On Joseph Boyden and “Ethnic Fraud”


Cheval_de_Troie_d'après_le_Virgile_du_Vatican
Trojan Horse after Virgilius Vaticanus
(Note a working paper in progress – expanding & editing apr 18, 2017…pardon errors) 

At what point should Boyden’s identity quest have been identified as no more than a desiring machine?

I pose this question to myself as someone who has been teaching and writing about Canadian literature and culture over more than thirty years. Joseph Boyden perpetually posed as part Indigenous, an improvised status that afforded him access to advice, teachings, prestige and awards reserved for Indigenous persons. This is misguided and wrong.

I take little pleasure in part of this public debate. The talented and accomplished writer Joseph Boyden is suffering a serious and damaging and humiliating public critique. But I remain unflaggingly sympathetic to those who write about the losses within the Indigenous community when someone inauthentically takes up their space in the public sphere. To those writers and thinkers who already suffer the perils of a colonizing and racist nation state, the marginalization and the damage endures. And I understand the intensity of these critiques especially by those whose community identities or personal influence were particularly exploited. (The list of those active in this debate include Marilyn Dumont, Daniel Justice Heath,

Continue reading “On Joseph Boyden and “Ethnic Fraud””

Honouring Cindy Gladue

Two events in the past week remind me of the strength in collective action. This is one of them and the most significant in terms of public awareness.

A demonstration in 23 different centres from coast to coast to coast across Canada began with plans for a demonstration April 2 in Edmonton in front of the law courts where the trial of the accused murder of Cindy Gladue had ended in a shocking acquittal.

Gladue, an Indigenous woman, mother of three and sex worker, had bled to death in a bathtub in the Yellowhead Inn, a hotel in north Edmonton along the route from Saskatoon to Jasper, named for explorer and fur trader and explorer Pierre Bostonais nicknamed “Tête Jaune” for the blond streaks in his hair. has become a symptom of the contempt for the missing and murdered Indigenous women. So many of the signs “Colonialism kills” “We are human” etc. addressed the dehumanizing and deadly process of systemic racism. And this deep analysis of how this trial could come about in 2015 was there on the tip of everyone’s tongue. As the 1000 or so demonstrators headed south to Jasper Avenue from the Law Courts en route to City Hall, three Asian pedestrians approached the throng eager to cross the road.

Continue reading “Honouring Cindy Gladue”

#WomensLivesMatter #WomensLivesMatterButSomeMoreThanOthers #WomensLivesMatter #WomensLivesMatterButSomeLessThanOthers #WomensLivesMatter by janice williamson

In memory of Bella Laboucan-McLean.
In mourning with her friends and family.

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Too many women. Dissent. Descent. Misattributed homonyms: a writing day filled with missteps, false starts. Thinking about a young woman’s body falling through space. Almost no one notices. Plummeting for no good reason. The rage that arises in thinking about the mystery of her descent. Or as the Prime Minister says,”It isn’t really high on our radar, to be honest.” 

Those who know her climb out of immobilization and despair, writing beyond themselves to change the world.

This is Bella’s Story

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In September of 2014,the Melina Laboucan-Massimo wrote a brilliant article in APTN about her 25-year-old sister’s inexplicable and tragic fall to her death from a 31-story Toronto condo in the early morning hours of July 20, 2012.  The title“It felt like there was no end to the screaming sadness: one sister’s take on #mmiw” articulates her crushing loss:

“The day I found out that my sister Bella had been found dead on the terrace of a high-rise condo near Toronto’s waterfront, without an explanation of why or how she fell, was the day I understood what it feels like to grieve so deeply and so immensely that nothing else matters.

It felt like there was no end to the screaming sadness.”

Naomi Klein’s haunting tribute to Bella was first presented at a public event supporting the #mmiw (Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women) and published yesterday in the Globe and Mail. Klein writes how Bella’s death went unreported and it remains a mystery undocumented by the five witnesses. A shameful absence of police protocol and documentary testimony:

Five people, other than Bella, in an 800-square-foot condo. All of her belongings still inside: Purse. Wallet. Shoes. Phone. Yet no one in the apartment calls the police. It is not until 12 hours later, when the cops are going door-to-door trying to identify the body, that one of those five people picks up the phone to report Bella missing. Everyone who was there claims they saw nothing. Knows nothing. No one will be a witness.

Despite finding these accounts questionable, the police put out no media advisory. It was two weeks before a single story about Bella’s death appeared in the local media. “I can’t make anybody talk,” the investigating detective told the Toronto Star.

#FirstPeoplesLivesMatter

Bella’s story and the title of Klein’s tribute –  “How a Cree woman fell to death, and no one saw anything” – rehearses the theme of Canadian settlement with its near genocide of Indigenous peoples. The destructive historical and ongoing actions are twinned with the travesty of silence and complicity – the inaction and perpetually wilful blind eye that ignores the suffering of individuals and communities on reserves, in villages and cities.

British cultural critic Sarah Ahmed reminds us that many racialized women like the missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada live in a world where everyday life is at risk while others take for granted not having “to be inventive to survive.”

When a whole world is organised to promote your survival, from health to education, from the walls designed to keep your residence safe, from the paths that ease your travel, you do not have become so inventive to survive. You do not have to be seen as the recipient of welfare because the world has promoted your welfare. The benefits you receive are given as entitlements, perhaps even as birth rights. Racial capitalism is a health system: a drastically unequal distribution of bodily vulnerabilities. Ruth Wilson Gilmore describes racism thus: “the state-sanctioned or extra-legal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death.” (2007: 28) Being poor, being black, puts your life at risk. Your heath is compromised when you do not have the external resources to support a life in all of its contingencies. And then of course, you are deemed responsible for your own ill-heath, for your own failure to look after yourself better. When you refer to structures, to systems, to power relations, to walls, you are assumed to be making others responsible for the situation you have failed to get yourself out of. “You should have tried harder.” Oh, the violence and the smugness of this sentence, this sentencing.

Last spring I attended the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) Alberta National Event in Edmonton. The moving testimonials, conversations, and displays drew our attention to the hundred-year deadly history of Residential Schools. And we encountered the individual stories and collective grief in first-person accounts by the now aged survivors, once vulnerable school children, who suffered brutality and abuse often followed by many decades of traumatized silence. But we also learned there is too little funding available to complete the documentation of these events and no federal will to follow up with action. Beyond apology and story, reconciliation demands an accounting. And that takes insight and leadership. And I encountered many Indigenous people who refused to take part in the event, overwhelmed by grief and trauma of their own history and/or resistant to a collective process that did not insist on accountability and redress or an effective reconciliation.

Beyond Apology and Reconciliation

In an interview marking Columbia University anthropologist Audra Simpson’s return as alumna to McGill University to deliver the first annual Indigenous Homecoming events, she spoke about the challenges she faces as an indigenous scholar of Haudenosaunee descent:

I got a strong sense of the sorts of things mainstream people think about Native people especially after Oka. In this, that we really matter, politically but are so fundamentally unsettling we have to be further managed and in the neoliberal double-edged sword, as individuals somehow do not “deserve” the opportunities that we have earned, that we do not work, etc., or that we do not exist. Or that we are fundamentally “difficult.”

As well, there are specific stereotypes and expectations that attach to us depending upon what nation we are and where we are from. As Mohawk (and in this, Haudenosaunee) people we speak from the long history of relationship to territory and to others in our homelands, and are compelled to speak clearly and truthfully, from minds unencumbered by grief or pathos. And also, to listen to others. So I always found it ridiculous that we, especially we would be perceived as people that do not act or speak according to principles of fairness and reason.

…Now that I teach in the ’States there is the overwhelming and almost hegemonic idea that we are dead! So my very presence upsets and defies that idea but my teaching and research also reveal in a scholarly manner, where these ideas come from and how they are used to undermine indigenous agency and sovereignty.

The active presence of this exceptional scholar  in the university is a kind of auto-critique, a reminder of how Indigenous women are perceived and excluded. Simpson spoke about “The Two Bodies of Theresa Spence” at the fourteenth annual Critical Race Conference in Edmonton this past fall. Her talk reminds us that the response to Bella’s death, the delay, the mystery, and even indifference, is no accident no matter the cause. No one noticed. No one reported. Still there is silence. And proud public indifference on the part of our federal government. This deadly colonial nation state is maintained in part not just through the dehumanization of indigenous women, but through their disappearance and death. Simpson reminds us how indigenous governance was transformed beyond recognition when women were disqualified by the Indian Act. Cast out and diminished, they had to relinquish the leadership roles they had assumed, a leadership with key powers. And she reminds us that this early promotion of female leadership in indigenous communities that empowered women was so radically different from the exclusively male governance in colonial and European governance that is perpetuated to this day in Canada federal government where mainly white women politicians tend to be fewer in number and demeaned in the public sphere. (More on this coming soon…still writing this section.)

#WomensLivesMatter 
#WomensLivesMatterButSomeLessThanOthers
#WomensLivesMatter
#WomensLivesMatterButSomeMoreThanOthers
#WomensLivesMatter
#WomensLivesMatterButSomeLessThanOthers

In a recent CBC-TV holiday interview, Stephen Harper responded to a question about a missing and murdered Indigenous women inquiry:

‘Um it, it isn’t really high on our radar, to be honest … Our ministers will continue to dialogue with those who are concerned about this.’

His evasion was rightly interpreted as disrespectful to the Indigenous women.  Many groups and individuals found the Prime Minister’s comments offensive. And many have begun to work on their own healing and solutions including some Liberal Senators who are sharing legal arguments to anyone who wants to take Canada to court to establish an inquiry and raise the public profile of these deaths. Melina Laboucan-Massimo has given the government some good advice:

We need to hold those who perpetrate violence against women accountable. There are at least 1,200 Indigenous women that have been murdered or gone missing. There is no denying that if 1,200 white women were missing or had been murdered there would be uproar and Harper’s approach would be instantaneous and dramatic. … a far cry from his current response.

A better approach would be to support spaces for healing from the legacy of trauma instead of continuing the victim-blaming narrative that we see from the conservative government and the RCMP report from earlier this year.”

Investigating and accounting for Indigenous women’s deaths in this country would have to be accountable so recommendations don’t just stay on the table. And investigating and accounting for Indigenous women’s deaths in this country would have to listen to the community. Melina Laboucan-Massimo notes: “Whether called an inquiry, commission, or “action plan,” this process must first and foremost take its direction and leadership from the families of MMIW” and from “community leadership.”

[And this effort must] “not be tokenistic, as it often has been in the past….An inquiry shouldn’t just focus on confirming what we already know – that there is a problem.  It is families and communities of MMIW who best understand the breadth, depth, and root causes of this issue and what solutions could and should look like.”

Indigenous governance and justice systems need to be foundational. If there is an inquiry, it is also necessary to inspect how the police are dealing with the cases of MMIW and to require that the RCMP and local police departments share their files with families, especially when cases are unsolved and are idle like my sister’s case. It is imperative that we develop and implement policies that prevent inaction on these cases, which makes the police complicit in allowing the numbers of MMIW to grow.

What we do need recognition of is that violence against Indigenous women has systemic causes that are colonial in nature. The Harper government needs to recognize the impacts government policies have had and continue to have on Indigenous communities that leave Indigenous women in precarious and vulnerable positions in society.

 “Violence against Mother Earth is violence against women.”

Both Melina Laboucan-Massimo and Naomi Klein link the Harper government’s wilful blindness to more than a thousand women’s deaths with its blindness to the poisoned land and Indigenous communities. Melina writes “Violence against Mother Earth is violence against women. The two are linked” And Klein agrees:

The greatest barrier to our government’s single-minded obsession with drilling, mining and fracking the hell out of this country is the fact that indigenous communities from coast to coast are exercising their inherent and constitutional rights to say no. Indigenous strength and power is a tremendous threat to that insatiable vision. And indigenous women are, to borrow [Toronto City Councillor Adam] Vaughan’s phrase, “the heart and soul” of these movements.

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Naomi Klein comments on her participation in the July 2014 Healing Walk around the Tar Sands at Fort McMurray.

Two weeks before Bella died, I had been in the tar sands with Melina at the annual Healing Walk. The gathering is like nothing I have seen anywhere: Hundreds of people walk in silence for an entire day through an unimaginably scarred landscape – by the sprawling open-pit mines, by the massive tailings ponds that kill ducks on contact. Stopping only for prayer and ceremony.

The fifth annual Healing Walk this past summer like all the others that have come before maps out a dead zone in the embodied time of footsteps, a putrid sensual immersion in a poisonous dump of chemicals and unreclaimable wasteland. This annual walk transforms our understanding of this place that is often represented by aerial photographs that accompany popular news and magazine stories of the Oil Sands/Tar Sands.

For this industrial site is often appreciated from afar in popular media stories that hire fly over photographer’s at work.  The gorgeous large-format camera landscapes of Edward Burtynsky have been widely admired for their visual power. And they work to envision a vision of aesthetically beautiful patterns at a distance from the The artist writes:

“these images are meant as metaphors to the dilemma of our modern existence; they search for a dialogue between attraction and repulsion, seduction and fear. We are drawn by desire – a chance at good living, yet we are consciously or unconsciously aware that the world is suffering for our success. Our dependence on nature to provide the materials for our consumption and our concern for the health of our planet sets us into an uneasy contradiction. For me, these images function as reflecting pools of our times.

Edward Burtynsky, Alberta Oil Sands #10, Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada, 2007.
Edward Burtynsky, Alberta Oil Sands #10, Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada, 2007.

However some have noted the limits of this bird’s eye aestheticization of this wasteland into Burtynsky’s artistic image of “reflecting pools of our times” that abstracts us from the embodied experience of the place. The Healing Walk of lung-filled stench and dystopian apocalyptic visual field up close are a counterpoint to the photograph’s “remote sensing and setting up an aesthetic encounter of ‘disinterested contemplation'” (Karen Lang quoted in “Reframing the Canadian Oil Sands.”)

The Healing Walk and the kind of public inquiry into the Missing and Murdered Women envisioned by Melanie  both refuse “disinterested contemplation” at a distance. The Idle No More movement invited us to public healing circles and demonstrations in shopping malls and city squares in the dead of winter. Chief Theresa Spence who maintained a diet of fish broth for weeks made her own body vulnerable in our names in her unanswered plea for dialogue with the Prime Minister.

Each of these actions, Healing Walk, hunger strike, inquiry linked to accountability and action, requires us to not only empathize with the trauma and narrative line of Indigenous women’s deaths and impoverished communities but to link our embodied witnessing with investigations and actions that change the world and all our relations.

Five witnesses continue to refuse to speak about the indigenous woman’s body falling from a  Toronto condo balcony. Disinterested and distant, their silence seems cynical and even culpable. Our collective refusal to join with the family’s of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women echoes a similar comfortable disinterested distance that projects the trauma and suffering elsewhere rather than on our complicit silence. Similarly Canadians disengagement and distance from an awareness of the devastation at the source of our Tar Sand’s energy plan  The political voice of Idle No More has identified over and over again the struggle.  And we murmur agreement or turn our wilfully blind eyes.

#IndigenousLivesMatter#WomensLivesMatter
#WomensLivesMatterButSomeLessThanOthers #BlackLivesMatter #PalestinianLivesMatter #IndigenousLivesMatter #BlackLivesMatter#PalestinianLivesMatter
#WomensLivesMatter
#WomensLivesMatterButSomeMoreThanOthers
#IndigenousLivesMatter #BlackLivesMatter
#PalestinianLivesMatter #WomensLivesMatter
#WomensLivesMatterButSomeLessThanOthers
#IndigenousLivesMatter #BlackLivesMatter #PalestinianLivesMatter

Investigating and accounting for Indigenous women’s deaths in this country would have to come to terms with “root causes” – a concept that our Prime Minister disregards as “doing sociology.” Like George Bush, Stephen Harper likes to think with his gut – an anatomical organ that other Stephen – Colbert – reminds us has its own lethal illogic. In his brilliant in character evisceration of George Bush in his presence at the White House Correspondent’s Dinner, Colbert developed this theory in relation to Bush’s record:

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We go straight from the gut, right sir? That’s where the truth lies, right down here in the gut. Do you know you have more nerve endings in your gut than you have in your head? You can look it up. I know some of you are going to say “I did look it up, and that’s not true.” That’s ’cause you looked it up in a book.

Next time, look it up in your gut. I did. My gut tells me that’s how our nervous system works. Every night on my show, the Colbert Report, I speak straight from the gut, OK? I give people the truth, unfiltered by rational argument. I call it the “No Fact Zone.” Fox News, I hold a copyright on that term.

And here we are reminded that our Prime Minister Harper eschews any facts in favour of fiction, ideology in lieu of scientific evidence, wishful thinking in lieu of thoughtful policy.

How many hands do you have to hold over your ears to make yourself deaf to the voices. Our federal government’s law and order policies and policies are not just  ideologically misguided, they are lethal.

Investigating and accounting for Indigenous women’s deaths in this country would have to come to terms with the misery of increasing numbers of women’s lives spent in prison – 24% of Canadian prisoners are Indigenous though they make up 4% of the population. (And the stats in the prairie provinces are especially appalling: 80% in Manitoba, 60% in Saskatchewan, and 50% in Alberta.)  Ask Omar Khadr, another racialized Canadian citizen, imprisoned unjustly over more than a dozen years since his capture, imprisonment and torture in Bagram, Guantanamo and a series of maximum and medium-security federal prisons in Canada.

My shift to another story of injustice with  international dimensions is intended to expand our understanding of what is at stake not to avoid a national conversation demanding a response to the missing and murdered indigenous women here. But the worst federal government in our history has a single virtue – a transparent consistency of the most deadly dimensions. And we need to make links between the local and the global to understand the underpinning principles and bigotry that guides our government here and abroad.

Mideast-Israel-Palest_Horo-25-e1406377480928-635x357

Last summer we witnessed the bombardment of the Palestinians in Gaza – another Indigenous people – by a government championed by our own federal officials. While missile guidance systems targeted children in UN safe zones in the most densely populated urban area in the world, the landscape was reduced to uninhabitable rubble. While the cries sound over Palestine, our government leaders clink glasses and reaped awards at elite gatherings with Israel state officials –  our leaders symbolic public legitimation of the Israeli assault. These gilt chambered events gave us a vivid glimpse of the radical chasm that separates us from the shattered destitution of city as bomb site.

During the bombing of Gaza, a Mohamed Omar, an editor at Huffington Post Canada asked about the silence of Stephen Harper and John Baird: “Why Aren’t Harper And Baird Angry About Dead Babies In Gaza?” The answer is that Palestinian lives matter less. Philosopher Judith Butler opens her study Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable? with this telling observation: “specific lives cannot be apprehended as injured or lost if they are not first apprehended as living.” Their lives are less grievable like the missing and murdered indigenous women who are always already more zombie-like living dead than fully human. Facebook cats command more interest.

And the powerful movement that emerged after the recent police killings of black men in the U.S. led to the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Hundreds of thousands of people raised their hands saying I testify – I stand in this place bearing witness to injustice and demanding change.

None of us escape the lethal plot of murdered/missing women and environmental destruction. We suffer the shame of silence. Too many Canadians remain unengaged and apathetic, complicit. Or outraged and stymied about what to do. Our inaction seals our collective fate.

Last month the Burnaby Mountain gatherings risked arrest and caught international attention. And it stopped the drilling by Kinder Morgan – a blow to the pipeline plans of the government. We need hundreds of thousands of Canadians raising our hands in solidarity with the Indigenous people in our country. We need to forge alliances and engage in the coalition politics and thinking that link up our individual local interests with larger interrelated networks of connection so that all Canadians see the big picture of international connections and domestic atrocities.

#WomensLivesMatterButSomeMoreThanOthers
#FirstPeoplesLivesMatter
#BlackLivesMatter
#PalestiniansLivesMatter
#WomensLivesMatterButSomeMoreThanOthers

 Afterword: 

I was spurred on to write this short essay by a number of events including:

  • Attendance at the 14th Critical Race Conference in Edmonton a few months ago while  listening to faculty, students and other young people recount their encounters with racism.  And I was reminded again of Audra Simpson‘s “The Two Body of Theresa Spence” outlining how Bella’s death is symptomatic of a lethal pattern, no matter the cause.  No one in the condo noticed, it was alleged. No one reported for some time. Still there is silence. The colonial nation statemaintained in part not just through the dehumanization of indigenous women, but their disappearance, demonstrates a lethal indifference.
  • Reading about the case of Steven Salaita  – a young Palestinian American scholar denied his job at the University of Illinois ostensibly because his twitter feed during the Israeli bombardment of Gaza was “uncivil”.  Salaita works on Indigeneous people and settler narratives in North America and Palestine. Thinking about the silencing of dissent reminds us that settlement stories on many continents connect us with the violent dispossession, the incarceration and violence against African Americans, the regular intermittent bombardment of Palestinians, and the unmarked category of Whiteness that enables some of us to feel safe and above the fray.
  • And my own contribution to the #beenrapedneverreported twitter storm following the CBC-Radio host Jian Ghomeshi harrassment and violence against women scandal.

 I composed a series of tweets with the #beenrapedneverreported hashtag one late afternoon and called it “writing what matters for our daughters. Before I even finished sending out each individual tweet, a journalist called to see if he could interview me. What a powerful technology and what a quick response was my first thought. And then I reflected on who wasn’t tweeting and who might not be listened to.

 A few weeks later, an Edmonton Journal journalist followed up with a short article  about local twitter stories. As well as my story, the reporter featured the #beenrapedneverreported tweets of a police woman whose silence was informed by her inside knowledge of how rape victims who report are treated in court: “They’re the ones on trial….So you can see the reluctance of a lot of women to put themselves through that.” The article ended with this:

“Bringing rape to light is a good thing, Williamson says, but she really worries about those voices that aren’t being heard on Twitter. It’s partly why she has used her experience to continue the call for an inquiry into missing aboriginal women.

“Who is doing the tweeting, and who is not doing the tweeting,” she asked. “The women who are definitely not tweeting are those missing indigenous women.”

Today’s writing is provisional and ongoing. A sketch really after a dry spell of teaching and doing other work. So much more to to listen to, to say, to read, to write.  Please reply with suggestions, responses, objections and corrections. Dialogue keeps us in community.

For further information, see THIS IS BELLA’S STORY on The Support for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women’s website.

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“Why I Support Idle No More” by Linda Goyette

Editor’s note: This Facebook post is republished with the author Linda Goyette’s permission.  

I am no longer a journalist, and I do not seek a bully pulpit on any topic, but tonight I want to explain to my family and friends why I give my unqualified support to the Idle No More movement as a Canadian citizen.

canada love idle no more

I am becoming more and more concerned about the harsh backlash among non-aboriginal Canadians against this peaceful protest movement. I’m not talking exclusively about virulent racial bigotry and hate speech, although it exists in dark places, but more about the willful denial of reality, the blindness to injustice, among many decent people.

These are the people I address tonight. I respect their right to a different opinion, but I hope they will hear me out.

Four Saskatchewan women—Nina Wilson, Sylvia McAdam, Sheelah McLean and Jessica Gordon—and Chief Theresa Spence of Attawapiskat First Nation in northern Ontario found the courage to say that a change is going to come. Thousands of indigenous people across Canada are demonstrating in peaceful ways to tell the country that they will wait no longer for that change. When I see round dances in shopping malls, peaceful road blockades, or a chief on a hunger strike, I see an opportunity to learn more about the deep frustration of my neighbours. I see no threat at all.

The protesters are asking for the country I want for myself, and for my family.

Millions of Canadians do respect First Nations, Metis and Inuit legal rights because these rights are guaranteed in our modern Constitution, frequently upheld by our highest courts, entrenched in our historic treaties, and valued in our intermingled family connections, our friendships, our minds and our hearts.

Many of us badly want the Canadian government to respect Indigenous land, resources, cultural ways, and most of all their right to self-determination.

I feel hopeful—wildly hopeful—that a core demand of the Idle No More movement for stronger protection of our shared natural environment will spread to Canadians of all racial backgrounds and political allegiances. I also hope that the Harper government will think twice in future before it passes omnibus legislation with minimal parliamentary debate or national consultation on the contents.

If the Idle No More movement has allies, and it does, we need to be more outspoken. Our silence in 2013 will be interpreted as complicity, and polite agreement, with everything that is wrong with the relationship between Canada and the founding peoples. Firm support for Idle No More could push the whole nation forward in a new and more positive direction.

We need to stand beside indigenous peoples when they confront an obtuse federal government that consistently undermines their success while it scolds them about local governance. In our homes and communities, we need to challenge the mockery, the simplistic assumptions, the casual and devastating bigotry that diminish Canada and make it a smaller, narrower place than it deserves to be.

As some of you know, I have worked for most of my adult life as a reporter, writer and oral history transcriber with enduring connections to many First Nations and Metis people and their communities in different parts of Canada, primarily in the West. That doesn’t make me an expert in anything, but I have had a rare opportunity to learn from the true experts – the people themselves, their life experiences, their values, their hopes. I have witnessed with my own eyes hardships and injustices that took my breath away, not only in Attawapiskat in 2010, but in almost every province and territory over three decades.

To those comfortable Canadians who complain that their hard-earned tax dollars disappear down a huge funnel to places like Attawapiskat, I say: Visit the place yourself, or any other isolated, northern Aboriginal community, and you might notice that most inhabitants, primarily children and old people, endure substandard public services beyond the imagination of southern, urban Canadians.

They can’t count on clean drinking water, warm housing, decent elementary schools, safe roads, good fire protection or sewage systems—all services that white Canadians in neighbouring towns and cities take for granted. Other Canadians can rely on fairly capable local and provincial governments while First Nations have to contend with the inept budgeting practices of the federal Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development, not to mention the restrictive nature of our hideous national antique, the Indian Act. Read it some time. It will change your view of your country.

To those Canadians who allege that all chiefs and band councils are robber barons who “make more than the prime minister,” and run a vast northern kleptocracy, I say: I have never heard an Idle No More activist or an Aboriginal person in any community defend overpayment of band officials, padding of expense accounts, or local corruption. Just as I have never heard any Canadian, anywhere, justify the overpayment of local, provincial or federal elected and public employees, although this also happens with depressing regularity.

Overpayment happens because we allow it to happen. That can change, too. I would like to hear Canadians ask why the president of the University of Alberta, Indira Samarasekera, received $627,000 in the 2007-2008 fiscal year, which includes house and car allowances, performance bonuses and deferred compensation. Her salary had increased 6 per cent compared to the year before.

Folks, she earned more that Prime Minister Stephen Harper and U.S. president Barack Obama that year while Alberta students contended with steady tuition increases. She earned more than any First Nation chief I’ve ever heard of. Yet do we hear waves of public indignation about the continuing high salaries of university and college presidents across Canada? Even a murmur? We do not.

We swallow similar bad news about other elected and public officials who receive sky-high salaries, benefits, and sometimes, huge severance payments after dismissal for poor performance. That’s our tax money, too. We could at least apply our indignation evenly across the country, and we might question the national preoccupation with compensation to chiefs, and how and why that obsession came to be.

Long ago, when I was reporting for the Edmonton Journal in 1980 or 1981, I received a brown envelope from a Department of Indian Affairs finance officer containing documents on the salary and benefits of an outspoken Cree leader Harold Cardinal who was working at the time to assist the northern Dene Tha’ with poor conditions on their reserve. I was in my early twenties at the time, and inexperienced, and yes, I supplied the news story that brought a good man’s hard work into disrepute, fortunately temporarily. I was a little pawn on a chessboard, pushed forward, to do the government’s bidding. Shut him up. Shut it down.

I learned a hard lesson from that experience. I began to watch the situation more carefully. In the following three decades I noticed that each time First Nations and Metis leaders, or activists in the community, demanded their legal rights or a fair share of Canada’s abundant resources, similar official brown envelopes would whiz in the direction of good, bad or indifferent reporters and media commentators. These journalists would dutifully report the news of overpayments–as they should, it is indefensible–but without any context or understanding of how they were being used to silence, ignore and marginalize Aboriginal people in great need.

Does the federal government release similar figures to the media about the plump expense accounts of its own senior deputy ministers? No, it does not. The Harper government encourages significant overpayments to a favoured few, on the one hand, and then spins this information to discredit the legitimate claims of an entire group of people. This is not good governance. This is dysfunctional manipulation.

I don’t blame many southern Canadians for their singular focus on chiefs’ salaries—that’s just about all they’ve heard from the shills in the conservative media for two decades—but I don’t think people understand that federal transfers to First Nations are often significantly lower than provincial transfers to non-aboriginal communities for the same services. The Auditor General and Parliamentary Budget Officer have confirmed this fact again and again, and conscientious people in provincial and local governments and in the media have complained about it.

Try to calculate how much public money your town or city receives for every school and hospital, for all salaries of local public employees, for road and bridge construction, for police and fire departments, for sewer lines, garbage disposal, recycling, public transit and so on. That amounts to many millions of dollars a year, too, even for small communities. Canadians interpret these financial transfers as a right of citizenship, the cost of a civil society.

More than one million people in Canada describe themselves as Aboriginal, and more than 700,000 have First Nations status. The Government of Canada will spent about $8 billion this year for the budget of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development, including all transfers to more than 600 communities. About twenty per cent of the total goes to departmental administration expenses, but look at the $8 billion. That’s the same amount that New Brunswick will spend this year on public services for its 751,000 people.

To those Canadians who say, “But I pay taxes, and they don’t, so I have earned these services, and they haven’t,” I say in reply: A large majority of First Nations people and all Metis people, now live off-reserve, work for a living, and do pay taxes. It is the Canadian way to provide public services for all citizens, even those without paid employment, such as the elderly, parents caring for children at home, people with disabilities, and people who earn too little in their jobs to pay significant taxes. Some people on reserves, and in neighbouring non-aboriginal communities too, fall into these categories. Why should we resent them? Their gifts to us are beyond the measure of money.

More important, this country is affluent and comfortable by international standards because of the rich natural resources it extracts from its northern and western regions, the traditional territory of many First Nations and Metis people. They have paid and paid the rest of Canada—in lost revenue, over generations—for the miserable level of public services they have received through much of the last century. They have received no fair share of the benefits of a rich nation, and it is time they did.

To the Canadians who say, “But Idle No More leaders should be more specific, they should define their terms, I don’t know what they want,” I say: Where have you been hiding throughout your lifetime? If you don’t know what they want, you haven’t been listening.

The parents and grandparents of Idle No More activists lined up at the microphones at the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry after 1974, patiently explaining to the country why their land and sovereignty needed to be respected. Decade after decade, others spoke to parliamentary committee hearings, First Ministers conferences, and every MP and reporter who would listen to them.

Year after year, they testified at hearings of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples and at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and at hearings of the United Nations human rights bodies. In case after case, they took the federal government to the Supreme Court of Canada to press for legitimate recognition of their land claims and treaty and Aboriginal rights. They negotiated the Kelowna Accord with the former prime minister, and then saw the deal collapse.

Their frustrations found expression at Oka and Burnt Church and Ipperwash, Ont., in the protest marches through the streets of Edmonton and Winnipeg, in the railway blockades in B.C. They celebrated many victories and land claims settlements along the way, and found allies, and achieved significant improvements on their own initiative.

If you don’t know about this yet, it is not too late to learn. Rather than demand that other people define their terms immediately in language you are ready to accept, just listen, and remember what you have heard.

It shouldn’t be necessary to say that diverse Aboriginal communities have different definitions of sovereignty, and different interpretations of their relationship with the Canadian state. People are different. Communities are different. No single answer is the total or final answer on any public issue.

The very least Canadians can do is pay attention with some level of respect and gratitude for a largely peaceful protest movement. Other countries would envy us for Idle No More, and its non-violent core values. Their patience is a great gift to this country.

When the percentage of Aboriginal people in schools, colleges, universities, hospitals and jails matches their percentage of the Canadian population, some equality will have been achieved. Equality does not exist now.

I think this is a defining moment in Canadian history, a time when each citizen is asked to make a choice. Where do you stand? Where will your children and grandchildren want you to stand? I have made my decision. I leave your decision to you.

Thank you for listening.

To learn more about. . .

The Idle No More movement:


About Attawapiskat:

http://www.nfb.ca/film/people_of_kattawapiskak_river/An NFB documentary by award-winning Alanis Obamsawin “Still waiting in Attawapiskat,” Canadian Geographic magazine, Linda Goyette with photography by Liam Sharp

Attawapiskat finances:

The issues at the heart of this debate: