Canada is undergoing tremendous changes both in domestic policy and in how this country acts and is perceived upon the global stage. And yet, for the larger part, there seems to be a distinct lack of awareness reflected among the ordinary citizens of Canada about what those changes truly entail for the lifestyles we all take for granted in this country.
Local native history buff Terry Debassige expressed his incredulity at how complacent mainstream Canadians in general appear to be reacting to the changes taking place when he spoke at the recent Kairos gathering hosted by a number of Island religious organizations. Mr. Debassige noted that the impact of the changes being grafted onto Canadian society, many of which policies were first crafted in the cauldron of the polarized US society, will dramatically change Canadians’ rights and quality of life, particularly in the way the environment will be impacted. After all, as Canadians, we all breathe the same air and drink the same water. These concerns are not simply the purview of the First Nations community.
It is a curious element of the Canadian psyche that we seem to placidly ignore the implications of legislation that has the potential to fundamentally change how nearly all of us in this nation live and breathe, let alone how we and the rest of the world perceive ourselves.
The First Nations across Canada, including those here on Manitoulin, have had a long and intimate experience of being ignored by the denizens of the halls of power in Ottawa, so it should be of little surprise perhaps that they are among the first to take to the streets in frustration over the lack of consultation that seems to more and more the hallmark of this federal government.
Despite the shelter and protection provided to the early European settlers of this region and the undeniably pivotal role First Nations allies played in preserving the British North American colonies from which our nation sprang during the American Revolution and the War of 1812, the relationship between the Canadian federation’s First Nation citizenry and the government which pledged to uphold the solemn tenets upon which that relationship was to be governed has been largely characterized by a series of outright betrayals.
Beginning with the ill-fated plans to herd Upper Canada’s Native population onto Manitoulin through the provisions of the 1836 Bond Head Treaty through to the (alleged) firewater-induced signing of the 1862 Manitoulin Treaty, the Anishinabe have perceived themselves as being misled and misrepresented by those charged with the protection and furtherance of their interests at nearly every turn. It has often fallen to private citizens and local clergy, and sometimes even local media, to stand as a bulwark against the onslaught of government neglect, indifference and disenfranchisement that has led to a situation characterized by endemic despair and hopelessness.
That despair has led in turn to rates of suicide among Native youth that far outstrips that of mainstream Canadian society and to an epidemic of alcohol and drug addiction that, according to some Northern chiefs, rises to as much as 70 percent of the adult populations of some reserves. That despair and hopelessness has led to disproportionate incarceration rates of our indigenous citizenry, with 30 percent of prison populations being generated by less than three percent of the population. That statistic simply staggers the imagination and stands as a blot against our national honour matched only by the race-based disparity in prison populations offered up by our southern neighbours.
The solution of the current federal government to these issues must go beyond the simplistic reaction of building more prisons and the deceptive slight-of-hand inherent in stripping down resources such as those of Statistics Canada.
The media, particularly at the national level, has failed to dismal degree recently in bringing to light the concerns and issues of First Nation members of our federation and in informing the rest of the Canadian public of the potential consequences contained in what can only be characterized as one of the worst examples of opaque government legislation in living memory.
It is not as though the press has been short of opportunity to bring those concerns before the public for each of the opposition parties sitting across the floor from the government benches has been firing away daily at the provisions of Bill C-45, another catch-all omnbibus bill. Little of those voiced concerns of the impact the provisions of Bill C-45 will have upon the general public, and almost none of the concerns, issues and objections being brought forward by First Nations representatives and advocates have found traction on the nation’s front pages and evening network news broadcasts until the lone brave figure of an Anishnaabe kwe stood upon the shores of Victoria Island, within easy sight of the Peace Tower in Ottawa, and declared that she would eat no more until her people were heard. That is Chief Theresa Spence of the remote James Bay community of Attawapiskat in Ontario’s far north.
Small wonder, then, that the youth of those partners in the Canadian Confederation that perceive themselves to be under attack from Ottawa should rise up and take action in the only way they know news outlets and the Canadian population will not be able to ignore.
To be fair, Grand Chief Patrick Madahbee, Serpent River Chief Isadore Day and their compatriots at the national level were recently seen on the evening news grappling with the guards in the House of Commons concurrent with Chief Spence’s declaration of her intent to hunger strike until her concerns were addressed at the highest level.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s refusal to diffuse the crisis by the simple expedient of meeting with the concerned representative of a Canadian community in crisis (this is Chief Spence’s request) adds fuel to the conflagration. First Nations maintain that they are sovereign entities, as evinced by the enshrinement of their treaties in the Canadian Constitution. Perhaps the prime minister fears recognition of that relationship through a nation-to-nation meeting.
The prime minister’s penchant for brinksmanship and power politics may well lead to fatal consequences, both for Chief Spence and through the needless, dangerous and provocative incitement of confrontation between First Nation youth and law enforcement officials. The relationship between peace officers and First Nation youth is already problematic enough.
Although the high school dropout rate among First Nation youth is many times that of the rest of society, things are changing and more and more young members of First Nations communities are opting for post-secondary education, becoming lawyers (like the four young women who initiated the Idle No More movement), scientists, medical professionals and social workers. They are learning how to manipulate the levers of power and the law and much of body of that law comes down firmly on their side. Unless the Canadian government intends to ignore the courts, as did some American administrations of the 18th and 19th centuries (research the history surrounding the Black Hills of Dakota or the court decisions surrounding the Cherokee or Seneca Nations) and/or resort to the use of bayonet, cannon and F-35s, they are in for the tussle of the century.
The distribution of lands following the signing of the treaties, of which the 1862 Manitoulin Treaty is a sterling example, is an eye-opener for the uninitiated. Indian agents were instructed to remove Indians from any valuable or productive land and to reserve those lands for settlers. Any commercial trade by First Nations within the newly established communities was prohibited. George Abotossaway, the founder of Little Current, was forced from the community he helped establish and from the lucrative shipping supply business he had built and banished to lands outside of town thought to be too poor for much productive success (the community known as Aundeck Omni Kaning), and he was far from alone.
Take a view from the First Nation side. First, the colonial officials of the time came and made a deal where First Nations citizens were to keep some of their land (thought to be pretty poor in general), in exchange for huge tracts of resource-rich lands to the north, west and south and some nebulous offers of support and protection. Then, those same government agents, or their successors, came back and decided to take most of that through double-dealing and chicanery (slipping in some small print that the First Nation resources from the sale of lands to settlers would be required to pay for all of the costs of surveying the land they are handing over, plus the administration of everything remotely related to the promises they were given). And when those poor, isolated and remote communities that remain to them suddenly turn out to sit upon newly discovered riches, the government passes laws claiming to be in the interests of our economic development, but which look suspiciously like another land grab. Would you be mad as hell and unwilling to take it anymore?
That is what Idle No More is all about, at root.
Most non-Native Canadians, even those who should know better because they live in such close proximity to First Nations, have bought into the fantasy that First Nations are provided free post secondary education up to the doctorate level and have all of their shelter, clothing and living expenses doled out from the taxpayer’s purse. This is an urban myth that is so pervasive that many will swear to this knowing ‘for a fact.’ But it is not a ‘fact,’ even if such an august a person as the prime minister appears to believe that it is.
The costs associated with First Nation reserves represent a mere fraction of the harvest reaped by Canada and foreign interests from the resources shared by the First Nations with the rest of Canada. More money pours into the pockets of those charged with administrating the interests of First Nations than flows into those communities—with many of those civil servants who dictate the regulations to those communities making more on their weekly pay cheque than the median First Nation worker takes home in a year.
Too many Canadians consider the First Nations to be freeloaders and entitled lay-a-bouts. A century and a half ago, our agents put their communities where there were no economic opportunities, and also stripped away what opportunities that did exist in those areas, reserving these for non-Natives, and now we blame those without any economic opportunity or hope of advancement for their own plight.
Certainly the inconvenient closure of major thoroughfares and drumbeat flash mobs packing malls at the height of our annual tribute to conspicuous consumption tries the patience of stressed-out shoppers and harried travellers and there is no question that Idle No More certainly means to do exactly that, but placing the blame for our inconvenience solely on those First Nations youth who see no other way to break through our willful complacency and unwillingness to even listen to their concerns than to strike out in a way in which they cannot be ignored, is blame patently misplaced. The patience of their parents, grandparents, great grandparents (back to seven generations) shows little sign of success, as First Nation people have been shunted aside, placed in communities far from commercial trade routes and denied the underpinnings of industrialized commerce.
Now they see huge fortunes being made from the resources from which they agreed to share long ago with the promises of a fair share and accounting. They see a government that appears intent on stripping away what little remains to their communities, and it is being done under the guise, yet again, of the Great White Father knowing what is best for them.
It is long past time Canadians in general take off the blinders of complacency, heed Mr. Debassige’s advice, and take a long hard look down the pathway upon which this government is attempting to set our collective feet. We are an incredibly rich and fortunate society in which the inequity and disgrace of the conditions existing in many First Nations are an unacceptable national disgrace. The message echoing across the Internet is not simply one for the residents of First Nations to heed. It is time for all of us to be Idle No More.