“Canadians need to understand; you can’t compare what happened to us towards other cultures & ethnic groups…What happened to those groups are tragic & should never be forgotten, but like all Canadians, we share those stories in grief. We share them to inform & educate the world on such tragedies… We do it, because it’s the right thing to do. We need to do the same for Indigenous people. I need to do this for my children. I need to do this for myself….Thank you for understanding. That’s all we are asking…Confronting the truth head on is how we move forward together… It’s taken us longer to overcome such harm, because for 150 yrs were told that being FN is terrible. We are a cultural people. When you strip that away, when you are told to be ashamed of yourself, ur own people, community & culture. You’ve strip away the very man I was suppose to be…”
– Chris Sankey, CoastTsimshian-Indigenous Canadian, on Twitter
Full disclosure: I don’t want to write about the First Nations (FN) issue. It is too big, too multi-faceted, too nuanced. I don’t know anything. I’d rather write about the ‘energy transition’ – believe it or not, that’s relatively easy (it’s a hundred-year project; get over it). But then I read things like the statement put out by Project Reconciliation: “Many Indigenous people are afraid that recent news will quickly be forgotten and nothing will change. How can YOU help make sure that doesn’t happen?” Well, when put that way, I guess I can say something. Politicians aren’t getting it done, and maybe the silent majority needs to start putting on pressure as well (see this excellent National Post article on the lack of progress on Truth and Reconciliation report promises).
Mr. Sankey’s quote above hints at the challenge. It is very hard to relate to what he says, without having lived it. There isn’t a magic wand solution. I wish there was, and/or I wish I understood the situation well enough to offer constructive input.
I don’t think I do. Not when I hear news of 215 unmarked graves at a single residential school site, and neither the federal government nor the Catholic Church will provide records from these schools. People close to the subject fear that the number is much, much higher, and why wouldn’t it be – the 215 is from a single school. But because we don’t have the answers doesn’t mean we shouldn’t talk about the issue. That’s how it gets forgotten.
The ongoing lack of progress could be, in my probably overly simplistic view, due to several factors – one, that average people can’t relate at all what it fees like to receive the ‘here we are now and this is all ours’ European greeting, and two, because we just interpret the outcome or the ‘progress’ of FN programs the easy way – by looking out the window and judging.
Regarding the first factor, few can relate to the whole FN situation because we see solutions in ‘our’ terms – go get a job, get off substances, whatever. Most of us view the negativity surrounding FN through that lens – just do what we did to get ahead.
Maybe that is why the 215 are such a lightning bolt. Maybe for most non-FN the problem has been abstract and dissociated until now until we heard such tangible and irrefutable proof that horrors we wouldn’t tolerate for a second were routine, not very long ago.
Consider the average Canadian parent, hovering over their brood with the best attention and technology money can buy. A stranger lurking near a playground sets off danger signals across social media and into the ‘real’ media. Choking hazards are monitored like surgeons monitor patients. Child car seats are NASA grade.
Can the average Canadian parent then imagine what it would be like to have an authority arrive on their doorstep and take children away, by force? To be ‘managed’ (sometimes in horrifying ways) by some institution that said parents had no knowledge of or faith in? At the age of five? Or younger? You don’t have to be a parent to envision the furor if that was tried today – think of nieces, nephews, children of your friends. To put it succinctly, it wouldn’t happen. There would be a middle-class insurrection if it happened to a single family.
But that was the FN norm. Not only were the kids forcefully taken, it now incredibly appears that they weren’t even accounted for. And this wasn’t 400 years ago. It was within our lifetimes (or that of boomers anyway).
Do we wonder why we see messed up people wandering our streets? And speaking of those, that brings me to my second point about how we judge the outcome or the ‘process’ of FN development.
It is effortless and straightforward to judge rough street characters as people that simply need to get their sh*t together. It is easy to come to that conclusion, and easy to maintain it. That is, until you talk to one. And maybe they’ll tell you a story that will make your hair stand on end. And you’ll never see the world the same again.
It happened to me, a fair number of years ago. Warning: language alert – here’s the story as it happened, politically incorrect words and all. If it feels horrible to write, and it does, I can’t imagine what it felt like from the other side.
I grew up in a small farming community in Saskatchewan, with limited FN interaction, and much of the interaction was with the element that struggled with life, social issues, substances, you name it. One day in high school, four of us were riding around in my friend’s mom’s Buick, two in front and two in back. It doesn’t take long to cruise a town 8 blocks by 8 blocks, and it’s not all that interesting, to put it mildly. On Main Street, we saw a local-legend, trouble-making FN character named Duncan Monroe walking down the street unsteadily. We could guess why. Duncan was very large, powerful-looking, and intimidating, with amateur tattoos on his hands and a bad reputation. He had been to jail a few times. Perhaps out of boredom, my far-too adventurous friend said, “Hey let’s give Duncan a ride.” He angle-parked right in front of Duncan and asked if he needed a lift. Duncan looked surprised but came over to the passenger’s front door. He had no idea who these punk kids were. Three of us were regretting having a lunatic with a car for a friend, and the passenger in front scrambled into the back to make way for Duncan. We asked him where to, and he told us, a house about 6 blocks away (the other side of town). We pulled up in front of it, said here you go, and waited. But he wouldn’t move. The three of us in the back seat stared at that giant back, getting a fair bit concerned when it became clear that this notorious behemoth wasn’t going to leave.
Duncan stared straight ahead through the windshield, then started asking us questions in an agitated voice, without turning his head. The tension ratcheted. “Why are you doing this?” Silence. “Why did you give me a ride?” Then he looked back towards us, and tears were streaming down his face. “Why did you give a ride to a savage? Why would you do that?” In the driver’s seat, my friend just stammered that we thought he looked like he could use a ride. Duncan turned to face all of us and said, “No one’s ever done that for me. You are my brothers.” And he stuck out that big scary hand for us to shake, and he sat there for a minute, crying, and shook our hands again, then he got out and wandered into the house. We drove off silent and shell-shocked.
Not once, ever, in my weird life’s path from the middle of nowhere to corporate office towers, did I ever come close to feeling like Duncan must have – a feeling of inferiority and isolation so strong that he was stunned that any white person would do anything nice for him. Without that encounter, I would never have known anyone could feel that way. And I should judge his substance abuse? Hell, I drink because it’s Friday, and life really isn’t all that hard compared to most of the world’s population.
Back in the ‘regular’ world, when we told the story, people thought we were nuts, because of his reputation and who he was. But every time I heard that reaction from people, it was like a punch in the stomach. The feeling returned when I heard about the 215 unmarked graves. And my feelings are a grain of sand on the beach compared to what FN people feel, every day.
One might wonder what this has to do with the BOE Report’s focus on the energy industry, but, if there is any good news in this story at all, it is that FN involvement in resource extraction is growing rapidly. Decades of government programs have done little, and resource ownership/participation may do infinitely better. FNs may soon own pieces of major energy infrastructure, and that will be very good for everyone. FN participation in resource development may be one of the elusive paths that leads to true progress for FN people and communities. Much resource development takes place in regions that are the primary domain of FN people, and where most ‘city folk’ never tread.
In fact, FN participation in resource development may offer a positive pathway forward that decades of government programming have never come close to offering. It would be incredible indeed if Canada’s resource community was the vehicle by which true progress was made, and start making stories and memories that actually feel good, and do good.