About Chief Spence and Prime Minister Harper: A White Man Speaks
This is part III of a series of articles I have been writing. Part I was called: “Idle No More: A White Man Speaks.” Part II was called “Idle No More: A White Man Speaks Part II.” For those who would like to read more of my opinions, or those belonging to Elyse Bruce, please see either one of our blogs (our posts are on both of them) at www.thomasdtaylor.wordpress.com, and www.elysebruce.wordpress.com.
I am encouraged that my blog entries have been passed around the net, tweeted about, and also that one of them was published in The First Perspective. I am pleased that many people have commented positively about the content of what I have written. However, I am actually deflated about something related to this success, and it is about that subject that I wish to write about today.
With success and recognition comes responsibility, something I have been made to realize in the past when I have had success with other endeavors.
There have been those who have suggested that I seem to be a rare bird. One who has some understanding of indigenous issues, and who has a gift of being able to help white people understand what they are. Likewise, it has been suggested that if I could act as a sort of ambassador, or go between, between indigenous people and whites, that great progress would be made toward building bridges and fostering understanding.
I allowed my head to swim with this idea for exactly one day and then I screwed it on straight and reapplied my efforts to focus on my reasons for doing what I am doing.
Let me make a few things perfectly clear…
1) Just because I have an uncle who is Chippewa and two Metis cousins doesn’t mean I know anything about Chippewa culture, spirituality, politics, or what it is like to be Chippewa.
2) Just because I have known Elyse Bruce (who is Metis) for seven years doesn’t mean I know much about “the Metis experience.”
3) Just because Lionel Tootoosis (who works with the Canadian Office of the Treaty Commissioner, and who is General Manager of the Living Sky Casino in Swift Current Saskatchewan, and who serves on the Southwest Enterprise Region Board and the Swift Current Tourism Board) re-tweeted a few of my tweets doesn’t mean I “know” him. He and I have never spoken. I am very pleased that his tweets have brought people to my blog posts, but he doesn’t know me and I don’t know him.
4) Similarly in relation to the last point, a few Chiefs have commented on my blog posts, and I have responded to their comments with comments of my own. While this can be defined as an “interaction” it does not mean that I know them or that they know me, nor does it mean that I have an understanding of the issues they and the people they represent face.
You see what I am saying don’t you? I am a very ignorant person. I was born and raised white, and while my humanitarian and environmental efforts in the past and present add to my own personal profile, at NO POINT in my life will I ever have a complete understanding of what it is like to be born and raised native.
Therefore, for me to speak to my fellow white people and say “See, this is how natives feel about such and such an issue,” would be terribly wrong. I cannot at all say how one whole segment of the population feels about an issue anymore than I can say how even one other person besides myself (no matter what their ethnicity) feels about the same issue.
The fact is, there is a much easier way for people to learn about other people, and that is to eliminate the “translator” and learn the “language” of the people we are trying to communicate with. In reality, no white person should need me to even talk about native issues. If a white person wants to learn about issues facing indigenous people today, they should speak to someone who is of the indigenous population.
Even then, speaking to only one person hardly counts, because all you are getting is one perspective.
And this brings me to Chief Theresa Spence and Canada’s Prime Minister, Stephen Harper.
At the time of this writing, a meeting has been scheduled between the two of them, and for this I am thankful… to an extent.
Let’s remember in the first place one of the things Chief Spence has also been advocating for, which was for Prime Minister Harper to meet with ALL of the Canadian First Nations Chiefs.
This to me sounds very wise. She knows that her view is only ONE view and that there are many more views to be heard. The way I see it, she has placed herself in a position where she is advocating for everyone, but her intention all along was to move aside once she was noticed so that the government could have a dialogue with all of the Chiefs, who, in turn, represent many nations, bands, and tribes.
Will the Canadian government and Prime Minister Stephen Harper do their part now and agree to meet with all Canadian First Nations Chiefs? And I do not mean just with Chief Atleo either. I mean with all native Chiefs.
I am thankful that Chief Spence and Prime Minister Harper are going to meet, but I would be even more thankful if Harper met with all of the First Nations Chiefs, because only then will Prime Minister Harper BEGIN to understand the concerns that First Nations people have.
Even if both things actually come to pass -even if Chief Spence and Prime Minister Harper meet AND Prime Minister Harper meets with all Canadian First Nations Chiefs- I will still be worried, and, to be honest, discouraged.
Rather than going through a blow-by-blow chronology of events that begins with when whites began to settle and colonize North America, I’m going to summarize the essence of what’s happened:
1) When the whites found themselves unable to vanquish natives, they made treaties with them, until…
2) The whites brought in reinforcements, which enabled them to “renegotiate” treaties. More often than not natives got the bad end of these “agreements.” Alternatively…
3) When whites were operating from a position of dominance, they simply dictated terms to natives.
4) As time went on, these “crafty” and “shifty” and “manipulative” natives did what whites did. They got lawyers, in other words. These lawyers sued on their behalf and often won. Additionally…
5) Where matters of land were concerned, sometimes if the natives lost in court, and lost their lands, they saved up their money and bought it back. It was humiliating for them to have to pay for something that they owned in the first place, but if that was what they needed for whites to leave them alone, so be it.
6) Seeing that SOME natives are having success at being self-sufficient and self governing, but that others aren’t, the government came up with a “brilliant” idea. The plan was to take native children away from their homes and teach them how to function in a world that was now predominantly white. They would move from reservations to residential schools. Unfortunately, however, when native children decided to retain their morals, ethics, values, cultures, languages, religions, spirituality, etc., it became necessary to “beat the Indian out of them.”
7) Fortunately, a major cultural shift happened and it became politically incorrect for residential schools to continue onward. In the dawning of a new age (which began in 1996 – 17 years ago) the last residential school in Canada closed.
8) Now, whites had already introduced this thing called eminent domain, which allowed them to take land if it served a purpose for the country as a whole, but now they began to seriously limit what natives could do on their land, and how they could govern it. One economic example: When natives became successful with cigarette manufacturing, white government called it “contraband”, basically because getting native cigarettes for so cheap was cutting into the profits of white-owned cigarette manufacturers and “stealing” tax dollars away from white government. To the delight of white government, designating native cigarettes “contraband” had an added benefit: Whereas before whites could go to the “rez” and get cheap cigarettes and cheap gas, now there was only cheap gas to buy, and that made a trip to the rez hardly worth it. So natives would lose revenue from the sale of gas as well.
9) With natives under the economic oppression in the manner described and exemplified in Point 8, it better enabled the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and the government to dictate where the government funds it parcelled out got used. Was housing a problem on one particular reservation? Too bad. The funds appropriated were for a community center. As for housing, that was not the government’s problem. Natives on that reservation were told to just shut up and be thankful the government was giving any money at all.
10) The media got wind of stories like these and sent someone out. Unwittingly or intentionally, they perpetuated government oppression of natives by telling the wrong story. They saw a reservation with no viable industries “mismanaging funds” by building a community center instead of building houses for the “impoverished people” and then they blasted native governing authorities for something that wasn’t their fault.
11) And now the government steps in and claims that more steps need to be taken. Bill C-45 renders most treaties null and void, gives government the right to re-take land that belongs to natives, removes protective status from lakes, rivers and streams, thereby opening them up for exploitation.
12) Finally, we have ONE MEETING between Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Chief Theresa Spence, and I can hardly see how this one meeting will accomplish anything for indigenous people, or for everyone else who is affected by this legislation.
What I CAN see happening after the meeting is this: Prime Minister Harper will state that he has met with Chief Theresa Spence. Maybe he will arrange to have a meeting with all of the Chiefs. Maybe he won’t.
But will he say that bill C-45 is a mistake and implore the Governor General NOT to sign it? Will he say that it’s time to promote a new era of understanding by ending all the court drama and simply GIVING natives the land and the rights that were stolen from them? Will he say that it’s time to reexamine the gross mismanagement of government monies as per its misallocation for unneeded projects on native reservations? Will he recognize that up until this moment in time, government has mostly made decisions FOR indigenous people without serious consultation WITH indigenous peoples?
I doubt we will see such progress.
But the fact that Prime Minister Harper is willing to meet with Chief Theresa Spence is a good step.
Now what enables me to say all of this to you who read this?
I can say all this because I am a very ignorant man. I have a very, very, very limited understanding of the issues indigenous people are concerned about. But the difference between myself and Prime Minister Stephen Harper is that I have made some efforts to know and understand people of indigenous descent, their concerns, and the issues they face. I have tried to make myself less ignorant, in other words. But I do not see Prime Minister Harper doing the same. It took him three weeks before he would consent to have a single meeting with Chief Spence, and while it has been asserted that he has already met with Chief Atleo, it doesn’t look to me like Prime Minister Harper has stopped to consider that maybe Chief Spence might have a different viewpoint than Chief Atleo, and maybe the rest of the native Chiefs have concerns to bring to the table that Chief Spence and Cheif Atleo haven’t done so far.
Being ignorant, I know ignorance when I see it, and I also know WILLFULL ignorance when I see it. I may be ignorant, but at least I cannot be accused of willfully ignoring people in order to maintain my flawed perception of things.
What can Prime Minister Harper do to start over?
1) He can do everything he can to prevent C-45 from entering into law for starters.
2) Then he can meet with all the Canadian First Nations Chiefs.
3) Then he can pledge to restructure government to relate to indigenous people in some way other than the current charade.
Hearing all the opinions of so many native Chiefs will take time, but it is necessary to do what needs to be done and to take the proper time to do it. No one can meet for an hour or a day, or a week, or a month, or even a year and expect to have a complete grasp of situation whose origins began generations upon generations ago. No new plan or strategy can be created instantaneously. But what can be learned right away from such a meeting is that the parties that sit on both sides of the table are PEOPLE. When people actually see each other face to face, it becomes much harder to keep a hard heart. Politically, it becomes difficult to make decisions FOR people once you meet them. Instead, you become more inclined to make decisions WITH them. Even better, if you respect the people you meet, you begin to respect their right to autonomy.
At present, things are We vs. They or Us vs. Them. If meetings happen in good faith, and if both sides are earnest, it could turn out to be We and US together.
What should natives do?
I don’t know what native people should do, and it’s not for me to say. I am NOT a North American indigenous person. I suppose one could say MY native country is technically on European soil, though I was born in the US. I can offer suggestions about what native people can do, but it is not for me to say “This is what natives have to do now.”
Nor can I act as a spokesman for native people, because the second I do, I become no better than the people and agencies which have tried to do so in the past, but instead wound up suppressing indigenous people these many years.
Look at how much is missing from my synopsis of historical events. I would be a poor spokesmen for anyone. But you know what? I ask all of you who are reading this to let me serve as an example about how ignorant people like me can become educated. In you are of indigenous descent, please feel free to correct me where I am wrong, and fill in the gaps that I have left. In return, I will accept your contributions with gracious thanks, and hope that Prime Minister Harper will follow my example.
Comments are welcome, but bigoted ones will not be put through to show to what it is like not to be heard.
Thomas D. Taylor
Co-Creator, Midnight In Chicago. Author of “Geo-213: The Lost Expedition,” “Evil Creeps In: A Tale of Exorcism” and other books.