Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Trying to Understand Idle No More

I have a great deal of mixed emotions when it comes to the Idle No More movement. I think this largely stems from the personal context in which I view the protests. For those who may be unaware I wrote my Master’s major research paper on the topic of Aboriginal protest in the Northwest Territories over the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline in the 1970s. My interpretation was that First Nations, Inuit and Metis leaders were fundamental in halting development until terms could be agreed to more favourable to them. I took a keen interest in Canadian-Aboriginal history and the Native-Newcomer relationship throughout my post-secondary education. My mentor at Brock University was Dr. Maureen Lux, a leading expert in the field of Aboriginal history in Canada, particularly as it relates to healthcare and medicine. In addition, I am an Aboriginal-Canadian. To be specific my family is from the Qalipu band of the Mi’kmaq of Newfoundland.

That all being said I have become very uncomfortable presenting myself as an Aboriginal-Canadian. I grew up in the suburbs of Brampton, in a comfortable lower-middle class family. To the vast majority of people I appear to be fully Caucasian, and therefore have more than likely benefitted from the intrinsic biases in our culture and society. Any premise I offer as an Aboriginal living in Canada feels, at least to my mind, deeply flawed. As a counterpoint though I must wonder, should it? Does being Aboriginal in Canada mean you have to look a certain way, live on a reserve, be denied certain opportunities simply because who you are? It is a cold way to create “authentic” and “inauthentic” Aboriginals in this country, much like the debate about “blackness” within the United States.

And then there is the debate surrounding Idle No More. Debate may be too polite a word for the clashing of words and gnashing of teeth that it really represents. There are those out there that dismiss the concerns of the Idle No More movement completely, and in fact would like to see existing Aboriginal rights reduced to a minimum, if not eliminated entirely. While I would hope that these views are motivated by ignorance there is more than likely a few in the throng who have maliciousness against First Nations, Metis and Inuit people when they say what they say.

However, those who question Idle No More, its leaders or program cannot simply label these critics racists. It is lazy, and simplistic. Criticism needs to be responded to by facts, not slurs. Twitter, sadly, and all the internet, is more conducive to the quick jab and not the nuanced argument.

Some of the rhetoric around the protest on behalf of its supporters makes me very uncomfortable. To be clear I am a supporter of Aboriginal rights and want to see treaties upheld and the appalling conditions on reserves come to an end, but the language employed by other supporters of Idle No More causes me pause and makes me wonder if I am truly aligned with those who use it. I don’t think I can look at current government policy and agree with Pam Palmater that a genocide is occurring in Canada. I cannot accept that most major columnists in Canada are virulent racists.

While reading posts supportive of Idle No More a different term kept floating around that made me uneasy. Several of the posters were using the term “settlers” to describe non-Native Canadians. The term is fair enough, I suppose, but I can’t help but scratch beneath the surface of the word. The French elements of my family tree arrived in Canada roughly two hundred years ago. After two centuries in Newfoundland are my family members still “settlers”? It is not as though we know any other home besides Canada. What about New Canadians? Those who have arrived from the Caribbean, or India, or China? Are they settlers? These territories were colonized (often by the same empires as Canada) too. They have very minimal connection to the history of abuse and racism between the state and indigenous peoples.

Idle No More can be seen as a far more specific, influential and widespread iteration of the Occupy Movement, but it suffers from all of the same weaknesses: its demands are diffuse; it has no clear leadership; it is composed of diverse groups with distinct interests; it has no way to measure success or failure. Unlike Occupy, Idle No More has invested activists and supporters, but I fear if/when it produces no results it will only result in an angrier and perhaps more radical community.

As a historian I have become very, very cynical and pessimistic about Aboriginal-governmental relations. The various indigenous communities across this country do not have common goals, each one faces their own unique set of circumstances. No government policy will result in a panacea. Tailoring policies for each community will be exhaustive and take an extraordinary amount of time. There are no easy answers. Even solutions that may be commonsense, like getting the provinces to extend social services, are fraught with problems of treaty rights and responsibilities. What’s worse is that it often feels like opposing sides in these discussions not only have their own opinions, but their own facts which cannot be reconciled with each other.

Obviously this piece offers very few answers. Canada is a colonial nation with a colonial legacy. Sadly we have not done enough to change that legacy. A series of half-measures and assimilationist policies have done incredible damage to communities, and now we are left to try to figure out what to do next. Idle No More as a movement may not be providing the answers we need, but it is at least raising the questions we need to ask.

No comments: