’s “safe” to do so around me. And then, when I get angry and reveal that I’m Métis, those people simply change their behaviour. Their opinions haven’t changed, they simply decide to be more careful about speaking in front of me. It’s also not unusual to have them also start projecting those assumptions onto me.
There’s a reason that I don’t write about it a lot. I grew up in urban Canada and was largely not told about about my heritage, or with anything that would connect me to it. In recent years, I’ve been able to make some positive connections and rediscover things, but remained preoccupied with other activism, life in general, and especially the sucking black hole of the day-to-day work of economic survival.
Part of it was my own fault, too. I learned many of the negative attitudes from Canadian culture, and internalized them (directing them inwardly and occasionally also outwardly) until I finally realized I needed to question them (and I occasionally still discover some screwed up way that I’ve unconsciously internalized things). While I can take some solace in the fact that I’d changed my perspective, the fact that it took so long is still something I’m not proud of.
And so being disconnected from that heritage, having escaped the worst of anti-Aboriginal prejudice, and also having spent some of my youth being ashamed of it, I’ve never seen myself as someone who could be inspiring about Aboriginal issues or have much right to speak out.
That notwithstanding, I feel a need to at least express my support and do something to draw attention to the #IdleNoMore movement which is spreading and which the mainstream media is trying to ignore in hopes that it will go away. There are many things I can’t claim to speak with authority on. But I can speak to my own reasons for supporting this movement, and why the “assimilate already” attitude from non-Aboriginal Canada toward the First Nations fails.
Decolonial Thinking: Putting Words into Practice
Additionally, I’ve previously written to trans audiences about colonial thinking, describing it as “how various classes lay claim and ownership over each other and impose regulations, will and rules of conformity that run counter to other classes’ needs.” Decolonialism is the process of seeking to dismantle the socially-constructed ways that societies create and reinforce oppression and colonization of peoples, cultures, characteristic classes and nations throughout the world.
A movement — any movement, trans or otherwise — can too easily get hung up on its own issues and forget that its struggle is part of a larger whole. And while it is not physically possible to be all things to all people, or to involve oneself in all forms of activism (nor is that good for one’s health), we do have some responsibility to be aware of others’ struggles, be empathetic, and be prepared to at least be a voice when the opportunity presents itself. It is crucial to recognize that decolonization is not merely a process of liberating ourselves, but one of challenging the world we create and empower through tacit obedience on a universal level — to question the actions undertaken supposedly under our name, with our assumed consent, whether we’ve elected and empowered the governors in question or not. Decolonial thinking is an aspiration not only to liberate a single minority, not only to liberate multiple intersecting minorities, not only to liberate ALL minorities, but to deconstruct the ways by which we marginalize and oppress — to wholly dismantle the ability to institutionalize oppression. Or at least, that’s my personal take on decolonial thought, anyway.
Any discussion about decolonialism needs to acknowledge the fact that literal, institutionalized colonization still persists. It persists in the Anglophone / Francophone conflict in Canada, and in the various race and immigration struggles here and south of our border. And it persists most vividly in Canada’s treatment of its First Nations.
Historically, the First Nations have experienced depopulation and genocide, exile within their own homelands, economic impoverishment made worse by theft and/or destruction of reserve land resources, and institutional attempts to obliterate their cultures and traditions, and replace them with western ideologies and values. But this is not merely historical, and my own loss of heritage is merely one of countless examples of how that cultural erosion and eradication continues to occur. While #IdleNoMore was ignited by the ways that the Harper Government’s omnibus budget bills have dismantled previous agreements with the First Nations, the kindling has been decades of invisibly erasing a nation.
We still have a tendency to think of Canada as a single nation, with everyone subsumed by it. That’s a problem. Treaties are signed by nations. Plural.
Nations, and Other Distinctions.
And that illustrates just one of the many things that complicate justice and equality for Aboriginal peoples. Canadians have long ago stopped thinking of the First Nations as nations — as though the treaties resulted in their dissolution and absorption into Canada.
This has allowed a cognitive dissonance to infect the public consciousness over the past century or more, in which Aboriginal peoples are often characterized by some as (forgive the paraphrase) “spoiled brats who want to be special.” The non-Aboriginal “solution” to First Nations plights has always been to assimilate people to the point that they become like “any other Canadian,” and our governmental policies have always been keyed toward this objective. But dissolution of the First Nations as nations was never agreed to, and it’s because of this that the erasure of Native culture over two centuries has taken the form of separation of children from families, denigration of traditions, and sometimes even extermination of entire populations (most familiarly through the use of things like smallpox-infected blankets, but evidence is surfacing about other atrocities as well). Canada never had authority to actually dissolve the First Nations, so it set out to do what it could to disempower, erase, and break them.
This is why you have the atrocious conditions at places like Attawapiskat (and it should be acknowledged here that both conditions and legalities are very different from place to place because of the different treaties that were signed, the varying limitations on communities to self-govern, the different visions of those communities, etc.). Treaty-designated reserves and territories are exempt from Provincial laws (which sometimes gets spun as “preferential treatment” elsewhere in Canada). But treaty legalities limit the way that Aboriginal communities can self-govern. And where self-governance exists, federal legislation often prevents communities from establishing a legal system with teeth that can actually enforce Aboriginal laws and regulations in a meaningful way. That is how you can have homes built upon floodplains, riddled with mold, without fire-suppression sprinklers or other safety considerations that would be illegal under fire codes, without sanitation, and basically uninhabitable. This is how you can have a school built and torn down shortly afterward because it was built over toxic waste. This is why the only solution available for deplorable housing can be to build yet more homes that will eventually be uninhabitable. Canadians outside the experience of Aboriginal plight see only the money, and not the complex morass of institutionalized chaos that keeps that money being spent in a grossly ineffective state of triage. Or the fact that that money has to address everything for Aboriginal populations — from housing to health care to education to infrastructure to utilities to social supports like addictions assistance and suicide prevention… many of them things that the average Canadian also benefits from but aren’t including the price tag in their comparison.
That’s where the Indian Act comes in — a piece of legislation which was said to implement the agreements made in the treaties. It was a deplorable piece of legislation in the first place, steeped in racism, and until 1960, it even denied Native peoples the right to vote for the government that determined their fates, unless they renounced Indian status first. 20 major amendments to the Indian Act later, we still have First Nations ravaged by economic exploitation (revealing the worst of capitalism), and barriers to communities that want to grow and flourish and determine their own destinies. Not all have done badly under these agreements, but those who’ve done well are very often aware of how easy it is to fall into despair, and how difficult it is to climb back out.
And so, the Harper government now steps into that by unilaterally making changes to those agreements, as though the First Nations do not even need to be consulted at all. In the massivesupermegaomnibus “budget,” some of the few guarantees that government historically did provide to the First Nations were struck off, to allow for more corporate exploitation — without anything substantial in return. And then when you hear neo-liberal pundits like Spin Media entertainer Ezra Levant talk about it, you hear spin that the best way to deal with it all is to dissolve the First Nations and give them the legal right to sell their land off to oil companies. Harper’s own response to Attawapiskat was to try to impose an emergency manager, reminiscent of the tactic being tried (in attempt number two, now) to arbitrarily break minority communities in Michigan and sell off public assets. And it is not a heartening sign when the Prime Minister ignores and refuses to meet with Chief Spence, follows the Tom Flanagan playbook and appoints an Indian and Northern Affairs Canada minister who had been a former forester directing the destruction of Haida lands, and who once viewed the department he now heads as:
“… the money vacuum. …. Furthermore, it is a cruel, unfair hoax on the Canadian taxpayer because despite all the federal largesse and misguided paternalism, those status Indians who live on reserves do not pay income, property or sales taxes on purchases delivered to the reserves….”
This is why Chief Theresa Spence’s hunger strike and the #IdleNoMore flashmobs, round dances, railway and highway blockades, and other decidedly peaceful acts of resurgence and reclamation are part of a multifaceted issue which can’t be boiled down to one law, one action or one easy fix… or even one particular group to negotiate with, for that matter, which could complicate resolving things.
Now, in the above, there is probably at least something I screwed up, got wrong, mischaracterized, failed to reveal the full scope, have overemphasized victimhood, etc. I do know, for example, that some consider the word “Aboriginal” objectionable, while others embrace it — terminology debates are not just limited to trans communities, but I’m not versed in all the nuances of that discussion to make a decision on that word. I often don’t know specifically where I’ve messed up my characterizations because I don’t have the lived experience, and this is why I don’t typically write about First Nations issues. But I challenge people to question the assimilationist mentality that has often been passed off as “conventional wisdom,” complete with dismissive finger-pointing.
And that is why I support #IdleNoMore, and issue this challenge to my readers: don’t accept the media, mainstream or party line for truth. Question everything.
Some recommended reading:
The #IdleNoMore Manifesto;
âpihtawikosisân’s Idle No More: There’s good reason the Natives are restless;
Her follow-up, Where do we go from here?
Pam Palmater gives some idea of how legislation (not just the massivesupermegaomnibus “budget”) discussed by the Harper Conservatives as of November impacted the Indian Act, using Bill S-2 Family Homes on Reserve & Matrimonial Interests or Rights Act (which in true Harper fashion, was presented as a way to protect women) as an example;
Intercontinental Cry discusses the suite of bills passed or in process affecting the treaties, and puts them in the context of the White Paper of 1969;
And if you want to focus just on the numbers, âpihtawikosisân gives a frank breakdown of the disputed dollars in Attawapiskat as an example.
(Crossposted to rabble.ca)