First Nations Transparency Act may do more harm than good: Aboriginal people may find themselves with even less power to create change

This week the federal government’s legislation, The First Nations Financial Transparency Act (FNFTA), was made law.

Financial statements and salaries of First Nation council’s were posted on Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada’s website earlier this week. And those councils who refuse to participate will face a court order.

According to Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt, this is an effort to provide First Nations people with transparency and allow them to hold their elected leaders accountable. In other words, to empower them.

Given the early reactions to the publication of this data, I don’t share the assessment. So what can we expect?

First, we can expect the media to find a handful of chief and councils that pay themselves unjustifiable salaries.

This reporting has already begun and at least one B.C. chief has found himself on national news broadcasts and other national media for consecutive days.

Of course, this information is important to know. But we can also expect the media to do little else. Few will cover the hundreds of chiefs and/or councils that make $10,000 a year. Few will examine the extreme AANDC underfunding this new data reveals.

Few will ask critical questions about the consequences of First Nations (which are often both governments and corporations) disclosing the details of business dealings with current and/or future negotiating partners.

Second, because of the likely superficial media reporting we can expect many to run with the popular “corrupt chief” narrative to shape their desired policy changes.

Many so-called experts on First Nations peoples in the media and politics will generalize to indict all leaders as taxpayer leeches (though the language will be more delicate).

Certainly we’ll see organizations like The Canadian Taxpayers Federation, which spearheaded the legislation in the first place, use the generalization to call for the erosion of treaties, end of “special” Indian status, privatization of reserves, etc. While taxpayer activism is certainly common, it seems to provoke a special kind of fury when involving Indigenous Peoples.

Third, we can probably expect many Canadians to harden their perspectives on First Nations peoples.

With the media likely focusing on the corrupt-chiefs problem and the so-called experts proposing assimilatory solutions, that will be confirmation for many that the Indian problem is the Indian’s own fault.

And since the challenges indigenous people face will be perceived as a self-inflicted suffering, many Canadians will feel absolved of any responsibility to First Nations, and will instead feel permitted to castjudgement and simply wait for civilization to reach the natives.

In short, the transparency act will be an effective tool to solidify apathy and disengagement with indigenous perspectives and ideas.

Fourth, we can probably also expect the federal government to double-down on the unilateral “aboriginal” policy that has been ongoing for some time.

This includes stripping communities of power in areas of social policy, extinguishing rights and title, reducing program resources, and generally trying to transform communities into municipalities under provincial jurisdiction.

With the First Nation leadership being stripped of legitimacy, and Canadians oscillating between aloof and angry, much of the opposition to this increasingly transformative trend will be neutralized. The FNFTA may actually grant AANDC greater licence to intervene in the lives of indigenous peoples.

Finally, we can expect First Nations people to use this data to continue to hold their leadership accountable.

The reality is that most communities already have access to this information (and much more) and generally they do not skirt or ignore issues of bad governance.

From the broad Idle No More movement to specific cases like the ongoing Wahta Community Fire in central Ontario (where a Kanien’kehá:ka community shut down its administrative building because the band council wasn’t following transparency rules), the formal and more provocative examples of communities holding leaders accountable and pushing for new (or very old) governance models independent of the Indian Act are numerous.

All of this is not an argument against the legislation itself or an endorsement of the status quo.

Aside from the obvious absurdity of Canada continuing to dictate to and administer First Nation communities, the content of the legislation is relatively benign. But the consequences may be significant.

In an era where reconciliation seems more to mean confrontation and our public discourse is often shallow, every new policy, law, court decision, protest and blockade is a struggle to shape the narrative.

Despite what Bernard Valcourt claims about the FNFTA, First Nations may find themselves with even less power to create change.


Land ruling’s message to First Nations: You have no place in Confederation

The Numbered Treaties have always been contentious. First Nations view them as sharing agreements, while the federal and provincial governments as land surrenders. Amid a general refusal to earnestly discuss this gulf, the disputes end up in the courts, where there is an increasing perception of a First Nation winning streak. The Supreme Court’s Tsilqot’in decision certainly reinforced that view. But if Tsilqot’in is a “game-changer” in the relationship between provinces, industry and First Nations in non-treaty areas, last week’s Grassy Narrows decision on areas where treaties do exist affirms that the rules are still effectively the same.

There are two features of the decision that underwrite this belief. First, the court has recognized provincial government power to violate treaties. In Grassy Narrows v. Ontario, the Supreme Court suggested that since the province has jurisdiction over lands and resources, “owning the land” as the court said, they should have ultimate authority. So while First Nations have traditionally understood treaties as nation-to-nation and viewed the provinces as junior partners in the relationship, the Supreme Court sees that arrangement inverted and treaty First Nations as subordinate.

The only check in the exercise of provincial power in treaty territory is “the burden” of obligations owed to First Nation. These are three: consultation on potential treaty infringements; accommodation in the case of adverse consequences arising from infringement; and a fiduciary duty, which is the courts way of saying the province should minimize harm to First Nations. In this ruling the court does not comment on Ontario’s record and relies on a past decision to guide the province in alleviating its burden. The result is effectively the status quo ante, which has bordered on apocalyptic.

Known as Asubpeechoseewagong to the Anishinaabe, the community has dealt with residential school and Indian Act trauma typical among Indigenous peoples in Canada. But they have also had their territory flooded by hydro-electric dams, been forced to re-locate their community, been nearly poisoned out of existence by mercury contamination from a pulp and paper mill, and now watch as the source of their food, medicine and a viable economy is hauled away in logging trucks. Instead of addressing this made-in-Ontario tragedy, the province has continued to view its right to issue timber licenses as greater than the Anishinaabeg right to feed themselves.

The additional problematic feature of the Supreme Court’s decision is the shockingly one-sided understanding of history. In a very terse ruling there are two glaring omissions. In its understanding of Treaty #3, the court decided to rely on the text version as well as subsequent federal and provincial legislation. It neglected to consider the perspectives of the Anishinaabeg, including the oral version or the Paypom treaty (Grassy Narrow’s record of Treaty #3). Given the voluminous academic literature on the misleading nature of the written English versions of the Numbered Treaties, evacuating the understanding of the Anishinaabeg from interpretations of the treaty is simply unfair.

Unfortunately this is a theme in the decision. Reflecting on the history of land use in Ontario the court claimed that, “Ontario has exercised the power to take up lands for a period of over 100 years without any objection by the Ojibway.” Yet the history of the relationship between Ontario and the Anishinaabeg (as well as most other First Nations in the province) has been a history of conflict. Physical confrontation, court cases and protests are all endemic features of provincial land and resource management. The long list of Anishinaabe people jailed in Ontario because of these conflicts land is crystal clear evidence of their objections.

So while the case does implore provinces to consult, accommodate and honour treaties, the decision has a dark undertone: First Nations have no place in Confederation. If the province can infringe on the very treaties that led to its creation and which underwrite the existence of the country, there leaves little room for the so-called third order of government that many believe should be embodied by First Nations. Moreover, the courts have embraced a view of history where First Nations simply do not exist except as objects, or rather, burdens who must be managed by one level of government or another.

It is a disappointing decision with a number of implications. For provinces governed by the Numbered Treaties, the ruling means business as usual: consult, infringe, accommodate. For First Nations generally and especially those who do not have a treaty, the Grassy Narrows decision reinforces the Supreme Court’s unstated position in Tsilhqot’in that there is more power to be leveraged where treaties do not exist. In the eyes of the Court, treaties and the accompanying extinguishment of title are a dead-end for First Nations. Finally, for Grassy Narrows, it means that their very long pursuit of justice goes on.

Closing the gap between Canada and Kanata: In thinking about what our country could become, we must be honest about our histories and include the perspectives of the 50-odd First Nations

Celebrating Canada’s birthday has always seemed kind of silly.

I say this as a citizen of the Anishinaabeg, a people who have existed for many centuries. So 147 years seems . . . quaint.

Of course, this probably wouldn’t be the case if we were celebrating Canada’s more authentic birthdate, Aug. 1, 1764. On this day the English and twenty-four Indigenous nations concluded negotiations at Niagara to extend The Silver Covenant Chain with the 24-Nations Belt, or simply, the Treaty of Niagara. The treaty permitted the sharing of the land across the eastern continent and mutual recognition of autonomy among distinct people rooted in peace, friendship and respect. Without it there would be no Canada, neither in ideational nor material terms.

But too often this history is overlooked or relegated as an Indigenous narrative. It is outside popular mythology and so a good example of the gulf between Canada and Kanata. We often talk of two solitudes in reference to anglophones and francophones, but the term is most apt in the context of the disparate understandings of history among Indigenous peoples and Canadians. Whether it is the founding of Quebec City, the character of John A. Macdonald, political changes in postwar Canada, the dissolution of constitutional talks in the late 20th century, or any treaty ever created here (even the new ones), we understand our shared past and our contemporary reality in divergent ways. Indeed, too often Canadian mythology is actually a damaging misrepresentation. It is an understatement to say a truly “national” narrative remains elusive.

So thinking about what Canada could become (or, “what is in us to be?”) I think about understanding. Not the same old discourse of peaceful acquisition, armchair policy expertise, or a Norval Morrisseau on the wall, but substantive understanding among Canadians of Anishinaabeg, Haudenosaunee and Mushkegowuk perspectives (as well as the other 50-odd nations).

Every kid in school can learn the 13 provinces/territories and also the few dozen original jurisdictions.

Indigenous languages can have official status, but more importantly, be seen and heard on the land and in cities, known by everyone. We can be honest about the birth, life and times of Canada. If all of this is in us to be, we might have something to celebrate.

The Anishinaabemowin version

An approximate Anishinaabemowin version (Gchi’mnissing dialect), translation by Jeff Monague of Beausoleil First Nation:

Goopjinaagwat gwa gchi nendmong dbishkaamgak iw sa ki Canada noongo ezhinkaadek. Mewzha aazhgwa Anishinaabek maa gii awak. Shki awan shwiingo eta Canada. Wishme shwingo nendidsa sabboondgizat Canada. Anishinaabek miinwaa Canada, debwetaadiwinan gii zhibiigemin mewzha. Mii gwa iw nake Canada gaa zhichkaadek. Mii dash iw aadsokaanaamnaan. Gkina weya gwa gda dbendaan. Gkina gwa weya naasaap wdaa awak.

Aabdek gwa gdaa debwewak Canada wgaa kidawaak Anishinaabek. Debwewin eta maa te biinjaying niw Aadzookaanong. Naasaap gwa daa kendaamin. Mnabmaadziwin ge ga kendaamin. Nga kendaamin dash ezhi piitendaagok iw sa enaweying. Giizhpan maanda zhichkeying, mii iw pii wii waawiinjgaademgak iw sa ki Canada noongwa ezhinkaadek.



After Atleo, does the Assembly of First Nations serve any purpose?

The resignation on Friday of Shawn A-in-chut Atleo as Assembly of First Nations national chief marks a shift in indigenous politics in Canada. It is the manifestation of whatever Idle No More has become and a growing and sustained assertiveness – in a long history of resistance – of Dene, Lakota and Mi’qmaq peoples, among others. While some will lament this reality and raise concerns about the vacuum left in the wake of Mr. Atleo’s resignation, there are also reasons to greet the development with something akin to subdued hope for fundamental change.

First, the resignation seriously limits any moral authority the federal government might have assumed to push through the much-loathed Bill C-33: The First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act. With the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs’ aggressive posturing (essentially calling those who oppose the bill terrorists) paired with dissent from First Nations leaders representing a majority of on-reserve communities and debate from opposition parties, Mr. Atleo was the only remaining source of legitimacy.

When Bernard Valcourt called on the critics to “follow Shawn Atleo’s lead” he put the former leader in an unsustainable position with few choices given the proliferating awareness of the problematic features of the bill. Since there has already been revisions from the original First Nation Education Act, it will likely become law. But it seems clear that the unilateralism and paternalism characterizing the legislation – and federal Indian policy generally – will no longer be accepted.

Second, those who claim Idle No More quietly disappeared haven’t been paying attention. More than challenging Canadians, the movement was also about forcing First Nation leadership to answer to communities. And ever since the Jan. 11, 2013 meeting in Ottawa between Mr. Atleo and the Prime Minster – as protesters surrounded the building – the now-former national chief was considered by many in the Idle No More movement to be a sell-out. Scrutiny and criticism has been sustained over the past year and his resignation was the inevitable conclusion a perceived betrayal.

The fact that Mr. Atleo is the first national chief to resign from the AFN in the organization’s history reflects the growing power of community members. Credit to him is owed for responding. And while the politics of whatever Idle No More has become are divisive, as all politics among all people necessarily are, it does seem clear that the type being practiced independent of institutional arrangements is increasingly effective. Any organization claiming to represent indigenous peoples should expect skepticism, and more importantly, to be held accountable.

Third, and related, the AFN will be forced to reflect on its purpose. Following Mr. Atleo’s departure, the organization’s executive will take over until the broader chiefs-in-assembly decide what to do. They will likely appoint an interim leader this week, schedule an election and possibly re-instate the senate-like Confederacy of Nations to provide oversight of the executive. Amid all of this chiefs will re-visit the neglected campaign to renew the AFN. It will be the fifth attempt to have the discussion in the organization’s 30-year existence.

Past recommendations have remained static. There was the suggestion to allow individuals to vote in AFN elections, as opposed to strictly chiefs. There has been the call to reject federal funds, which many feel allows undue influence on the organization. Finally, some want to disband the pan-First Nation AFN all together in favour of coalescing around national organizations (Anishinaabe, Mushkego, Kanien’kehá:ka, etc), which would provide more genuine representation. Whichever direction potential renewal takes, unless there is serious movement, the AFN will continue its slide into irrelevance.

Underscoring all of this is the nature of band governance. Each of these recommendations requires the will of constituent chiefs. There is little indication they are committed, either struggling to create change in their own under-resourced and over-stretched local governments, or in contrast, accepting and protecting the limited power delegated by the Indian Act. But people are recognizing the need more authentic governance models and more legitimate leaders. Chiefs and councils, treaty and regional organizations would be wise to absorb the lessons of Mr. Atleo’s resignation.

Many will see these developments as the triumph of confrontation over conciliation. They won’t be wrong. But it is offensive to excuse the sentiment as belonging to “angry Indians” as if deference should be the common sense posture in the face of a continuing history of conflict. Instead, from the Idle No More movement through to the decline and perhaps disappearance of the AFN, and the ongoing imposition of paternalistic legislation, there is a refusal to accept this situation at all levels. The new politics of refusal will seek nothing less than wholesale transformation.


Why is Ottawa consigning First Nations to inferior education?

It has been one year since the emergence of Idle No More, the most recent articulation of the oldest activism in North America, and very little has changed. The relationship between indigenous peoples and the federal government is worse today than it was in December, 2012, a time when leaders starved themselves for some of the things Canadians take for granted. And the apathy of those Canadians is still profound, unmoved by tens of thousands of protesters in streets and malls. An example of this dysfunctional relationship is manifest in First Nations education policy.

On the first anniversary of the so-called “Round Dance Revolution,” Anishinaabe and Cayuga peoples, among others, were once again on the steps of Parliament. This time frustrated and angry with the federal government’s proposed First Nations Education Act (FNEA), legislation that would amend the Indian Act’s sections on community education, encouraging the creation of regional First Nations school boards and potentially transferring control of education to provincial jurisdictions. The crux of the debate is about power.

According to government literature, the proposed act allows “First Nation control over First Nation education” and “respects treaty rights” and “provides the opportunity to structure the schools in a way that respects community and cultural concerns” – all wonderful prescriptions … if they were actually in the proposed act. Instead, the legislation liquidates the limited control over primary education communities do have and re-installs the minister of Aboriginal Affairs as school superintendent.

With the proposed act, the minister: decides if schools are meeting imposed standards; can take over administration of schools that aren’t (leading to the inevitable rise of the third-party education manager); determines qualifications for school staff and administrators; approves budgets; and, finally, transports us back to 1846 by setting student disciplinary policy. A man oblivious to irony, the Minster of Aboriginal Affairs, Bernard Valcourt, has called this proposal both “transformational” and “revolutionary.”

But Mr. Valcourt’s most oft-quoted talking point during the rollout of the proposed act has been: “I don’t believe in throwing federal funds at the problem.” This is a virtual guarantee that the chronic underfunding of community education will persist, ensuring the proposed act’s attainment standards won’t be met. First Nations teachers and “problem”-students will be set up for failure.

The philosophy and content of the proposed act is the first issue. The other is the aforementioned persistent apathy of Canadians. With a few exceptions, the public response to FNEA has been positive and the minister’s talking points about resources repeated. The Globe and Mail’s editorial boardendorsed the FNEA repeating, “the solution is not to just throw more money at the problem” and earlier this week another Globe article said National Chief Shawn Atleo faced the choice of supporting the act or risking “consigning another generation of First Nations children to an inadequate education.”

The implications of these sentiments are twofold. First, Dakota and Innu peoples are not worth it. If Canadian schoolchildren in any region of the country didn’t have clean water to drink at school the unequivocal solution would be to fix the problem – with money. Not so for native kids. Second, First Nations’ opinions on the act don’t really matter. In other words, even unanimous opposition to the proposed act from actual indigenous people cannot compel reconsidering.

Where does that leave us? I recently heard Jessica Danforth, executive director of the Native Youth Sexual Health Network, talk about the responsibilities that we as indigenous peoples have for ensuring that the rights of children are maintained. She made it clear that there isn’t a program or service offered by the federal government that can restore that responsibility. We are the program, she said. It reminded me of the National Indian Brotherhood’s 1972 “Indian Control of Indian Education,” a policy that placed obligations on children and parents for their own education.

All of this is obvious. But it is an important reminder for indigenous peoples in a Canada that is flooded with forms of racism and paternalism that quality education won’t be achieved through appeals to Canadian governments (whatever the treaty right). Merely cost-effective, “reform” further distances First Nations’ control of education from First Nations peoples. Consider that in opposition to FNEA, leaders are forced to defend the current system, which we know isn’t effective either. Are the only options bad or worse?

Instead, the escape from this inertia might require communities to disengage with the system altogether. This would require more will than currently exists from community leadership, a steep commitment from educators and administrators, and even more sacrifice from students. But it might allow communities to be pro-active, to teach and learn in Anishinaabemowin or Kanien’kéha, to cultivate land-based education, and to actually live autonomously. Perhaps this is the type of activism we should be considering.

When the UN probes Canada’s First Nations tragedy, don’t expect results

After months of failed attempts seeking permission to enter Canada and investigate the relationship between Indigenous peoples and Canadians, James Anaya, Special Rapporteur to the United Nations on Indigenous peoples, has arrived. He was greeted earlier this week by more than 50 protests, rallies and round dances across the country (under the banner of Idle No More), most proclaiming treaty rights or rights to land and resources.

As he travels the country over the next week, Mr. Anaya will hear a lot about violations of these rights in Canadian law but also international law, specifically the United Nation’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). It’s unclear if any of it will matter.

There is no doubt that the 500-year long struggle for indigenous rights in international law has been hard-fought. Foundational laws like The Doctrine of Discovery and concepts of Terra Nullius declared indigenous peoples non-human and permitted the “legal” theft of entire continents. It wasn’t until 1957, with the United Nation’s Indigenous and Tribal Populations Convention, that indigenous peoples were able to challenge their imposed inferiority. Since then, negotiations with states on the scope and nature of indigenous rights has produced a number of legal instruments, most importantly, the aforementioned Declaration in 2007.

As the preamble states, the Declaration represents a “standard of achievement to be pursued in a spirit of partnership and mutual respect” between states and indigenous peoples. Over forty-six articles, the document espouses rights to define membership and identity, rights to have previous poor treatment redressed and the right to revitalize their traditions and cultures. Rights to participate in both domestic governments that make decisions that affect indigenous peoples and their own governance systems, the right to self-determination. Of course, there is also the right to free, prior and informed consent on all legislation or development plans affecting indigenous peoples.

Yet there are also problems with Declaration. The most significant is the last Article, included in eleventh-hour negotiations as a bone for states. Article 46 states that “Nothing in this Declaration may be interpreted as…encouraging any action, which would dismember or impair, totally or in part, the territorial integrity or political unity of sovereign and independent States.” Unfortunately “territorial integrity” and “political unity” can be interpreted unilaterally by those states. When Australian officials endorsed the UNDRIP they noted, “our concerns with free, prior and informed consent will be interpreted in accordance with Article 46.” This is effectively a backdoor out of the Declaration.

Moreover, the UNDRIP requires only voluntary implementation by states, which ultimately reduces the relationship to status quo ante – indigenous peoples struggling to convince Canada to recognize rights. In this sense, the tools of international law fall within the scope of what Glen Coulthard calls “the politics of recognition,” a form of negotiation that entrenches and reinforces state authority over indigenous peoples by requiring the latter seek validation and permitting the former to offer modification of any potential rights. When confronted with a country adverse to indigenous rights, this is a big problem.

Canada is indeed adverse. Despite the malleability of the Declaration, officials from this country first lobbied hard against it (leading the United States, New Zealand and Australia along). Then, when finding itself the very last hold-out to endorsement, eventually acquiescing but with stipulations: former minister John Duncan emphasized the Declaration as “aspirational” and “non-binding” and that the Articles were already “consistent with this government’s approach”. When Mr. Anaya was invited by the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs to investigate violations of the Declaration in Canada, the government refused to respond to his requests for eight months.

So, will any of Mr. Anaya’s work in Canada actually lead to change? Given that the deference the Declaration offers states doesn’t go far enough for Canada or that minimum standards of internationally protected rights beyond those established in domestic law (and then barely those) have yet to even be considered, it is difficult to imagine how Mr. Anaya might help. Certainly communities will express frustration and demonstrate unfairness. Mr. Anaya will then write a report to be used by educators and activists to shame Canada. But they’ll be dealing with a government impervious to shame (consider the unchanged legislative agenda post-Idle No More).

Thomas Berger called the treatment of indigenous peoples under international law a “long and terrible shadow.” When that shadow started to recede with the endorsement of the Declaration, Cree legal scholar Sharon Venne proclaimed indigenous peoples were finally “subjects as opposed to objects” of international law. I agree with both sentiments. But International law or Special Rapporteurs have yet to stop the alienation of indigenous peoples from the land and the resulting socio-economic challenges in Canada. Until there is a government willing to seriously consider the Declaration, to embrace “the spirit of partnership and mutual respect” those tools will continue to fail.



Critical Review of Joseph Boyden’s “The Orenda”: A Timeless, Classic Colonial Alibi

I wanted to like Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda. I’ve been a fan of Boyden’s work. Three Day Road, Born With a Tooth and Through Black Spruce all had compelling themes of redemption amid loss. Moreover, the advanced reviews proclaimed The Orenda a masterpiece, Quill & Quire calling the book a “magnificent literary beast”. So I was eager to read and happy to get an advanced copy from the publisher. Within the first few of the nearly 500 pages, it was clear why it was receiving the glowing reviews. But it was also clear I wouldn’t like the book. The Orenda is a comforting narrative for Canadians about the emergence of Canada: Indian savages, do-good Jesuits and the inevitability (even desirability) of colonization. The themes that push this narrative are a portrayal of Haudenosaunee peoples as antagonistic, the privileging of the Jesuit perspective, and a reinforcing of old story-telling tropes about Indigenous people. These themes work together to convey the message that the disappearance of the Huron and the loss of their orenda was destined happen.

The book takes place in Wendaki, or contemporary central Ontario (in fact the community that I come from, Gchi’mnissing in southern Georgian Bay, plays an important role as a haunted safe haven). It covers the last years of the Huron Confederacy, after they’ve formed a trade relationship with the French and on the eve of their dispersal by the Iroquois in a period sometime between 1640 and 1650. To tell a fictionalized account of this story and provide space for each representative group Boyden uses a useful narrative device, shifting the perspective between three characters: Bird, a Huron warrior and leader, Snow Falls, a young Haudenosaunee girl adopted by the Huron, and finally and Christophe the Crow, a Jesuit missionary who comes to live among Bird and Snow Falls and based on Jean de Brebeuf (if readers don’t know the history of Brebeuf, this review includes what might be considered spoilers).

While less complex, the multi-narrative technique is reminiscent of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. It works for The Orenda especially well because it neatly divides the three central perspectives, often re-telling the same episode from each point of view. The device is also used, I think, to attempt to provide balance to the story and equal space to each of the three groups involved in French colonization. Indeed, in his review of The Orenda the Montreal Gazette’s literary critic Ian McGillis praises Boyden for his fairness and “refus(ing) to draw easy lines between good and bad” and if there are “nominal villains” they are the Jesuits. Boyden himself has said a goal in writing the book was to recount an accurate history without casting blame or making it about “white hats and black hats.”

But almost immediately black hats do emerge. It turns out that the Haudenosaunee are not represented well at all. The girl Snow Falls soon becomes Wendat and the only other Iroquois character of note is Tekakwitia, leader of the army that eventually destroys the Huron and tortures to death Christophe the Crow (and he appears only in the final chapters). In addition, the plot driving the story from the first pages is the threat posed by the relentless and terrifying Haudenosaunee. Bird, Christophe and many of the minor characters spend most of their time worrying and preparing for the inevitable attack, sometimes out-maneuvering the Iroquois, but always living in fear. So readers learn very little except that they’re a menace, lurking in the dark forest, waiting to torture or cannibalize. In light of this limited (or skewed) portrayal it’s hard not to see the Iroquois as “nominal villains”.

Early in the book, the Jesuits don’t fare well either. Christophe is portrayed as bumbling and ominous. Yet he ends up doing the bulk of the storytelling and has to be considered the central character of The Orenda. He is the anxious and pious Jesuit who arrives among the Huron in a time of war, hopelessly inept until finding his footing (or in this case his voice, the language of the Wendat), and finally earning conversions, becoming an authority among the Huron, and eventually dying a martyr. His perseverance, dedication and selflessness in the wilderness seem familiar. It actually reminded me of Atwood’s take on the nature of Canadian literature generally. She writes,

“The central symbol for Canada — and this is based on numerous instances of its occurrence in both English and French Canadian literature – is undoubtedly Survival, la Survivance…it is a multi-faceted and adaptable idea. For early explorers and settlers, it meant bare survival in the face of “hostile” elements and/or natives…”

Atwood even cites literature about Brebeuf as an example or Canadian survivance. So The Orenda reinforces who and what Canadians believe they are. Christophe the Crow tells a story they know and can identify with. It’s through his eyes they see and interpret the New World. He becomes the protagonist, the doomed hero that reinforces colonial myths of savagery on the one hand, and salvation, on the other – “survival in the face of hostile Natives.”

Hostile is an understatement. The vivid descriptions of torture are excessive. I haven’t read a book as violent since McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. Interestingly that was also a story about colonization, the violence reflecting a lawless, incomplete social order but also a comment on the universality of violence among humans. This is a contrast to The Orenda, where violence and torture is both the exclusive domain of the Indians and endemic in their societies since time immemorial. The inevitable conclusion is that Indians were really just very violent. It’s not a surprising conclusion considering that Boyden seems to rely heavily on travelogues (journals of Jesuits) for his historical information. This despite the obvious bias stemming from the interest Jesuits had in perpetuating tales of savagery among the Indians – it justified their own existence, after all. So problematic are these accounts of sadism, they’ve long been excused by critical thinkers, many academics, and Indigenous peoples themselves. The Haudenosaunee have insisted that some of the practices depicted in the book ended hundreds of years earlier.

There are other tropes throughout. There is mystical Indian, reflected in a “magical” Anishinaabe sorceress and to a lesser extent Snow Falls. Both can (or have the potential) to see the future and heal in inexplicable ways. There is also the child-like Indian, Hurons who are awe-struck anytime the French introduce something foreign: a crystal chalice, muskets, a clock. Finally there is the noble Indian, reflected in Christophe’s frequent caveat in his musings on their heathenism (i.e. these Indians are child-like savages but, oh Lord, they are as beautiful and stoic as the most impressive Greek statues). All of this is not to say the characters are one-dimensional. They aren’t. Snow Falls, Bird and others are complex, coming from a community with well developed culture, economy, spirituality, relationships, and so on. Yet their component traits resemble outdated narratives of Native people, which have been used in the past to justify civilizing policies.

The consequences of these themes – the marginalization of the perspective of the Haudenosaunee, the centering of the Jesuit point of view and the cultivation of old tropes, specifically the savage Indian – amount to a tale about the inevitability of colonization. The vanishing Indian was ordained (even desirable) because of his/her character. Indeed the un-named Sky People who open each section of the book observe the carnage below and conclude the grim history was pre-determined partly because of the selfishness, arrogance and short-sightedness of the Huron. Even Christophe’s torturer, Tekakwitia, will be converted: soon after the events of the book take place Kateri Tekakwitia is born, living a Christian life and eventually becoming a Catholic saint. It’s a grim reality and a difficult book to read. At least it will be for many Native peoples. For Canadians, The Oreda is a colonial scribe and moral alibi.

Top Ten Warning Signs of Liberal Imperialism (settler-colonialist edition)

In the Idle No More era, allies are increasingly abundant. This is really a great thing. And its also heartening to see so many Canadians educating themselves about Indigenous peoples and the broken relationship with Canada. Unfortunately, many eventually fall into the Liberal Imperialist way of thinking (if they aren’t already firmly rooted there). These Liberals have a desire to help but that desire rarely transcends the superficial. When it does it often revolves around ‘solutions’ that only reinforce the problems of settler colonialism. These top ten warning signs potentially counter the lure of Liberal Imperialism…before its too late:

1. Despite only recently learning about the extent of Indian problem from Strombo and the CBC, you and your friends want to help and are convinced you can create new and lasting solutions over iced coffee at Starbucks.

2. You feel that governments generally know best. While there have been some mistakes along the (mostly noble) colonial adventure, if the federal government says its new program will work, why not give it a whirl?

3. The human rights abuses you see in other countries are absolutely abhorrent and require immediate remedy. Except if those abuses are against Aboriginals, then long-term processes of land and political reform need time to take effect.

4. You feel that having separate laws for different groups of people in our society will only result in discrimination. So we must end legislation like the Indian Act in Canada. And about those treaties and constitutional obligations…

5. You believe that we should all do our part to help. Maybe even visit an Aboriginal community and volunteer or something…but not you specifically…or your children. Indian reservations are dangerous places that should probably be shut down.

6. While money can provide critical infrastructure (clean water, sanitation, electricity, health care services, etc.), you feel that throwing more money at the problem is not a solution. What we provide/give/administer/allow should be more than enough.

7. It is frustrating for you to see the Aborigines disagree so much. Organizations like the Assembly of First Nations have so much promise. You wonder if the current leadership is too radical?

8. You feel that we should definitely give Aboriginals self-determination. After all, you can’t institute private property rules, free-market economies, and transparent band elections without it.

9. Real change will come when Native peoples vote in elections. There are many credible and legitimate political parties that might allow an Aboriginal voice. You think each party could have one or maybe even two.

10. You recognize that Native people care about the land and water. They would make really good conservation officers and land surveyors.

Inspired by Foreign Policy’s “Top Ten Warning Signs of Liberal Imperialism” by Walt

The utility of debate to Idle No More is beyond dispute

“We are stronger together”
– Shawn Atleo

“[Many] remain silent in keeping with
older non-confrontational
of the Ojibwe”
– Anton Trueur

“You want to talk about god and hippies 
and not do a god-damned thing”
– Saul Alinsky

Recently, the University of Victoria hosted a panel discussion on how the Idle No More movement could potentially serve as the foundation for an Indigenous Nationhood Movement. And while it was an interesting discussion with dynamic speakers, I found what stuck with me the most afterward was what was going on “off-camera.”

As many of these sorts of discussions are these days, this forum was live-streamed. To the immediate right of the video, there was a window where viewers could simultaneously chat in real-time. And, for a brief moment, that conversation addressed the utility of debate among those in the Idle No More movement. More specifically, it was suggested that we shouldn’t criticize our leaders or each other, that it’s disrespectful. I’m not sure how fully the point was addressed then but, to me, it’s worth exploring more in depth now, especially at this moment of transition (or transformation) for the movement.

This concern over critiques seems to have emerged with growing anger directed at the Assembly of First Nations and National Chief Shawn Atleo for their perceived failure to effectively push-back against federal policy. Many have also criticized Chiefs and band councils generally, so much so that Chief Isadore Day of Serpent River began tweeting multiple times a day using the hash-tag #DividedNoMore (indeed a very good blog of the same name later emerged). And Atleo and his supporters echoed the calls for unity. The argument was that we’re all in this together and should direct our energies towards Canada, not each other.

I thought then, and continue to think, that this anti-critique perspective is misguided. Indeed, I’ve written about the impossibility of unity among nations and the problematic nature of the AFN (and band council chiefs generally), so it’s no surprise that I feel we need to re-think (even replace) our institutions in order to do a better job at holding our leaders accountable. That means public debate and public criticism, and not just of the AFN or chiefs and councils.

That disagreement exists at all, or that perspectives on goals and strategies vary, is a reality that requires exploration and inevitably leads to much needed debate and critique. Some of that work is already underway in the academic community. As Taiaiake Alfred and Jeff Corntassel write in Being Indigenous: Contemporary Resurgences Against Colonialism,” there are “Aboriginal” and “Indigenous” people. The former pursue a legal relationship with Canada and couch their demands within the political and economic discourses of the state (since those legal, political and economic discourses are unlikely to change). The latter, Indigenous peoples are rooted in the land, bound together by spirituality and united in struggle against colonial psychosis. They act on the basis of rights and responsibilities that derive from sources independent of (and pre-existent to) Canadian institutions.

More recently, Scott Richard Lyons addresses the same issue in his book, “X-Marks: Native Signatures of Assent,” although he distinguishes between Indigenous political groups as being either “traditionalists” or “modernists.” According to Lyons, conservatives aspire to decolonization via a “new society,” one rooted in real or imagined Native nations, while progressives reject this pure or essentialist view, and instead seek to navigate Canadian and American societies in hopes of finding a place that accommodates the unique nature of contemporary Indigenous identities.

Without reducing the discussion to such terms, it is nonetheless important for us to acknowledge that there are significant political differences in Native politics (and within the Idle No More movement as well) with correspondingly divergent strategies for action. Where do we fall on questions about: whether to vote in Canadian elections; physical reclamation of land; patriarchy in our ceremonies; blockading road and rail lines; the role of allies; the importance of the Indian Act; resource development, and on and on and on?

While these discussions go on within academic circles, they have not yet seemed to penetrate the Idle No More movement to any significant degree. This may be partly due to an unwillingness to critique or confront each other. Indeed, these debates can be difficult when we say things like economic development means ‘selling out,’ or that people who vote are ‘assimilated,’ or that the notion of an Indigenous nation is a ‘fairytale.’ These are heavy issues, after all, and there can be a tendency to be… unpleasant (though hopefully still respectful and constructive).

So non-confrontation or abandoning the discussion when it gets too heated is the easier path to take, one many in fact take by citing the need for unity (and maybe the fear of hurt feelings as well). But the hard truth is that refraining from attempts to address and answer difficult questions in the quest to find solutions to challenging problems effectively endorses stasis.

An even harder truth is that promoting and pursuing such artificial notions of unity and its corresponding implication of muted debate will ultimately mean the death of the movement.

Are White People Evil? Reflections on Colour and Coalitions

A version of this essay was published in KANATA (Issue #2) in 2009.


After some administrative notes, we begin the class in earnest. On this particular day the subject is self-government, autonomy, revitalization, etc., as it is most days in this second year Indigenous Studies course on sovereignty. We open with a broad discussion question: “given what you’ve learned so far, what is the source of most of the challenges faced by Indigenous peoples today?” An always-eager student in the back of the room thrusts up a hand and answers loudly, “White people!”

As it comes from her mouth, half of the students look down and stare at their blank notepads. These are mostly the “White” students in class. The other half, the Cayuga, Mohawk and Anishnaabe students laugh awkwardly with equal parts unease and perhaps satisfaction. And while some of the White students agree with the sentiment, too, there is something inappropriate about the comment.

After class I spoke privately to the offending student and asserted that we’ve got to be respectful of each other, Native students and otherwise. After all, everyone is here because they want to be, learning, getting an education, maybe even “unsettling” themselves. But from the student there was only defiance. A few days later I learned that our conversation was the subject of thirty-eight comments on Facebook (!). I was also discretely handed a copy of some prose from Leslie Marmon Silkoe’s “Ceremony” to prove a point:

The wind will blow them across the ocean,
thousands of them in giant boats swarming like larva
out of a crushed ant hill.
They will carry objects which can shoot death
faster than the eye can see.
They will kill the things they fear all the animals
the people will starve.
They will poison the water and they will spin the water away
and there will be drought and the people will starve (Silkoe, 1977, 16).

difficult to argue with the sentiment. So I thought about it and re-considered the challenges we face: land loss, poor health, limited access education, absurd housing, etc. Upon reflection it was pretty difficult to avoid tracing the roots of these problems to the arrival and expansion of Europeans into Indigenous territories. So I wondered if the student was right, after all: are White people evil? And if so, what kind of relationship should exist between us, if any? What about all our White friends and allies, what about Native – non-Native coalitions?


Much has been made of the relationship between Native and non-Native people throughout the more than two month-long Idle No More movement. Increasingly the story has been one of hostility: Canadians overwhelming news websites with hatred and vitrol directed at Native people, statistics that reveal low support for the movement, Twitter “trolls” provoking movement-supporters, and a cadre of old White (mostly) men writing in newspapers about “dream palaces”, unrealistic demands by Native leaders, accountability, corruption, and on, and on.

This discourse has spurred an “us vs. them” narrative in the Native community, many articulating a genuine and legitimate anger directed at the White society who presumes to tell Indigenous peoples what to do and how to do it because they know best. There is justifiable resentment of paternalism and ethnocentrism. Unfortunately “them” may not be a limited segment of society. The majority of Canadians are probably ignorant, racist or dismissive of Indigenous peoples’ desires and concerns.

Some of our most important leaders and scholars have considered this racism and the general relationship between Canadians (and Americans) and Indigenous peoples. They were largely dismissive of White people. Deskaheh said, “We would be happier, if left alone” (Akwesasne Notes, 2005, 27). Likewise, Vine Deloria Jr. asked White people to grant us a “leave-us-alone law” (Deloria 1988, 27). Harold Cardinal, in the “Red Paper”, took the discussion further and even explored questions of collaborations or potential allies. He wrote that white people “do not know what (they are) doing. (They) lack any clear understanding of the Indian(Their) efforts confuse the issues rather than contribute to happy resolutions” (Cardinal 1969, 76).

These were the polite sentiments. Since the time of Cardinal and Deloria (or even Deskaheh), the relationship between Indigenous and White peoples in Canada has not significantly improved. Look around: Canadian governments administer services that ensure only basic survival; the media perpetuates notions of faceless native terrorists or argues for assimilation; resource development, aided and abetted by Canadian law, continues to poison Indigenous peoples out of existence. All the while Canadians remain silent. Well, mostly.


Those who been to an Idle No More round dance or protest surely notice all the White people. Even before Idle No More, at rallies and demonstrations at Queens Park, Ryerson, OPP Headquarters, U of T, wherever; Valentine’s Day Marches, “No Olympics on Stolen Land” events, protests in support of Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug and Grassy Narrows, whatever; White people were often the majority in attendance (always an interesting sight at the KI and Grassy rallies were the Christian grandmothers, bonnets and all).

More provocative efforts also follow the trend. One of the most important causes for me over the past few years was the movement to stop Dump Site #41 in central Ontario, near the small towns of Elmvale and Midland and in close proximity to my family’s community of Gchimnissing. For years previous to last summer I watched the “Stop Dump Site #41” signs proliferate on lawns and highway fences. There was increasing concern and opposition to the County’s decision to construct a garbage dump on a particularly ecologically sensitive watershed.

So sensitive that a geo-chemist from the University of Heidelberg determined the water in the aquifer, which the dump would sit atop, was home to the planets purest! Or more precisely, the water “was comparable to the cleanest ancient Arctic ice” (The Globe and Mail, 2006). Incredulously, the County decided to move ahead anyway. But when they did, a group of Anishnaabe Kwe from Gchimnissing agreed that they had to fulfill their obligations as women, as protectors of the water, and stop the dump.

They formed a loose alliance with farmers whose land would be directly affected if the dump were it to leach into the aquifer. The Kwe were even permitted to set up a camp on a clover field directly across from the dump entrance. They stayed there for months. With the help of young men as Firekeepers, they built a lodge, they sang and drummed, they cooked, ate, chopped wood, held ceremonies, and every week hosted a Saturday afternoon potluck dinner.

The first potlucks I attended was as bewildering as the Toronto protests. Some brown faces, of course, but mostly local, White, farming families. Not just at the potluck: young White men took turns tending the fire and were invited to sit at the drum; middle-aged White women were arrested alongside middle-aged Native women. Together, for 137 days, they raised awareness, defended themselves in the media, stood in front of bull-dozers when necessary, and finally, they stopped the dump.


A few years before the drama at the dump I worked with the Ontario government as they attempted to convince conservation organizations, northerners, resource companies and the Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) to agree to a comprehensive land use planning strategy. The plan called for twenty years of cooperation between these groups to ensure that development, protected spaces and infrastructure projects would be undertaken responsibly. It was my job to sell the Initiative to NAN.

But every time we spoke, they consistently wanted to know why Ontario felt it could develop this long-term plan when the territory was their jurisdiction. They persistently wanted to know why provincial parks continued to be established, impeding their economies (traditional non- market and market). They routinely rejected forms of resource development that would be unduly exploitative. All of this I took back to Ontario, much to their frustration. Meanwhile my colleague responsible for engaging the conservation groups was reporting another story.

Those groups claimed they were in a coalition with NAN, and in fact, the latter supported the initiative. What was going on? It seemed that a loosely agreed upon ideal of protecting the land was mistaken for collaboration. When NAN was made aware of this (and more likely when they had enough of Ontario’s failure to address their primary concerns) they pulled out of the discussions, jeopardizing the initiative. Later one of the conservation group representatives urged pushing ahead regardless, asking my colleague, “ultimately, who cares about the First Nations?”

So when considering the example above or that of Kitchenuhmaykoosib and Christian Peacemaker’s or even the Dump Site #41 coalition between Anishnaabe women and farmers, it’s reasonable to believe that the latter in each case has their own motives: the farmers to protect their lands and real estate; the Christian Peacemakers to offer the Lord’s Charity; conservation organizations to conserve “wild” places. Fair enough, altruism is a tall order.

But at what point do their interests give way to ours, if at all? How sincere are our seemingly well-meaning White allies, and really, should they be our allies? When we press them on colonization and perhaps their role in perpetuating it, will they wilt? When the cultural romantics, arguably our most consistent allies, are pushed on our rights and reveal their liberal tendencies, will they wither? They often do. Perhaps racism among these minority White Canadians is no less poisonous than the type practiced by the majority.

I know you tolerate me,
But you do not value me.
I know you permit me to speak
But you do not listen to what I say
I know you put up with my
But you do not respect them.
I know you endure the history
lessons I give you
But you still can’t admire the
strength of those who struggled.
You may think it’s enough not to
call me names,
But it’s not (Heiss, 1998, 18).


Some of my best friends are White people. My colleagues and peers, people I respect and acknowledge as experts in their respective fields doing good work for Indigenous peoples, are generally not Cayuga or Anishnaabe. Maybe some are mixed-blood, half-Native, or maybe a quarter. Indeed, I’m mixed-blood, the product of a Pottowatomi/Ojibwe Father and English Mother.

All of this complicates things and pushes me to ask more critical questions; some that so far have been missing from this discussion. Who and what are White people, anyway? Is this tendency for bigotry exclusive to one color of people; what about those dismissive Black and Yellow people; or those Red and Brown peoples who advocate assimilation; what about all the disingenuous coalitions involving mix-blood peoples…or the genuine ones?

To be honest, I don’t really think White people exist. Or rather existed, until we created them. When that student from last semester gave me a copy of the prose from Silkoe’s, “Ceremony”, she missed the context and preface of the story. It was a story about how we, Cayuga, Mohawk and Anishnaabe peoples (or our ancestors), brought White people into existence:

“They want us to believe that all evil resides with white people. Then we will look no further to see what is really happening. They want us to separate ourselves from white people, to be ignorant and helpless as we watch our own destruction. But white people are only tools that witchery manipulates; and I can tell you, we can deal with white people, with their machines and beliefs. We can because we invented white people” (Silkoe 1977, 132).

What that student missed was that White people or ‘whiteness’ is just an idea. When the story is recounted, “they” is not a type of people or race (race doesn’t actually exist, after all) rather, “they” is our fear and our ignorance and our arrogance. Certainly, light-skinned people of European descent abound and live among us but they aren’t “White” any more than those Cayuga, Mohawk and Anishnaabe peoples are “Indians”. Both notions are inventions that come from the same place.

All of this is not by any means a colonial alibi. Rather, as Taiaiake Alfred notes, it’s an acknowledgment that “the enemy is not the white man, in racial terms, it is a certain way of thinking” (Alfred 2005, 102). While this ‘way of thinking’ in North America appears to be manifest disproportionately in European settlers, it’s not exclusive to them. For us, as Indigenous peoples, it’s our own disconnection from the land and from each other. And instead of recognizing the actual source of these problems, we contribute to it in debates about identity, status, authenticity, and in turn, our own eventual destruction.


So how does this discussion of the nature of color inform the possibilities for coalitions in Idle No More movement (or otherwise)? I think that it means, first, we have to recognize that the crux of the problem of potential coalitions is not White people, but rather, this ‘way of thinking’, represented by two kinds of people: those who express their fear, ignorance and arrogance openly like those old, White male pundits. And on the other hand, the more benign, oft allies; the people you need to scratch to see beneath the surface.

Next, I think we have to concede that coalitions with either perspective is ultimately defeating (though, of course, the former is unlikely at the outset). As Leah Whiu asks in her discussion of Maori-Pakeha feminist coalitions, “what affinity can we share with white women if they refuse to acknowledge and take responsibility for their colonialism” (Whiu in Mikaere 1994, 26)? Even if a particular coalition is successful at achieving its goal, if our allies go home without recognizing their responsibilities, the conditions that produce our struggles will remain and recycle.

Lastly, we can recognize that there is potential with those who can acknowledge that responsibility. While Cardinal wrote that non-Native peoples wanting to help often do more harm than good, he did provide an apt mantra: “get Brown or get lost” (Cardinal, 1969, 76). ‘Brown’ a metaphor for the following: listen to what we are saying, strive to understand our perspectives, critically reflect on your own assumptions about Indigenous peoples and let us determine our best interests. The rest should follow. Otherwise, maybe just leave us alone.


Thanks to Jess Bomberry for provoking/inspiring this piece.


Alfred, Taiaiake, “Wasase: Indigenous Pathways of Action and Freedom.” Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 2005.

Akwesasne Notes, “Basic Call to Consciousness.”

Cardinal, Harold, “The Unjust Society.” Toronto, ON: Douglas and MacIntyre, 1969.

Deloria, Vine, Jr., “Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto.” New York, NY: Macmillan, 1988.

Globe and Mail, “Earths cleanest water creates thorny issue; In Tiny Township, a precious resource faces threat from a proposed garbage dump.” December 16, 2006.

Heiss, Anita, “Token Koori.” Sydney, AUS: Curringa, 1998.

Silkoe, Leslie Marmon, “Ceremony.” New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1977.

Whiu, Leah, “Women, Law and Policy: Essay 2” (unpublished), 1994, in Mikaere, A., “Colonization and the Destruction of Gender Balance in Aotearoa”, Native Studies Review 12, no. 1 (1999).

We natives are deeply divided. There’s nothing wrong with that

I often find myself surrounded by Mohawks. I’ve worked in Six Nations territory for the balance of my career and many good friends are Haudenosaunee. In fact, despite being Anishinaabe I often find myself identifying with the two-row wampum or Great Law of Peace.

But there are also things I just don’t get about those Mohawks (and Cayugas, Oneidas, etc.). They like to claim Anishinaabe land despite overwhelming evidence that it’s ours; they make political appeals to peace, power and righteousness, us to truth, humility and love; and curiously, when they round dance, they do it in the opposite direction!

The point here is that while we share a lot of important traits, there is also much that differentiates us. This fact, or the fact that there are 60-odd unique indigenous nations in Canada (scattered across 600 communities) is lost on Canadian punditry, media and most of the public generally. Recent attempts to interpret Idle No More movement has resulted in conclusions of sudden divisions, fracturing and “chiefs losing control.” But the differences of opinion among people in the reality is that these cleavages have always existed and some are natural.

Outside of the national political and cultural differences, one of the most noticeable rifts within the Idle No More movement exists between those who see the band council as part of the problem and those who see it as a solution, a debate stretching back to the late-1800s. Many of the former group view band councils as representative of the Indian Act and a system that prevents any real power to affect change (largely due to restrictions in the Act and policy direction required by funding arrangements). Ultimately, it’s a system that forces bands to be accountable to the federal government, not community members.

Then there are supporters of the band council, who feel chiefs are best suited to lead the transition away from the Indian Act. This is a position taken by band councils that comprise the Anishinaabek Nation in Ontario or the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations. Indeed, these are often good people working towards the resurrection of more authentic governments or the restoration of treaty relationships, but through a less-than-perfect framework.

As for the aforementioned treaties, they are the source of yet another division: communities with a treaty versus those without. The latter are distinct from much of the movement and advocate a better process to create treaties or some mechanism to share the land in the absence of treaties (this latter perspective is a reflection of the growing disapproval of modern treaties). Both non-treaty perspectives advocate jurisdiction over unsurrendered lands.

Finally, there are those who have less connection to the band council, the Indian Act or a treaty. These are Métis and Inuit peoples, but also Dene, Salish and Maliseet peoples in cities and suburbs. Their concerns range from obtaining Aboriginal rights off the reserve, to the protection for ecosystems, an alleviation of poverty, a national inquiry on missing and murdered indigenous women, adequate access to education, and on, and on (joining them in the streets are non-Native Canadians expressing solidarity for some or all of the above).

The conclusion of this terse overview of the diverse interests within the movement illustrates that there cannot be a parsimonious message except that federal policies are failing Indigenous peoples. One of the primary reasons for that failure is the continued belief that we’re all the same, which is manifest in one size fits all policy prescriptions. This is a narrative that also leads to misconceptions about factionalism. But as my Mohawk friend and colleague Professor Rick Monture says, “its strange to call differences of opinion ‘factionalism’, we just call it democracy.” It’s an important point. While we all may dance to a similar beat, our footwork can take us in different directions. And there is nothing wrong with that.

Ghosts of Indigenous activism past, present, future: #IdleNoMore’s transformative potential

Earlier this week, from Goose Bay to Yellowknife, thousands of Nehiyaw, Dene, Metis peoples (joined by Canadians supportive of them) gathered in front of provincial legislatures, constituency and Aboriginal Affairs offices. They sang honour songs, danced jigs, and waved their flags and homemade protest signs out in the cold and the wind.

This hash-tag movement known to some as #IdleNoMore (#NativeWinter to others) is challenging manifold issues in the Indigenous-Canadian relationship. Among the more critical:

  • the move to strip environmental protections from most of this country’s waterways
  • a lack of consultation on amendments to the Indian Act
  • the chronic failure to maintain and uphold treaties
  • the continued refusal to acknowledge the rights of those still without treaties
  • repeated calls for a national inquiry on missing and murdered Aboriginal women

We’ve protested before; in fact, we do it often. At the very earliest origins of Canada as a country, Mississauga leaders (concerned by continued European encroachment) diplomatically expressed their frustration:

“You came as a wind blown across the Great Lake. We received you, we planted you, we nursed you. We protected you till you became a mighty tree that spread  throughout our Hunting Land. With its branches you now lash us.”

When diplomacy failed, protest gave way to active, physical resistance throughout the late 1800s by Metis and Cree peoples on the Plains, the Tsilhqot’in and others in B.C., and the aforementioned Anishinaabe in Ontario.

With incidents of violence followed by more heavy-handed government suppression, appeals were made directly to individual Canadians. In 1923, Cayuga leader Deskaheh would complain,

“We are tired of calling on the governments of pale-faced peoples in America and in Europe. We have tried that and found it was no use. They deal only in fine words — we want something more than that. We want justice from now on.”

The pan-Indian political organization The League of Indians was formed soon after, sharing some of the same goals as Deskaheh. The Canadian government responded by banning the League: in fact, the time would soon come when all such Indigenous organizing would be prohibited under the Indian Act.

Eventually, returning World War II vets and victims/survivors of residential schools did get organized. They forced changes to both the school system and the Indian Act throughout the 1950s in what was becoming the so-called ‘Red Power’ movement. Their efforts culminated in a powerful response to the White Paper in 1969-70. And yet it wasn’t enough to prevent ongoing dispossession. Once again, Indigenous forms of protest evolved into more provocative confrontations, at places like Gustafsen LakeOkaIpperwash and highways and rail lines during the 2007 National Day of Action.

The efficacy of these movements should not be discounted. They are directly responsible for the fact that our peoples still have some semblance of culture and lands remaining today, as well as legal rights (however limited). Still, those earlier movements also failed in many ways. Ultimately, we’ve been largely unsuccessful at wholesale, widespread change. This outcome is partially a consequence of the effective suppression by AANDC, obfuscation by the mainstream media, and appropriation of these movements by do-nothing leaders.

But I think the most significant factor, especially in more contemporary efforts, is our reactive posture, leaving us always on the defensive. When Canada introduces policy, legislation, or funding changes, we respond with outrage that the mediocre status quo might be upset. In the best-case scenario, the offending legislation is shelved. The danger of this reactive activism is that it can actually serve to solidify some of the institutions we’ve come to accept, despite the fact that it is those very institutions that make up a large part of the problem. For instance, while rallying against the First Nations Transparency Act or the potential First Nation Land Ownership Act is important, it also means defending the existing Band Council system and/or land tenure arrangements on reserve — even though we know that both are extremely problematic and require fundamental change. But instead of working out the shape of that change, we inadvertently entrench an inherently flawed system. So as we move one step forward, we also effectively take one step back, mistaking inertia for movement. Such unwitting, stubborn idleness allows Canada to push its agenda.

So this new and compelling movement presents a unique opportunity. Firstly, it allows us to build on the momentum already created in creative and committed ways to continue raising our collective consciousness (the hunger strike by Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence as an active example). Secondly, it offers the chance to channel energy into considering alternatives. Speaking recently with Anishinaabekwe writer Leanne Simpson about where we go from here, she advocates that we bring together Anishinaabe academics, activists, community members, leaders, etc. to talk about what we want and how we’ll achieve it. Generally, this means spending genuine time together to foster national movements and re-assert a real concrete plan, not just repeat rhetoric.

When the League of Indians, Deskaheh and Great War veterans started causing trouble in the early decades of the 20th century, Indian Agents responded by calling it “annoying” and “advising Indians to have nothing to do with it.” When the current Aboriginal Administrator John Duncan was asked about Idle No More, his curt response — “That’s social media, so we’ll just have to see where that goes” — echoed the same dismissive and arrogant tone of his predecessors.

Canada expects (and hopes) this movement will melt away. Making it sustainable and meaningful requires reflecting on past and current trends in activism among Mushkegowuk, Algonquin and Lakota peoples. That means honoring and being thankful for them, but also absorbing their lessons.

Originall Published:

Why it’s only right to retire relics like the Redskins

The recent debate about the Nepean Redskins is getting tired. Frankly, it’s a debate we’ve had over and over again, both in the U.S. and in Canada.

Despite the very real fact that the term Redskin is nearly universally understood as offensive, White sports fans loyal to their high school, college or professional sports mascots insist they are ‘honouring’ Us. Prompting Us to write articles and letters, create petitions and polls, and, more recently, use Twitter and Facebook to express our dissatisfaction. And I suspect we’ll continue to do so, so long as football players need savage beasts to emulate on the field. So for our ever-forgetful, sports-loving dogmatists, here’s a refresher on why “I’m not a mascot,” as Simon Moya-Smith puts it.

The last time the mascot issue came up in a serious way was the 2010 Stanley Cup Finals. It was hard to miss the omnipresent headdress-wearing, painted-faced, ancient Indian warrior mascot of the ‘Hawks. I cheered for the Flyers that year (even though as a Leafs fan, I hate the Flyers). And a few years before the Blackhawks yipped and scalped their way to victory, the Cleveland Indians nearly made it to the World Series, inspiring inebriated beer-bellied men to do their best “Chief Wahoo” imitations — “tomahawk chop” and all. Indeed, they became the red-faced and smiling buffoon “Indians.” Of course, to many actual Pottawotami and Delaware people, these fans’ war paint and nylon feathers were embarrassing and humiliating.

While the Cleveland Indians make the Blackhawks look progressive by comparison, both mascots — really, all mascots claiming to honour First Nations or Inuit peoples — do nothing of the sort. It is also puzzling why this “honour” is reserved nearly exclusively for Lakota and Cree peoples. The Redmen or the Braves are so commonplace, there is one in every division. But of course one sees never team names like ‘the Chinamen’ or the Moors who, in very general terms, have just as storied military histories to be “celebrated.” Granted, teams like the Vikings and Fighting Irish do exist, yet they exhibit but a fraction of the scope or absurdity with which “Indian” teams proliferate and are ‘celebrated.’

And if this is really an honour, should we not expect Blackhawk fans to at least know who Blackhawk actually was? I suspect very, very few actually do. In fact, he was a Sauk leader named Makataimeshekiakiak (right) who vehemently opposed American encroachment into, and annexation of, his people’s lands. So much so, he fought alongside the British to repel the Americans in the War of 1812. But he was captured, imprisoned, and then forced to tour the United States as a demonstration of the new country’s power while White onlookers often burned him in effigy. Is this what the Chicago Blackhawks honour?

But this issue goes well beyond Makataimeshekiakiak and the Blackhawks. Take any Redskin or Indians fan, or, take those of the Nepean Redskins, and ask them what they know about Native peoples outside of the image of the naked, tomahawk-wielding savage of their prized mascot and the response will be a blank stare. So not only is the ‘honour’ a farce, the Indian mascot phenomenon can actually contribute to perception that Native peoples are not actual living people with culture, language, economies, art, politics, and so on. The image traps Indigenous peoples in an archaic and doomed state. As long as Native peoples are depicted as ancient and primitive warriors, they’re not real. They’re relics of a bygone era. They don’t exist in contemporary times (part of the reason we have to deal with the near ubiquitous “Funny, you don’t look Native” comments from Canadians).

Moreover, and particularly problematic, this is an image that been used historically by colonists to justify the slaughter of Native peoples (the savage, ruthless, raping, murderous Indian who circled the wagons and presented a threat to civilization generally). In fact, if it weren’t for the constructed image of the Redskin, Americans would have had difficulty raising militias to fend off the British in the Revolutionary War. Without the image of the Redskin, Andrew Jackson and William Henry Harrison wouldn’t have run for president and won, based on their record of killing Indians. The Redskin trope permitted/permits all manner of horrors against Creek and Comanche peoples because it rendered/renders them inhuman.

Remarkably, the past few years have increasingly seen discussion over the use of Indian mascots. In the United States, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) has adopted policies against their use in college sports (the Fighting Sioux being the latest casualty). More recently, here in Canada, the Vancouver Board of Education as well as the Toronto District School Board have voiced their concerns over public and high school Indian mascots. And, of course, there is the renewed campaign to “change the name” of the Nepean Redskins led by Ian Campeau (aka DJ NDN) of A Tribe Called Red, with support from the AFN, TRC, Ottawa CitizenLeanne SimpsonPam Palmater, among others. A campaign that has been partially successful. At the time of writing, the President of the Club has told APTN that he’ll take the name change discussion to parents. Whatever that means.

Critics will continue to cry foul and claim political correctness on the warpath. But this isn’t about misplaced over-sensitivity. It’s about being socially and morally responsible. It’s about respect. It’s about recognizing that there is no such thing as an “Indian” — rather, there are Anishinaabe, Haudenosaunee and Mushkegowuk people — and they don’t wear war paint or throw tomahawks (well, most don’t). They are not savages devoid of humanity, but real people: real, living, breathing people, not caricatures to be trivialized. But the fact that we still have to write articles and letters, create petitions and polls to remind Canadians (and Americans) of these basic facts, year after year, well demonstrates the invisibility sports mascots ultimately confer.

Shameless Scapegoating: A catty critique of how Canadian media cover Indigenous people

Yesterday marked the United Nations’ International Day of Indigenous Peoples. This year’s theme for the Day: “Empowering Indigenous Voices.” As the UN noted, the aim was “to highlight the importance of challenging stereotypes, forging Indigenous peoples’ identities, communicating with the outside world, and influencing the social and political agenda.”

And while we should take this opportunity to celebrate outlets likeAPTNAnishinaabek NewsIndigenous Waves, and MEDIA INDIGENA, among others, I’m not sure the Canadian media got the memo. In fact, I could hear, read or watch more coverage of this week’sInternational Cat Day than of the International Day of Indigenous Peoples. But I guess cats are cuter than Crees.

Reflecting on this coverage, or lack thereof, I recalled a 2008 Canadian Journalism Foundation conference entitled, “The Greatest Media Failure in a Century: Reporting on Aboriginal Issues.” The event was a response to a series of news stories that led to the most sustained media coverage on Native issues since 1990. Along with Parliament’s apology for residential schools and the newly-released report of the Ipperwash Inquiry, the conflict in Caledonia was in the papers daily (not to mention the United Nations and its Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples). The conference concluded, not surprisingly, that newspapers and broadcast journalists were doing a very poor job.

Allow me to preface what follows by noting that not all mainstream media are unfair to Indigenous peoples… just most of them. Take the case of Ipperwash, where, as Ryerson’s John Miller would write, “the coverage was not based on the facts of the occupation, but on crude generalizations about First Nation people that fit many racist stereotypes.” Here, the primary stereotype was of the savage or lawless Indian, a stereotype that would once again be promulgated in later coverage of Caledonia. As evidence for the latter, I submit the following headlines, which ran in the Globe and Mail in the Spring of 2010:

The “strong” in this latter case were Native thugs immune from law enforcement; the “weak” were peaceful, persecuted White homesteaders.

Then there is the stereotype of the lazy, taxpayer-leech Indian. This notion was apparent even at a time like the residential school apology. The National Post editorial that same morning — “Six reasons not to apologize” — argued that an apology would encourage dependence and discourage Indians from getting jobs. This stereotype has never been more apparent than in the media coverage of the housing crisis in Attawapiskat late last year. Stories revolved around the salary of the Chief, corruption, sustainability of isolated reserves, wasted taxpayer dollars — all of it without a modicum of context. Most media outlets uncritically toed the government line, messaging now confirmed asshameless scapegoating.

This stereotype is even more pervasive in on-line editions, in particular, within the comment sections that typically follow articles. In any given story on any subject relating to Cowichan or Dene peoples you’ll find comments such as “money, money, money, that’s all these lazy freeloaders want,” which was the first comment upon the Reuters article, “Canada reopens its ‘most disgraceful’ act” — an article that you’d expect would evoke compassion. It’s gotten so bad that newspapers have begun to actively monitor these comments. As a consequence, the most frequent (and perhaps most telling) comment onGlobe and Mail stories about Oneida or Salish peoples is “This comment has violated our Terms and Conditions, and has been removed.”

At the same time that Canadian media perpetuate such stereotypes, they also cultivate a culture of indifference. There is no better example of this than the widespread use of the term “Aboriginal.” Canadian lawyers adopted the word to be inclusive of the three recognized Indigenous peoples in Canada: First Nations, Métis and Inuit. It was then included in the Canadian constitution. More recently, the Department of Indian Affairs dropped the ‘Indian’ in favour of ‘Aboriginal,’ thus becoming the Department of Aboriginal Affairs, a move lauded by most in the media yet despised by those so-called Aboriginals themselves.

As Patrick Madahbee of the Anishinaabek Nation pointed out, “the history, cultures and contemporary issues facing First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples are entirely different. The best way to [deal with them] is not to call us all by the same name.” For Madahbee, among others, the result of employing the term “Aboriginal” is homogenization rather than inclusion. And for the media to miss this most basic of facts by using the term ‘Aboriginal’ almost exclusively — even when the specific subject of a story may be Dakota or Tlingit — speaks to reporters and editors’ lack of qualifications to cover Dakota or Tlingit peoples. By contrast, a correspondent in Europe would surely be expected to know the difference between Spaniards and Swedes as well as Europeans generally.

And yet, the media keeps on keeping on. Amidst this international day of empowering Indigenous voices, you’ll see, hear or read very few of those voices (and nearly none in the mainstream media). Earlier this week, the Globe and MailNational PostToronto Star, Ottawa Citizen, and the Winnipeg Free Press were just some of the newspapers to publish multiple articles and editorials on the potential privatization of reserve lands. Collectively, they tended to include just a single perspective from a Native person, Manny Jules, one of the architects of the plan. That’s it. Little critical investigation, faithfully toeing the government line, and even employing a few stereotypes (notably, “the taxpayer leech”).

The perpetuation of stereotypes, a culture of indifference and a lack of Indigenous perspectives — endemic across Canadian media — all amount to an uneducated public. It means that Canadians know very little about Anishinaabe, Haudenosaunee and Mushkegowuk peoples, or the differences between them, or even how to pronounce those words. As long as ‘aboriginals’ continue to be defined as lawless or lazy on the one hand, and rendered nameless, faceless, and invisible on the other, Canadians will never appreciate Indigenous perspectives. They’ll never even hear their perspectives. And the next generation of Canadians will still be wondering who these Anishinaabe, Haudenosaunee, Mushkegowuk peoples are.

But there is some good news to share: a ton of cats got adopted this week.

Originally Published:

A new Assembly of First Nations for the people? Second thoughts on a ‘One Indian, One Vote’ AFN

Last month’s election for the Assembly of First Nations’ National Chief has once again stirred calls for change.

On election eve, for example, fellow MEDIA INDIGENA contributorWaubgeshig Rice published an op-ed on entitled, “How to make the AFN more relevant.” Then, in the midst of the election, authorRichard Wagamese wrote an opinion piece in the Globe and Mailentitled “We want an AFN of the people.” Both articles captured a broad sentiment among Ojibwe, Cree and Lakota peoples: a desire to participate in First Nations politics beyond the Band. Indeed, this AFN election garnered considerably more attention than any in the past, a clear testament to that desire for engagement. In both cases, Rice and Wagamese eloquently identify the problem — the Assembly’s issues with political representation (or lack thereof) — and a potential solution — in effect, a new “one Indian, one vote” AFN. But in considering this idea over the past few post-election weeks, I’m not so sure it’s the answer.

In the first place, such a new ‘AFN of the people’ could lead to an even more unhelpful pan-Indianism than the current AFN perpetuates. Despite working hard to keep Metis and Inuit peoples out (and avoiding Aboriginalism), as well as “respecting our diversity as First Nations peoples” (as noted under the AFN Charter), National Chiefs have nonetheless had a tendency to claim unity among First Nations. This presumes, or at least results in, a sort of homogeneity across nations, thereby stripping away our regional, cultural and political distinctions. (In reality, the only unity that probably exists among First Nations lies within our near unanimous resentment of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada). An AFN of the people would therefore see even more diversity disappear under one umbrella, both magnifying this perception of sameness and stretching the AFN to something far beyond what it could realistically represent. The result could be a general, simplistic, and generic voice.

Alternatively, instead of striving to represent everyone, an ‘AFN of the people’ could come to suffer from issues of skewed representation, specifically, an Assembly in danger of capture by particular interests. We already see this to an extent: First Nations who lobby for treaty rights versus those who lobby for Aboriginal rights. But the potential concern here is the growing urban First Nations population (more than half of us live outside our communities already). While urban peoples are in desperate need of political representation, their significant numbers could lead to an erosion of advocacy for the very communities AFN was created to serve, and who would still require an active and focused coordinating and lobbying organization into the future.

Moreover, an ‘AFN of the people’ would effectively endorse the structural conditions that currently bedevil the organization. In other words, and I say this without irony, a completely transformed AFN along one Indian, one vote lines would maintain the status quo. The AFN is a very bureaucratic, process-oriented organization, steeped in Western-inspired legal and policy discourse. It mimics Canadian electoral politics, voting by majority (often very slim majorities). And it’s funded nearly exclusively by Canada, rendering it subject to AANDC discipline. An ‘AFN of the people’ might placate Algonquin, Pottawatomi and Dene peoples, even convey empowerment, but it seems more likely that we’d merely entrench mediocrity and stasis.

Finally, an ‘AFN for the people’ would constitute a de facto new order of government, a move which would malign actual nations. And while we’re voting once every three years for a National Chief — a superficial conception of participation and democracy Canadians have come to accept — we might see ourselves forgetting about truly solving the problem of political representation. Of course, that would mean investing in the revitalization of authentic forms of Indigenous governance, e.g., the clan system, the potlatch, the Great Law, adapting them all as needed to contemporary circumstances. It would also mean getting involved in community and nation re-building. Not least, it would mean honoring our differences and re-establishing international relations and international confederacies between and among unique nations.

The thoughts expressed here are in no way an endorsement of the AFN in its current form. Like Rice and Wagamese, I think we do need change in a serious way. I also agree that we need an outlet for the desire for political engagement that’s so apparent among Mohawk, Wet’suwet’en and Maliseet peoples. While an option to directly vote for the AFN’s National Chief is appealing (reallyappealing), it could lead to more harm than good. In fact, the whole discussion makes me think about the Cleveland Indians or Washington Redskins; while they’re really bad images of Native people, they’re often the only representation that exists, so we find ourselves supporting images and icons like Chief Wahoo. But it’s probably time to start cheering for another team. Rather, to start playing for another, and in a whole different league.

The National Media and the AFN’s “Angry Indians”

It’s an auspicious week for the Assembly of First Nations. The AFN’s Annual General Assembly will either re-elect Shawn Atleo as National Chief or select one of seven challengers to lead the organization through the next three years.

Today’s vote is the culmination of a relatively short and mostly unexciting campaign, yet it is one that has nonetheless caught the attention of some in the national media, in particular, the two Johns: John Ibbiston of the Globe and Mail and John Ivison of the National Post. Each have filed a number of stories. Interestingly, both writers share a remarkable and disappointing similarity: a very apparent tendency to cast the field of candidates as angry, ungrateful militants.

Rather than mask some kind of agenda, Ibbiston’s inaugural AFN-related piece (“Shawn Atleo appears unchallenged in push for native-education reform”) on June 18 perhaps demonstrates the writer’s lack of qualifications to report on First Nations politics. The Globe veteran illustrated this sophomoric understanding when he confidently asserted that, “barring an unexpected last-minute challenger, Shawn Atleo will be acclaimed for a second three-year stint as National Chief to the Assembly of First Nations.” Not only was Ibbitson very poorly informed at the time of his assessment that Atleo would go “unchallenged,” but the field vying for the National Chief position actually became the largest in the organization’s history.

Ibbitson’s second article (“Native leaders risk missing their moment of greatest influence”) a month later was an outright endorsement of Atleo and marked the beginning of this trend. For Ibbitson, Atleo was the wise decision because his opponents are “militant.” More than that, Ibbitson employed some awkward demographic analysis (the First Nations population will flat-line at some point and increasing immigrant populations will have little ‘guilt’ to compel justice for first peoples) as a veiled warning to Chiefs that they should “bear in mind a future of steadily diminishing influence as they choose the next leader of their Assembly.”

While Ibbiston’s third piece (“Atleo’s second term as AFN chief hinges on 250 votes”) on July 18 largely offered an overview of the AFN Annual General Assembly’s Day One proceedings, as well as some soft predictions on voting, he yet again managed to frame Atleo’s challengers as “determined to set Canada’s native people on a more emphatic path of confrontation with the federal government,” and “(speaking) repeatedly about colonization, occupation, victimization.” In these latter two articles, National Chief contenders Gabriel, Kelly, Nelson, et al. continue to be cast as angry, perhaps wrongfully so. In that sense, they are unappreciative as well.

The National Post coverage has been equally problematic. Leading it has been John Ivison, who has won few fans over the past week. At the end of Day One’s proceedings, he joked to the Toronto Star’s Tanya Talaga via Twitter, “my security detail should have arrived by [the morning], leaving me plenty of time to don my body armour before entering the breach.” Ivison’s remark is an apparent reference to the general disdain accumulating among Mi’kmaq, Mohawk and Ojibwe peoples for his reporting of the leadership contest, candidates and commentators alike, calling his writing “right-wing propaganda” and “ignorant.”

Like Ibbitson, Ivison is squarely in the Atleo camp. In “The fight for the soul of the AFN” (July 16), Ivison notes that “only in native politics could securing the Prime Minister’s undivided attention for a day, and hooking hundreds of millions of dollars at a time of austerity, be considered a sellout.” Moreover, and not unlike Ibbitson, Ivision depicts many if not all of Atleo’s seven challengers as radicals who discuss issues like sovereignty, which he deems to be “only a recipe for gridlock.” This perspective encourages two assumptions; firstly, the notion that Dene, Cree and Cayuga peoples are currently well treated, and secondly, that only those issues that the federal government is interested in talking about actually matter.

While Ivison happily provides candidates his advice, he has tremendous difficulty listening to them in turn. Following his July 16 column, leadership candidate and professor Pam Palmater criticized the writer for twisting her words and the facts; subsequently, in his July 18 piece, “Candidates talk of anger and injustice,” Ivison persisted with his theme. Quoting candidate Bill Erasmus,

“I’ve travelled across this country and what I’ve seen more than anything is anger. We have angry people.”

Ivison then goes on to use the sentiment as a way of framing the candidates as threatening to Canadians. But, in fact, Ivison cut Erasmus off. Had he included the full quote from Erasmus,

“I’ve travelled across this country and what I’ve seen more than anything is anger. We have angry people but we have to contain that anger. It’s not the way (forward) [emphasis mine]”

one would readily see that the speaker’s full intent and implication are very different from what Ivision would have his readers imagine. Clearly, the foundation of Ivison’s entire article is built on a butchered quote, one originally pleading for reconciliation, not confrontation.

But it would seem what Erasmus actually said — what any of the candidates actually said — doesn’t really matter to Ibbitson or Ivison. Investigating the anger that does exist in any earnest way (as opposed to excusing it) or covering the candidates’ many expressions of love and hope and sadness (instead of solely frustration) is outside the already constructed narrative of The Angry Indian. Whether the narrative is naturally transposed onto this situation or is being exploited to strategically support Atleo is unclear. Still, a partial answer may be found in Ibbitson’s most recent column (July 18: “Native leaders ponder the path of most resistance”) where he notes “the AFN inhabits a world not easily recognized by those outside the Native community.”

In Ibbitson’s case, truer words were never written.

Christie Blatchford’s “Helpless” is hapless and historyless account of Caledonia conflict

About six months ago, the Globe and Mail‘s Christie Blatchford filed a series of courthouse dispatches from Hamilton, ON regarding the case of a Caledonia, ON family and their $7 million lawsuit against the Ontario government for failing to protect them from “the natives” (of Six Nations) as a result of the Caledonia land conflict.

With column titles like “A reign of terror, a trail of OPP inaction,” “In Caledonia the weak finally have a voice against the strong,” and “A couple terrorized in a ‘war zone’ while police stood by,” Blatchford bludgeoned readers with hyperbole and sensationalism. Her pieces pitted faceless native thugs against a decent, law-abiding, salt-of-the-earth Canadian couple.

This fall, Blatchford turned those articles into a book with the correspondingly obnoxious title, Helpless: Caledonia’s Nightmare of Fear and Anarchy and How the Law Failed All of Us.

I haven’t read Helpless, but if it’s anything like her Globe articles, I already know the story: savages circle the wagons while innocent homesteaders valiantly fight against overwhelming odds when, at the last minute, the cavalry arrives to vanquish the heathen warriors. But in this case, they don’t show up (or so Blatchford claims) and the noble frontiersmen and women suffer all manner of horrors at the hands of their terrorizers.

But this week a group of students at the University of Waterloodecided to interrupt that narrative. They prevented Blatchford from speaking at a scheduled speech on campus, taking the stage and challenging the way she tells this story. The students asserted that the land dispute has been taken out of context by Blatchford’s book and that it fails to examine the history of the situation.

And, in fact, Blatchford has admitted to looking at the conflict through “a very narrow prism.” Ultimately, the students felt that Blatchford should not have a forum to spread views they believe amount to racism.

Indeed, the frustrating aspects of the articles that precipitated the book revolve around the endemic usage of “the natives” — some abstract and homogenous ‘others’ who are all inherently prone to violence — a conclusion arrived at without any in-depth examination of their actual motives.

It seems Blatchford harbours an ongoing ignorance as to the perspectives of those Mohawk or Cayuga activists whom she indicts. But after the protest at the University of Waterloo, perhaps she can finally sympathize with them.