I was born in 1984 in a hospital in a city called Vancouver. I was told that Vancouver was a part of a country called Canada. I was issued a birth certificate that entitled me (and my mother) to free health care, education, clean water, national defense, voting rights, and a whole host of other privileges that are difficult to innumerate by virtue of both their great number and the fact that most of them are largely invisible to me (as nobody has ever tried to deprive me of them). As you have undoubtedly gleaned from my previous writings, my Canadian identity is something that is both profoundly important and a source of immense pride to me. I love my country of citizenship and birth, and I want to see it prosper and grow.
My mother was born under similar geographic circumstances to parents who were of Irish descent and of German descent. My father was born in a British colony called Guyana, and was told that he was Guyanese. Guyana was purchased from the Dutch, who didn’t own the land to begin with but who had simply settled there are created a colony by force. The thing that allowed the Dutch (and later the English) to hold a claim to the land they called Guyana was the same thing that brought my father’s ancestors to that land: slavery. We don’t know where my father’s people are from originally, and we may never know.
Canada is the only home I have ever known. It is the only place that I could possibly call ‘home’ – I find it deeply unlikely that I would be accepted as Irish or German (as divorced as I am from its history, culture, and ethnic majority), and am no more Guyanese than I am English or Dutch. It was only recently that I learned that, by virtue of the fact that Vancouver is built on territory that was not granted to the English by the people who originally settled her, that while I may be culturally Canadian, legally speaking I am… something else entirely.
My father was born where he was as the result of a monstrous crime perpetrated against people whose identity I can only guess at, and as the result of another monstrous crime perpetrated against the Carib and Arawak people who originally inhabited the territory now known as Guyana. My mother was born where she was as the result of another similar crime perpetrated against the original inhabitants of the same land I was born on. I was born party to, and have all my life benefited from, that same crime. I did not choose to be part of this history, but here I stand nonetheless.
As a person who believes in the value of justice, I want to live in a country that keeps its promises. If Canada stopped keeping its promises to me – if it started denying me health care, or the due process of law, or my rights as guaranteed in the Charter – I’d be furious. After all, what is a country but a set of agreement between a large group of people to abide by a common set of rules within a defined territory? The country I want to live in is one that respects its agreements and governs itself accordingly. I imagine that most people would feel the same way – a promise-keeping country is better than a promise-breaking country. A promise-keeping anything is preferable to the alternative, right?
It doesn’t take a particularly rigorous or in-depth review of our history to learn that the nation of Canada, in its various guises and forms, has repeatedly broken its promises to aboriginal people. Promises of respect for sovereignty, protection of land, sharing responsibility, mutual respect, and the preservation of the way of life of several different bands were made by representatives of the governments formed by settlers. Those promises were repeatedly, in some cases ostentatiously, broken. Aboriginal people were told one thing and delivered another entirely. And as a result, many groups* lost control over their lands, their livelihoods, and were forced into poverty either by the inattention of Canada, or in many cases by an intentional program of assimilative destruction of the very existence of aboriginal people and cultures.
The original spirit of the treaties that were signed between Canada and the First Nations of this land were much like any other treaty: an agreement between two (or sometimes more) nations. The appellation “First Nations” is not the mere political correction of the term “Indian”, it is a reflection of the fact that this land was (and is) inhabited by distinct political entities that existed in a environment that, while not European, was still very much well-established. In the spirit of expediency, mutual benefit, and a certain level of trust that bordered on benevolence, many First Nations entered into agreements with French and English settlers with the aim of sharing the land. What they failed to appreciate, what they could not have possibly anticipated, is that Europeans were not there to share the land – they were there to “civilize it”.
A clash between a culture that wishes to share and one that wishes to take all it can will certainly not benefit the former.
Canada has, over many generations, found a way to re-write this story. Indeed, this is far from the version I was taught in my government-funded school. The story we tell ourselves is that out of the generosity of our hearts, aboriginal people are permitted to live on our land, where they are taken care of by the government, who provides them with everything they need. Occasionally, when their cries of anguish reach the proper ears, we benevolently build schools and hospitals and roads for them out of our tax dollars (which they don’t have to pay, by the way), because they’re Canadians and the government doesn’t want any Canadian left in the dark. Of course their lives would be better if they dropped their old-fashioned insistence on clinging to these out-dated practices and decided to join the rest of us Canadians in the 21st century. After all, it’s pretty clear that the reserve system experiment is a failed one – time to assimilate!
These are vile, noxious lies that we, as colonizers, tell ourselves. They are no different in terms of their self-flattery or the harm they justify than the lies told about the “uplifting” and “civilizing” of the savage Africans who were benevolently relieved of their freedoms, human rights, land, and cultures, by the European countries that are at least willing to admit that they were colonizing African countries. We see how well that’s worked out for the people who managed to survive.
It doesn’t have to be this way. We live this way because we Canadians have entered into an agreement with each other and with our government that this is the relationship we want to have with the original people of this land. A relationship that is exploitative, cruel, patronizing, and based on lies told to others and to ourselves. A relationship that makes us party to a crime. A relationship that is likely to end in the destruction of not only the aboriginal people themselves, but of the land that they had successfully protected for countless generations before Europeans began settling here.
We can have a different relationship.
The IdleNoMore movement, insofar as I understand it, is not about a specific policy or bill or prime minister. It is the latest in a long history of aboriginal people trying to hold Canada to account for its crimes. It is about insisting that Canada honour the agreements it made when it signed treaties to share the land and respect the sovereignty of the various Nations that inhabited the land. It’s about recognizing that we as Canadians do not have the moral or legal authority to insist that it is aboriginals who must assimilate into our way of life – our culture doesn’t exactly have a stellar record when it comes to environmental protection, maybe it’s we who need to assimilate. It’s about recognizing that if we wish to continue thinking of ourselves as a country that believes in human rights and the rule of law, then we have to confront our own failure to live up to our own standards.
As I said above, I am fiercely proud of my Canadian identity; I love my country. But part of love is honesty, and the fact is that Canada has many things to be deeply ashamed of. Perhaps foremost among these is the fact that the entire country is built on a series of lies – first to the original people of this land, and next to its own citizens. I want to live in a Canada that confronts its history, makes amends for it, and works to improve upon it through co-operation and mutual respect. In addition to the other things that makes this country great, the compassion, empathy, and willingness to work for the minority are what gives me hope that we can change before it’s too late.
I believe in a Canada that respects human rights. I believe in a Canada that practices justice. I believe in a Canada that acknowledges its own faults. I believe in a Canada that honours its agreements. I just don’t live in that Canada. Not yet.
And that is some of the many reasons that I will be #IdleNoMore.
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*It should be noted that, much like poverty in the black community, it is not necessarily the case that all aboriginal groups are impoverished. It is rather the case that the levels of poverty among aboriginal groups is far higher than one would expect by chance.