As I write this, Chief Theresa Spence of Attawapiskat Cree First Nation has been fasting for 28 days as she awaits a meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Last week, without acknowledging Chief Spence or the growing Idle No More movement, Mr Harper agreed to a meeting with Canadian First Nations leaders on January 11.
Idle No More has been called Canada’s civil rights movement; it’s true that many anti-INM on-line comments point to a racism bubbling away underneath the surface of our nation, so famous for its politeness. Even some Canadians who support First Nations right to self-determination are in the dark about the specific demands and grievances of First Nations that have led to the INM movement and Chief Spence’s hunger strike. Recently, I was approached by the head of security in a mall as I sat at a table preparing my sign for an Idle No More rally. Indicating my sign, which read: “We Are All Treaty People”, he said “I don’t understand that”. He was not being confrontational but seemed sincerely perplexed. Once I realized he wasn’t threatening to throw me and my sign out of the mall, I did my best to explain that the reason he and I, both descendants of European settlers, were able to call this land home was because of the treaties that were signed by the Crown with the indigenous peoples who have called this land home since time before memory. You can’t have a treaty with only one signatory; there’s always two. First Nations people have a “treaty card” which allows them to access some of the treaty rights promised to them. We settlers have the right to call Canada home; our Canadian passport is our “treaty card”.
I wasn’t taught this history in school. The Canadian history I was taught didn’t articulate the concepts of Terra Nullius and the Doctrine of Discovery, but they nonetheless undergirded the stories my classmates and I were told. Terra Nullius (latin for “empty land”) is the idea that no peoples before the Europeans had a sovereign clam to Turtle Island/North America and the Doctrine of Discovery views indigenous North Americans as inferior to Europeans, thus justifying the taking away of their territory. Both of these concepts have been used to claim indigenous peoples’ lands for centuries. Not surprisingly, First Nations people reject both of these concepts. Defenders of the Land articulate their rejection of these concepts in this demand that:
Canada repudiate the concepts of Terra Nullius and the Doctrine of Discovery, which have been used to unjustifiably claim Indigenous Peoples lands, as factually, legally and morally wrong; and declare that such concepts must no longer form part of law-making or policy development by Canada nor be the basis of arguments presented to the court.
It’s time to tell ourselves a different story of the history of North America. Here’s one:
Centuries ago Europeans – endowed with a colonial/exploiter world view that allowed them to view brown-skinned non-European people as inferior in both intellect and humanness – showed up as uninvited guests on the shores of Turtle Island. More often than not, their indigenous hosts were gracious and shared their knowledge of food, medicine, and terrain to help the bumbling, poorly-equipped settlers survive. In the hundreds of years since that first meeting, settlers have repaid their hosts’ hospitality by taking over the “whole house” and shoving them into the basement while stealing their children. We settlers have enjoyed ourselves and enriched ourselves immensely while we’ve exploited the heck out of the place. We’ve eaten most of the food in the fridge, burned up the firewood, fouled the water and air, and thrown toxic garbage everywhere. Occasionally we discover there’s something in the basement we want so we head down the stairs, shove the original owners of the house further into one of the corners and grab what we want. Woe to any of the original owners who make a fuss about this state of affairs. If they have a hard enough time adjusting to the new reality, they’re shoved into a closet in the house called a prison.
It’s 2013, time for non-aboriginal Canadians to come to terms with our unpleasant colonial past, and its ugly tentacles that reach all the way to the present. One of the many tentacles is the federal government’s omnibus budget bill, C-45. Another tentacle is the sense of entitlement found in online comments (“I never signed a treaty, I never took anybody else’s land, I never sent anybody to residential school, so why am I supposed to pay for this forever?”). The colonial/exploiter mindset has been normalized in North America, but that doesn’t mean it can’t change. As settlers, a first step to changing it and ourselves is a commitment to realizing our own entanglement in it. After that, in humility and in recognition of our ingrained prejudices, we can ask our First Nation brothers and sisters what they would like us to do to help facilitate change.
We are all part of Turtle Island now, and our stories are inextricably entwined. In 2010, The Truth & Reconciliation Commission, set up in response to Canada’s acknowledgement of its shameful residential school history, held a National Event in Winnipeg. I was in the audience during a Buffy St Marie concert when Elijah Harper, the trail-blazing Chief and MLA who stood up in the Manitoba legislature 20 years ago to stop a national constitutional accord in its tracks because of its disregard of First Nations rights, was invited onto the stage. Mr. Harper acknowledged his own painful residential school past to the crowd of thousands, but went on to say that it was now time to walk into the future side by side, First Nations and nonaboriginal Canadians. Idle No More is an invitation to start down that road, one imperfect and tentative step after another.
Information is powerful. Here’s First Nations Policy Analyst Russel Diabo speaking about First Nations Treaty Rights in Canada and the current federal government’s moves to eliminate them: