“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:

“Close encounters of the urban Aboriginal and multicultural kind” by Meenal Shrivastava

One of the first things I noticed on my earliest trip to Canada in 1998 was the presence of remarkable Aboriginal art in so many public places. For years after that I admired and bought gifts of Canadian Aboriginal art as the most appropriate Canadian souvenir. As a tourist to Canada, I knew about the historical and contemporary injustices that the Aboriginal people have been subjected to, but my first real life brush with the harsh urban reality of the Aboriginal experience came a week after I officially became an Indo-South African-Canadian.

I live next door to an Aboriginal family with fourteen children, and several grandchildren. They are renting in this very middle class neighbourhood in the eastern part of Edmonton, where the houses are owned by a huge variety of people ranging from professionals to tradesmen.

I moved into my house in the Fall nearly two years ago and for months never saw or made acquaintance with any of my neighbours. Ironically, it was not until my dogs arrived from South Africa that I felt ’visible’ in the neighbourhood with people smiling or stopping to chat to my oversized pups.

Shortly after, the Aboriginal family moved next door and this led to even more neighbourly interactions for me. People began making complaints against the Aboriginal family next door to the police, the bylaw offices, social services, among other places. They complained about noisy trucks, unsupervised children, and delays in cleaning snow off the side walk. The tenants before them did the same things but were Caucasians and nobody came to me to ask me to file complaints against the former tenants.

I was beginning to resent the pressure that I felt to file complaints against the family next door. Not only did it feel hypocritical and clearly discriminatory, it also made me feel that it prevented me from having a normal sociable relationship with my next door neighbours. For instance, if the kids were noisy or broke something in my yard, I felt awkward to approach them fearing that it would seem like I had joined the vocal minority that clearly wanted this family out of the neighbourhood. Living alone and working from home only made this situation worse for me and I was seriously considering moving elsewhere.

Out of an innocuous Friday morning breakfast get together with colleagues, came a suggestion that was extremely useful. I learnt about the Mediation and Restorative Justice Centre (MRJC), which provides assistance for conflict management for individuals and groups. The very helpful staff told me that I need to get all the parties to agree to come to the table for it to be an effective process. So I wrote the letter below to my neighbours and distributed it door to door.

“Dear Neighbour,

In the past little while we have experienced some disagreements regarding our expectations of peace and propriety in our neighbourhood. I am concerned that these disagreements should not lead to a situation of conflict in our peaceful neighbourhood. Our houses are very close to each other and we all have a stake in making sure that we live as a harmonious community of people.

We have had several formal and informal complaints going back and forth in the past few months. However, the outcome has been unsatisfactory for all involved. It is my humble opinion that we have not had an open channel of communication to resolve our problems.

I am no expert in mediating or negotiating but following the advice of my colleague, who is a law professor, I contacted the Mediation and Restorative Justice Centre for help. This centre can provide professional facilitators to help us resolve our problem as amicably as possible.

I would like to take this opportunity to invite you to phone the Mediation and Restorative Justice Centre at 780-423-0896 (Extn. 200) to speak freely about the problems you are encountering in the neighbourhood. Please quote the reference number xyz for the sake of continuity in our conversations. Once they have heard from some of us, they will decide about how best to facilitate mediation.

Their hours of operation are:

9 – 4.30 (Mon, Wed, Fri)

9 – 7.30 (Tue, Thu)

In the best case scenario, we will be able to resolve our differences and continue to live in our quiet and harmonious space. In the worst case scenario, we would have at least tried to resolve our differences in the most civilized way possible.”

Before I handed out the letter, I approached my next door neighbour to find out if he would be willing to participate in such an intervention. We had often exchanged pleasantries and once I had reluctantly told him about some broken solar lights in my yard, but this was the first time we had a proper conversation.

I told him that the mediation will only be effective if both sides can have their say and thus he should not hesitate to state his complaints too. He told me that the reason he has chosen to bring his family to live in this neighbourhood is so that they can see that another life is possible. He was determined to give his children a fighting chance in a place where check-out clerks can choose not to serve him and get away without any censure; where he gets shadowed and watched suspiciously as soon as he enters a store; where people pull their children indoors if they see them playing with his grand kids; where the police surrounds his house in the middle of the night because some neighbours complained about loud music but the party was happening in the house across his back alley. I was struck by this man’s humility and generosity when he said that he will be happy to talk to the MRJC staff but that he had nothing to complain about from his side.

The timing of this conversation was very significant for me since it had been exactly one week since I had taken my oath of Canadian citizenship in what proved to be an emotionally wrenching experience for me. I found the ceremony my most intense first-hand experience of the power of symbols, identity, and boundaries. My grandparents had fought for the independence of India, which made this a very poignant moment for me.  Although I know the difference between identity and citizenship and have struck deep friendships and relationships in my new home, at that moment I could not shake off the feelings of betrayal, loneliness, and the loss of generations of belonging.

During the ceremony, I was sitting next to a woman from Sierra Leone who was brimming with joy since now she can try to bring her five children who were still trapped in a conflict zone to Canada. It was a profound and timely reminder of the value of this country called Canada that jolted me out of my personal angst. The incidence in my neighbourhood similarly revealed the juxtaposition of the inherent good and bad in all our experiences.

When the issues started to emerge in my neighbourhood, I was struck by the verbal and emotional aggression in the conversations I witnessed. People denied equally vehemently that they had any racial prejudices, while at least one person suggested that I must have a higher tolerance for such nuisance because of where I come from. There was clearly a class dimension too, adding to the ’othering’ of the Aboriginal family, since they were renting in this street of home-owners. I suspected that I was relatively more acceptable to my neighbours because of what I do, despite ‘what’ I am. To put it mildly, this was an awkward situation where I found myself warding off the pressure to complain on one hand, and on the other hand feeling indignant for myself and the Aboriginal family next door.

I was sceptical about the impact of external mediation, but I was wrong. Very few of my neighbours phoned the MRJC staff and the most vocal voices actually chose not to engage with MRJC. According to the MRJC staff, the ideal scenario would have been to get everyone to talk face-to-face in a session facilitated by a professional mediator. Despite their best efforts, only one person was willing for such a session and another was willing to talk to the neighbour directly.

However, there were a number of indirect benefits of the involvement of the MRJC. I heard back from some of the neighbours who spoke to the MRJC staff and it was clear that they were seeing their perceived problems in a very different light. Aside from the conflict management tips provided by the excellent staff at the MRJC, I believe that the very idea of external mediation gave them a reason to pause and reconsider the source of their annoyance. The failure of the more aggressive people to engage with the process exposed their unwillingness for any solution other than the removal of the Aboriginal family. This clearly separated the majority of the neighbours who were now willing to reconsider their previous position on how bad the situation was and prepared to take their issues directly to the Aboriginal family, as opposed to the small minority whose prejudices have been exposed and who have retreated into a sulky silence, for now.

This may not be a dramatic victory of multiculturalism in a tiny suburb of Edmonton, but there are a number of lessons that are worth sharing. Firstly, we need to admit in this so called post-industrial society that there are many tools of ’othering’ which are used to essentialize difference, and serve to create and maintain hierarchies of humanity. The ‘us’ and ‘them’ is constantly being redefined through real or perceived ethnic, socio-economic, and other differences. However, this is not just happening in North America, but also in European countries, South Africa, India, China, nay all over the world. Secondly, being a disengaged bystander is not a choice and does not absolve us from the responsibility we bear as members of a community to stand up and speak out against an injustice. Most importantly, it is vital to remember that we are not alone when we do choose to wade into such a battle. There are wonderful people – friends, colleagues, neighbours – and institutions like the MRJC within the system that can offer help and guidance.

Finally, perhaps the person was right in noting that my country of origin had something to do with how I handled this situation. I was born in India whose images of grinding poverty and dense population are well known. What is not so well known to the outside world is the fact that it is also home to all the major religions of the world; it has more than two thousand ethnic groups; it is a country that is more diverse than Europe in terms of linguistic, genetic and cultural diversity; it is also home to the world’s largest middle class, which has learnt to survive and thrive despite the murky politics, archaic institutions, and corruption that permeates everyday life. South Africa, my second home, has also taught us that it is possible to confront the truths of our histories and policies and move on to become a Rainbow Nation.

Multiculturalism is not an essentially North American phenomenon; there is a much longer history of nations managing their deeply vibrant and significantly multiple ethnic demographics all over the world. None of these experiments are perfect, but the long histories and unfolding stories of places like India and South Africa can only enrich our understanding of multiculturalism in North America.

For now, our little suburb is quiet again. I have no illusions of permanent peace or battles won, but the incidences of the past several months were a catalyst for revealing significant aspects of the people and the place I have chose as my new home. It also got me closer to understanding what I try to learn and teach as I traverse the fledgling field of Global Studies. Right now I feel cautiously optimistic.

Meenal Shrivastava is an associate professor and the Academic Coordinator of Global Studies and Political Economy in the Centre for Global and Social Analysis at Athabasca University in Alberta. This was originally posted in the FedCan blog as part of the Equity Issues series on  ‘interculturalism and pluralism’.