National Aboriginal Day: Not Much Changes

It’s National Aboriginal Day, and so the media area talking about aboriginal issues, radio shows are interviewing First Nations people, and I’m sure the national news shows tonight will have features and interviews. And then tomorrow, we can all go back to ignoring the very big problem of a whole segment of Canadian society living in poverty, being denied the same levels of education and clean water as those of us covered by provincial feat have, and having to fight for their treaty rights in the courts.

As an immigrant to this country, I have none of the white guilt that some of the Canadian population have. And being as Canada is becoming more and more multicultural and recent immigrants are making up more and more of the population, white guilt will no longer be a deciding factor in the way non-aboriginal Canadians think about the aboriginal part of Canada. Some of us will have come from backgrounds even more disenfranchised than the First Nations of Canada are. My own ancestors were slaughtered, their lands taken, most of their writings destroyed, their history co-opted, and our names and language made as their own by another culture. Even though that was a millennium ago, the repercussions and rewriting of our history continued into the 20th century to the point that my grandparents said they never felt at home until they arrived on Canada’s shores. It didn’t help that the Japanese during WWII forced them out of their home, and the Burmese Junta took their property after the war ended. Having citizenship yet being nomadic in a country that’s taken you in as war refugees makes one feel lost, I would think. When I lost my own personal identity through brain injury, having a precarious group identity made that loss so much harder. But I was at least able to hold fast to my Canadian identity, a newish one to my family.

The world has always been in flux. Tribes become countries become empires and then are wiped off the map. Entire cultural groups disappear through the hostile actions of other cultural groups. People intermarry, and the “pure” ones from each tribe become furious. Racism and suspicion of the other is not confined to North America or the “white” people. But one of the remarkable features of Canada – and the one that made my grandparents finally feel that they belonged – is the way enemies have learnt the peaceful art of negotiation and have learnt how to live together in a way that flourishes us all.

Unfortunately, no one has had the courage to bring that to the relationship between the First Nations of Canada and the government of Canada. Every now and then, the fractiousness reaches a tidal wave, everyone gets angsty and angry, vast swathes of newspaper print is spilled in covering the tense situation, TV cameras race enthusiastically to the scene, and then something happens to soothe the waters, and we go back to the way it’s been.

I was struck listening to a Cross Country Checkup episode Rex Murphy held in Inuvik a couple of weeks ago, about how little we know about the North, about the way of life in the frigid climes of Canada, about how people relate differently in the small populations of the North than in big city Toronto (I loved, loved how the guests personally knew the members of the audience), about the issues they face. But most of all, I was struck by how piss poor a job the media do in telling us the stories from north of 60 and what they are doing to better their lives. (This is why I follow several people on Twitter who live in the territories.) In the same way, the media suck at relating to us the stories of the Inuit and First Nations on reserves, in their territories, and in the cities, beyond the ones that are dramatic enough to make the news. This is bad because we are a northern nation whose sovereignty depends on the people who live in the Arctic, and we need to be and feel connected to them. And we are a nation which includes aboriginals, and we need to be and feel connected to them too. The only way to do that is to be exposed to their everyday lives not just the dramatic camera-hogging instances of them.

When everyone became concerned about Chief Theresa Spence and persuaded her to stop her hunger strike because she had achieved what she had set out to do, I was skeptical. She had achieved one meeting between Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the chiefs. Big whoop. I figured the chances of that promised second meeting happening once she’d stopped her hunger strike (fast, whatever), were between zero and nil. It was about the same as the meeting he had apparently promised the year before. It didn’t happen until she and a few others went on their hunger strike. I have not heard of that second meeting happening this year. Did it happen, and I missed the announcement? Have any of the 13 commitments been enacted?

Unless and until the media post journalists permanently to report on the north and, as well, post journalists permanently to report on aboriginal affairs – not just when things hit a crisis point – then the government will continue to make small gestures, as I understand that they’re doing, but the big issues will continue to be fought in the courts. And tense stand-offs will continue to pop up. It’s only when peoples from all parts of Canada feel connected through continual exposure will things change permanently.