On January 10th I was sitting on the edge of my couch watching the most intense airing of Power and Politics I had yet seen as host Evan Solomon updated changes to Friday’s high profile meeting with the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), almost every two minutes.
It was a nail-biting night in Canadian politics as both First Nations leaders and, to some extent, government officials wrangled over the details of the meeting called for by Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence who had been forgoing solid foods in protest against the government’s latest omnibus bill, bill C-45. The bill has become a contentious issue amongst aboriginals, many of whom feel it violates treaty rights outlined in the Indian Act. Many also feel some of the bill’s deregulative measures threaten the environment.
In an interview with the CBC Ernie Victor, a Stó:lō Nation member, explained, “When the government takes out the ability to signal a red flag that means things can happen without us knowing.”
A fellow Stó:lō Nation member, Eddie Gardner noted “We have a spiritual and cultural connection to the natural world.”
Originally in solidarity with Chief Spence and in response to the bill, Jessica Gordon, Sylvia McAdam, Sheelah McLean, and Nina Wilson founded what is now known as the “Idle No More” (INM) movement which has inspired peaceful protests, such as round dances and matches, across the country. The movement’s focus on education and solidarity has not only generated more awareness amongst non-aboriginals on issues facing First Nations peoples, it has also inspired aboriginal youths to rediscover cultural identities and a voice lost for centuries.
With the deterioration of Chief Spence’s health and a possible escalation of future protests, the Prime Minister agreed to meet with the AFN to discuss issues pertaining to aboriginal development. The bill itself was not directly mentioned as part of the meeting agenda and the Governor General would not attend despite Chief Spence’s demands for it.
Halfway through the PnP program, Solomon looked up from his smart phone to report that Chief Spence, as well as several other national aboriginal leaders, would not be attending the meeting due to the GG’s absence. My mouth fell open while the politicians on air laughed nervously.
It’s hard to understand why some chiefs would put so much at risk over the GG. Currently the GG is little more than a figurehead and although the Indian Act was originally signed with the Crown that body no longer holds any power here.
One senior chief from Quebec who did attend the meeting said, “in this country no Prime Minister would give up his executive powers to the Governor General”.
But perhaps this impasse can be used as a window into an overarching problem in aboriginal politics; a lack of public education on First Nations issues. Former Prime Minister Paul Martin, an active advocate for aboriginal rights, stated in an interview with the CBC, “Some of the incredible misconceptions are fostered by the fact that Canadians don’t and have never been taught aboriginal history adequately”. Film maker and journalist, Mike Harris says Canadians are left to piece together their overall perception of the political problem through reports from the media whom he argues “misses the point”.
The gaps in information have worsened frustration amongst Canadians who are unsure of how we should approach ongoing conflicts regarding treaty and land rights. During the 1970s the Trudeau government approached aboriginal issues the same way they approached Quebecois separatism; equal status must be achieved for everyone but no one is to have special status. This approach was met with a black lash from many First Nations communities.
During the Idle No More protests, it has frequently been reiterated by speakers that the Indian Act was a deal to share their land with the British colonies and reserves must therefore be respected and preserved. This is where the concept of “a nation within a nation” comes in; similar to Quebec’s fight for sovereignty, many First Nations want a certain level of independence from the Canadian government in recognition of their land rights and distinct cultures.
With many reserves suffering from inadequate housing, health care, sanitation, poverty, drug abuse, and education many aboriginals feel the Crown and its colonies did not “hold up their end of the bargain”.
But the squalor on reserves has often and racially been categorized as “an aboriginal problem”. If they don’t like the reserves, why don’t they move to cities? Why do so many aboriginals insist on practices that are centuries old when the rest of the country has embraced modernization and industrial progress? How are they using the money given to them by the government? These questions have frequently been used to paint aboriginals into a corner.
“What most people hear is the “enormous funding” First Nations reserves receive from the federal government,” says Brant, “but this is a “percentage of a fraction” of the funding other communities receive from the provincial government…We are a federal responsibility under section 91(24) of the Constitution, 1867”.
Brant touches on a gap in public and First Nations understanding of the government’s relationship and responsibility to aboriginal issues. Many Canadians view aboriginals who fight for funds on reserves as trying to have their cake and eat it too. This is a major subject of debate amongst my fellow Political Studies Majors and myself because it begs the question, is it possible or even advisable for a country to accommodate nations within itself while still remaining unified? Or is giving one group “special status” a slippery slope as was argued by Pierre Trudeau?
Unfortunately Trudeau’s approach does not correspond to Canada’s international reputation as a cultural mosaic—a multicultural promise land that contrasts the “melting pot” approach of our American neighbours to the South who prefer assimilation. For aboriginal peoples however, assimilation brings back painful memories of the residential school systems which carried out systemic cultural suppression. Here lies a major gap in Canadian education. As presented in the 8th Fire series, residential schools are a topic frequently avoided in public schools and if they are discussed very little detail is given.
We know now that emotional and physical abuse were frequent weapons used against the aboriginal children who were punished for participating in any of their cultural practices. This abuse caused many if not all of the children to develop intense feelings of shame and identity confusion, beginning a cycle of mental health struggles for generations after the schools had closed.
When I’ve discussed these issues within some of my social circles or read comment sections on news sites people have frequently complained that alcoholism, drug abuse, and poverty are real issues on many reserves. As a volunteer for mental health awareness, I think this pervasive perception suggests the educational gap in aboriginal issues has been further compounded by widespread stigmas toward mental health.
With this in mind, it might be easier to understand Chief Spence’s position although one might not necessarily agree with it; it is a symptom of what has been a historically abusive, colonial relationship. The January 11th meeting was, as Chris Hall pointed out, an instance in which the Harper government tried to set the agenda on their own terms and while the exclusion of the GG might appear to be a trivial detail it was construed by some as a promise by the government that in any negotiation they would remain deaf and dominant on matters important to aboriginals. This frustration and discord is not uncommon when two groups or individuals in a difficult relationship meet in order to find common ground; when one party attempts to control the meeting terms it may aggravate open wounds that hold feelings of hurt or neglect.
While the nature of the government’s future relationship with aboriginals remains uncertain it is clear the conditions in which some First Nations communities are living now are unacceptable. A positive and progressive relationship will not be achieved however, until public and aboriginal education improves.
I divulged to Brant that, having grown up mostly in Ontario, I remembered little from my public school education on aboriginals except the importance of longhouses, hunting, teepees, and totem poles. Brant laughed and said she too had learned little about other bands.
With little knowledge of the infrastructures and issues on reserves, Canadians’ education on such matters is left to the media which often provides little more than a fraction of the big picture. It is perhaps for this reason that the INM movement has, as some say, become something much bigger than a protest against bill C-45. As the movement’s founders try move the focus away from Chief Spence (though they are clear they are not the movement’s leaders) the emphasis has been placed on public education.
At a round dance held on my university’s campus on January 15th, one organizer described a dream in which aboriginals and non-aboriginals could “hold hands without being afraid of one another”. This dream is similar to that described by Wab Kinew in the CBC miniseries, the 8th Fire of two nations moving together side-by-side, separate but equal to one another.
Another round dance organizer might have best exemplified this intention when he asked the crowd if the community would help his six-year-old daughter achieve her goal of picking up garbage in the community on the weekend.
Whether or not INM will achieve all its organizers and supporters hope for has yet to be seen but Brant notes that the movement “is bigger than we have begun to imagine”.