Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Inconvenient Indian....

It is Monday morning, coffee is brewing and I have in front of me a pile of books dealing with First Nations (FN) synopsis of where, when and how this complex issue might take us in the next twenty years. What I find interesting and refreshing is that others have come to similar conclusions as I have written, and spoken about in the past.
   When speaking of or discussing FN issues, one cannot adopt a single linear pattern but must rather incorporate several-simultaneously.  Calvin Helin is one such individual who has written his own observations in ‘Dances with Dependency’ into the causal dilemma of FN in Canada. Helin’s book, speaks to FN finding solutions; or at the very least-finding ways to become self-reliant. His perspective is replete with useful facts and offers a very personal portrayal of his own filial (and that of his family’s) role within his FN community.
   Thomas King; like Helin has penned a book called, The Inconvenient Indian A curious account of native people in North America.  King puts to task everyday stereotypes, misconceptions and widespread discrimination of the present system which still governs FN’s. His is a recollection, an anthology if you will. It deviates from formality, giving no pretense that his views are to be understood and taken at face value. King does not mince words. He does however articulate his position and his reasons for doing so; with much added sarcasm and comedy. He does not follow a linear type of historical anecdotes; and as such keeps the subject matter fluid, and accordingly to its subject matter.
King illustrates as with Helin, the need to clear the air, “I’m not going to try and argue for a single word. I don’t see that one term is much better than the other. “First Nations” is the current term of choice in Canada, while “Native Americans” is the fashionable preference in the United States…for all its faults and problems—especially in Canada----“Indian”, as a general designation remains for me, at least, the North American default.” In the midst of political correctness, you can well imagine my relief and utter surprise that King agrees that, “…terminology is always a rascal.” For the first time, he reaffirms a long held belief-and also my point of view.  
When reading news articles or CBC news segments describing the latest FN crisis, or policy amendments stemming from the Conservatives-I think of this, “…One of the definitions of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again in the same way expecting different results. For the government, such behaviour is called….policy.”
It never ceases to amaze me what King has done with a little bit of humour, candor, and brutal honesty, in addressing the current atmosphere gripping FN today. What I find most invigorating is his distinction between a dead Indian, a living Indian, and a legal Indian.

There lies the crux isn’t it?

Now, if the purpose (and it is) to make light of long entrenched stereotypes of indigenous peoples in North America these definitions serves rather well, “…A simulacrum is something that represents something that never existed. Or in other words, the only truth in the thing is the lie itself.” So when we hear of fashion designers donning their models with War Bonnets, or when we see caricatures (Indian Braves) painted on T-shirts or slogans…what is it that North Americans really want to say?
What King describes as, “…these bits of cultural debris—authentic and constructed…” captures the essence of what North America…and the rest of the world understand it to be---a dead Indian.  I must say, I too thought in similar fashion; but in a different context.
The fact of the matter is there is no reconciling what continues to be done to the Indian, “North American (s) certainly see contemporary Native people. They just don’t see us as Indians.” King comments that all live Indians are…well, all indigenous people alive today. As for what is a legal Indian, that brings us back to the Indian Act’s definition of the Status Indian,.
“Legal Indians are Live Indians, because only Live Indians can be Legal Indians, but not all Live Indians are Legal Indians. Is that clear?”
   I never had expected to be smiling and laughing out loud reading King’s book-but I did and on many occasions. Now if we turn our attention back to Helin… (I know you don’t want to but bear with me).
Helin addresses circumstances which in the future; will render Canada impoverished. His projections are not that far-fetched and insofar-what the Harper government’s establishments of consecutive omnibus bills introduced in 2012 and in 2013 is giving reason to substantiate it, “It is hardly an exaggeration to state that, in a fundamental manner, the very prosperity and competitiveness of the country is at stake.”
   For those who have examined the Indian Act, Helin’s assertions will undoubtedly ring true. In practical terms what Canadians are witnessing and being done on their behalf (by the Conservative federal government) is but a microcosm of a bigger looming disaster-complete global economic collapse. Helin does not infer this point; however he does commit to paper the impending ‘tsunami’.
Helin compares all, including federal government expenditures, “…29% of the Aboriginal population live on resources they receive… (This translates to) 88% of (total) federal government spending…” If we include the rate of skilled labour shortages and the necessary FN employment rates to meet demand (190,000 high skilled jobs) within ten years; the prognosis is stark indeed.
  When taking this number, “(indigenous people) own, lock-stock-and-barrel, over 600,000 square kilometers of land…” future land claims will in fact put FN in control of much of Canada’s natural resources. Most of you have heard or taken part in discussions regarding climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its third report and presents a very bleak picture. Having FN in control of Canada’s natural resources would presumably mitigate the rate of extreme harvest extraction currently underway in the Alberta Tar Sands and elsewhere.
It seems that until 2012; Canadians would have been resentful, but resigned to leaving the business of administering FN’s to respective federal government agencies.  There is one Canadian party which identify FN’s issues as a national issue-the NDP.  Since Idle No More (INM) one can stipulate that inter-connections between the two have since-materialized but is it enough?
   Canadians who are not cognizant about FN’s issues, seem to hold a position of self-righteous rage; and cling to the notion that ‘taxpayers’ will become forever hooked to pay for FN’s funding structures.  This is King’s Legal Indian. Helin attributes that 40 percent of the Canadian National Income is going towards FN’s funding.
“I can spend somebody else’s money on somebody else; I’m not concerned about how much it is, and I’m not concerned about what I get…”
   That ladies and gentlemen, is the most succinct methodology describing transfer payments to FN’s; and Helin is correct. Furthermore, this ‘play money’ since all monies come from the federal government; illustrates a more pressing problem mirrored by some Chief and Councils in FN’s across Canada, “Aboriginal citizens must squarely face the Industry of Non-Aboriginal Hucksters, and ‘consultants’ and those Aboriginal politicians who are openly profiting from this sea of despaired poverty.”
   There is another segment to this dynamic; political identity. And we need only look at Shawn Atleo’s resignation as Chief of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) to state that unifying under one entity is something that FN’s have great difficulty in achieving. The layering between what King, Helin, and other who advocate on behalf of indigenous peoples in Canada and the United States-is considerable. They each represent a segment of an overall truth; that whatever is being done on behalf of FN’s by non-indigenous elected officials; does not favour self-governance for First Nations.
   There are numerous examples in which King describes indigenous political organizations, their purpose and outcomes. Even in contradictions, the message still acknowledges the fact that much emphasis still remains on those who “were there.” It speaks to high level ideologies in which one cannot speak for the other. This refrain still resounds clearly today; as the AFN continues to fight for the right to be the political voice for all indigenous peoples in Canada.
   The draft declaration by the Confederacy of Nations on May 16th, 2014 annotating a resolution to, “…strategically and calculatedly begin the economic shutdown of Canada’s economy from coast-to-coast,” is according to King the only logical course of action. Not because of its militancy, but rather in reason by the Canadian government’s continued ignorance to adhere and work inclusively with First Nations. Whatever misgivings King may personally harbour; he is still hopeful, “…There is no reason why we can’t change the recipe (Native-White history). We could, if we wanted, put the past behind us…Why don’t we do that? What don’t we give it a try?”
   Again, before I go any further, the question of who, “Is the better Indian” needs some reflection. The ethnic divide among First Nations is real and destructive. Within every FN community; are examples of ‘apples’ (Status Indians living outside the reserve and behaving like White folk) Full-Blood versus Half-Breed (M├ętis) and of course any other race which mixes with indigenous peoples (Mixed-Blood), Status versus Non-Status…and the list goes on. In addition, there are also non-indigenous people who marry Status Indians residing, living and working on reservations. Differences are made by association, gender and opportunity to work.
   Most communities work hard and develop true relationships between all its memberships, and while publicly everyone tries to present a united front; privately First Nations are as King describes, “…Continue to be brutal about these distinctions, a mutated strain of ethnocentrism.”  Bill C-31 was legislated to correct that error, but it furthered the ethnic divide as to who is and who is not a Status Indian.

What is the future of First Nations?

   Like INM, indigenous people are dissatisfied with the status quo. Growing anger towards what they consider the indigenous ‘elite’ the disparities between have and have not, the lack of communication, cooperation, and economic opportunities between all three levels of government-abound.
   In terms of a future, the complexities surrounding First Nations are so far reaching and least understood by the public; that any outcome favouring a mutually socio-economic environment between ‘Indians and Whites’… is remote. One would have to determine if such a union is truly desired.  Sovereignty is the new buzz word in indigenous activism circles. Access to natural resources on treaty land-who has the right to extract, sell and develop are creating fault lines among the Conservative government and First Nations.
   For some within INM and other grassroots indigenous affiliations, the time to take a position and make a stand is now; not later.  King contends that absolute sovereignty might be out of reach, “…Perhaps discussing sovereignty as an absolute concept is a waste of time…I suggest that we concentrate on the issues of tribal membership and resource development.”
   Accentuating First Nation’s land base is more relevant in King’s point of view. That and the proposition of losing valuable tax revenue is more disconcerting to municipalities, provincial and federal governments. First Nation gaming is often described as the “New Buffalo”. Meaning that profit generating gaming revenues, are in fact giving reserves the necessary financial autonomy to remain on treaty lands.
   Any economic structures to assist the proper development of off-reserve indigenous Statues and Non-Status Indians (urban reserves) within a municipality, or cities is severely discouraged.  The Kapyong Barracks in Winnipeg, Manitoba is a prime example. The Federal Court of Appeal has yet to rule on the 2012 Ottawa appeal process ruling in favor of First Nations, “If they build a reserve inside this city I think that will be the last straw and I will finally leave what is becoming the laughing stock…That was built for hardworking men and women of the military, not freeloading Indians”- Brayden Mazurkiewich
   Comments made by Mazurkiewich who in 2012, was the Progressive Conservative Party’s youth wing President; exemplifies the extreme reluctance (of non-indigenous peoples) to become more inclusive and create economic prosperity for off-reserve First Nations in urban city centers. Which leads to militancy.
Since Atleo’s resignation, the political rhetoric stated by Minister Valcourt (AANDC) and First Nations leadership have increased. Wab Kinew, Chief Perry Bellegarde (Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations) and others are vying for the AFN leadership role; albeit that prospect is much dependent on the Confederacy of Nations. And there are others who are taking a harder line; one that would project a stronger message.
“However we have progressed beyond the point of needing to be seen in favorable or passive light by the “Canadian constituents” or our own people who work within the confines of the colonial “government” system. Any and all actions undertaken to rectify our social issues and autonomy in terms of governing ourselves not to mention stopping: mining, fish farms, logging, pipes, fracking, should be undertaken with indigenous leadership at the forefront, and without reservations or qualms about losing a popularity contest or support.”-Ancestral Pride.
Those who advocate intransigence as part of their political agenda, risk failure. Forcing the issue seems to be ‘par for the course’ but one has to acknowledge that past disruption of central transportation conduits across Canada have, in the past, been very effective. Whether this kind of approach will achieve better results in the future remains to be seen.  One issue remains constant; the struggle to be heard, “…The land defenders are here to ensure the “threats” that the Confederacy of Nations (a regional entity of the Assembly of First Nations) are not empty! We have been wasting our energy on the hamster wheel of the protest industry and turning the other cheek for too long.”-Ancestral Pride.
   Ipperwash, Oka, Puget Sound, Frog Lake, are but few geographical landmarks where the ‘flash in the pan’ resulted in open violent conflict between Indians and Whites. The outcomes always favored Canada. This continues to be, to this day, the consistency by which open revolt will occur.  Land based use by First Nations is not desirable, and is determined to be counterproductive by Canadian standards. King posits arguments made by non-indigenous peoples,

 “You (Indians) people…really have to stop complaining. What happened can’t be undone. None of us is responsible for the sins of our ancestors. Times have changed. Attitudes have changed. Get over it. You can’t judge the past by the present,” to be expedite, convenient, and ignorant.

Similar to Helin, King believes that such logic is to easily given. Ignorance is not an acceptable basis to extinguish treaty based agreements, “…They (Canada) were able to make these decisions with easy confidence, because they weren’t betting with their money. They weren’t betting with their communities. They weren’t betting with their children.”

What do First Nations want? 

You hear, read, and view variations of this theme throughout the media. The emphasis on reiterating Supreme Court cases in Canada which have acknowledged the inherent rights of Status Indians; gives some-hope for the future. Activists insist that establishing and winning successive court cases will eventually lead to political action. King does not answer this particular question in Canadian terms. This is not about what Indians want, he argues, it is rather what non-indigenous people want-more land. One of King’s examples illustrates this fact by choosing an anecdote from the 1832 US Supreme Court ruling.
“…That tribes couldn’t be willy-nilly be moved off, and the President at the time, Andrew Jackson, is supposed to have said, “John Marshall”-who was head of the Supreme Court- “John Marshall has made his decision now let him enforce it.”

The Harper government in 2014, is certainly not going to enact legislation that empowers First Nations. What should be discussed? What if anything should be done to end the ‘Indian’ problem? This is purely a rhetorical question. Judging from legislation passed by the Harper government to date, the answer is pretty clear. The impending 2015 election gives King much anxiety other the prospect of another Conservative majority, “…If for instance we cannot get rid of the Harper government in the next election and roll back these particular pieces of legislation, then it’s going to destroy Native reserves…And things are heating up for a full blown battle.” 

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