It’s beautiful outside. The ground is covered with snow and it’s below zero, which after reading about 2012’s record-breaking high temperatures and learning about the impacts of climate change feels like something I wanted to remark upon - happily. And now that I have, I want to do a little time travel back to this time last year.
Where was I, you might ask? I was sitting in Pearson International Airport waiting to board a plane to Kenora. I was working for a First Nation organization and shared part of the responsibility to assemble material for the meeting that First Nations leadership was going to have with Prime Minister Stephen Harper. And it wasn’t just about organizing material – you want to get things right, you want to really listen to what our peoples have to say, and communicate in a way that doesn’t compromise our rights and to do that, you need to ask for help and guidance from every corner available to you – and most of all, from our ancestors, who without any legal or policy training, understood the Treaties and the importance of treaty making in all of our relationships and put them in place for us today. Incredibly savvy. So anyways, I was headed to ask for help.
The expectations of most, going into the meeting were relatively low. But as all policy analysts and workers know, our preparation efforts must proceed regardless. And since we live in a vastly different time, where information and dialogue about critical policy issues can be shared rapidly, where histories can be recalled with the stroke of a few buttons and where we are fortunate to have so many learned and inspirational teachers from cultural, academic, legal, policy, education, political, and advocacy backgrounds working their best to help and raise awareness about the rights of indigenous peoples – we had a lot to be grateful for. Because our predecessors had already learned and contributed so much thought and consideration – they had been there through the White Paper, the Red Paper, the Penner Report, the constitutional talks, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. They had been there when the National Indian Brotherhood first formed, and they had witnessed the hills and valleys that come when people make efforts to organize and unite. They had lessons to share and constructive criticism to give (like do not – under ANY circumstances and in any documents, refer to the meeting as a 'Crown' Gathering – unless the Queen herself is there). So for our part – we listened and we didn’t and we learned. And it was a lot to take in but every single perspective brought something new and important and though this sounds odd – something very ancient. And how not? They too, had spent time with elders and learning our languages so that they understood that the day before encountering settlers – we had inherent rights and responsibilities that our peoples carried and continue to carry out today. They got it. They wanted us to get it too. And because we were being given the same message, there was a lot of common ground to be had. It’s pretty great that we still get to learn what all of these things mean and apply them in our day to day lives.
On a side note, I used to say, that I had never ever met an indigenous person who wasn’t interested and passionate about who we were on some level. This might not strike you as a revelation but it’s just something that I’ve always found very heartening and cool.
The meeting was announced at the end of November, and around the time when some international attention was being directed towards Canada during the housing crisis at Attawapiskat First Nation. There were some other known factors at this time as well – the Prime Minister was travelling in China on a trade mission and the economy was the priority, etc., etc. (Rick Mercer, made a really funny video about the pandas, pipelines, the economy and the environment – see here - incidentally, these pandas are still making appearances on the PM's twitter feed).
Anyways, there were no real surprises with the agenda or what the possible outcomes would be. Many recalled the Kelowna Accord and the First Minister’s Meetings and the level of planning and discussions that went into the meeting even before it occurred and pointed out that there was little to suggest that the Prime Minister was taking the meeting very seriously. And quite frankly, they were right. But in our role as support staff – we prepared a document in early December that indicated it was clear that the only outcome likely to occur given the time frame, recent activities and policy agenda of the last five years would be a rather public announcement around a joint action plan. Pam Palmater has blogged about this action plan - here http://indigenousnationhood.blogspot.ca/2012_02_01_archive.html. I don't want to say the action plan is meaningless, but it really kind of is (some may not share that opinion and that's okay). And there were no surprises in the action plan either – those policy items had been in every single budget and Speech from the Throne for the last 5 years, which governments don’t typically stray from and I think it is more than fair to say that they were unilaterally developed. Some First Nations did not want to participate in the meeting at all. Some felt they had to participate, because there were conditions in their communities and help needed that as leaders, they wanted to be able to provide. They had to try. I think, many leaders with a responsibility to serve their communities have found themselves in these difficult situations. Wanting to see progress, not sure why it isn’t happening and then realizing – the treaty relationship is not being implemented or working in a balanced way and it’s having an impact on all of the families in all of the communities. There's some really great documents out there. Settler Colonial did a cool blog about it here http://www.toboldrollo.com/2013/01/01/i-am-canadian-because-of-treaties-with-indigenous-nations/ and Sharon Venne's done many great talks about the Treaties and legislation to help explain - like this one:
So given all of this - a decidedly grim outlook, what could be done?
Well for one, keep focussed on the Treaties and implementing the relationship, which was not the route taken in leaving the January meeting (recall the joint action plan). Perhaps because, the issues are complex and compounded. Perhaps because people think that things cannot get better by dealing with the issues in a relationship - or don't understand the purpose of the relationship. A lot of people look at First Nations communities, see the bad and point out the crisis conditions, decry 'lawlessness' and wonder aloud why we just don't join the rest of mainstream society. Some do so with innocence and sincere curiosity about the causes of the crisis, some as allies to the seeming indifference of the settler state and some as newcomers to imperial and colonial histories that shape our relations. Some point out these realities as a matter of international record (see this alternate report, submitted by the Chiefs of Ontario to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination during Canada's review last February - here http://www.chiefs-of-ontario.org/landing-page/international – and for the full listing of reports submitted – visit the CERD website here http://www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/cerd/cerds80.htm). And of course, there really are some vitriolic attitudes out there and some of them can even come from within. I don’t know why. I think maybe it’s because we’re human and it happens sometimes that you fall into some bad times or frames of mind and then say things that aren’t the most helpful. We Ogwehoweh are no strangers to hurting each other or to bad times. We have the Great Law and a Tree of Peace for a reason after all. We buried our weapons and strove for peace to bring balance back to our families and we still lift our people up using our ways – right now, today.
I’m digressing here, but there’s a reason. I like our ways and our people. That like seems to grow every day and all the time. And I am not the only one. Many of us, younger and older, recognize that we face challenges in our families and communities and are moved to act out of love. Over the years those who were able to came together several times to have conversations about the issues they were experiencing in the community. They had a lot to share that was in common and they did not just come and meet. They came and developed strategies – strategies that could be used and adapted as needed by each community or individual. Strategies that were based on what we shared and valued in common. Supporting instead of dictating. Which was very cool. Indigenous peoples are not idle, lifeless or helpless. Let's look at some examples.
The Ontario First Nations Young Peoples Council did some fantastic work. They developed a Tobacco Protocol, to help kids heal their relationship with tobacco by learning about its traditional uses. In my humble opinion, this was a far more effective smoking cessation strategy than the Tobacco Tax Act that would follow. It was definitely an inspiration for my own (successful) quitting effort. They also developed a Life Promotion Strategy to help kids realize how great it is to be alive and indigenous with Treaty rights and responsibilities. They hosted 5 policy forums all over what is known as Ontario to teach their fellow youth about the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Treaty and Inherent Rights. They realized that no matter what was happening with external governments – we had to Help Home First, and so this was another effort and campaign that they started. They honoured their fellow young leader Shannen Koostachin, who was working hard for safe schools in First Nations communities and died very young in a car accident before a safe school was ever built in her community. (You can learn about Shannen’s Dream here http://www.fncaringsociety.com/shannensdream).
|Some river shots just before the snow came later that evening. Water is so awesome.
These were not the only tools or strategies developed. Environmental Assessment toolkits were developed to help First Nations throughout the process (just before the process was whittled down considerably of course) and people were realizing and sharing about the incredible importance of Free, Prior and Informed Consent. And, because our responsibilities are ultimately to the land and waters, a Water Declaration and a We Are the Land Declaration were also developed. I’ve been sort of using the Water Declaration to guide some of my own learning over the last year because I realized these tools/reports are useful when you use them and I wanted to understand how they could be meaningful in my actual life - (rather than just on paper). Over the last year, that's mostly meant a lot of reading about the Grand River, the Great Lakes, picture taking, looking at the water issues globally and learning how to decrease my water footprint. (There were lots of ways, I was/am abhorrently wasteful - learning every day). And of course, inspiration for these strategies and declarations comes from the fact that activities and efforts are actually happening in the communities. Language programs, youth groups, art programs, healing programs, community gardens and food banks. It's amazing how much effort I see our people put into learning our ways and helping one another.
So I realized, during this meeting preparation time last year, that yes, the legislative agenda of the government is assimilative and wretched for the environment. There are some real and very complex lands and resources matters to address - and a treaty relationship to implement and that discussion certainly needs to happen with the right people. And yes, we need to assert and exercise all of our rights and responsibilities, all of the time. Oh - and we need to try our best to work together. That there, is a whole lot of work to do and yet pretty much everyone I know really has a gift for a piece of it. For my part, I realized that I wanted to try and utilize all of these cool strategies in my life and in my family and at home. One of my sisters had already started speaking again, which was awesome, and my other sister has since joined her. I wanted to speak our languages too and get focussed about how I could fulfill any of these responsibilities, and not just because they are responsibilities – but also because it is fun and it feels good to do. It makes me happy to have something to strive towards.
My point, I suppose, in this horrendously long post – is that I am happy to still see so much hope in our communities, in the community that I am from, and in a lot of the relationships that we have. I suppose, it would be easy for many people to think that there is a lot of complaining happening by indigenous peoples and environmentalists right now. But I see something very different. I see a huge willingness in our people to have these discussions, to try and fulfill these responsibilities to lands, water and future generations together by suggesting there are other and more sustainable pathways to travel – even if people are making fun of them in the press or saying that these things don’t matter anymore. Of course water matters. Of course, clean air and climate matters. And though no one has all the answers everyone is trying – trying to listen, trying to be heard, trying to share good information, trying to support. It’s all I really want to do as well. To be helpful and to hopefully be there to provide help when help is needed. To try and utilize all of these strategies that we have worked to develop together and to be open to ideas that will promote peace.
So a year later, I am happy. I am happy and grateful that I am not on a plane and that this is still something that is important to me and to all of us. And I continue to be inspired by all the other people I see helping in the ways that they can to guard and promote peace for our families and communities.
Wow. This was a long trip down memory lane and there were even a few shortcuts! But I’m glad I took it. And if you actually managed to read all of it – I’m very grateful you came along.
P.S. There was a full moon last year around this date too - it's already passed for us this year, but here's a cool picture of it anyways.
|Full Moon - December 28