I blog for one simple reason: to make my voice heard. I like writing because it allows me to share my thoughts with others, and even if nobody reads it, there’s something cathartic about putting your ideas out into the universe and seeing what happens. You never know.
I suspect that’s what started the Idle No More movement. What began simply as a means of being heard developed into protests that quickly gained strength and are forcing Canadians to listen. It’s also highlighted the simmering racial tension between First Nations and Canadians that many of us would like to continue to ignore.
The movement (or maybe it’s a little early to call it that) has shone a light on a number of problems. First is the strained relationship between Aboriginal people and their Chiefs, and also among the Chiefs themselves. Second is Canadians’ attitudes towards Aboriginal people; visit any comment board below any Idle No More news article to see the vitriol. Third is Aboriginal attitudes towards Canadians and any criticism of the movement; Andrew Coyne’s twitter from January 2 shows some examples.
I fear Idle No More is demonstrating that we can’t have any rational discussion about Aboriginal issues in this country because it instantly devolves into attacks. I also think Chief Theresa Spence has somewhat hijacked the movement and become more of a hindrance than a help, as attacks against her are repeated against other Aboriginals. For example, see Ezra Levant’s Twitter, where he continually rails on the alleged financial conflicts of Chief Theresa Spence of the Attawapikskat First Nation (and has now started commenting on her physical appearance). While this is an issue in and of itself, it’s sidetracking from Idle No More’s message.
But what exactly is that message? To me, it’s the cry of a desperate and long-ignored people for help, for someone to listen and come up with long-term solutions rather than short-term fixes.
For many Canadians, Idle No More is little more than a prelude to a cash grab. But that completely misses the point. We can’t imagine what everyday life is like for many Aboriginal people: the lack of drinkable water and adequate housing on reserves, the addictions issues, the rash of suicides, the health issues, the violence and huge incarceration rates. How people look at them differently when they see them walking down the street. How nobody understands their culture, their closeness to the earth. How governments spend tens of millions of dollars in legal fees arguing against their rights rather than negotiating with them in good faith. I imagine I’d be angry, too.
But Idle No More has to be careful. As Adam Goldenberg points out, irritating Canadians isn’t going to help their cause. And the Harper Conservatives don’t care, quite frankly, because Aboriginal people aren’t a big voting bloc. So getting Canadians onside is really the only means of ensuring the message doesn’t fade as quickly as it arose.
That also means that Aboriginals must try to refrain from terming every person’s disagreements with them as racist. I don’t believe throwing more and more money to Indian Affairs or to reserves without any specific plan is the answer, just as I don’t think creating separate schools/social services/health services on reserves with no oversight is the answer, either. I think there needs to be accountability. I think there need to be standards. And yes, I think a lot more money needs to go into these areas in order to make up for a lot of shortfalls over the years, but it can’t be with no strings attached. I don’t think that’s racist; it’s common sense (please let me know if you think differently). And while governments aren’t exactly the most accountable and transparent institutions themselves, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t ask for accountability and transparency from others; why can’t we all strive to do better?
A commenter noted that there’s a difference between assimilation and integration, and that the goal should be the integration of Aboriginal people into the Canadian economy. I tend to agree; we need Aboriginal counsellors, psychiatrists, teachers, nurses, doctors, engineers and lawyers. But there’s so little trust between Aboriginal people and the federal government that I can’t blame Aboriginal people for being skeptical of the government’s plans.
But at the end of the day, we all have a stake in ensuring Aboriginal people have the same access to opportunities that the rest of us have. We are all treaty people, and I hope that Idle No More will remind us of that and set the stage for a full national discussion of what that means. But based on the commentary I’ve heard so far, from both sides, we have a long ways to go before we even get to the table.