When I set out from Montreal in 1968 to meet my first Canadian Indians, as we used to call them, I was a totally urban guy. I might have been born in a small farming village, but for the last 17 years I had been living in large cities --- Montreal and London, England the largest of them ---- and I had been preoccupied in everything I did with the problems of such cities. In other words, I was ill-equipped to come across a group of people whose every assumption, as I began to discover in the following months, were inimical with the values of urban life.
Of course my preparation for this first encounter fitted neatly into the prejudices and assumptions about Indians that were the common currency at the time. As the young Cree leader from Alberta, Harold Cardinal, whom I had never heard of at the time, pointed out, if one stopped a city person on the street and said the word, “Indian,” the typical response would have been “problem.” This gave rise, he said, to the “problem problem,” which was that the more one talked or wrote about Indians in terms of their problems, the more one was reinforcing the stereotype held of them by their white, European compatriots.
The only preparation I had that was in any way suitable was that I had always sympathized with the underdog, and it was evident that in Canada in 1968, the Indians were occupying the bottom rung of society, and thus were definitely the underdogs in any system of ranking.
I had seen Indians only once in my life, which occurred as I was travelling in a milk train across the wilderness of north-western Ontario, an area that was at the time virtually roadless, its villages about 90 miles apart, accessible only by rail. At one stop some people got on the train to travel to the next village, and they looked to me like something from outer space: a silent, self-contained group of half a dozen men and women, dressed in rough old jackets that were streaked with oil and dirt, their hair long and unbrushed, clearly from a different race, looking for all the world as if they had just emerged for the first time from the bush. It was no more than a fleeting glimpse, and it had occurred several years before, but it had made a profound impression on me, and I had wondered ever since who they could have been, where they came from, and what sort of lives they lived in their wilderness.
I did not rush into the assignment without a proper sense of my responsibility. I was anxious, if possible, to adopt a sympathetic attitude towards these people who, according to all reports, were the most put-upon people in the land. A senior civil servant of my acquaintance obtained for me an interview with Robert Andras, the federal Cabinet minister who had been responsible, under the direction of the minister for Indian Affairs, Jean Chretien, for carrying out in the previous months a series of consultations with native people across the length and breadth of the land. He suggested, when I asked him what I could most usefully do, that perhaps I could find the positive aspects of their lives and write about those. Since my assignment was to report on the appalling housing conditions of these Indians in the isolated village of Armstrong, I did not have much opportunity to find the positives, since the people I met were living at up to 28 people in each tumbledown hut, that was barely worthy of the name.
My good fortune was that I was hooked up with a remarkable little man who was not only a local chief, but also was a functionary with the Company of Young Canadians, with a remit to help the people in his jurisdiction. So for a weekend I sat beside Chief Willie John and listened as the local Indians came to him to tell him their troubles and ask for his help.
My conclusion from it all was that I had been briefly cast into the lower depths of our society, a strata of people for whom government was always an unhelpful presence somewhere out there, with which they did not have the experience to cope adequately, and that they could not expect any help from people outside their own community, who, generally, appeared to be unsympathetic and even indifferent.
I got fleeting glimpses of a people who, whether they liked to or not, lived alone, always remote from the settled lives of ordinary Canadians, their basic housing a tent, or maybe a rough hut, and for whom the vicissitudes of ordinary life were usually overwhelming. In other words I was profoundly moved, and I was glad when the editor who assigned me suggested I should follow it up. I am not sure he meant that I should follow it up for 30 years, but that in effect is what I did, and in the process I discovered a people whose qualities were remarkable, whose talents were multiple and far-reaching, and whose attitudes to their lives and to ours suggested that it was us, rather than them, who were headed in the wrong direction.
In fact, at a time when our industrialized consumerism is threatening the stability of our very life support systems --- the water and the air, more polluted with every year, the soil being blown away, the oceans being denuded of fish, our garbage destroying the reefs, vast nation-sized pools of plastic gathering out there in the remotest parts of the seas ---- it is the native people, with their respect for their Mother Earth who have pointed us in a different direction that we can ignore at our own peril.
My discoveries were even more profound as I became better acquainted with people whose attitudes had somehow remained strong even in the midst of these developing disasters. Their attitude to money was different from ours. At an early stage I was told by businessmen in the north how frustrated they were because if they paid their native workers on a Friday, they could not depend on their showing up for work the following Monday. This arose from their conditioning during their thousands of years as subsistence hunters, gathering enough food only as they needed it, never more. In the same way, they didn’t gather money, only enough for their immediate needs.
When I began to investigate the lives of subsistence hunters such as the Cree in northern Quebec, I realized their conception of human life on Earth was different, fundamentally different from ours. In the Judeo-Christian civilization, our dominant Western model, the human being is placed at the centre, it is the human who is expected to dominate everything else, and from this comes our drive that is destroying the support-systems of Earth. Day after day it was brought home to me that the Cree hunters had as their central belief the need for everything to be in balance. They lived upon the animals they could find, but they realized they had to maintain a balance with them if human life was to be sustained. Their rules for the hunting and killing of animals, for preparing the food to be eaten, for disposing of the bones in a manner that shows respect for the animals, turned out to be ecological principles designed to maintain that balance between species, each one of which, whether an animal or a bird, a rock or a tree, is invested with its own spirit, its own personality. If their hunting failed, they tended to blame it on their behavior of the previous season, when, perhaps, they had not shown the necessary respect for the animals they lived with, and lived on.
Above everything I began to admire, and envy, their habit of living in the moment: I saw many examples of this, especially when they were in the environment in which they consider themselves masters. But it was only when I went into their hunting camps to film their lives that I realized the huge range of their capabilities, so much at odds with the low opinion held of them by their European contemporaries. They not only knew how to find animals that were almost at the extreme northern level of their range, demonstrating in this a knowledge of the biology and behavior of the animals that seemed far in advance of our western science, but they could hunt and trap them expertly, they could butcher them and prepare the meat, they could carve their own tools, and educate their own children, without schools, and they could do all this in such a way as to assure the continuation of their lives in the bush, all of them, themselves as well as the animals and birds, and with it all continuing to care for the health of the land that it was all happening on.
If we had been a wiser people, we would have accommodated their perceptions about life, used them to our own advantage, and allowed them to occupy their land and pursue their way of life, while gradually they, as well as us, would make the adjustments needed to co-exist, profitably for both sides.
Unfortunately I have to report that even to this very day, we have not learned those valuable lessons they have to teach us, but are still insisting on riding over all opposition as we force forward our industrial consumerism with its destructive ways.