As I write this from the comfort of my office knowing that my children are fed, clothed, housed, and have access to great education, Chief Theresa Spence resumes her hunger strike in a teepee across from Parliament Hill on an island in the Ottawa River. Daily rallies are springing up not only in Canada but across the United States and as far away as New Zealand to support indigenous rights. Economic disruption is happening through blockages with clearly more to come. It is truly time for Canada as a whole to closely examine the resonant impacts of assimilation policy on Aboriginal peoples and how to move forward. The call to stand “Idle No More” has a complex backstory and the urgency to remedy the profound disparities that exist in Canada has lead to the simultaneous calls to action with Indigenous Canadians.
Growing up next to a Reservation on the Saanich Peninsula highlighted the disparities between Aboriginal and non-aboriginal Canadians on a daily basis. It also provided plenty of opportunity to confront my own racism as it emerged within my developing mind, as I tried to over-simplify my perceptions with an “us-and-them” mindset. As my ability to hold multiple perspectives in mind and empathize developed, I became more aware of the complexity and profound impacts of the assimilation policy that still stands as the Indian Act. Across the sheltered waters in Brentwood Bay where I grew up I could hear the resonant echoes of drums coming from the big house. The Salish songs invoked more curiousity for me than the bells of the Anglican church that chimed on my side of the Bay. In time I came to understand that there is a vast difference between a traditional culture and the constructed welfare state known as the reservation. This is something that the Government of Canada has done over the course of hundreds of years. This understanding still informs my work and has shaped my career.
In 1994 I went to work in South Africa with township youth. The parallels between townships and the associated “Homelands” of Apartheid and the Reservations in Canada leapt to the forefront of my awareness. I also learned that the Apartheid system was at least partially modeled after the Indian Act. I worked in South Africa through their Truth and Reconciliation Commission and subsequently have seen the acute need to have a similar process in Canada, and one that addresses the broader reaches of assimilation policy above and beyond Residential Schools. I published Our Own Apartheid in Northword Magazine highlighting my reflections on these experiences and have also written a forthcoming novel titled and then we dance to expand on this theme. It is this insight based on the braided strands on my life experiences that has me sitting here writing this as Chief Theresa Spence emulates the conviction, resolve, and tactics of Ghandi to bring attention to the need for us as Canadians to address the complexity of both our past and current policies and practices toward Aboriginal peoples.
What the Idle No More movement is demonstrating is that there is cohesion between the many First Nations, Metis, and Inuit populations in Canada, as well as numerous non-aboriginal people calling for equity and social justice. Discontent with the current government’s approach has been expressed by Aboriginal leadership and it has now culminated in Chief Spence’s courageous hunger strike to accent the urgency for many Aboriginal communities to address fundamental basic needs as well as international gatherings under the banner of Idle No More. This current reality is the result of the Indian Act and the historical assimilation policy and practices carried out across many generations in Canada. There are no simple solutions and this is cannot be reduced to merely an economic problem. Yet the solutions are tweeting with the hash tag #idlenomore and posting on Facebook to educate the broader public about issues that have been cindering embers for generations and are now flickering flames spreading.
There is profound possibility coming to the surface at these flash mob round dances, as we witness in real time the integration of traditional culture and cutting edge social innovation. In my work with Aboriginal communities I never cease to be amazed by the tremendous capacity that exists and is so often stifled by the onerous bureaucracy stemming from the Indian Act. It is now 2013 and we have not successfully completed our own Truth and Reconciliation Commission and we still have assimilation legislation governing Aboriginal Canadians. There have been tremendous efforts toward a more equitable and hopeful future for Aboriginal Canadians and it is now time for all of us to be Idle No More, to have open collaborative dialogue as a nation to right this persistent wrong.
The world is now watching and I want to be part of a Canada that is once again known for its empathy and sense of social and cultural justice. And I want the children in Attawapiskat, and indigenous communities in Canada to enjoy the same opportunities as my own children, but let us start with fundamental basic needs.
Lee White works as a Senior Advisor to Build Strength From Within Aboriginal communities and organizations with GMG Consulting Inc.