Sunday, August 25, 2013

My Log 373: First Nations revival: a long process that should be gaining momentum

First Nations University of Canada
First Nations University of Canada (Photo credit: daryl_mitchell)
First Nations Protest At Queen's Park
First Nations Protest At Queen's Park (Photo credit: Rainforest Action Network)

English: Monument to aboriginal war veterans i...
English: Monument to aboriginal war veterans in Confederation Park, Ottawa, Canada. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

An aspect of contemporary First Nations life in this country we call Canada that was powerfuly and disturbingly described by Richard Wagamase in an article in the Gobe and Mail over the weekend was what he called ennui among his people, and what I might describe as indifference to their fate.

A believer in the healing qualities of story-telling, this renowned author of 11 books set up in a northern reserve a programme called Empowering Community through Story, and found to his dismay that not a single young person, to whom it was directed, had bothered to register. No one in authority in the reserve had felt it worth their while to publicize the programme in any way, and he described other efforts that were ignored by the young people at whom they were directed, and at classes that got children painting  but degenerated through lack of focus in half an hour into just a lot of noise and yelling, at even trying to reach adults who failed to show up unless they were being paid, and, in general, at 10 days of largely fruitless effort that Wagamase described as resulting from ennui which, he wrote, is “a thousand-pound word that means you simply just don’t care any more.”
Last month I wrote about how many young First Nations people I had met over the years who told me that they had been taught to despise their origins as a result of being processed by the governing and religious authorities in an effort to detach them from their parents, or, to be more precise, from the so-called “barbarous life” led by their parents, who, until these children were taken to white-run and European-dominated schools, were the only role-models they had ever had. I remember some research done among such teenagers showed that as many as three out of four of them showed clinically-observable signs of depression.
These conversations convinced me that more important things than simply their deplorable living conditions were in play among these people. Indeed, I remember Harold Cardinal, when leader of the Indians of Alberta Association as it was then called, talking about “the problem problem” --- that is, that the more outsiders wrote about the problems of First Nations people, the more they were reinforcing the prejudices held about them by the surrounding society.
This certainly was reinforced by what I saw and heard when meeting these people, and I began to ask the younger people in a reserve I might be visiting to take me to their old men and women, and act as my interpreter. There we talked about their lives, their hunting knowledge, their feeling for the land, their understanding of the purpose of life, and I suddenly found that these supposedly taciturn native people would talk so much it was difficult to get away from them.
This is why I came the conclusion that, important though it was to improve their conditions of life, the first thing was something that was already underway, that is, an effort to revive concern for, interest in, and belief in their own ancient traditions, their own ceremonies and beliefs, their own sense of why they had been placed where they were on this Earth.
As I read about Canadian history I began to realize that although they were in a depressed condition, generally speaking, certain among them had always kept the flag flying, had always tried to insist on their rights, had never given up hope. Indeed, Canadian history has been dotted with the story of movements started and finally suppressed when the authorities realized what they were up to --- simply insisting on their reality as the first people of this land, of stubbornly insisting that they actually did exist --- at times when they were treated as almost having vanished --- and that they would always be here insisting on their reality.
The struggle of these leaders was hard indeed. However wise and foresighted they may have been,  most of them did not have any modern education of the kind that could persuade the governing authorities to take them seriously. So they literally were voices crying in the wilderness as they watched their young generations being seized and press-ganged, very often, into schools where they were taught things inimical to their very central core.
I developed a belief that this was a terrible crime perpetrated by the Canadian nation and that Richard Wagamase should only recently have found himself confronted by such indifference when he tried to stimulate them to a recognition of their past and its glories, indicates what an endless struggle this is. 
It also gives the lie to the favourite prescription of the Conservative government and its supporters, that assimilation into Canadian life is the only answer to the so-called problem of the First Nations. This is as far from being a viable policy as it is possible to get.
Fortunately, in spite of everything, the leadership of the First Nations --- I am not talking only of their political leaders, but of their whole leadership, traditional and modern ---- is now in the hands of highly educated people who are capable of taking on the government, of recognizing their tricks and habits, and of mounting a stern defence. First Nations people are now to be found in all walks of life, in universities as professors and students, for example, as businessmen, artists, writers of the first rank,  doctors and other professionals, thinking persons with a lot to teach their non-indigenous contemporaries.
I think of the first First Nations person I got to know personally: he was a small, powerfully built man, chief of a small reserve at the south end of Lake Nipigon who had agreed to take me on a brief tour of Northern Ontario. I found Chief Willy John to be quite a surprise: a highly experienced man who had served in the war, married an Englishwoman, and returned to find his people in the same bind as before the war, a man who had successfully pursued half a dozen different crafts --- heavy equipment operator, tugboat captain, taxi-driver, agitator, and activist for the rights of returned native servicemen and women ---- and was a delightful person full of humour and strength, working, as we went around from community to community, to help personally many people who were bewildered by the requirements of modern society with its forms and demands. This was 45 years ago, and already the leadership of his people was in good hands, in my opinion.
Having observed all this for so long my tendency today is to support such activists as the Defenders of the Land, who stand on the rights inherited from before the arrival of Europeans, that are now included in the constitution of Canada, and that the present government is working assiduously to replace with money and certain guarantees that they hand down as if they were a gift from a benevolent authority which they offer in place of the inherited  rights now enshrined in our constitution.
Though their policy direction does not depend on outside support, the Defenders and the many people backing them are certainly not weakened by the wide measure of support they are receiving from non-indigenous people across the country, a coalition of interests recently expressed in the Idle No More movement, among others.
This coalition is important for this country, and it seems now to be getting a grasp on the general political situation, finally getting a handle on which people support them, and which can be depended on to oppose everything they stand for.

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