As the Native friend in my circles, I’m often asked what we could do better when it comes to Canada’s Native Nations.
And the fact is, I don’t know. I don’t have any one solution to a centuries-old colonial mess.
Being Native is still a very cloudy experience for me. I struggle with my own identity. I look at my face, which to some, looks white and European, and to some, has Ojibwe features, and I don’t know where I fit. I only attended my first pow-wow last year. I have not grown up on the reserve, though I am a contributing and voting member to mine. I don’t know.
Is it that I speak out about Native rights, loudly and obnoxiously, on every social media platform I have? Is it that I see, more than the perennial problems of referred trauma and generational mental illness and addiction, that it’s a problem with seeing Natives as humans? Is it that I feel an affinity with these people I’ve never met and probably never will, because I know that if this was a different life, if I had been born in a different place, I could be one of them?
I don’t know.
Here’s what I do know.
Attawapiskat is a small reserve in Northern Ontario. Its people have been crying out for help for years. Former Chief Theresa Spence was in the news, a few years ago, for her hunger strike in response to Former Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his government’s refusal to speak to her and to hear her out. There has been proof of mismanagement under her tenure. There has also been proof of the Canadian government quietly ignoring or outright denying basic services to Northern reserves.
I know that Attawapiskat is one of the poorest and most desperate reserves in Canada. I know that it’s a Cree reserve, and many elders do not speak English. I also know that the youth in Attawapiskat don’t see a way out, and they are committing suicide by large numbers, because death is better than starvation, than unclean water, than lack of health care, lack of education.
I also know that Attawapiskat is part of Canada. It’s not a sovereign nation. It does not stand, bordered by customs officers and patrol guards. It is Canada. It is a small part of a greater nation.
And I know, being Native, that most of us consider ourselves part of Canada. We may have been the first people, and we may have undergone the worst colonialism and racism in Canadian history, but many of us consider ourselves Canadians. I do. I am a very proud Canadian who believes my country can do better.
There are issues with politics and financial matters on many reserves. Attawapiskat isn’t unique to this. It’s easy for non-Native Canadians, then, to write these nations off; to say, “Well, it’s the fault of the chiefs and the First Nations officials. It’s their fault.” And it is, to some degree. But it’s also the fault of people who turn their noses up at the dire lives of their fellow Canadians. It’s also the way we turn a blind eye to most Native matters, whether it’s because we’re uncomfortable, or hateful, or we don’t really understand what it’s like to starve. To see our babies starve. To lose our language. To see our culture slipping from our hands.
I stand here and I grasp the culture I know so little of. I try to learn more. And I’m someone who was brought up with always enough to eat, always educated, always able to ask for help when I needed it – in that, I am a rarity in the experience of my people. And if I, as a privileged Native woman, have trouble understanding and asking for help, how can we expect those in places like Attawapiskat, like Cross Lake, like the two-thirds of Canadian Native reserves that do not have clean running water to understand and ask for what they need, or even to have the staying power to fight the government and the Canadian people for basic human rights?
I believe Canadians are starting to understand the damage done to my people over the last 400 years. I believe that as more accounts of residential schools, of loss of culture, of the sheer third-world conditions inside a first-world country come out, Canadians are starting to understand that when you participate in cultural genocide and that culture makes it through somehow, they are not going to have more than simple survival skills. They are not going to have the wherewithal or the privilege to do more than simply eke out what they can on inhospitable, wildly beautiful, very harsh lands. And sometimes, that’s not enough. Sometimes, the sheer effort of what it takes to get through a day is so much that it’s easier to find a way out of the constant pain and struggle.
So when you ask me about what can be done for people like the citizens of Attawapiskat, my only response is to put yourself in their shoes. Recognize them as human, not as others who are trying to take government money and time, not as corrupt crooks. These are the stewards of Canada, the keepers of our land. These are the people who understand better than anyone the need to preserve Canada for our children – and these are the people who understand the importance of culture, of sharing, and of family. And the mismanagement, the governmental neglect, the suicides – these are all symptoms of a greater, most insidious crisis.
Attawapiskat is my people. My heart hurts for them. And as Canadians, their plight should hurt you as well.
While we have compassion for the thousands of refugees flooding into Canada, and we should – we should also remember that compassion can go a long way to those fighting a centuries-long fight against colonialism that continues to this day. That the experience of Northern reserves is only a small piece of the larger picture. That the government has ignored and tried to warehouse First Nations people for far too long, that we’ve been seen as a problem instead of as part of Canada.
So have compassion. Listen. Have empathy. See beyond what the media is telling you and listen to Indigenous people when they speak.
Because we are your people, too.