Tuesday, February 27, 2018

My Log 607 Feb 27 2018: Chronicles from (almost) the Tenth Decade: 44; As I wander the country I am exposed to the shameful history of our dealings with the indigenous people: every region has its own story

Following my 1968 assay into the world of Canadian Indians, described in my previous Chronicle, I had a more or less open assignment to investigate the same subject across Canada. In the next three years, until I quit my job, I believe I met most of the significant leaders, from the legendary George Manuel down to the mere chiefs of many small local bands. As must be expected with so complex a subject, complicated by its shameful generations of history, and by the many divisions, induced by the government,  among the subject peoples, I came to a number of somewhat contradictory conclusions.
At that period, few Canadian Indians had even made it through high school, and it became obvious to me that however strong and dedicated their leaders might be, they did not, overall, have the education that would enable them to confront on equal terms the moloch of the federal government, with its hundreds of civil servants and lawyers, all of whom, it seemed, were concentrated on finding measures designed to keep the indigenous people in their place. At the same time, in a somewhat contradictory finding, it became obvious to me that the first thing needed by the indigenous people was to rediscover their pride in, their belief in, their traditional beliefs, ceremonies, and practices, without which, as a basis, no amount of education would serve to lift them from their decline.
None of that is to suggest that they had no leadership during those long, bitter years. I soon heard about, for example, Chief Gabriel Sylliboy, a Micmaq, who in 1928 went to court to argue that under the terms of a Treaty of Peace and Friendship his people had signed in 1752 with the newcomers, he was entitled to hunt and fish freely. To say that he was laughed out of court is merely to emphasis one of the shameful episodes in the relationship between the indigenous and the newcomers. The judge said that treaties were unconstrained acts between two sovereign powers and the Mi’kmaq were savages and incapable of having treaties. Yet 57 years later, a Micmaw called James Simon went to court with exactly the same argument, basing his reasoning on the very same Treaty, and he was found to have the right to hunt and fish, as he claimed. And another 32 years on, that is, 89 years after Sylliboy was humiliated in the court room, the Lt-Governor of Nova Scotia, J.J. Grant, in a formal ceremony, granted Sylliboy a full pardon and coupled it with an apology. “It is not simply the stroke of a pen on the Queen’s behalf that is the only component of what we undertake today,” said Grant. “It is a process of treaty education that includes understanding and valuing what the Mi’kmaq have contributed in shaping this province and nation.” Sylliboy died in 1964, and as one of his people said at the ceremony, “he went to his deathbed thinking he let the Mi’kmaq people down.”
I was utterly astonished when I learned that the Royal Proclamation of 1763 had laid down that no lands could be occupied before a negotiation had taken place between the government and the native occupiers of the land, but that this had been totally ignored over huge areas of the country, such as most of British Columbia and all of Quebec. It was only as the newcomers began to filter across the country, and wanted the land, that they entered into such negotiations, signing the so-called Numbered Treaties from one to nine, but these were not negotiations between equals, and the native people were given misleading guarantees that they would be allowed to use their traditional lands as before, to hunt and fish and feed themselves, activities that, in the event were forbidden to them as the newcomers erected controls over everything the original occupants did.
I quickly began to realize as I wandered the country that there was nothing exceptional about this Sylliboy story: similar stories could be heard everywhere. Sylliboy and men like him had been diligent all through those years of decline, in maintaining opposition to the takeover by the newcomers from Europe. For example, the Nishga people of northern British Columbia maintained throughout their history that they had never surrendered their land. They repeated this at every opportunity. In 1913 they sent a delegation to London to tell the Sovereign their views; in the late 1920s, they were at it again, unrepentantly claiming ownership of their traditional lands. For years it was even forbidden for native people to collect money to defend themselves, but eventually they took the matter to court, their case being argued for them by the BC politician and lawyer, Tom Berger, and, not long after I began to take an interest, their argument was so persuasive that they split the Supreme Court on the substantive issue of their Aboriginal right in their land. This case, with three Supreme Court justices finding for the Indian interest, persuaded Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, who had hitherto argued that one part of society could not make a treaty with another part, and therefore the Indian treaties were invalid, to change his mind.
Wherever I went I found similar stories. For example, when Banff National Park was established in 1885, a huge chunk of traditional Stoney land was forbidden to them. These Assiniboine people had for millennia made their living by hunting (mostly bison), fishing and trapping in the foothills of the Rockies. But the newcomers had another use in mind for their land, and they confined these free-ranging people to small reservations whose land was not capable of feeding them. It was not enough that the Stoneys were not wanted within the Park, they were not wanted outside the park, either.  The living in the reservations was so poor, the government was reluctantly forced to send in food aid just to keep them alive. So, at a stroke, they were homeless, with no economy, no homelands, nothing left of what was always the glory of their lifestyle.
Or take the Ottawa valley, home not only to one of Canada’s great rivers, but to the Algonquin people who had always lived there. Gradually the newcomers went to work logging the lower reaches of the valley, ignoring the pleas of the original inhabitants, simply pushing them aside, as if they didn’t count. The newcomers tried, along with the church, always the willing handmaiden of brutal colonialism, to gather all Algonquins in a large reservation they established at Maniwaki, north of Ottawa in the province of Quebec, one that still exists today.  But the idea never caught on: only the displaced people from the lower valley accompanied the priests to the new reservation, but, as people from the upper reaches of the valley told me years later,  they made one visit in their canoes,  their people fell ill, and thereafter decided to maintain themselves in their traditional manner. In this way the Algonquins were divided as between those in Quebec and those remnants left in Ontario. Divide and rule has always been the government mantra. Repeatedly over the years, the Algonquins handed in petitions asking that their land rights be respected, only to be ignored. Until today nothing is left to them except for the ritual repetition at formal ceremonies or occasions in Ottawa that the speakers, whoever they might be, recognize they are on unsurrendered Algonquin lands. Such an empty gesture, far short of the necessary land settlement.
The history of the relationship between the upper Algonquins, the people of Barriere Lake, Grand Lake Vicroria and Lac Simon, is a  ttextbook account of colonialism in action right in the heartland of Canada, with the inevitable result that these are among three of the poorest communities in the entire country.
In the prairies, the prevailing mantra was that indigenous people had to adjust to the developing society around them, and could only do so by becoming farmers. As shown by the author Sarah Carter in a 1993 book, Lost Harvests, many of them succeeded in becoming farmers, only to find that they were forbidden, by regulation or legislation, from selling the produce of their farms, for fear that the white farmers living around them might not be able to meet the competition. Damned if you do,  damned if you don’t, as the saying goes.
A common argument against the indigenous is that a subsistence life of hunting and trapping is not viable in the modern world. But what are we to make of the experience of the Ojibway of the Lake of the Woods, in western Ontario? These people had a fully-functioning, diversified economy using all the resources of the land --- fur, fish, wild rice, corn, potatoes and other vegetables, large and small game, maple sugar and manufactured items such as pitch, twines and canoes.  Their sturgeon fishery was described by the Hudson’s Bay Company as one of the most productive fisheries in North America. They used every part of the fish, curing and storing much for later use, making a special pemmican, using the oil from the fish as a condiment and doing a profitable trade in isinglass, manufactured from the gelatin obtained from the air bladder of the fish, which was in high demand among the non-natives for use in making glue, and as a clarifying agent for wine and beer. Three times they rejected the effort to get them to sign a Treaty. But the newcomers needed passage through their territory, were willing to make extravagant promises, hoping that some Ojibway would accept them, as some did. Eventually, fishing was opened to commercial fishermen selling into the United States, and within a few years, the sturgeon had disappeared from the lake, and the Ojibway diversified economy was on its last legs.
As Charles Wagamase, a young Ojibway, told me:  “People do not make a Treaty to become poor, to have their children suffer, to go from being respected to being assaulted and humiliated…..We gave them our hand, we signed these treaties, and now people say, to hell with you Indians. You are just a bunch of welfare cases, alcoholics. We are tired of supporting you. (Long silence) ….How did they come to that mind?...I deal with government people every day…I look across the table at these people, and I say to myself, these guys, their job is to keep our people poor… I think the people of Canada have to look in the mirror and ask themselves why they don’t keep their deals.”

Monday, February 26, 2018

My Log 606 Feb 26 2018: Chronicles from (almost) the Tenth Decade: 43; An urban guy, cast among indigenous people, learns a lot of lessons, and is introduced to a different set of values

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.