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?

About âpihtawikosisân

Métis from Lac Ste. Anne, Alberta. Currently living in Montreal, Quebec. Passions: education, Aboriginal law, the Cree language, and roller derby. Education: BEd, LLB, working on a BCL
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11 Responses to Speaking different languages at the CFNG

  1. âpihtawikosisân writes Jan. 25: “Harper’s opening speech confirmed that the Canadian government has no intention to abolish or even change the Indian Act” — but the link provided is to Harper’s actual words: “our government has no grand scheme to repeal or to unilaterally re-write the Indian Act: . . . However, there are ways, creative ways, collaborative ways, ways that involve consultation between our Government, the provinces, and First Nations leadership and communities . . . ways that provide options within the Act, or outside of it, for practical, incremental and real change.” Perhaps he was lying, but this distinctly promises “practical, incremental and real change” based on “consultation.:”

    • You can be generous and read that into his words if you choose. I can’t be that optimistic, given Harper’s track record. I think he was very clear on the fact that the Indian Act stays. “Creative ways” to stay within it, or outside of it merely means a continuation of the policies already being pursued. Minister Duncan noted in his speech that there are 55 First Nations with their own land codes now “who will be out from under one quarter of the Indian Act”. Not out from under the Indian Act entirely, just a quarter of it.

      As Chief Wilson-Raybould said, “there is a need for governance recognition legislation so that when a nation is ready, willing and able and as directed by our people, there is an efficient mechanism so it can move away from the Indian Act and establish core institutions of governance without the federal government acting as gatekeeper, and without the interminable negotiations which take years to conclude.” The Indian Act perpetuates that gatekeeper role and I can understand why the Crown is so reluctant to give it up.

      Yet that is what First Nations are asking the Crown to do. Not to express a flat out unwillingness to actually discuss the abolition of the Indian Act with faint promises of ‘working within it’ here and ‘working outside it’ there.

  2. H. Harvey says:

    You are right about platitudes: Harper doesn’t take Indians seriously when the term ‘land ownership’ comes up. Why would he today when he’s the same redneck who threw out the Kelowna Accord without even reading it? Why can any Indian think this is an individual who can be trusted to enter into talks, negotiations, agreements with? Half a day here then rush off to Europe to talk to bankrupt countries? When the only reason this country is a wealthy as it is seems to be because the wealth Ottawa brags about comes from resources that are being stolen.

    No need to spill any accolades for any AFN “Grand” chief: what did Matthew Cooncome really do? Ovide Mercredi? Atleo? Nope. B.C. has a AFN rep that can’t afford to think ahead of his cushy high paid job – settling anything would mean he’s out his pay cheque

    Time to get out the roadblocks I say – BUT: get our story straight first. Do we want a ‘roots and berries economy’ or are we ready to move with the flow? Or make our own road? Making that kind of decision among us is as important or more important than preserving languages that have little real, practical purpose in a world that is operated in four or five primary languages.

    THAT’S the language we better start understanding, that’s the only language Harper and the rest of the country knows.

    And which of our leaders are ready to end up in jail standing up for what’s ours? Are there any? It’s one thing to walk fast and talk loud but totally another world to go out and fight for your rights. Do you really think Harper is going to give Indians anything unless he’s defeated by a form that the world can see?

    • Harper did end up staying for the whole Gathering, rather than leaving at noon as the rumours said he would. Rather than laud him for that, however, I note that there was a big fuss raised about the notion of him leaving early and that doing so had the potential to cause him some seriously bad PR, especially after Attawapsikat.

      What you said about choosing economies, moving with the flow or making our own road, is important, because it’s a choice all First Nations are facing. I was glad to hear Chief Wilson-Raybould discuss these kinds of economic and governance decisions in the context of the atmosphere of mistrust currently in place when it comes to the Indian Act Band Councils. She also made it clear that the choices are indeed going to have to come from the people themselves, which acknowledges that there will be a diversity of approaches taken.

      What I fear is that without real sovereignty, some communities may choose the kind of resource exploitation that is the Canadian norm, to the detriment of the neighbours First Nations who would prefer as less damaging approach. We see the kinds of games that get played when First Nations are bullied into signing agreements with corporations for a few guaranteed jobs and some pittance of revenue sharing…without sovereignty the real possibility of getting nothing while the resources are taken anyway is sobering to say the least. Even those who have managed to negotiate a deal that gives them a decent amount of wealth, still face continuous encroachment from political and corporate entities.

      There is an obvious risk in giving First Nations any sort of control over the resources on their territories…because they may choose not to pursue economic development according to the Canadian model. Since careers are made and nests padded via the ability to offer access (the more unrestricted the better) to natural resources, any impediment to that is going to be resisted with desperate force.

      • H. Harvey says:

        Understood, but where does that leave us? They won’t give up control and we feel we should, rightfully, have control. Talking isn’t getting us anywhere, ‘negotiating’ with people of the mindset of Harper is a fool’s exercise and the options kind of boil down to civil disobedience ( ie: Martin Luther King ) or, embarassing the government in front of the world thru the media or blocking freeways/roads. Or ALL of the above.

  3. Dave Jones says:

    I stumbled on the conference on CPAC by happy accident. Speeches by John Duncan (boring, reading a list, and appearing nervous and out of place) and Leona Agukkaq (nice presentation but again reading a list) were just filler (especially judging by the fidgeting audience). The government was just killing time.

    I too came awake with Chief Jody Wilson-Raybould! Wow. Good delivery, salient points and passion. We need more of her. Ovide Mecredi showed himself a capable and experienced past National Chief. I caught the last bit of National Chief Shawn Atleo’s address and was, like you unmoved but I think his unfortunate ceremonial dress detracted from his words (I know- my problem not his).

    I think the Canadian public needs to be motivated to stand behind our Aboriginal brothers and sisters to force the government into meaningful motion. If that is not successful, public action is warranted.

    As a Canadian I am embarrassed by the treatment of our First Nation people. My heart goes out to those living in less than poverty conditions in the north.

    The time has come to get things in gear!

  4. Emo says:

    I did appreciate your approach in some prior articles of holding up these current questions to the long record of prior answers given (most notably, e.g., the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples checklist)… and I think that a comparative approach would be useful here, again, so that we neither pretend that these negotiations are starting from a blank piece of paper nor from an unassailable “tree with deep roots” (that hasn’t been uprooted several times before). Many of us are left with the sense that this tree has been uprooted and transplanted, again and again; don’t forget that the federal government’s only dept. of Indian Affairs was actually abolished in 1936 (!) and that’s one of the important reasons as to why the legacy of institutional “roots” we’re dealing with generally only reach back to the early 1950s, i.e., the era of re-establishing Indian Affairs thereafter (and, correspondingly, the actual text of the Indian Act we’re dealing with only dates to 1951).

    The other peculiar possibility of a comparative approach, in 2012, would be to look at areas north of sixty that already have self-government, even if it has come about by a technicality; as the government says itself, “Aboriginal groups in the western NWT have a unique opportunity to develop self-government arrangements that are not readily available south of the sixtieth parallel.” http://www.aadnc-aandc.gc.ca/eng/1100100031843#sgnwt

    It is interesting to hear comparative reference made to the self-government model of the Maori of New Zealand (in the middle of that long, long tape).

    Psychologically, it is much easier for people to resign themselves to a sense of the inevitable than to really deal with the vagaries of the eluctability of history; there is indeed no good reason as to why Canada can’t do as well for its indigenous people as New Zealand has for its own (indeed, there’s no reason why Canada can’t do better), and this type of comparative approach can help to open up “fatalistic” presumptions (past/present/future).

    I still don’t really hear (nor see) any discussion of First Nations in terms of futurity; the Prime Minister’s statement on language does include the word “future” (“Respecting the role of First Nations’ culture and language in our history and future.”) but I think there’s is a deadly earnest question here of what role and what future? Are we actually thinking of a future in which members of parliament speak in Cree? Will Cree ever have a status (in government or outside of it) remotely comparable to an official language?

  5. Pingback: “We have a different understanding” | David McLaren

  6. Yes, the two solitudes talked past one another yet again. I can’t think of a meeting between FNs and non-Natives (and I’ve been to a lot) where that hasn’t happened. An article I wrote for the Sunmedia chain of papers attributes the two conversations at the CFNG to cultural ‘apps’: http://jdavidmclaren.wordpress.com/.

  7. Heather says:

    Wow, Chief Jody Wilson-Raybould’s speech was awesome. I admire her bravery to be so clear.

    Can you point me in the direction of some reading I could do about what Aboriginal people in Canada want in terms of Self-Governance (more specific than what Chief Wilson-Raybould got into in her speech)? Is there a common consensus amongst Aboriginal People? What Chief Wilson-Raybould sounds to be asking for seems logical for me – what is the other side? What is our government (the rest of Canada?) scared of in terms of Aboriginal Self-Governance?

    I’m guessing I have a lot of reading to do. If you have any good places to point me to start I’d really appreciate it.


    • Whew…that’s a lot of questions 😀 Self-government is definitely a topic for a full post. Short version…no, there is no consensus on what it would look like.

      Chief Wilson-Raybould referred to the Penner Committee on Self-Governance and the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. If you want a sort of condensed version of what those had to say, as well as a bit of background on what has been tried, I suggest starting with this. There are a lot of online links included in this publication.

      This should give you some sense of the many different approaches being taken across the country, ALL of which are criticised in some way or another for not being adequate or respectful of actual indigenous sovereignty. However, it is eye opening if you are unaware of just how much work has gone into and continues to go into trying to find some way to achieve self-governance.

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