Thursday, January 10, 2013

More Idle Chatter.

(Ottawa Citizen op-ed version is here.)

Here's what we've been missing about the viral phenomenon called "Idle No More," the thing we're all supposed to be dazzled about on account of its radical freshness and its innovations in horizontal leadership and its exciting and unpredictable momentum to who knows where.
But first off, as for all those young aboriginal people who have taken the opportunity of all the media attention to get out there and drum and chant at shopping mall flash mobs and whatnot: Good for them. Fair play to them and all the best to them. There's still a fighting chance that from that new generation there will arise a disciplined vanguard to mobilize all this excitement around some real and achievable goals. Modest goals, maybe, but opportunities like this don't come along every day.
But what such a "movement" will have to arise from is the thing Idle No More is now, which is not a new thing. Its foundational assertions reflect a tedious pow-wow style and a New Age lexicon that depends upon cartoonish historical revisionism and a grave abuse of the legacy of countless brave aboriginal leaders who spent decades in struggle in the courts, on logging road blockades and in fishing-ground confrontations, in order to get aboriginal people where they are today.
And where are aboriginal people today? In terms of recognition and respect, the state of aboriginal rights law, the constitutional position and federal policy. . . aboriginal people have probably never had it this good. This is precisely because of the victories that aboriginal people have won by actually exercising their rights, not just by banging on about them at rallies. Fishing rights, by going fishing. Hunting rights, by going hunting. And in all those vast regions of the country where aboriginal title is still very much alive and enforceable, by getting up and going outside and acting like they owned the place.
Where aboriginal people are today in terms of the social and economic conditions in Indian country, that's another story. It may be as bad as it's ever been, especially in remote reserve communities and in the inner cities.As I noted in my Ottawa Citizen column last week: Aboriginal teenagers in Canada are perhaps six times more likely to kill themselves than non-aboriginal youth. Among the Inuit, youth suicide is 11 times the national average. Between 2005 and 2010, Health Canada spent $65 million on a National Aboriginal Youth Suicide Prevention Strategy. The kids kept on killing themselves, and in 2011 the Ontario Chief Coroner’s Office released a 215-page report on aboriginal suicides in Northern Ontario. One of the report’s key recommendations: the creation of a national suicide prevention strategy.
Don't kid yourself. You can call Prime Minister Stephen Harper all sorts of wicked names - any jackass can do that, including me - but this government is no worse than its predecessors. Here's as close as I'm going to come to giving the new generation of aboriginal activists some advice: You're going to have to take it yourself. Nobody's going to give it to you. You're going to have to sort out your own affairs - no government is going to do it for you. Militancy is all very romantic and thrilling and you'll have legions of earnest white "allies" urging you on. But if your point is to fight, you're headed down a dead end. If you're point is to win, you've got a fighting chance.
The thing that continues to creep me out about Idle No More is the subject of my column today. There are eagle feather rituals and sacred fires to attend to and prophecy-recitations and matriarchal warrior-spirit invocations and shout-outs to the Creator. There are spirit healers and bundle carriers and white people lining up to be smoke-cleansed and it's all so, like, spiritual. But most of this stuff is just pow-wow performance art that doesn't even have the most tenuous connection to any real aboriginal traditions in Canada. 
My point is: enough with the fixations on aboriginal hyper-authenticity and play-acting in period costume already. There's nothing new about this. It's old - but only as old as the traditions that white people began when they first started holding up funhouse mirrors for aboriginal people to see themselves in.
Here's what I mean. See that gadgie with the spear in the photo to the right? The famous photographer Edward S Curtis took that beautiful picture in Clayoquot Sound in 1916, just a stone's throw from Ahousat, the home village of the eminently competent Assembly of First Nations grand chief Shawn Atleo. The photograph is called The Whaler. The handsome geezer in the picture is believed to have gone by the name Kalespiel. The photograph, like pretty well all the Idle No More media imagery, is a set-up job. It's play-acting in period costume. Nuu-Chah-Nuulth people didn't dress anything like that in 1916. But here's what's more important.
In Kalespiel's father's generation, Nuu-Chah-Nuulth sealers were already overwintering in the Sea of Okhotsk and enjoying their shore leave in the Japanese port city of Yokohama. Kalespiel's dad's people owned their own fleet of schooners - in the late 1800s at Ditidaht, Jimmie Nyetom, Charlie Chipps and Jim Nawassum each owned schooners and ran their own ships' crews. The Heiltsuk halibut fisherman Fred Carpenter built his own sealing schooner way up in Bella Bella at a cost of $4000, a fortune at that time. Maquinna John Claphanhoo ran a fleet of three schooners, and down at Makah, Chestoqua Peterson owned the 42-ton brig Columbia and ran his own fur trading post.

 I wrote about all that in this book.
My point here is the proposition that until white people came along, Canada was populated by barefoot spirit-beings called "Indians" who pranced around in loincloths with their pointed sticks in the forest primeval - that's just white people talking, and the "Indians" who talk like this have merely internalized this outwardly benign but nonetheless racist hogwash. I'm bored sick of it. We shouldn't need to point out that there was slavery, oppression, and often almost interminable warfare in much of Canada, back in the day. Not to be indelicate about it, but "Indians" were acting like a bunch of damn Europeans long before Champlain and his crowd showed up.  
I'm also coming at this with some baggage, I confess. My first book was A Death Feast in Dimlahamid, which is a chronicle of the Gitxsan and Wet'suwet'en "land claim" struggle that led to the landmark Supreme Court of Canada decision known as Delgamuukw Versus the Queen. It was a slam-dunk for the aboriginal-rights cause, happily. I spent much of this past summer back up with my old pals in the Skeena country. I had the great pleasure of going fishing with the Loring family at Gitsegukla and spent some time up at Fort Babine at the fishery there too - a magnificent fishery only lately revived after a century - and it was a glorious thing to behold, let me tell you. Lots of Babine kids working hard and pulling down decent wages, besides.
I spent years covering aboriginal affairs as a reporter for the Vancouver Sun during the darkest and angriest days of British Columbia's aboriginal rights fights, and there were lots of fights. A third of Canada's "Indian bands" are in B.C., and the province is almost all "untreatied," so there we are. My second book, Nemiah, the Unconquered Country, I co-wrote with the Xeni'gwet'in people out in the West Chilcotin. I also co-authored Amongst God's Own, a book about residential schools, with the survivors of Saint Mary's Indian Mission.
I also spent a few months as an analyst with the Native Council of Canada in Ottawa during the aboriginal self-government negotiations in the Charlottetown Accord, and when it went down in flames in a national referendum in 1992 it was in no small part because of the "social movement" activists who campaigned against it because it didn't contain a constitutional amendment for a "social charter," if you can believe it. They are among the same Occupy and anti-globalization and white Idle No More "allies" we're hearing so much from these days, and they've yet to be asked to explain themselves for their complicity in the unresolved self-government and "nation-to-nation" imbroglios the AFN is mired in even now.
I even spent time as an analyst with the B.C. Treaty Commission (a bureaucratic and policy catastrophe if there ever was one) during its first six months of operation, when Chuck Conaghan was the boss (a fine Ulsterman he was, too). Quite sensibly, most B.C. First Nations are just getting on with life as best they can as though the B.C. treaty process isn't even there. They're just acting like they own the place, enforcing Delgamuukw's admonition that the Crown and First Nations must reconcile aboriginal title with Crown sovereignty, and the mining companies and the logging companies are obliged to make a "reasonable accomodation" with aboriginal rights and interests, and for the most part, everybody's muddling through. For now. The rednecks lost the war ages ago, in any case. 
I don't set this out to "credential" myself. My opinions aren't necessarily better than anyone else's and I am only vaguely interested in my opinions anyway. But I thought I'd get this down just to be clear about where I'm "coming from", as they say. There's a bit more of that here, too, in a broadcast of a panel discussion on Steve Paikin's excellent program On The Agenda, with the Mohawk intellectual Russell Diabo (we disagreed about the nature of Idle No More but I really admire that guy), Idle No More personality Pam Palmater, Hayden King, and Cynthia Wesley-Esquimaux.
Anyway, here's the thing. Even in those First Nations communities where the culture is flourishing and people are relatively healthy and there's work to be had, it's like this: the old people speak the old language, the working adults speak the old language and English, and the youngsters speak only English. A 6,000-year-old language dies that quickly. The Gitxsan kids who were just being born when I wrote Death Feast, now they're 20.

You can lose an entire generation of kids to suicide, drug abuse, welfare ennui and alcoholism in the span of a single term of an AFN Grand Chief. There's no more time for grand solutions.

There's work to be done.




Blogger Dragon Lady said...

Frankly, Terry there is much to be creeped out about around Theresa Spence's hunger strike. $80M is a very large sum of money for the band council to be unable to produce any paper to establish where it went. I look forward to a forensic audit being conducted, as I fear some of the money may have left the country to support the "resistors" in Gaza via Free Gaza or some such vehicle. I have no evidence of this, but Spence's hunger strike and demands for meetings with the PM and the GG give off a very, very bad smell.

7:04 PM  
Blogger frabs said...

Well said, Terry. Thanks.

10:05 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home