Almost three years ago (although I only worked up the nerve to post it two years ago, so sensitive is the topic), I wrote a blog post about First Nations youth, and how I suspected they were going to radically alter Canada’s relationship with First Nations, and likely change the very notion of how people understand and think about First Nations peoples.
If you haven’t read that old post, please consider taking a look.
To be clear, I’m not claiming I predicted #idlenomore, but thanks to an amazing opportunity to be part of the Environics Institute and the Urban Aboriginal Peoples Study, it was plainly obvious to me some tectonic shifts were occurring.
Now I want to go further out on a limb.
Back in May 2010, I said the next First Nations debate won’t include you (e.g. non-aboriginals). And despite what Idle No More looks like, I don’t think it does include most non-First Nations. My sense – which could be completely off-base, but which I posit in my previous post – is that there is an internal debate within the First Nations community about leadership, identity, power, institutions and First Nations’ relationship with Canada. Yes, #idlenomore is about the omnibus bill, and about First Nations’ role in Canada, but it is also about how First Nations organize and see themselves. And it is fostering conversations and relationships within their community that will not create a single unitary consensus, but that will change the way First Nations relate and talk to the rest of Canada, their expectations of their leadership, and equally importantly, their expectations of us. They will be better prepared for the next conversation they want to have with non-aboriginal Canadians.
It will be exciting. And we non-aboriginals will be utterly unprepared.
This is because we don’t want to talk about these issues. Worse, we don’t know how to. And, most critically, we’re deeply scared to. In the minds of many Canadians, Idle No More represents an existential threat to the notion of Canada.
Why? Because it challenges us in deeply uncomfortable ways.
It challenges core notions of Canadian identity. Canadians believe people should be given a fair chance and that they should be treated equally. A conversation about #idlenomore would force Canadians to engage in a dialogue about equality and fairness on terms we might find uncomfortable. Canadians know many First Nations live in third-world conditions, but they mostly want the government to make the problem go away.
It challenges our sense of history. Few Canadians – and the current government especially – like to explore or understand the role of First Nations in our history. The First World War and our connections to “empire” earn more attention in curriculum than a complex exploration of the fact that Canada is a colony, and has embraced some of the darkest aspects that come with colonialism. There is racism in Canada. There is structural inequity. It doesn’t mean that Canada is racist, or that Canadians are racist. But there is racism. And we can’t even talk about it. Indeed, at present we seem fixated on celebrating pitched battles that defined the state, not the relationships, choices, and elements of our history that define our culture and critically explore who we are as a people.
And it challenges our institutions: Canadians fear that a conversation about First Nations threatens to undermine the role of parliament, of non-aboriginal rights to decide what happens in their community. In Vancouver – a complex place for First Nations/non-First Nations relations – many residents pass a giant glowing billboard erected by First Nations next to the Burrard Street bridge and fear that is the future in a renegotiated world. Don’t underestimate the scope and power of these fears. Just look at Christy Blatchford – a columnist who in one week mocks both the validity of First Nations as entities and the treaties we signed since they “were expected to be in place ‘as long as the sun shines, the grass grows and the river flows,'” and sees no irony in arguing the very next week that the unwillingness of the police to execute a judge’s order to dismantle a First nations barricade is a threat to the rule of law. So clearly, inconvenient treaties with First Nations – cited in our constitution – are disposable, while an order from a provincial judge is sacrosanct. It takes a special sense of privilege to believe these two ideas are compatible. Challenging our institutions will feel threatening, particularly to the beneficiaries of our current system (and let’s face it, non-aboriginals do pretty well by the status quo). This will create fear. Some of the concerns will be legitimate. Just as the fears, concerns and aspirations of First Nations are also legitimate. But fear is not a legitimate reason to avoid having a conversation.
Today, First Nations are having an internal conversation, as well as a debate with the Canadian state. But at some point, this conversation will be had with Canadians writ large. It might not be a single national conversation – it might be a million small ones that happen as an increasingly urban, educated and confident First Nations cohort become co-workers, neighbours and friends of more and more Canadians. And when that conversation happens, my hope is that we’ll recognize that it is an existential threat to what we believed Canada was. And much like #idlenomore is changing First Nations communities, this conversation will create a new understanding of Canada – in the same way a still ongoing conversation about Sikhs, Chinese, Jamaicans and other immigrants changed who we are and how Canadians saw themselves.
I just hope we handle the conversation well. And I confess I have no idea how to get prepared. Engaging the other is never easy, whether you are aboriginal or non-aboriginal. But think about attending a protest; don’t shy away from the articles (though, try to find stuff actually written by someone who is First Nations, rather than a pundit in a newspaper); and mostly, be open to the possibility for conversation and prepare to be triggered, and think about how you want to react when it happens.
So far, New Zealand is the only country I’ve seen that has had this conversation with its indigenous peoples in any meaningful way. I’m working on trying to find out more about how that process – which I’m sure was far from perfect – emerged and took place.
Because maybe it is time non-aboriginals get prepared, too. It would be a basic expression of respect.