Tomorrow is a national day of action called by the Assembly of First Nations to draw attention to the situation of indigenous communities across this country. I’ll be at home with my family which is a good place to be tomorrow. Yesterday in downtown Victoria, I ran into the assistant deputy minister of children and family development, Deborah Foxcroft, the woman that originally brought me on to work at VIATT. She expressed concern at how much travelling I as doing and said “remember, we are working for our children and families, so make sure you don’t abandon yours.” It was a biting half joke. It brought home the reality of how hard I have been working this year, with no stretch of five days in a row at home since Christmas. And it put me in a frame of mind that was decidedly intolerant of the shit spewed out by Margaret Wente in the Globe and Mail this morning, which you can’t read online without paying for. So as my public contribution to the national day of action, I offer this rebuttal, even as my soul cries out at how useless the exercise probably is. Ah well, tilting at windmills is my speciality…
One: the narrative.
“Everyone is trapped in the narrative we’ve constructed to explain [on reserve poverty and despair]. The Europeans arrived, wiped out most of the natives, stole their land and tried to stamp out their culture. All the dysfunction of aboriginal communities stems from the original sins of the conquerors. Only the restoration of their land and culture (plus more money) will restore their dignity and fortunes.”
Well, that’s pretty much the thumbnail sketch of the story. It’s not unique to Canada either. This is the story of colonization around the world. It is about power, largely, and gaining access to natural resources that generate power and wealth in the motherland. It’s happening in Iraq at the moment too. It’s an old game. So if the world is trapped in that narrative it might be because that narrative is basically the way things have happened.
As for the fact that all of the dysfunction stems from original sins, that’s not true. The dysfunction is actually being sustained by deep systemic forces that are continually reinforced today. For example, the reserve system is a form of totalitarianism enforced by the Canadian state upon indigenous communities. Reserves are owned by the Crown, administered by the federal government on behalf of Indians, for their benefit. Band councils are government structures that are created by the Indian Act, a law that was originally drafted in 1871, and hasn’t fundamentally changed since then. Band councils can pass by-laws, but they have to be approved by the Minister. In short, the entire system is paternalistic. It was designed that way and the design hasn’t changed. To be able to do anything to improve one’s community is an incredibly difficult task. It is like trying to play basketball in a 6×10 foot prison cell. You might be able to make a few nice moves, but you’re not going to be a Michael Jordan.
So let’s drop the story that the sins of the conquerors are the ones that we need to worry about. The legacy of the conquerors is being propagated today, whether intentionally or unintentionally, by the very vehicles of law and order in Canada and by people. So, if you want to help, find a way to help change what is real now. Don’t worry about what Jacques Cartier did.
Two: the industry
“We now have a vast Indian industry of chiefs, government bureaucrats, lawyers, consultants and academics that is heavily invested in this narrative. Many of these people are well meaning. They are also the chief obstacles to change because their remedies make the problem worse.”
I try not to read Margaret Wente too much, because she makes these kinds of comments all the time without providing any examples. She also just makes these kinds of declarative and absolute statements that are pure nonsense. But anyway…
Chiefs, like all politicians, run the gamut. There are good chiefs and bad ones. Sometimes the good ones lose step with their communities and getting voted out, sometimes communities get fed up and switch out a bad one. First Nations are democratic political institutions, for better or worse. All of our Nations had forms of government that provided much better accountability in the past, and many of these governments are still in existence, especially here in British Columbia. The problem was that the Indian Act decided to choose one form of government for the variety of nations that occupy this continent, and it was a form that was irrelevant to every single one.
With respect to government bureaucrats, I can say that I’ve seen both. I have met government bureaucrats who are plainly racist, and who resent their positions and the people they serve, It’s appalling. And there are fraudsters as well. I also know and can name far more who are the complete opposite. I can name very few who can actually participate in the changes needed in communities, because the structural restrictions supported by the Indian Act mean that you can’t pursue radical change from within whether you want to or not. Very little innovation happens in government departments. That’s true of most things, not just Indian Affairs. But working with government is a necessary reality of trying to deal with community problems, and building relationships with folks that can shift things has always been an important art.
Lawyers wouldn’t be so important in First Nations communities if the governments actually adhered to their own laws. More and more First Nations are winning cases in court because the federal and provincial governments do not tend to respect constitutionally protected rights unless forced too. The default setting is stasis, not movement. Lawyers are needed because the governments have lawyers. It’s the price of escalation when you are unwilling to engage in real conversation.
And let me turn now to consultants – people like me. Like everything, there are good and bad consultants. There are some atrocious consulting practices in our communities with people being taken advantage of by unscrupulous consultants and business people (a sector Wente does not mention). But the reality is that there are many of us whose work is directed at removing the obstacles that Wente talks about. She can’t name any of us though, because I have the impression that she has never really seen the kind of work that goes on. And as for us participating in the industry, it’s true that this is how I derive my livelihood. I charge on average from 1/5 to 1/4 of the rate that I get in the corporate world for doing work with people that are building community resilience against child abuse, suicide, drugs, violence, poverty and despair. I work with Aboriginal youth for free all the time. The fact that I make many times more for working with corporations whose biggest problems are team communication issues or loosely conceived strategic plans seems almost criminal. But that’s what happens when a society privileges business.
Three: economic development
“Chief Louie is a rare voice of dissent. Instead of talking about tradition and spirituality, he talks about economic development. The Osoyoos band used to be like all the others – dependant on government handouts, crippled by social problems and nepotism. Today it owns nine businesses, including the award winning winery Nk’Mip Cellars…Calvin Helin is another unpopular guy…these voices of reason are all but drowned out by those who insist that participating in the free-market economy is a sellout to the white man’s ways.”
I don’t think Margaret Wente really knows Clarence Louie. He is not a voice of dissent. He is the keynote speaker at virtually every conference you can imagine. He speaks at forums on economic development, tourism, education, natural resources, governance, and reconciliation. He is immensely popular and his message is immensely popular. You know why? Because he ties the economic success of Osoyoos to the cultural and spiritual traditions of the people. The Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development, the road map for economic liberation in North America has cultural relevancy as one of the five key factors for creating successful and prosperous First Nations. Osoyoos is the standard by which everyone else is measured. Clarence Louie sometimes reminds me of Malcolm X with a brief case. If Wente really knew him, she’d be trembling at what he really represents.
It’s hard to participate in the “free market” when the Minister of Indian Affairs has to approve all of your by-laws, when you can’t own land or take a mortgage on it, and when capital flees, but your community can’t, because you don’t have rights outside of your traditional territory. It’s not simple, and people like Clarence Louie, whose community also benefits from being situated in prime upper middle class resort country, combine equal parts genius and good luck. Not too many rich non-native people are clamouring to visit Tl’azt’en. The market is free when you live close by. When you don’t, living off the land is a better option for feeding your family.
Four: The Maori messiah.
“Last month, a Maori named Alan Duff came to Canada to blow up that narrative…”Political correctness is your enemy! White academic liberals are your enemy!…They tell us indigenous people that we ought to go back and live as our ancestors lived. They want you to return to your past. But they’re not going to do that. They’re teaching their children your ceremonies. They’re teaching them the modern tools of technology and how to get mortgages.” The so-called wisdom of the elders is another problem…Mr. Duff knows that native kids are doomed unless they acquire two essential keys to modern life: literacy and education.”
Mr. Duff is certainly his own man, and his message is more complicated than Wente leads us to believe. I’m not even completely sure what he is saying here. Maori culture is as alive and vibrant as any indigenous culture I have ever seen. But let’s take this a part. Wente praises Duff’s trashing of white academics, although I would challenge both of them to produce even one that says “go back and live as our ancestors lived.” There isn’t one, so that’s just rhetorical flourish. But Wente I think probably is a little more sensitive when indigenous people condemn other white people. She gets a little huffy when First Nations folks point fingers at non-native businesses. I think she’s peddling her conservatism here, using an indigenous voice to support a political view. Fine, but just acknowledge appropriation when you do it.
As for mortgages, I can teach you all about how to get a mortgage, but if you live on a reserve you can’t get one, because you can’t put land up for collateral. End of story.
Those of you that have read my ramblings over the years will know how I feel about education. Learning how to read is a good thing. Learning how to learn is a good thing. Education is another thing. It is the last sacred cow in indigenous communities, the idea that the school system actually sustains the problems that our communities face. We could talk a lot about this, but I think schools in general don’t hold the solution to all the problems. Learning does though. That’s what the Elders say anyway, not that Margaret Wente puts much stock in them.
Five: Buy in or butt out.
“Stop strutting! Stop giving us endless speeches about yourselves! Start doing something for your families and your children! It’s called self-empowerment. And nobody can give it to you.”
I hope one day Margaret Wente will write about what we are doing for our children and families here on Vancouver Island. But it seems like she isn’t looking for it. And when she calls for self-empowerment, and people start blocking rails lines and asserting their rights and title over their territories, because that’s what the Constitution guarantees and “nobody will give it to you” I hope she will write lovingly about our ability to self-empower and establish our place in Canadian society.
But, I fear she won’t. She has longed been locked in her own narrative and her eyes are not tuned to subtlety and reality. When she says “start doing something for your families and children” I simply feel the offence of that statement and return a hearty “fuck you!” We’re here, we’re working at it and you can choose to educate yourself about it or just spew lies in Canada’s national newspaper.
If you are wanting to participate in the Day of Action tomorrow, my advice is to do something. Let the Margaret Wente’s of the world fade away. Read about what is going on in the country, the courageous people who are changing things despite everything that stands in their way. They are people I work with, who I stand with and support. Stand with them, support them. Offer something. We have offered our lives to this work, and none of us care whether or not Margaret Wente notices, because she doesn’t matter. She just gives us the opportunity to stand in the light of her rhetorical vitriol. We’re here, we’re at work and every day is a day of action. Join us.