A White Girl’s Understanding of ‘Aboriginal Affairs’

These damn Indians don’t pay taxes, they keep taking all of our money and land, and they still moan that they have nothing. I don’t see what they get to complain about. They lost the war, and it’s about time they learn to adapt.

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I am consistently astonished by this argument, and how often I hear it.

I’ve heard it from established scholars, racists, other students, plain old idiots, the self-proclaimed ‘enlightened’, and the equally-notioned ‘well-travelled’. It is a complaint that has been well built into Canadian culture, young and old. There are a lot of people, governments, and organizations that are responsible for the prevalence of this stereotype, and I’m going to do my best to deconstruct what has become a messy and often incorrectly-quoted colonial history.

Basically, I’m here to bust a few narrative fallacies we’ve cultured ourselves to believe and, with any luck, piss a lot of you off.

For the ignorance of my generation towards Indigenous peoples, I blame the methodologies of our early education. They failed to introduce Indigenous peoples to us as anything more than a burden. They became someone to apologize to, and for, rather than to understand. All of these nations, some of which had never met, or were at war themselves at the time of colonization, are lumped conveniently into one group: the Aboriginal, or First Nations. Middle-school history, if you recall, starts this continent’s history at the point of colonization, neglecting the 20 thousand plus years prior, where North American humanity flourished in a thousand different and beautiful ways. In high school, you could barely understand why you were being forced to learn at all – how could you be expected to understand the ongoing complexities and repercussions of an extremely recent colonial history, from which the scars are still bloody, unfolding upon the very land you now comfortably sit? Canada cannot declare itself a tolerant and multicultural nation when it seems so unclear as to when life here actually started, while continuing to reinforce this false truth to its youngest and most impressionable citizens.

At my own high school, John G. Diefenbaker, we were the ‘Diefenbaker Chiefs’. It wasn’t completely racist, as it was part of the nickname given to Diefenbaker during his reign in office, but our school nonetheless carelessly borrowed Indigenous symbolism like the Cree headdress and obsidian arrow-head insignia to adorn our sporting uniforms. Our school’s arch rivals, at least in the athletic sense, were the Western Canada Redmen, who are only now reconsidering their choices of name and imagery. In the major leagues, we all vigourously support such blatantly racist team names, like the Redskins, or the Indians. It’s as though Indigenous societies are non-existent, romanticized as warriors of a time long past, not unlike the Vikings. I suspect that as a new team name, the ‘Washington Niggers’ might not fare so well, but alas, ignorance is bliss.

Our parents’ generation barely got to know Indigenous people, or were taught to hate and resent them. They probably just felt left out. This exclusion was not because Indigenous people weren’t welcoming – not that we should particularly expect them to be – but because of the Federal Government’s Indian Act (a document borrowed heavily from, by both the South African apartheid governments and Hitler himself). From 1876 until 1985, this mess of legislation did a lot of stupid things. Continuing forward, the 1985 Amendments were arguably even more stupid, legally defining native lineage and identity as one would breeding stock, among other things. Indigenous peoples were forced to operate in a world built around them, rather than with them.
When my grandfather returned from the second World War, he was given land and money to build a home, in which my family still lives. When Indigenous soldiers returned from that same conflict, they discovered that, under the Indian Act, since they had been gone from Canada for too long they lost their status and were not entitled to anything – and now they were not permitted to return even to their reserves, since their formally recognized status had been extinguished.
Guess when white women got to vote? 1923. Guess when ‘Indians’ got to vote? 1960. And, from 1927 onward, they were not legally allowed to raise money for lawyers to represent their case, even if they’d wanted to. Even today, they must receive permission (in the form of a fiat) from the Federal Government in order to even think about opening a case with them. Now down to about 5% of the population, Indigenous groups have consistently been limited to the least capability of influencing the government.

Skipping over a few treaties (read: broken promises), let’s understand the position to which Indigenous people were confined within Canadian society. Residential schools, in which the Government of Canada adamantly supported the kidnapping, beating, and otherwise violent culture-stripping of Indigenous peoples, existed until the 50s and 60s. Recently, new evidence has emerged revealing cruel experiments were conducted on young children at these schools. The last residential school, despite a slight adaptation of tactics, did not close until 1996.

After more than three generations of brutally forced assimilation, Canada did its very best to ensure that Indigenous people would not pass on their language or heritage.

What our government created was a group of disoriented human beings, plagued by substance abuse, and stuck with the highest rate of youth suicide – but, these days, the government spends more time and effort investigating why kids kill themselves over Facebook posts. The cherry on top is that Canada held a Royal Commission about these depressing numbers in Indigenous communities. Their intent was to get together and try to assess (assess, mind you, not understand) why suicide and abuse in Indigenous communities was and continues to be so high – because apparently the reasoning is not as obvious to some. These same feds stripped away culture, languages, clothing, legal systems – often letting other businesses strip resources from and poison Indigenous territories – and then scratched their heads as to why there’s a prevalence of drinking and self-hatred. No shit, these people were having their lives ripped apart, their purpose removed. There was a time when they could not even be buried on their ancestral homeland if they did not carry this government-mandated status. I’d drink too.

Also, for the record, Substance abuse is not equal across the board in Indigenous communities, but nonetheless, the stereotypes began to seep into maintstream culture and grip us with their evil roots. I’d safely wager that the undergraduate student population in this country has more of an issue with alcoholism than Indigenous people, but that just doesn’t make the news. 

I’m not trying to be some white apologist. When you take the time to look around, you still see all of this happening. Residential school violence hasn’t ended, it has only shifted into an economically-founded elimination, which continues in Canadian national policy and legal framework. Even the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada wants us to forget the brutal parts of this legacy. Most recently it has refused to help digitize and make public the records of residential school, and their impact on a substantial chapter of our human history. Additionally, nations seeking to restore their original land claims or have their title recognized must first prove, with evidence, in the Canadian court that they were here first. Because apparently this is not obvious.

If you want to deny the existence of a history, let us examine the concept that some sort of battle was fought to ‘win’ possession of Canada. Come on folks, there was no war! And as a personal commentary on our society – do we really want to use the argument that violence is the proper and recognized tactic to affirming land ownership? The Indigenous people were promised land title and a right to exist through cooperation with the emerging colonial governments – and guess which side cheated? 

And – surprise! It still happens today.

I laugh out loud every time someone bitches about how the Tsuut’ina ruined the plans for the Ring Road in Calgary. I remember the local media reported that, after receiving the benefits of the deal, the Nation simply went back on the agreement. What you weren’t told is that Dave Bronconnier, mayor at the time, had attempted to change the conditions of the agreement behind the backs of the Tsuut’ina Nation and push the plan through anyways.
But you didn’t hear that.
You heard that the natives were just getting pissed about their land again, and intentionally screwed over white man’s brilliant infrastructure plans. You probably didn’t hear about Calgary’s zoning plan for expansion either, which would eventually envelope and inevitably shrink part of the Tsuut’ina reserve, in spite of their inherent right to title.

The next part of the argument that I’m going to ask you to reconsider is the part about the taxes. Firstly, only Indigenous peoples who live on reserves don’t pay taxes, and realistically it is because they were here first, and it is their lands and resources which are being used to generate revenue by the provincial and federal governments. They did not ask to be a part of this national identity, and they were forced to be anyways. I also argue that tax exemption is a current governmental tactic of fostering resentment towards Indigenous peoples, and it’s working really well. Think about it. Taxes are something we hate paying! We fork our money back to a governing body that, in theory, uses it to build our future. Everyone complains all the time, from sales taxes to property taxes to income taxes, to the process of filing them in the first place. How frustrated does it make you that there is a group here in Canada that doesn’t have to deal with that to the nearly same extent!

See what I’m saying?

It is estimated that each Canadian citizen costs the government approximately $18,000 CAD a year. When you crunch the numbers, and look at ‘funding’ to Indigenous communities, you’ll discover that they only receive about $8,500 CAD a year per individual – so no, they don’t get more than us, they don’t get to go to school for free, and they are not even entirely tax-exempt. Some Haida who I have spoken to wish they could just pay taxes like everyone else, so they could feel the benefits that the rest of us enjoy as though we are somehow entitled to them. I’m sure much of Attawapiskat would agree.

As far as adaptation goes, just like all human populations, Indigenous societies are non-static (our courts disagree). Though we like to trap them in the past and condemn them to non-growth – without of course the ‘wise’ help from governing bodies – they are actually regaining the grasp on their traditional lifeways while incorporating them into the globalized economy. Just look at A Tribe Called Red, a set of 3 Indigenous DJs who integrate traditional music with completely sick new beats. Or HlGaagilda Xaayda Kil Naay – the Skidegate Haida Immersion Program in Haida Gwaii, which is dedicated to restoring and recording the Haida language, which was dessimated by the policies of the residential schools, and European-brought plagues which killed off a great portion of the Haida people (who went from about 30,000 to just over 600 in well under fifty years). In spite of this colonial legacy, re-interest in the language is growing, and it is hoped that in the future there will be more than just thirty or so Haida elders who are able to speak it fluently. I know at this point some of you are asking why saving a language matters so much, but I will direct you to this post, as well as our fondness and determination to save Latin, or to construct and speak a language like Klingon!

Still having trouble caring about Indigenous society? Don’t worry, it’s not your fault, you might just be ignorant. Be honest – do you really know a whole lot about this money that’s thrown at this issue, which supposedly remedies all problems, and its application to a society that didn’t use it for 12 thousand years pre-contact? Can you cite in argumentation where these funds are going, who they are going to and what they are actually doing? Probably not, but it is taxpayer money, and it is going somewhere with no tangible result to the everyday taxpayer: you. Of course you’re pissed! Our government is screwing you almost as hard as it’s screwing the Indigenous, and the land we now all have the privilege of calling home.

But the scapegoat has been planted, and the blame you shall place on the First Peoples of Canada.

In the end, this doesn’t come down to economics, or politics, or ethics – though these have a lot to do with it. At its most fundamental, this is a remarkably basic issue of our humanity: is the domination and dismantling of a society – forcing them to adapt to our context and abandon their own – a nice way to treat another group of human beings? Even Indigenous scholars like Thomas King have admitted that, in terms of policy and governance, it would be easier to continue assimilation than to try and work with these people. However – if we keep choosing to do what is easy, greedy and selfish instead of what is right, we condemn ourselves to existence as an embarrassing, cowardly species.

So I have a question.

Are you angry?

I’m fucking angry.
And I am ashamed, and not because I feel I contributed to this colonial history – my family only arrived here a few generations ago, in an attempt to escape their own poor situations. I am ashamed because I have not felt such passion until now. It feels as though not four months ago I was as ignorant as the rest of society. It’s time to change. It’s time to make good on age-old treaty promises. I want Indigenous cultures to become a part of Canada as they are. I want them to have the governance that they ask for. I want them to have the land that they live on, and the complete jurisdiction over it. I want their cultures to flourish and grow as they direct them to, not as they are legislated to by a body that refuses to understand them. I want society to empathize, rather than criticize. I want Google to correct Tsutsina to Tsuut’ina, and not the name of some random South African sitcom character which, though it seems trivial, is sadly demonstrative of just how out-of-bounds Indigenous societies have become in our own.
And, finally, I want the Indian Act burned on the front lawn of our Parliament.

I want all of this for Canadian Indigenous peoples because they are people, just like me and you. People deserve to be treated with respect and dignity, and others still need to admit when they’ve been wrong.

Today, our Prime Minister makes money disappear like magic while some provincial governments struggle to make ends meet, MP’s dodge court dates and glaze over sponsorship scandals, a mayor smokes crack, inebriated, while in office – and does anyone even know what the Senate is about anymore?

Wake up, and stop being angry at the Indigenous for existing, and start getting angry at your government, which proves itself every day an excellent demonstration of democratic failure. Let this not be an attack, but a call to the masses. Find your frustration and channel it towards finding solutions for a new chapter of politics.

Look forward, find hope.
Look forward, find hope.

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Given the melody of this music, I’m going to try to end this on a lighter note. Check out this video below from Louis CK. He’s entertaining in his performance, but his remarks are poignant. Also, if you are wondering which part of the bureaucracy is primarily assigned responsibility of these people, it’s Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, in which Indigenous relations has oddly been lumped in with Canadian and arctic resource exploitation extraction.

Have a response on this issue? Let me know. We grow by learning from each other.

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