For whatever reason, I’ve chosen to write to an audience outside of Canada about Canada and First Nations. About Chief Spence. About poverty. I have no well-developed reason, other than I hope to drum up further support for my people, for Spence’s people, for Canadians, and the environment. I hardly expect to teach anything. I may not even be correct on particular facts, but in everything I write, I will be sincere. I will be writing from a more personal perspective, as well, because even if you, my reader, disagree with me, you’ll at least understand why I say what I say.
Before getting to Chief Spence’s hunger strike, and the Idle No More movement, I’ll briefly describe myself, and my people, because whom I am is from where and whom I come. I am Secwec, of the Johnny family, of the Kinbasket family, who have lived on our lands for millenia. I used to say I am Secwepemc, but I have come to believe I hardly pemc, or proper. I am a man without true Secwep identity. I wear a white mask over my red face. All my personality has been invested into this mask. Without this mask, I would hardly be able to properly function in white society. Chief Spence, she inspires me to remove this mask….
I have no identity, because of Canada. For over a hundred years, my people have known the white man. We knew the French man, and then the English man, and then finally the settler. The French man came to learn, to explore, and did not stay, but we enjoyed their company. The English man came to trade, and built forts, but we tolerated them, for they hardly bothered us, and were of some benefit. However, finally, the settler came, and we were overwhelmed. When the settler came, they already rivaled us in number, but this didn’t last long, for the settler brought with him smallpox and yellow fever, but neglected to share his treatment. Diseases that already had a thirty percent fatality rate, treated, were absolutely devastating to us, untreated. We were nearly rendered extinct.
And the settler brought him a nearly industrialized policy of dealing with First Nations. In the East, the English man had made treaties with First Nations, but perhaps the settler had found these contracts signed to be too inconvenient, for he signed no treaties with any people on this western side of the Rockie Mountains. Besides, why would he sign any treaty, when he already knew what to do with the red man? In the East, the settler had invented the policy of assimilation, which is….
Assimilation is a most vile and racist policy. It is predicated on the belief in an “Indian problem“. The “solution”, reasoned the settler, would be to strip the red soul from the red man’s body, and replace it with a white soul. However, they had to start early in a red man’s life. And so, they took (through coercion or kidnapping) the red children, and brought them to big red brick buildings called residential schools.
Technically, these were meant to be trade and technical schools, because red skin people would never fit into academic society, right? Also, the government had no interest in creating public schools for the red man, and so entrusted the residential school system to various churches, in an effort to save money. And that was that. The Indian problem would be solved in two years!
What happened beyond those red brick walls, though, was horror. Beatings, rape, neglect, forced abortions, disappearances, and even murder. I’m not describing US prisons. These were meant to be schools for mainly grade and middle school aged children! And this system was enforced for generations. There was no white woman who wrote a book that convinced the Canadian nation there needed to be vast reform. There were no whistle-blowers leaking evidence of church wrongdoing. All there were were survivors. And they could be safely ignored, because by the time many red skins either escaped or were kicked out of residential school (there were graduates, too, apparently), they had discovered alcohol. Alcohol, it was the one available salve for what is now known as PTSD. Back then, though, it was just Indians showing their true moral fibre, or rather, how they lacked it. The drunk Indian was quickly, and conveniently, born in white Canadian imagination.
I should move along from the history of residential schools, but its place in First Nations/Canadian relations is absolutely vital. There are many who’d like for the history of these institutions to remain buried and forgotten, disclaiming it all as ancient history, but the last residential school was closed in 1996. There are many people who were involved in the daily beating of children still walking around free, today, even. There are serial rapists calling themselves priests and nuns still at large. And there remain thousands of missing First Nations. And tens, nay, hundreds of thousands more who to this day feel the pain these institutions wrought.
Chief Spence is admirable. I would argue, in her place, not for peaceful dialogue, but heated confrontation, with the possibility of violence.
Anyway, the residential school system was not the only policy Canada forcefully applied to First Nations. There was another policy, which continues to this day. It’s an unwritten rule: “Enough to keep them alive“. This is the policy Chief Spence opposes. It is this rule Stephan Harper follows in regards to his policies concerning First Nations. It’s a policy of severe austerity Canada has been enforcing upon first Nations since Canada has been in existence.
Like in the USA, Indian reservations were created not as permanent residencies for First Nations, but temporary. However, most have persisted to this day. This is another of Chief Spence’s protests. Many reserves are in precarious positions, with no access to the Canadian economy, due to restrictions, such as environmental, physical distance, and government rules. Chief Spence’s reserve, Attawapiskat, unfortunately is beset by all three burdens. And her reserve is tens, perhaps hundreds, of millions of dollars short of funding per year to bring the level of quality of life up to white Canadian standards. Ye gods! There’s no school there. There’s people living in tents in the middle of winter! And whatever homes are there, there are dozens of people living in them. And the people living in these conditions will not pick up and leave, until there are conditions laid down. They fear, and I don’t blame them, that if they leave their reserve, they’ll lose that land to the government of Canada, and not get anything in return for it.
Anyway, we have to take all this history I briefly described, and apply to why there’s a growing movement called Idle No More.
The history of relations between Canada and First Nations is racist and violent. However, prior to Harper being voted into power by Canadians, Canada and First Nations had taken some small but important first steps toward reconciliation. However, Harper and his government have pulled away Canada from that process. Chief Spence, and Canada’s First Nations peoples are demanding Canada as a nation return to the path of reconciliation.
Chief Spence has admirably chosen a non-violent protest to force a response from Canada. However, she’s gambling her life, which First Nations across Canada have noticed. How Harper responds to Spence will reveal to us how we must deal with Canada in the days to come.
Personally, I’ve been building resolve, within. I’ve been observing my own life, noting I’m living in poverty, and I have no hope for a successful future. I have nothing worth sacrificing but my own life. I know I am not the only First Nation doing so. This movement grows, bit by bit, day by day. However, I must issue a warning. First Nations as a people aren’t more or less inclined toward non-violent resistance. We prefer diplomacy, but we do not hesitate to embrace militancy, if events transpire as such.
Perhaps another reason I wrote this diary for a USA audience is as a warning. First Nations protests aren’t constrained by the borders of Canada and the USA. My own people stretch beyond the border of BC and Washington State, as we fished along the Fraser and Columbia Rivers (which is why my people are both Canadian and USA citizenship, or rather, because my people have no treaty with Canada or the United States, we hold no citizenship with either country, but for expediency sake, we’re considered to be both). Anyway, the poorest areas in the USA are Indian reserves. Should the First Nations within Canada’s borders become militant toward the Canadian government, I would not be surprised if this militancy was exported fully formed to reserves in the USA, just as the militancy of the First Nations in the USA helped contribute to the Oka standoff, and the years of militancy that followed thereafter.
Photo by Library and Archives Canada / Bibliothèque et Archives Canada released under a Creative Commons license.