Residential school disconnect from culture has long reach

A great number of Indigenous eco-demonstrations have taken place in recent years as First Nations communities rediscover their deep cultural connection to the land, water and air. Water walkers have travelled countless leagues around their communities and lakes Great and small. They bring an important message of conservation and stewardship to the people, not just the Anishinaabek, but to all of the many communities that share the resources of Turtle Island.

It is a far cry from the rapacious approach that remains the legacy of the “progressive” and “modern” Victorian era in which the residential school system and the policies of cultural genocide that still reverberate through Canadian society.

The core cultural values of Anishinaabe traditions look far into the future and dictate the responsibilities that each of us has to future generations. Mother Earth, they remind us, is finite and her bounty depends on the stewardship of mankind if she is to remain vibrant, especially in these days of high tech harvesting methods and ease of access to those resources.

Anishinaabe traditional governance is steeped deeply in the concepts of direct democracy, the grassroots that are so often evoked by First Nations’ leadership and which they ignore at their electoral peril. The most oft-heard challenge during each electoral cycle in band elections is the claim that the current leadership does not listen to the grassroots, while each First Nation leader will defer decisions until the community has been consulted on any significant action.

It can be a very slow process and frustrating to those outside who are used to the willy-nilly and often knee-jerk reactions of political actors in the mainstream.

But even in the mainstream it is clearly understood these days that for big decisions to succeed there must be “community buy-in.”

In the highly charged atmosphere following the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the determined re-assertion of traditional and treaty rights by both leadership and the grassroots, it can be tremendously challenging for First Nations leaders to exercise self-government and stewardship, even when there is broad community buy-in for a decision. But if the leadership and grassroots are to reassert the sovereignty of the First Nations inherent in the Canadian Constitution and the treaty relationship those challenges must be met.

A number of First Nations are taking that bull by the horns and establishing their own laws and regulations to govern their communities in the modern age. It can be an unpleasant process even when there is extensive consultation and broad community buy-in, but it is a critical path forward to ensure that First Nations communities emerge from the paternalistic shadow of colonialism.

Unfortunately, the disconnect from traditional cultural norms that is largely due to the effectiveness of the residential school system has added a much greater burden to the challenge facing Indigenous leadership and their communities as they try to reaffirm the primacy of their own laws and regulatory processes. There are a small handful of Indigenous individuals who utilize their traditional harvesting rights without respecting their traditional harvesting responsibilities—the stewardship value of protecting the resource for the next seven generations.

Far Northern First Nations elders and hunters have looked on in horror and dismay when youth in their community have slaughtered entire caribou herds, killing animals far in excess of their needs in unfettered youthful exuberance. There are examples closer to home. Small lakes cannot support the burden of extensive netting and spreading nets across the mouth of a bay when the spring run of walleye is in full swing. In short order the resource is depleted and the next seven generations will not know the satisfaction of exercising their treaty rights to harvest fish, because there will be no fish.

There is no question that non-Native commercial fishermen take far more walleye in by-catch than all of the First Nations traditional harvesting in the territory—including First Nations commercial fishermen—but they abide by the simple conservation concept that you must protect future generations of the resource by not interrupting the spawn.

There are compromises that have worked to good effect down through the years. For example, the working relationship between spearfishing harvesters and conservationists whereby the speared fish are brought to the milking station and the eggs removed and fertilized before being returned to the water. It is an elegant example of a working relationship between groups with a common interest in protecting and preserving the resource for future generations.

Education is a fundamental tool in bringing the traditional hunting and fishing rights, enshrined in treaty, into the modern era, but it is only one tool.

First Nations have a responsibility enshrined in their own traditions and cultural norms to practice basic conservation—that isn’t colonialism; that is the very essence of self-governance. Non-Natives must respect that it is up to the Anishinaabek to deal with the issue of those who step outside of those traditions and norms, be it for fun or profit, and to find solutions that have broad community support. Some of those solutions may well involve actions that will be unpopular with some of the community, but the future of the community trumps the short term gain of any individual.

Undoubtedly some of those solutions will involve partnerships and collaboration to preserve the shared resource contained within the commons, and that can be done without any threat to traditional and treaty rights.

Let us fervently hope that action on this front comes as soon as possible, because as the Water Walkers’ message highlights to all of us, time is fast running out.

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