âpihtawikosisân has moved, remember to come visit!

The new site is now up!  But it’s feeling a little lonely without you!

No new content aside from this post will be published on this wordpress.com blog, so I ask you to join us over at âpihtawikosisân.com and resubscribe to the blog!

There is a new article up on Health Canada’s recent decision to delist OxyContin and all other oxycodones from the First Nations and Inuit Drug Benefit List, and what this will mean for the Nishnawbe Aski Nation and other communities struggling with addictions.

In the coming days there will also be an announcement which should excite my fellow language geeks out there, nothing earth-shattering I’m afraid, but enough to keep you in giggles for a while.  And you’ll miss it if you languish alone over here!

So I hope to see some familiar faces at the ‘new house’ soon.  I hope you’re all having an excellent weekend!

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Why so quiet lately?

Well, quiet for me!

I wanted to let everyone know that I’m in the process of transferring this blog to the newly registered http://www.apihtawikosisan.ca (and .com), and the logistics involved in this is what has diverted my attention lately.  I’d like to pretend that I can take credit for all the complex technical details, but I’m as tech savvy as a muskrat.  Mostly I’ve been mentally reorganising and compiling excellent links and resources for both language learning and general education on indigenous issues.

All that to say, I’ve been doing a lot of web-surfing lately, and having my socks blown off by just how much native peoples are accomplishing and developing in so many fields.  I want to bring those achievements to a wider audience, and WordPress is just getting too confining.

I’m trusting that the transition will go smoothly and as time goes on there will be some visual changes to the site as well as a lot of new content.  I hope you bear with me.  In addition, it’s possible that this blog will be cohosted by rabble.ca in the near future which should nicely offset the fact that some articles are also on HuffPo!

Don’t worry, I’ll be running my mouth off again in a very short time.

Posted in Uncategorized | 8 Comments

Nimama, are they going to take me away too?

My youngest daughter was six years old when she asked me this, clinging to me in desperation, her face distorted and her eyes full of tears.  I hadn’t expected such a visceral reaction, and before I could say something intelligent and soothing, I started crying.

I rocked her on my lap say ‘moya ‘moya ‘moya (no no no) over and over again.  Just as I had not anticipated her terror, I was taken by surprise by my own.  Just thinking about someone taking my child from me is enough to cause my throat to close in fear.

Teaching children about Residential Schools

So how do you tell your children about Residential Schools without scaring the crap out of them?

To be honest, I’m not sure you can avoid it.  I certainly did not set out to scare my girls.  They had heard me talking about Residential Schools before and asked me what they were.  As a parent, I made the decision early on to answer my children’s questions honestly.  I believe that if they are old enough to ask you the question, they are old enough to get an answer, presented clearly and simply so they understand it.

I chose to explain Residential Schools to my daughters via a children’s book by Nicola I. Campbell titled Shi-shi-etko.  There is a forward to the book that gives some brief background to the reader on the Residential School system, and I’d begun by reading it to them. I hadn’t even gotten into the actual story, and this was how frightened they became.

Some truths are ugly

I believe you cannot avoid scaring children, and even adults, when you talk about Residential Schools for one simple reason: it is a scary topic.

The book Shi-shi-etko (which was also made into a film) and its sequel, Shin-chi’s Canoe, depict Residential School experiences from a child’s perspective, without dwelling on the more horrific details of abuse.  If you think this presents children with a sanitised version, think again.  Children live so much in their imaginations that a brief description of being fed watery soup while the teachers feast on meat and potatoes, is all it takes for them to launch themselves into the scene.  They feel the outrage keenly and their sadness and anger are real.

When we finished the books, they had a million questions.  Why did they take children from their families?  Why didn’t the children hide in the bush?  Why couldn’t their families hide them?  Why were the children treated like that?  And again, despite my reassurances…will they take us away too?

Exploring this topic with children is powerful

I discovered that exploring the history of Residential Schooling with my children was a very different experience than speaking about it to adults.

You see, adults can compartamentalise in a way that children don’t.  When you are speaking to adults who know little or nothing about Residential Schools, they are able to imagine it in the distant past in a way that shields them from the full horror of the system. They can agree that it was wrong, but they can avoid the kind of visceral reaction my daughter had.  Which is good in one way, because I’m not so great with the spontaneous clinging if the person doing it isn’t my kid.  It’s not so good when it allows people to ignore the impact Residential Schools have had on people who are still living today.

If you are a parent who does not have the answers to your child’s inevitable questions once they learn about Residential Schools, then there are many resources you can access to learn more about it yourself so you can teach them.

– people like to diss wikipedia, but it’s a good place to start when you are unfamiliar with a topic.  The article on Residential Schools in Canada is a pretty good overview and there are many external links provided if you want more information.

Some resources to access with your children

– I find that kids become very absorbed in the pictures out there of Residential Schools, particularly those showing children.  It seems simplistic perhaps, but the many archival photos are very powerful.

– this is an interactive website that provides information on the history of Indian Residential Schools in Canada, as well as features such as a 3D interactive tour of the Mohawk Institute in Brantford, Ontario.  Some of the information will be interesting to younger children, but the site is aimed mostly at children in highschool.

– despite decades of stories of the high mortality rates in Residential Schools, only recently has an investigation been launched into just how many Aboriginal children died, how they died, and where they are buried.  This news article gives a brief background on the Missing Children Research Project.

– this project is aimed at commemorating the thousands of deaths in Residential Schools, and as the site states: “to encourage “ownership” of this historic injustice by the non-Indigenous community. By doing so, non-Aboriginal Canadians can then be moved to take responsibility for the continued oppression of Indigenous people in Canada, and be inspired to take action.”  There are some suggestions for activities on this site as well.

– autobiographical or fictional, these books for young readers can help children explore the history of Residential Schooling from the perspective of children their own age.

-pictures and information leading you through the Red Lake Residential School experience.

Do you have more suggestions?

I’m not sure I’m ever going to go in depth into Residential Schools on this blog.  It’s too draining.  But if you have more suggestions for resources (online or in print) that would be appropriate for children, please feel free to post them!

Posted in Injustice, Residential schools | Tagged , , , , | 31 Comments

The do’s, don’ts, maybes, and I-don’t-knows of cultural appropriation.

Cultural appropriation is a seriously hot-button topic.  It ranges from the aggressively entitled stance of, “I can do whatever I want!” to the perpetually angry approach of “everything is cultural appropriation!”.  Of course, the former is a much larger portion of the debate, and the latter is almost always a huge straw-man argument that few people actually make, but serves to bolster the idea that anyone who takes issue with cultural appropriation is a hysterical hater.  That might not be clear when you first start looking into the issue, however.

I bring this topic up precisely because it does scare and confuse and inflame.  Except I want to avoid all that negative stuff as best I can.  I won’t be completely successful, but that is because there are no set-in-stone rules here.  There is no ‘common’ sense, because our viewpoints on the subject can and will diverge radically and we lack a common understanding.

It shouldn’t need stating that I am not presenting myself as an authority on this, but I’ve found that I do need to include this disclaimer.  Much like in the post on what to call us, I present you with my thoughts on the matter, recognising that there are legitimate arguments for and against my various positions.  In short, nitôtêmitik, this issue isn’t easy for anyone.  Not for me, not for you.  If easy answers is what you seek, I shall leave you disappointed.  Promise.

Because so much has been said on this topic about colonialism and racism and marginalisation and so forth, I wanted to add in a few points from a related but slightly different perspective than I often see discussed.  To cut down on verbiage (too late), consider this entire post an ‘add-on’ to the larger discussion, rather than a complete encapsulation of it.

First, some resources

A lot has been said on this issue, and although I do a lot of in-my-head work, I also read what other people have to say about these things.  You should too.

You don’t have to read it all right this second, but I want you to have a few more resources to access if this topic interests you. I tend to focus on cultural appropriation as it relates to native peoples, though this issue is hardly limited to us.

The blog Native Appropriations is a great place to do some reading.  The post “But Why Can’t I wear a Hipster Headdress?” deals explicitly with the kinds of things you’ll see in the Hall of Shame.

Tumblr user adailyriot put together a good list of links to read and check out.  I would ask that you not go into this exploration expecting everyone to speak softly and politely.  You may not understand why some of these behaviours impact us so deeply, but that lack of understanding does not justify rejecting our words if they are not delivered in a certain tone. Remember that this is me at my calmest.  I have been moved to tears of helpless rage more than once over these things…and my words are not always polite when I am processing that sort of thing.

So a guy walks into a bar and asks…

What does the Victoria Cross, the Order of Canada, a framed Bachelor’s degree, the Giller Prize and an eagle feather all have in common?

There is no punchline actually. Each one of these things is a symbol, a visual recognition of a certain kind of achievement.  I’m sure you can think of many more of these symbols of military, humanitarian, academic, literary or what-have-you achievement.

The symbol is important, but only because of what it represents.  Without that deeper meaning, the Victoria Cross is gaudy jewellery, a Bachelor Degree is just a piece of paper, the Giller Prize is abstract art and an eagle feather is just ornamentation.

These symbols are restricted to those who have fulfilled certain criteria.  Yes, there are people out there who would mock the symbols and wear representations of them for kicks.  They’d get some odd looks though…I mean, how ironic can you claim to be, lugging around a fake Giller Prize?

There are also people who would lie about their achievements and pretend to have earned what the symbols represent.  You can imagine the reaction to someone pretending they’d earned the Victoria Cross…or someone claiming they have a degree in medicine when they do not.  Sometimes these kinds of claims are met with criminal sanction, so seriously do we take this sort of thing.

Restricted versus unrestricted

So there are a category of symbols in Canadian culture which are restricted within that culture.  Not everyone can use those restricted symbols.  There are rules about how you have to earn them, who can fashion the symbols themselves for you, who can present you with these symbols, and even sometimes what you can do with the symbols.  And always behind that material, physical symbol, is the oft-times intangible ‘thing you achieved’ that is linked to the symbol itself.  Obviously, other cultures also have restricted symbols linked to deeper, less obviously visible achievements.

Then there are symbols in Canadian culture which are not restricted to those who have achieved specific things.  Every Canadian is entitled to use the Canadian flag for example, and the meaning behind the use of that flag will vary depending on what a person individually wishes to symbolise.  A connection to the country?  A call for unity?  A protest against some action or policy?  Questionable fashion?

The meaning varies though the symbol stays the same, and we can (and do) alter that meaning with how we use the symbol.  We express different ideas with how we use the symbol, and we do not generally punish people for doing what they want with that symbol.

If someone unfamiliar with Canadian culture were to decorate herself with a string of fake Victoria Crosses, the reaction would be different than if the same person draped a Canadian flag over her non-Canadian shoulders.

In the case of the Victoria Cross, there is a possibility that the person wants to make a statement about what the Victoria Cross represents.  That would require understanding what the medal represents of course. Simply choosing it because it ‘looks nice’ and wearing it out to a party, does not a statement make.

Since the Canadian flag does not have such a clear cut meaning, there is not as much need to ‘get what it means’.  Its meaning can vary just as much outside of Canadian culture as within it.  Canadians might be offended with how someone outside the culture uses the flag…but they can also just as likely be offended by how someone within the culture uses it.

Cheapen the symbol, cheapen the achievement

In case it wasn’t extremely clear, eagle feathers are restricted symbols in the many indigenous cultures found throughout Canada and the US.  They represent various achievements made by the person who is presented with the feather.  Being presented with a feather is a great honour.  Many indigenous people will receive only one in their life-time, or perhaps never have that opportunity.

Because of the significance of the eagle feather, very few native people would display feathers they haven’t earned.  It would be like wearing that Victoria Cross I keep mentioning.  Someone outside the culture might not realise what the symbol means and perhaps would not call that person out in disgust for wearing it…but those from within the culture probably would.  It would be shameful.

It also cheapens the symbols earned by others.  Oh, those who earned the symbol would still know what they did, and that would never go away, but part of the power of a symbol is what it says to others.  These kinds of symbols are not for our own, personal recognition of our achievements alone.  They say, “here is a visual representation of the honour bestowed upon this person for their achievement”.  When everyone is running around with a copy of that symbol, then it is easy to forget that some people have to earn it and that it means something.  In fact…when many people run around with copies of restricted symbols, there may never be widespread understanding that the symbol ever meant anything.

And that is exactly where we are at with so many symbols from cultures other than our own.  No understanding of all what they mean, and if they are restricted or not, and why.

And hipsters?  In most of our nations, women do not wear feather headdresses.  Ever.  Stop it.

How do I know what’s restricted and what isn’t?


Ha, okay, of course I have more to say on the subject.  But it really can be as simple as asking sometimes, or even just doing a little research on the ye olde interwebs.

I find nothing wrong with someone wearing beaded Métis moccasins, for example.  Moccasins are not restricted in my culture.  They are often beautiful works of art, but they are not symbols of achievement beyond the amazing work put into them by the artisan.

I would not be okay with someone wearing a Métis sash if they are not Métis, however.  The sash has become a symbol of identity and achievement. Perhaps it was not always that way, because in the past it was a very utilitarian thing used to carry all sorts of things (including infants), or tie your coat together, or what have you.  But it is a powerful symbol now, and sometimes presented to Métis in the same way the eagle feather is presented.

Stop rolling your eyes at the term ‘sacred’ and think ‘important’ instead

Before I go on, I want to discuss something.  I do not care if you are religious, spiritual, or atheist.  These are choices you make, and I respect them.  However, because of the turbulent history of religion in western settler philosophy (and in many other parts of the world, from whence Canadians come), the translation of terms from our languages into the word ‘sacred’ can sometimes cause trouble.  Let’s talk about that for a second.

I feel that when other cultures discuss ‘sacred’ things, some people feel obligated to reject or elevate those things because of how they feel about their own religious traditions, or their atheism.  The issue gets confused as being about ‘religion’, when that is not necessarily what is going on.

Usually when we say ‘sacred’, there are more complex terms in our own language that apply…all of which basically mean to impart that the thing in question is ‘important and meaningful in a specific way’.  When you see the term ‘sacred’, please remember that.

Adapting to the interest

The Maori have sacred tattoos called tā moko. As I note above, this is not just some religious mumbo-jumbo with no further meaning.  The tattoos are specific symbolic representations of relationships, often kinship relationships.  In addition, they no doubt have all sorts of meanings I don’t have a clue about.  The point is, they aren’t just pretty designs.  They are designs with restricted, important meaning.

But they are nice.  And humans like nice things and want them for themselves.  So when non-Maori started copying these tattoos, a decision was made to promote kirituhi.  These are designs similar to tā-moko, but without the specific important meanings.  The kirituhi are not restricted, and are specifically designed to accommodate interest in the style of tattoo, without violating the meaning of the tā-moko.

More importantly, the decision to create a non-sacred version of the tattoos was made within the culture.  It is very likely that not every Maori person agreed this should be done at all, but you will never have complete agreement in any community.

Legitimate access

I would be uncomfortable wearing a sari.  For one thing, I have no idea how to put one on and would end up looking terrible…

But they are truly beautiful, aren’t they?  Amazing fabrics I can drool over all day.  Yet my discomfort is not really about how to wear them, nor is it based on the sari being a restricted form of dress, because as far as I know it is not.

I would feel uncomfortable because I know very little about the cultures from whence the sari comes.  I have not attended an Indian wedding, or other occasions where wearing a sari makes sense.  I do not believe I would be disrespecting Indian cultures by wearing a sari (unless I chose the very unfortunate day of Halloween to put it on as a ‘costume’ in which case, please feel free to slap me).  Nonetheless, my lack of any real connection to Indian cultures makes the entire thing awkward.

Other people have experiences with and within the culture that mean they can wear the sari and not feel strange.  I think that some people from outside a culture can have legitimate access to these things, without it being cultural appropriation.

But it is a minefield, because thoughtless cultural appropriation of meaningful symbols is still very much the status quo in settler cultures.  Thus it is still more reasonable to assume someone has little real understanding of the culture from the symbol originates from, than to assume they have a meaningful connection to that culture.  This can be very frustrating for people who have learned a lot about another culture, and who are even integrated into it.  But until things change, and thoughtless (and even mean-spirited) appropriation is a fringe behaviour, this is something you may have to live with if you do not come from the culture you so admire.

That there are examples of people with legitimate access to the cultures of others, does not mean you personally are not engaged in cultural appropriation if you do the same as they do.

If you admire a culture, learn about it

It does not take long to find out that certain modes of so-called ‘geisha’ dress are restricted in Japanese culture for example.  The common ‘geisha costume‘ attempts to imitate the maiko.

The bastardisation of geisha culture is not a happy history, and these abuses do not mean that the symbolism has lost meaning within Japanese culture even if some Japanese play into the stereotypes.  To put it another way, just because many people before you have ignored the symbolism and importance of geisha styles of dress, does not mean it is okay for you to do so. We’re trying to become better people aren’t we? There are many other beautiful, unrestricted Japanese styles that you can access an integrate into your own personal style.  Please don’t claim  you are honouring someone else’s tradition or culture when you fail to learn even this much about it.

Combating misinformation

Recently on tumblr, a platform I am still getting to know, there was a concerted effort made by aboriginal people to take back certain categories which were seen as misrepresenting indigenous culture.

On January7, the Native/First Nations Tumblr community came together as a unified force and took back our tags: #Native American, #NDN, and the ridiculous #Indian Hat.

Prior to that day, and most likely going back to the dawn of Tumblr, the #Native American tag had been one which none of the native/first nations people could go to and not cringe and get pissed looking through.

Tumblr is a vast blogging site that consists of nearly 40 million blogs and over 15 billion posts. Anyone can post whatever they like to Tumblr, although most posts tend to be images. And bloggers can tag these posts by subject matter, thus enabling other users to browse all posts on Tumblr by tag.

For many Natives, it was a very frustrating experience to click on tags such as #Native American and find the material to be mostly very UN-Native. The tags were filled primarily with images of non-native hipsters in various stages of being clothed and soberness wearing headdresses, skewed ideas of natives, dream catchers, that damned two wolves story, and other racist stereotypical imagery of Native Americans and First Nations peoples. The tag that ought to belong to us, and that ought to help us find each other, was being used by others, slapped insensitively onto images and ideas we actively dislike.

The emergence of social media platforms like tumblr, Facebook, twitter and yes, blogs, has created amazing possibilities for aboriginal people to combat centuries-old stereotypes and misconceptions.  However, we are up against the sheer volume of those stereotypes and sometimes it can feel like a losing battle.

But actions like that described above are not just a way of lashing out at people engaged in cultural appropriation.  There is a real desire to get accurate information out there, for natives and non-natives alike to access.

Many aboriginal people have been disconnected from their own cultures because of Residential Schools, the 60’s Scoop, and continuing ‘fostering-out’ into non-native families.  When these people want to learn more about their own culture, they have to wade through so many inaccuracies that it can feel impossible at times to reconnect. Non-natives with a real interest in aboriginal cultures face this as well.

For example, when artwork is mistakenly represented as Dene, Ojibway AND Cree, the viewer does not have an opporutnity to see how the styles are different, contributing to an inaccurate ‘pan-Indian’ view of our cultures. All the misinformation out there is a serious impediment to having Canadians understand who we are.  It is a serious impediment to understanding ourselves.

Try celebration, instead of appropriation

It’s okay to love our stuff.  You can even have a whole lot of it, legitimately and guilt-free! Take a look at the artisans/clothing page for some legitimate native swag.  Notice that none of these places are going to sell you eagle feathers or war bonnets.

There are a lot of knock-offs out there, and regardless of your views on pirated-anything, the fact is, buying cheap imitation “native stuff” hurts our communities and quite often perpetuates stereotypes and cultural confusion.

A lot of work and high quality materials go into aboriginal ‘stuff’.  Carvings, woven baskets, clothing…there are skills and training involved in producing this sort of thing that can be imitated, but not matched.  You can’t afford $200 for beaded and fur-trimmed moose-hide mocs?  Perhaps you should consider going without until you can.  Can’t afford an original piece of aboriginal art?  Buy a print. You can support aboriginal communities in a real, tangible way by supporting our artisans.

A lot of fakes are being produced both here in Canada and overseas.  Yes, that shit is offensive.  If you like our stuff enough to want it, then please.  Get it authentically.  Know what nation it comes from (Cree?  Dene?  Inuvialuit?) and who the artisan is.  If you’re buying art, find out what it means.  Does it represent a traditional story, or a modern one?  I mean…if you’re buying this stuff, don’t you want to know about it?

*sigh* I know that’s expecting a little much when you’re looking at a dream-catcher print t-shirt from H&M, but hopefully this will at least help people avoid buying stupid ugly fake headdresses from online and retail stores. This is a great article on approaching questions about fashion, btw, if you’re worried about feathered earrings and so on.

Anyway.  There is a lot more to be said on this topic, but I’m going to leave it there because holy, ever longwinded!


Posted in Cultural appropriation, Culture, Decolonisation, Metis beadwork, Pan-Indian, Representation of natives | Tagged , , , , , , | 42 Comments

No offense but…

I recently had a fight with someone I consider a friend, and day three after the event, I am still trying to deconstruct how it all went so wrong.  This ordinarily would not be blog material, except that the situation is all too familiar, for me, and no doubt for many others.

I think these situations can come about in three different ways:

  • Someone says something she or he knows is offensive, with the intent to offend (honest bigotry).
  • Someone says something he or she is pretty sure is offensive, but feels that others will understand because it really wasn’t meant that way (dishonest “no offense but” bigotry).
  • Someone says something she or he honestly doesn’t know is offensive (unaware bigotry).

Let me state for the record, that being a bigot is not an incurable disease.  It is not everything you are.  It doesn’t necessarily move you from the ‘good’ column into the ‘bad’ column. In fact, I feel strongly enough about this that I want to shift the dialogue a little, in order to focus on people’s behaviours which are bigoted, rather on them as bigots.

The bigot

To me, a bigot is someone who has consciously chosen to remain prejudiced, either by omission (not trying to learn more) or by commission (learning, rejecting, rooting).

Someone who is unaware that there is any problem with their behaviours is not necessarily a bigot, imo.  Their behaviours are bigoted, yes…but the magical alchemy that changes someone from a person who does/says bigoted things into A Bigot, happens after their attention is drawn to to problem. It happens when that person either decides not to do anything about it (omission) or decides to learn more and then chooses to continue doing and saying those things (commission).

You can rant and rail all you want (I’ll be your willing chorus line) about systemic bigotry and how it is perpetuated in socio-political structures.  But I honestly believe on the individual level, people can change if they are given the opportunity…or else I wouldn’t even put the kind of effort into this blog that I do.  Nonetheless, I absolutely need to stress that it is not the job of the targets of bigotry to change minds.  The commitment has to come from within.

Short version?  Don’t be a bigot.

I’m a lover, not a fighter

Breaking bigoted behaviours into categories is useful for me, because it helps me determine my approach.  Dealing with full on bigots is something I try to avoid.  It’s too scary, honestly.  I shouldn’t be expected to try to ‘educate’ someone who straight up hates me because of the group I am a part of.  No one should be expected to  expose themselves to that level of psychological, emotional and even physical violence.  That’s ‘last resort’ stuff, in my opinion.

It’s shocking how often people do expect us to confront these kinds of people, however.  As though a failure to do so is the cause of the bigotry.  No lie.  And if it’s unclear here, this expectation is not restricted to indigenous peoples.

We are also expected to address bigoted behaviours, often for the same reason (if you don’t, it’s kind of your fault that they keep believing that).  This can actually be more traumatising, because rational people will understand why I’m loathe to go toe to toe with a swastika-tattooed woman in a “I hate Indians” t-shirt…but they might not understand why I’m pulling away from a discussion with a friend.

I feel that lack of understanding is at the root of ‘how things went so wrong’ recently.

So because I’m calmer today, I’m going to try to explain this, and hopefully when someone out there experiences the same sort of thing, they can avoid the anger and guilt and read this and go…I’m glad it’s not just me!

I can’t believe you just said that!

Here’s where it begins.  You’re blithely going about your day (or perhaps you’re even being a bit bitchy on an online forum) and then boom.  Someone says or does something that stops you in your tracks.  Fight or flight response, the adrenaline surges!  And maybe you don’t deal with it well.  You give into the anger and you attack, because it hurts.

Now let’s talk about spaces and armour.  Because there are certain spaces which aren’t safe, and you go into those spaces knowing this.  You prepare for what feels inevitable sometimes…you prepare for the thoughtless and incredibly discriminatory statements or actions.  It can be exhausting to be in these spaces, but maintaining your armour also becomes a bit of a habit.  When people say or do heinous shit in those spaces, it might still trigger you, but you’ve probably got a battle plan.

Then there are spaces which ought to be safe.  Even if intellectually you recognise they aren’t guaranteed to be.  The classroom for example.  You want it to be a safe space, but often it is anything but.  Or being around friends.  Even when you know that they aren’t the kind to pussy-foot around their opinions (and neither are you).

Being in places where you feel ought to be safe, you end up not necessarily as prepared.  Less armour.  Things can get to you in a way they might not when you’re expecting it.  Your reaction may be less ‘smooth’.  You might just fly off the handle.

You know.  Not that I’ve ever done this.  Repeatedly. *innocent eyes*

That’s so messed up, I can’t even talk to you about it.

So what do you do?  Different responses flood your mind.  Generally I have a burning need to be very clear that whatever was done or said isn’t okay.

But you also might be too shocked, and too angry to deal with the incredibly long and complex process I described in bullet form in the last post.  Or you might not have the opportunity to get into it (e.g. you’re in class or at work).  Or you might resent the fact that just pointing out that something was not okay too often means you are the ‘bad guy’ until you convince everyone otherwise.  And if you have anything like the burning need for vindication that drove me through high-school, a degree in Education and then a degree in Law, you’ll understand why it’s hard for some of us to ‘let it go’.

Sometimes these considerations cause you to remain silent and fester about it for a while.

Sometimes you blurt out the equivalent of “I can’t believe you just said that” and then you run, for all the reasons listed above.

That’s not my argument!

Almost invariably in these situations, someone makes your argument for you, either in their heads, or out loud. And almost invariably, it’s completely and utterly divorced from your actual concerns.

There are a lot of misconceptions out there about certain topics.  A lot of those misconceptions centre around what people believe you (as a group and as an individual) want/think/advocate.

Not understanding our concerns is a root cause of bigotry.

The difficult in addressing this is one of the big reasons so many of us choose to disengage…because this is freaking HUGE.  Someone makes a comic or a statement or an argument that is bigoted, and instead of just being able to bring that to the person’s attention, you now have to also address the argument they’ve assigned to you.

It goes like this.  Someone disagrees that indigenous people have any more right to the land than someone who has been born there.  That’s a pretty fundamental issue for indigenous people, but the person saying this probably isn’t aware of just how fundamental it is.

So if you wanted to take on the monumental task of straightening out this confusion, you already would have to go into a lot of background about what land means to indigenous peoples, and about the plethora of ways in which people deny indigenous rights to land (any one of which could be motivating this person’s rejection of indigenous rights to land).  That’s a big task, right there.

Except you can’t even get to that part yet, because you have to wade through the things the other person thinks are ‘inherent to your position/argument’ first…because quite often, the person in question is going to throw these things in your face like facts, and then base their argument on your supposed position.

Maybe they think you want to kick all non-aboriginal people off the land and go back to living like we did pre-Contact (a fucking ridiculously common assumption that drives me up the wall every time).   And this is where things so often get turned around, and you get called the bigot.  That’s right.  This person doesn’t even actually know what your position is, but they think they do, and now if you don’t want to look like a bigot, you have to refute their false assumptions.

*throws hands up in air*

Sure, you win, whatever.

I’ve gotten good at spotting this problem, so I don’t get confused anymore when it comes to:

  1. recognising that someone has constructed a strawman argument (often without even realising it) and,
  2. fundamentally does not understand the initial position.

And I can basically say, sorry, that’s not my argument and you don’t actually understand the situation…

But that isn’t going to satisfy the other person. They’re going to want you to prove it.  Both that this is not your argument (by presenting what is often a complex argument) AND by refuting the initial statement/whatever.

If you can, walking away from this crap is a good idea.  The person you are dealing with does not understand what they are asking you to do, and just how much work would have to go into fulfilling that expectation. Even explaining to them what is involved in addressing their accusations requires you to deconstruct the power dynamic involved in this confrontation.

Not understanding how hard it is to deconstruct bigotry, and expecting the targets of it to do this for you, is an exercise in privilege.

This matters to me.

The issue in question is probably just an idle thought in the other person’s mind.  For you, it might be central to who you are.  And if it’s one of those ‘common beliefs’ people have about you and the the group you are a part of, you’ve probably had to go through this same dance so many times that your feet are just plain sore.

Talking about this stuff is hard.  No matter how safe the space.  Don’t understand why?  Go read the comments on any of the Huffington Post articles I’ve submitted, and you’ll see the level of evil shit people hurl at us all the time.  Someone suggested that maybe this was making me sensitive, and I had to laugh.  That statement assumes this is a recent thing I’ve been exposed to, rather than something I have spent my entire life immersed in.  Does it get to me more at some times than other times?  Sure.  But it is always there.  A background of hatred.

Not understanding how deeply these issues impact our daily lives is an exercise in privilege.

Not understanding how often we are called upon to defend ourselves on these issues, is an exercise in privilege.

I am willing to talk to people about these things.  I am willing to spend a lot of time doing it.  But I am not willing to have someone waste my energy when they don’t actually care about the issue; they just like arguing.  I am not willing to talk to someone who disrespects me by telling me what my argument is, rather than asking me.

I am not willing to go through all this effort with someone who demands I do so according to settler rules of adversarial debate. Particularly not when that person is a friend.

Requiring us to speak to you on your terms (or risk being dismissed), is an exercise in colonialism.

And there is another layer you might feel you need to point out to the person in question…but at that point, it’s often easier to just give up.

You have to want to understand.

Not everyone cares about your issues.  Some have never really encountered them before, so their behaviour falls into the ‘unaware bigotry’ category.

Others want to piss you off and make no bones about it.  These are the ones with behaviours that are in the ‘honest bigotry’ category…but encounters like these tend to be pretty rare, because it’s often the full on bigots that do this.

Some don’t understand the issues and perhaps haven’t made much effort  to learn more because these things do not impact them personally.  A lot of these people have behaviours that fall into the ‘dishonest “no offense but..” bigotry’ category.  Unfortunately, a lot of people believe that they have some sort of special exemption that absolves them of their bigoted behaviour.  Sometimes they think they have this exemption, because they are close to you and you know them better than that.  Broaching these subjects with friends can be even more stressful than bringing it up with a stranger.

Demanding that the targets of bigotry convince you to care about their situation, is oppressive.

I like to believe that people don’t want to be assholes all their lives, so when they find out they’re doing something bigoted, they will work to figure out how not to do that anymore.

It doesn’t always work this way, I get it.  But I can only do so much to persuade people to engage in the work necessary.  The rest of my energy must be spent on those who are trying already.

If you just don’t care about what matters to me, I’m not necessarily going to hold it against you.  I don’t need the whole world to be as interested in these issues as I necessarily am.

But I will not accept that not engaging immediately in all of the above work with someone who just made a bigoted comment, means I am just being a bitch for no reason.

I do expect others to learn enough to avoid engaging in active bigotry.  That may require learning something about the topic…or it may just mean not saying things about the situation when you don’t know anything about it.

Sometimes, silence is golden, people.


One last thing, before I present you with a little review.  There have been some excellent things written about solidarity movements, which by definition are made up of people who are not part of the group they are in solidarity with.  I bring this up, because some of the principles (such as decolonisation) involved in solidarity movements might help people understand what is involved in engaging actively in deconstructing bigotry.

Being supportive, or going further and being in solidarity with other people, requires that you do a lot of internal work.  That isn’t something you can expect other people to lead you through.  There are many resources out there for those interested in anti-racism, anti-colonialism, anti-sexism, etc etc etc.  Find them.  Learn from them.

Some things to think about.

So let’s review:

  • It is not the job of the targets of bigotry to change minds.
  • Not understanding our concerns is a root cause of bigotry.
  • Not understanding how hard it is to deconstruct bigotry, and expecting the targets of it to do this for you, is an exercise in privilege.
  • Not understanding how deeply these issues impact our daily lives is an exercise in privilege.
  • Not understanding how often we are called upon to defend ourselves on these issues, is an exercise in privilege.
  • Requiring us to speak to you on your terms or be dismissed, is an exercise in colonialism/oppression.
  • Demanding that the targets of bigotry convince you to care about their situation, is oppressive.

For more detailed information on how conversations get derailed into being about what the person exhibiting bigoted behaviours feels and wants, please check out Derailing for Dummies.

Thanks for your time, nitôtêmitik.

Posted in Alienation, Decolonisation, Injustice | Tagged , , , , , | 41 Comments

No soup for bigots.

I feel a need right now to discuss privilege.  It is a complex issue, and I have a lot to say about it, so this may end up being more than one post.  This is me attempting to rationally approach something that from time to time ambushes my life and hijacks my attention and emotional energy.  It is my attempt to articulate what I am unable to say when I am angry.

When it comes to friendships, some things are deal-breakers.  For me, it’s bigotry.  Can’t stop trash talking homosexuals?  No soup for you.  Hate and mock transgendered people?  No soup for you.  Sexist?  Ha ha a sandwich joke…no freaking soup for you.

That’s not a definitive list either.  The kind of person who treats someone disrespectfully because of a disability or illness (mental or physical) or is great in every other way except for a rabid hatred of Ukrainians…I consider these serious character flaws, and when I discover them, I definitely reconsider whether I can continue to be friends with someone like that.

It’s not as clear cut as it sounds though.  Sometimes you can know someone for a while before you see this side of them.  Or you believe that because they are admirable and intelligent in so many other ways, they must be saying those things sarcastically, mocking the stereotypes rather than perpetuating them. You have to decide whether or not you can handle talking to your friend about what they did or said or apparently believe.  This can be particularly hard to do that when you are part of the group in question.  The added sense of betrayal can make it feel even worse than if a random stranger walked up to you and said or did something similar.

Because contrary to popular bigot belief, most ‘minorities’ (how I hate the term, but trotting out a series of descriptors so that I can be inclusive invariably leaves me winded) don’t ‘pull the race/gender/whatever’ card out at the drop of a hat.  Nope.  Sorry.  There is so much actual crap hurled our way constantly, that if we called out ever instance of it, we’d get nothing else done.  And making up extra heaps of it?  No time folks, busy living over here.  For reals.

People who aren’t targets of bigotry don’t really grasp this.  I am a fair skinned Métis. I do not get targeted for my skin colour the way darker skinned people (native and non) do.  I don’t get pulled over for Driving While Indian, and when both my daughters cracked their heads open in the kitchen one day apart from one another, no one at the hospital accused me of child abuse as a default.  That is my fair-skinned privilege, and a lot of people don’t have it.

Thus it would be very easy for me to minimise the frequency of discrimination based on skin colour, if I were to compare other’s experiences to my own.  And to some extent, I am certain I do this.  It is not always there in my mind as a gnawing worry when I go out into the world.  My preparations are based on other characteristics I have which to some, render me less capable, less worthy of respect…less.  Always less.  Yet my experiences do not mean other people’s experiences are ‘exaggerations’.

When we do call someone on their bigotry, the proverbial shitstorm is unleashed.  Is there anything more offensive to a person’s sense of who they are than being called a bigot?  I mean this seriously.  Think about it. We all of us have ways of rationalising our behaviours, good or bad.  Bigotry isn’t a socially-accepted character trait.  Oh, the practice of bigotry is all around us regardless, but being labelled a bigot is a big social no-no.  It often doesn’t matter if what you really said was, “that thing you just did or said was discriminatory in this way…”, because what the person is often hearing is “YOU BIG JERKY BIGOT CREEPFACE!”

So it’s not a situation where ‘the card’ gets pulled too often.  Most of us don’t call people on their bigotry enough because we don’t want to deal with the long drawn out fallout.

Because when you call someone on their bigotry, in action or thought, suddenly it is your job to:

  • prove that the action or thought was actually bigoted which requires you to:
  • explain how it was bigoted, which requires you to:
  • go into a long historical exploration of socio-political structures which requires you to:
  • take a long freaking time deconstructing shit for someone else.

Don’t get me wrong.  I have a number of friends who don’t make you do this.  Who don’t go on the defensive, and who will think about it and figure out for themselves what wasn’t okay about that thing they said or did.  And if they still aren’t 100% sure about it, they’ll ask in a way that doesn’t demand you discuss it western-style debate form, bang bang someone’s a winner and someone’s a loser.  Oh Great Freaking Frybread of Awesome, I love you people for this.

The bulk of my experiences with identifying bigotry is much less pleasant.  In fact, it’s exhausting.  I didn’t sign up to be a professor in Decolonisation 101, here to give lessons in under 10 minutes at the drop of the hat, while being aggressively ‘debated’ and yes, even sometimes called a racist for bringing it up.

Now I’m going to flesh this out more in another post, because otherwise this is going to turn into a novel, but I want to end this post with a bit of a suggestion.  If someone tells you that what you did was disrespectful, please don’t immediately get your back up.  Yes yes, you have the right to be disrespectful if that’s really what you want to do and go you, exercising your freedom and all that…just state for the record you don’t give a shit about how other people feel and move on if that’s your thing.

For those of us who aren’t so silly, it can be jarring to have someone call you out on your behaviour, because it’s embarassing.  We don’t generally go around trying to be jerks, and when it happens and we honestly didn’t intend it, having it pointed out may trigger your fight or flight response.  But if I can get over the ‘shame’ of being lectured by an 8 year old about letting the nasty term ‘retard’ slip, you can get over your ego enough too.  None of us are perfect, and we can all work at being better people, every day.

Posted in Alienation, Decolonisation | Tagged , , , , , | 14 Comments

Speaking different languages at the CFNG

Well folks, there was a lot of ‘speaking two different languages‘ going on in Ottawa yesterday.

For me, the highlights of the Crown-First Nation Gathering held yesterday in Ottawa came from the mouths of two women, Dr. Pam Palmater and Chief Jody Wilson-Raybould. Dr. Palmater provided commentary during the opening and closing of the Gathering on APTN while Chief Wilson-Raybould addressed the Gathering itself.

I’ll admit that I didn’t exactly have high hopes about this summit, for reasons that Dr. Palmater laid out far more explicitly and thoroughly than I have room for here.  Harper’s opening speech confirmed that the Canadian government has no intention to abolish or even change the Indian Act (it’s a tree, after all, with deep roots) and National Chief Shawn Atleo‘s speech (scroll down for the full text in that link) though at odds with Harper’s in certain areas, didn’t exactly knock my socks off.

Granted, these were clearly all prepared speeches being essentially ‘read into the record’ by politicians who have be very careful about how they phrase things.  Lots of references to ‘a new day’ and such. People will analyse their words to death over the next months and even years, so expecting ground-shaking statements might be naive.

But when Chief Wilson-Raybould finished with her opening pleasantries and then tackled some tough subjects, my ears stopped dozing. Her speech prompted the first rounds of spontaneous applause heard after over two hours of speeches.  She said a lot of important things, and I urge you to listen to her words (at 2:24:30).

After giving a series of concrete examples of the obstacles to self-governance and economic development, and offering clear instructions on how to overcome those obstacles, she accepted Harper’s Indian Act-as-tree metaphor, and stated:

“We need core governance reform. When we do, the Indian Act tree will topple over. No gaping hole Mr. Prime Minister, but strong and self-determining First Nations.”

In the privacy of my living room, I was able to jump up and pump my fist like crazy without the least bit of embarrassment. Maybe you had to be there.

During and after the Gathering, Dr. Palmater (along with Doug Cuthand) provided razor sharp analysis of some of the issues raised which had me thinking that no wonder CSIS apparently has a file on her.

I particularly liked Ovide Mecredi recounting what a respected Elder told him to do about the Indian Act, advising Mecredi to “act Indian, not Indian Act.”  Again, this might not make sense to everyone reading this, and I think that is because just as was highlighted at the CFNG, we are often speaking two different languages.

Doug Cuthand pointed out that for most First Nations people, it’s “family first, community second, individual third” and noted that Harper had focused strongly on the individual first.  This is not the only instance of how we aren’t speaking the same language.  Chief Wilson-Raybould and Ovide Mecredi both gave plenty of other examples related to governance and the Treaties.

What strikes me as the most obvious difference in language and meaning however, is highlighted by the traditional acknowledgement of the territory one is on. In this case, the CFNG was hosted on Algonquin territory.

When Prime Minister Harper or Minister Duncan or the Governor General acknowledge they are on Algonquin territory, they don’t mean it.  They really don’t.  Why?  Because it would require acknowledging the sovereignty of the Algonquin people over those lands, which is something Canada steadfastly refuses to do.  To these people, the words are just platitudes.  Something you say when you’re dealing with Indians.  Empty phrases.

It is not an empty phrase for us.  It is an important affirmation of another nation’s territory, a recognition of the reciprocal obligations between hosts and guests, and it is also a constant modern-day assertion of indigenous sovereignty.

So when I read the CFNG outcome statement, I can’t help but feel that sure, it really would be a good step if we could manage to speak the same language.

So how about it, Canada?  Time for some national language lessons?

Posted in First Nations, INAC, Injustice | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

Guest Blog: Don’t give up on Attawapiskat!

The following article is my first ‘guest blog post’, by David Schulze, a partner in the law firm of Dionne Schulze in Montréal, which specializes in representing Aboriginal communities and individuals.  I think it is important to remember that the immediate problems facing Attawapiskat are still not resolved.

(This article may be linked to or reprinted, but must not be altered.  Proper attribution must be made to the author, David Schulze.  Images and links were inserted by âpihtawikosisân.)

What About Attawapiskat?  Why the situation is not hopeless if we make better choices.

David Schulze, 21 January 2012

Several yeas ago my daughter and I took the ferry from Prince Edward Island to the Magdalen Islands, a small chain of islands in the Gulf of the St. Lawrence, which are part of the Province of Quebec.

The Magdalen Islands

Only 13,000 people inhabit the islands year-round, but tourists flock there in the summer. Most of the islands are connected by land bridges, but sailing in from P.E.I., as the main archipelago comes into view, a ship passenger sees Entry Island, unconnected to the rest of the chain and separated by 12 km of water.

Entry Island has about 130 inhabitants and can only be reached by sea or air. A ferry arrives twice a day from May through December and the island has regular airplane service from January through April.

While in the Magdalen Islands, my daughter and I visited the Anglican priest, whom we knew from Montreal, and he told us that about once a month he went to Entry Island, where all the families are English-speaking, to hold services. Our friend also explained that the provincial government pays for a teacher to live year-round on Entry Island and offer elementary school education to the local children.

As we sailed away from the Magdalen Islands, it occurred to me that in Canada, we see it as reasonable and proper that families like those of Entry Island should have regular transportation services and a public school in their own community, yet similar spending on Aboriginal communities is often viewed as a waste.

As a lawyer, I work almost exclusively for Aboriginal communities. An increasing amount of my time is spent dealing not with land claims or hunting or fishing rights, but funding for programs and services.

Since sailing past Entry Island, I no longer see a reason why my clients should apologize for the amounts their communities cost the taxpayer. Unfortunately, I now think that when Canadians complain these communities cost too much, they are demonstrating an unconscious form of racism.

These thoughts came back to me during the recent controversy about Attawapiskat, a Cree community of 1,900 people situated on the western coast of James Bay in Ontario. It is connected to the outside world only by air, water and an ice road accessible in the winter.

Attawapiskat attracted national attention after declaring a state of emergency on October 28, 2011, due to a severe housing shortage. Many Canadians were shocked when the Red Cross was called in to help.

Several commentators were quick to suggest that the best solution for Attawapiskat would be to shut the community down and move residents to the south, near urban areas.

It seems obvious that this would simply move the poverty elsewhere. The residents of Attawapiskat are predominantly Cree speaking. They live some 1,000 km north of Toronto. The nearest town of any size is Moosonee, which has only 3,500 inhabitants itself, is not connected to the rest of Ontario by road (only by rail and air) and had an unemployment rate three times the provincial average in 2006.

Moreover, Aboriginal leaders have asked why their people should be moved off their land at the precise moment when hundreds of millions of dollars can be made from its resources.

Paying jobs are finally available near Attiwapiskat because the mineral wealth of the Crees’ traditional lands is now being explored and exploited. Only 90 km from the reserve, De Beers has opened an open-pit diamond mine employing over 500 workers. Thanks to an impacts and benefits agreement negotiated by the band council, about 100 of those workers are from Attiwapiskat.

Attawapsikat is closer to the James Bay itself than it seems on this INAC map.

Another fundamental question for me is why so many believe we owe so little to the people of Attawapiskat, despite the fact that our federal government entered into a solemn agreement with them in the form of Treaty 9.

Treaty 9 was among the last in a series of “numbered” treaties signed by Canada from the 1870s till the 1930s, with First Nations from northern Ontario to the Rocky Mountains. First Nations surrendered their title to land and in return, the federal government promised them small annual payments, reserves, and the right to hunt and fish throughout their territory.

Representatives of the Crown met with chiefs who usually could not speak English and had them sign legal documents, usually with an “X”. From the government’s point of view, the land had been cleared of competing claims and was ready for settlement. From the Aboriginal point of view, the Crown had promised to protect their way of life.

The Attawapiskat Cree only “adhered” to Treaty 9 in 1930 and in Ontario’s far north, settlers did not follow negotiation of the treaty. As a result, little changed for the Attawapiskat Cree so long as they could still live off the land by hunting, fishing and trapping.

But the 1950s and 1960s saw a terrible combination of circumstances for remote Aboriginal communities like Attawapiskat. The fur trade ceased to offer a viable livelihood at the same time that the federal government pressed the Cree to settle permanently on reserves and enforced attendance for their children in residential schools. The communities were emptied of their children and the parents sat on the reserves waiting for them to return.

Community members had little else to do if they could not hunt, fish or trap. In Canada, infrastructure of all kinds (railroads, highways, schools, hospitals) has always been built for white settlers, for their farms, mines and factories. If Aboriginal communities happened to be nearby (like the Mohawk communities of southern Quebec and Ontario for instance), they benefited from that infrastructure, but if they lived in remote areas like Attawapiskat, they remained isolated.

Even the Indian residential school experience reflected this reality: attendance was most widespread in remote communities were the government did not want to build schools. The federal government took the children out of these communities to more centrally-located residential schools and left them there, sometimes for the school year, sometimes for years at a time.

Since the 1950s, the federal government has progressively provided Indians on reserve with most of the services the provinces provide to other Canadians, such as health care, education, and social assistance. Since the 1970s, service delivery has been progressively delegated to the First Nations themselves.

However, the federal government does not usually take on services to First Nations as binding legal obligations: funding depends on the annual budget and on a Minister’s discretion. Services such as local policing, for example, may simply stop from one year to the next, to be replaced by a distant provincial police detachment.

Moreover, federal funding for services to First Nations does not have to match the level of provincial funding for the same services off reserve. Often, federal funding is lower, even though the First Nations who administer programs are expected to meet provincial standards.

The result in an area such as education is that Indian Affairs provides per capita budgets below the provincial averages to reserves where needs are greater than the in the rest of the province. Communities already faced with the challenge of serving deprived populations in remote locations like Attawpiskat become trapped in a downward spiral of underfunding and underperformance.

During the Attwapiskat controversy, the Prime Minister cited the $90 million in funding provided to the community during the preceding five years and called the results inadequate. But how generous was this funding when Council was providing municipal, educational and health care services, as well as housing, all at a location no car or truck can reach in summer and where the cost of building a single home is $250,000?

Nor are First Nations unaccountable. The Auditor General has reported that their councils file literally hundreds of financial reports every year to various federal government departments. The Minister of Indian Affairs reacted to Attiwapiskat’s crisis by placing the council under “third party management”, a form of trusteeship the Minister reserves the right to impose when a First Nation’s deficit reaches a set proportion.

The most important point, however, is that things do not have to be this way. Clear evidence contradicts the commentators who insist that the problems of remote First Nations can never be solved, that no amount of money will make things better, that we must shut down communities like Attawapiskat and encourage their residents to leave their traditional lands.

Just across James Bay, on the east coast, the example of the Cree and the Inuit living in Québec proves that life could be much better for communities like Attawapiskat. Life in the Cree and Inuit villages of Québec is far from perfect, but it is significantly better than in the Cree communities of northern Ontario.

Unlike the James Bay Cree of Ontario, no-one asked the James Bay Cree and Inuit of Québec to sign a treaty as a pre-condition to development. On the contrary, the Québec government announced in the early 1970s that the James Bay hydro-electric project would flood their traditional lands without even informing them of its plans.

The Québec Cree and Inuit went to court to stop the James Bay hydro project and obtained an injunction, though it was quickly set aside on appeal. Settlement negotiations with the federal and provincial governments led to the James Bay and Northern Québec Agreement (JBNQA), the first modern land claims agreement, signed in 1975, after which the project went ahead.

Among other things, the JBNQA left the Cree and the Inuit with regional school boards, health and social services agencies, police forces and local government structures under their control. These institutions are funded jointly by the federal and provincial governments, to the same level as comparable bodies in the rest of the province.

The JBNQA also recognized their right to hunt, fish and trap and provided the Cree and the Inuit with a role in wildlife management and environmental assessment on their territory.

With the compensation paid to them for settling their land claims, the Cree and Inuit bought the airlines that serve their communities, among other businesses. Where Attawapiskat derives benefits from a single mine, the crucial role played by the Québec Cree and Inuit in deciding on the development of their territory has led to a growing role in many areas of the regional economy. In businesses such as mining, forestry or commercial fisheries, the Cree or the Inuit participate through royalties, employment, or ownership.

The question raised by the example of the Cree and Inuit of Québec is why they had to go to court and accept massive development on their lands in order to obtain the benefit of adequate locally-controlled services and economic opportunities of the kind we would consider a minimum for other Canadians?

The real question raised by Attawapiskat is whether all we promised its people in Treaty 9 were underfunded resources on unsustainable reserves and an invitation to move elsewhere if it does not suit them? Or is it possible that we owe them institutions and services of at least the same quality we take for granted in the rest of Canada and a chance to participate in the economic benefits that can be derived from their lands?

Posted in Aboriginal law, First Nations, Injustice, James Bay Cree, Treaty 9 | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 21 Comments

Rights? What rights?

Something indigenous people never get tired of hearing about is how we were conquered/defeated/never had rights.  I know I just can’t get enough of having this explained to me by loudmouthed bigots and helpful progressives both!  It leaves me with a warm fuzzy feeling in the depths of my liver when I learn about how generous the Canadian state is when it deigns to grant us any rights at all, despite the historical fact that we aren’t actually entitled to anything.

So it is with a heavy heart that I introduce the following information for your rejection.  I apologise profusely for bothering you with this, but there are some uppity natives and settlers both who insist on denying the patent and obvious truth of indigenous rightslessness.  I just thought you should hear the silly things they have been saying is all.

Don’t worry.  I will endeavour to provide you with iron-clad refutations to these ridiculous rights-based claims, and you will leave with all the ammunition you need to soldier on during those frustrating forum wars and comment-section skirmishes.

The Doctrine of Discovery and Terra Nullius are invalid justifications for gaining sovereignty.

It would seem like common sense that discovering a nation inhabited only by indigenous peoples would entitle Europeans to take over and assert their own sovereignty, but some natives and bleeding-heart settler academics contest this.

The Doctrine of Discovery is rooted in a 15th century Papal Bull called the Romanus pontifex, which pretty clearly explained that since there were a lot of people (heathens) around the world who weren’t really using the land they were on, Europeans had every right to take that land and do something with it!  Judge John Catron summed it up well in State v. Foreman, 16 Tenn. 256 (1835).  I suggest whipping this baby out when native radicals question the Doctrine of Discovery.

“We maintain, that the principle declared in the fifteenth century as the law of Christendom, that discovery gave title to assume sovereignty over, and to govern the unconverted natives of Africa, Asia, and North and South America, has been recognized as a part of the national law [Law of Nations], for nearly four centuries, and that it is now so recognized by every Christian power, in its political department and its judicial.”

So we’re talking about a very old tradition, over 500 years old!  Indigenous peoples like to talk about how our traditions are super ancient and therefore more important than European traditions, but come on.  The Doctrine of Discovery goes waaaaaaay back.  Besides, if we didn’t agree with the Papal Bull, we could have petitioned the Pope to change it or something.  I’m pretty sure that by not opposing it before the Europeans arrived, we agreed to it.

Terra Nullius is a latin term that basically means “land that belongs to no-one”.  The Doctrine of Discovery doesn’t need much support, but terra nullius does help to clarify the point a little.  Despite claims to the contrary*, aboriginal peoples didn’t believe in land ownership! But Australia messed things up a lot when a bunch of liberal judges caved and said that okay sure, indigenous people didn’t have European systems of land ownership, but this didn’t mean settlers could waltz in and claim the land was unoccupied or not owned by anyone.  Ridiculous.  Sounds like that Canadian Calder case back in 1973:

“…the fact is that when the settlers came, the Indians were there, organized in societies and occupying the land as their forefathers had done for centuries.  This is what Indian title means.”

This is the kind of thinking you’re up against.  But never fear!  I have some really great suggestions for how you can at least get away from the radicals if they belligerently don’t respect the “we’ve been doing this for over 500 years” argument, or they want to point to Supreme Court decisions that sort of reject the Doctrine of Discovery and terra nullius:

  • You should pedantically point out that the term terra nullius is of recent (early 20th century) origin.  You’ll have the radicals wondering whether any part of their argument is true if they got that one wrong!  I suggest just dropping that bomb and walking away, or you may have to face the fact that before this term became popular, international law used res nullius which is basically the same thing. Res nullius is a concept based in Aristotelian notions of the need to exploit nature in order to exercise ownership over it.  Failure to do so voids your ownership.
  •  If anyone brings up res nullius, merely say that terra nullius is a synecdoche.  This will confuse most people enough that they’ll shut up about it.  Of course, this just means international law has come to apply res nullius to land, but no one needs to know that.  Using an obscure word will often buy you enough time to get out of Dodge before things get ugly.

Most importantly, don’t let it bother you too much.  The obvious fact that landing on the shores of this country gave Europeans the inherent right to claim the land for their own is still supported in domestic and even international law, at least to the extent that no one is seriously challenging underlying Crown sovereignty.  Well, I mean a lot of us indigenous people are, but you know what I mean.  When the radicals argue this should change, I suggest merely saying, “neener neener” from a distance.

The Doctrine of Conquest is discredited and does not apply.

Another obvious fact is that when you conquer someone, you get their stuff.  It happens all over the world!  Everyone has been conquered at some point by someone else! Okay so Europeans didn’t exactly approach what is now Canada and the US as conquerors, but smallpox killed way more natives than settlers and so it was sort of like conquering us, right?  Whatever, the point isn’t whether or not we were actually conquered or not.  The Doctrine of Conquest still totally applies and explains why indigenous peoples lost sovereignty over these lands, and the Europeans gained it!

There are all sorts of namby pamby rejection of such principles, but those only started in earnest in the 20th century, and Europeans conquered (okay not really but kind of) native people way before that.

Check and mate!  If people want to reject the Doctrine of Discovery or terra nullius, just hit them with the fact that the Europeans ‘won’.  If anyone asks for more details, it’s probably time to make your exit.

Other stuff about how native peoples still have rights.

It’s a pretty well recognised principle that if you walk into someone’s house and refuse to leave, living there for many years, eventually the house is yours.  Right?  Exactly.

If you need any other arguments to support the erasing or outright denial of aboriginal rights, please read this source.  Just make sure to edit out the parts where these various justifications are rejected or refuted.

Another awesome tactic is to refer to the Treaties (don’t worry, you don’t actually have to know anything about them) and tell people that these agreements had indigenous people agree to give up all their lands forever for only $5 a year in compensation.  Haha, suckers!  Yeah there are all sorts of crazy interpretations of the Treaties out there, and there are a bunch of places in Canada where there were no Treaties, or Treaties which can’t really be interpreted as having given up land,  but the fundamental issue remains the same.  Which is um…oh, yeah!  No aboriginal rights!

Thanks for reading, folks…now go out there and vigorously deny indigenous rights any way you possibly can!

* Some of the refutations of the fact that aboriginal peoples never believed in owning property and therefore Europeans weren’t stealing anything can be found in such ridiculous decisions like: Delgamuukw v. B.C., [1997] 3 S.C.R. 1010; and Calder v. A.G. (B.C.), [1973] S.C.R. 313.  Be careful, indigenous radicals love to use the “Supreme Court of Canada Agrees With Us” card.  Also, some intellectuals  and aboriginal radicals make far out claims about indigenous  people having legal traditions that included some form of ownership of lands…but it doesn’t count because it isn’t a European property regime, so don’t worry about it too much. 

Posted in Aboriginal law, Injustice, Law | Tagged , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

A rose by any other name is a mihkokwaniy.

It is always eye-opening to go outside the comfortable confines of this blog and read what questions (or assertions) people are releasing into the ether. As frustrating (and sometimes hilarious) as it can be to surf around, reading these questions and assertions, it does help to clarify for me the kinds of information that people lack. One of my many weaknesses is the unfair assumption I often make that people already know this stuff.

A question that comes up again and again is “what should we call you?”

*mumbles the ‘don’t call me late for supper’ joke*

Okay. It’s a fair question usually, unless it’s phrased in that “I’m so annoyed with all this politically corrrect bullshit, why can’t I just call them the old-fashioned racist term I’m familiar with anyway?” way I just love so much.

What not to call us

Let’s just start with things is it is never okay to call aboriginal people.

  • savage
  • Red Indian
  • redskin
  • primitive
  • half-breed
  • squaw/brave/buck

This is not a definitive list.  There are plenty of other slurs we don’t need to mention that are on the ‘don’t you dare’ list.  We are not going to discuss how any of these terms might not be offensive, because I’m not willing to engage in that kind of pseudo-intellectual dishonesty (where words alone have no meaning blah blah freakin’ blah).  If you use these terms, you are being a massive jerkface, and I’m not going to be your friend.

A lot of people honestly do not want to cause offense, and get very stressed out about the ‘proper’ terms, so it is in the interest of lowering those people’s blood pressure that I’m now going to discuss the various not-intentionally-racist terms in use out there.

We don’t all agree on the ‘best’ term.

The fact that all aboriginal people have not settled on one term that is appropriate to call us by, really seems to bother some people.  I would like those people to take a deep breath, and chill out.  It’s okay.

Names are linked to identity, and notions of identity are fluid.  They change, they evolve.  What was a good term twenty years ago might be inappropriate now.  There is also the issue of how terms become co-opted and changed by government, industry, or other sneaky racists.  Sometimes we have to abandon a term because it has become so loaded, using it means we’re tacitly agreeing to some sort of bizarre external interpretation of who we are.

Aboriginal people are incredibly diverse, and there are all sorts of internal arguments about which terms are best, what they actually mean, and why we should reject this and that and so on.  What I’m okay with you calling me might really piss someone else off.  If you were hoping this post was going to help you avoid that completely, I want to be up front with the fact that you will leave disappointed.  Be aware that no matter how ‘safe’ a term you pick, someone somewhere might get upset if you call them that.  Be prepared to listen to what that person has to say about the term you used, and to respect what they suggest you call them instead.

Names you’ll hear us using

  • Indian
  • aboriginal
  • indigenous
  • native
  • First Nations
  • Inuit
  • Métis
  • Native American (more in the US than Canada)
  • the name of our particular nation (Cree, Ojibway, Dene, etc)

The term Indian is probably the most contentious.  There are a couple of theories about where the term originated, but that’s not the point.  In Canada, ‘Indian’ continues to have legal connotations because of the Indian Act, so you’ll see it used officially as well as colloquially.  There is also a long history of this term being used pejoratively…two good reasons why it doesn’t sit well with everyone.

However, it’s also a term we use a lot internally to talk about ourselves.  Please note that this does not mean it’s always okay for you to use the term.  I tend to suggest that avoiding this term is probably for the best, unless you are specifically referencing the Indian Act. There is a level of sarcasm often associated with its internal use that you probably don’t notice, and probably can’t replicate…so if you are interested in avoiding giving offense, this is a name that you might want to drop from your vocabulary.

I know that Native American is very popular in the US, and is still in use as a way of self-identifying among some older people here in Canada.  It’s a weird thing to hear though in our Canadian context, and ‘Native Canadian’ is just silly.  (Sorry Robert J. Sawyer, I know you like the term and I’m still going to read your books.)

Aboriginal (not to be confused with aborigine) is a term of fairly recent origin, being adopted officially in the Constitution Act of 1982 to refer generally to First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples.  I use this term a lot because it’s become a legal ‘catch-all’ term.  Some people hate this term because it is increasingly becoming co-opted.  I may abandon it down the road, but for right now it’s a good general and specifically legal (in the Canadian context) term.

Indigenous tends to have international connotations, so you will hear it used this way ‘officially’ sometimes.  Like aboriginal, it is a general term that includes First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples.  I tend to use this term interchangeably with ‘aboriginal’.  Again, some people really despise this term, but so far it’s not too widely rejected.

Native is another tricky term.  For some people it only refers to First Nations, and for others (like myself) it’s another ‘catch-all’ term, but a much more informal one than aboriginal or indigenous.  I don’t want to suggest that this is an internal term you can’t use…but it does have some historically pejorative connotations that you may wish to avoid.  A lot of people also contest our use of this term because they want to use it as well (native of Alberta, native to Canada) etc.  I’m not going to argue the point because I just wanted to point out that a lot of us use this term and are okay with it…but it’s a bit like ‘Indian’ in that you are more likely to step on toes if you choose this as the ‘term you’re going to use’.

First Nations refers specifically to that group officially known as ‘Indians’, and does not include Inuit or Métis peoples.  Because many First Nations share similar issues related to reserves, Status and so forth, it’s a good general term for a very diverse group of indigenous nations.  Just remember that you’re leaving other indigenous groups out when you use this term.

Inuit has pretty well replaced eskimo in regular parlance, here in Canada.  Using eskimo here is probably going to get you dirty looks.  Eskimo is still used in Alaska however, and I was lectured once by an Inupiat woman about this, so it didn’t make it onto the “never say this” list.

Métis is not a term you’re going to hear much in the US, and as such is sort of a uniquely Canadian name.  I dealt previously with identity issues related to the term Métis, and its definition is not universally agreed upon.  However, it tends to refer to a specific cultural group rather than people who are of mixed-blood, as native people of mixed-blood often identify as First Nations, or Inuit rather than Métis these days.

These are some of the general terms out there, so pick your poison.

Specific names and the great confusion

Here is where some people get really confused, and honestly I don’t blame them!  Over the years, various groups of Europeans have given us specific names and sometimes a single group of people can be known by two or three or more different names!  If you aren’t aware that all these terms refer to the same group of people, then it can be incredibly difficult to sort out.

In this list of First Nations in Canada, you can see that some of the names are obviously of aboriginal origin, while others are obviously European.  There are some that you might not have been aware are names given to us by Europeans rather than names we call ourselves by.

I do not have the patience to detail every nation’s internal name and the various names given to them by Europeans.  Just be aware that this is an issue.

For example, Ojibway/Ojibwe, Anishinabe and Algonquin are often used to refer to the same people, despite the fact that these terms should not necessarily be interchangeable.  As pointed out below, the Ojibwe and Algonquin are both distinct groups of Anishinabe.

Then you have names that sound similar but refer to very different peoples, like the Chipewyan (Dene) and Chippewa (another name for Ojibwe).

To muddy the waters even more, if you are reading historical texts, you’ll see the terms (and spellings) shift over the years and you may not even realise that the same group of people is being discussed under up to six different names over time.  If you’re an average Canadian, trying to figure this out, it can be incredibly frustrating. I’m not even going to get into the way linguists muss the issue up even further, assigning us names according to our (sometimes contested) linguistic group 😀

So there are often multiple names in use.  One person can call herself Assiniboine, Stoney, Nakota Sioux, Stone Sioux, Nakoda, and Îyârhe Nakoda…all names for the same group of people.  A member of this group of people probably has even more specialised names depending on which specific area or community she comes from.

In addition to the ‘group’ name, people will also often identify themselves by what community they come from.  The person above might be from Alexis (First Nation/Band/Reserve).  Our communities have undergone many name changes too, so depending on what generation you are in, you may use different names for the same community.

Changing terms…get used to it!

The names are going to continue to change.  Many aboriginal communities have discarded their European-language names for original aboriginal place names.  The eastern James Bay Cree, for example, have all but finished ridding themselves of old colonial names, but if you didn’t know that the same town used to be called something else, you can get pretty turned around when you encounter the different name.

Much as these place names are changing, the names we call ourselves are changing as well.  If you get confused, don’t be scared to ask!  You just might get an interesting history lesson of the area you are in, because names are so inextricably linked to that history.

I hope this helps.  My intention was not to simplify the issue for you, but rather make you more aware of how complex and sometimes confusing names can be.  I think if you keep this in mind, you’ll be more likely to avoid getting hopelessly messed up, because you won’t expect things to be simple.

mihkokwaniy is the Plains Cree word for ‘rose’, in case you didn’t guess.

Posted in Culture | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 15 Comments