Their Country, Our Land: Why Indigenous peoples have a problem with #Canada150
Robert Jago is an entrepreneur who has written for Western Standard and CANADALAND. Registered with the Nooksack Tribe in Washington State, his family is registered at Kwantlen. He currently lives in Quebec on Mohawk land with his family.
This essay has been adapted from a series of tweets published in December 2016 as part of Robert’s stint with the rotating @IndigenousXca Twitter account. Its contents have been slightly modified for publication here, and appear by permission of the author.
We Indigenous peoples have a problem. For the last century, that’s been presented as “the Indian Problem.” The definition has changed, from it being a problem of our continued existence to a group of social problems. I think the core of the Indian Problem is that we reject what white people value, and in this country, that’s Canadianness. Rejecting their values and absorption into their society has consequences, and those are the social problems we see: unfair policing, murderous child welfare systems, unequal healthcare and education, colonial exploitation of our resources. Generations of leaders have fought to claim rights and fair treatment using the terms of the Indian Problem.
But the Indian Problem isn’t our problem. Our problem is “The Canadian Problem.” Put in absolutely basic terms, our problem is numbers. They have them and we don’t. These nomads outnumber us 16-to-1. Every problem we face is an effect of their superior numbers. By weight of numbers, we are denied our democratic rights. With their majority, their control over our lands and resources seems natural and is granted democratic cover. With their pursuit of the greatest good for the greatest number, so-called democracy ensures this works against us. The greatest good is always their good, the greatest number is by definition, them. Our lesser goods are compromised away.
Understanding what the Canadian Problem is makes it all the more important to reject Canadianness. Before we go on, what exactly is a Canadian? For me (and take notes, Kellie Leitch), it’s this: at the very least, a Canadian is a democrat, and they follow the rules created by those democratic institutions. Canadians welcome people to become part of their country and to share their values and their identity. Canadians define their character by their proximity to nature and by their love of the outdoors. But these are democrats who keep a permanent minority in limbo. They treat our defiance as something like a hunger strike. They’re not going to let us starve; for our own good, they’re going to keep us going ’til we give in and accept their “help.” To counter that, they believe in majority rule, and minority rights is to accept that one side makes all the rules, and that our side is at most given tools to defend our rights against excesses of that majority.
But how do we fix our problems and advance in our national life if all we can do is hold back a tide of foreign law? Solving this problem of numbers and providing outsized influence is not alien to Canadians. Note the size of rural versus urban ridings, or the size of PEI’s contingent in the Senate. Canadian democracy bends the rules for predominantly white minorities, but not for us. They ensure white minorities can’t be overrun or kept out of decision making. But for us, higher principles are at stake.
If we Indigenous peoples lived in a real democracy, we’d spend our time convincing members of our nations to vote for solutions to our problems. Instead, our time is actually spent lobbying politicians someone else voted for to do something their constituents don’t care about. Even to the most progressive of our non-native supporters, we’re an issue. One to be weighed against other issues: clean water, carbon taxes, same-sex marriage, one trade agreement or another, Indian stuff, CBC funding…
But we are not an issue, we are nations. And compromise on that fact is impossible. Canada can’t be a democracy. Joseph Boyden likes to say there are three solitudes in this country, not just French-English. Solitudes mean we’re each living a national life disconnected and unaware of the other. Which is true for Quebec. But for Indigenous people, it’s impossible for us to live our lives unaware of and unaffected by what white people want. We aren’t three solitudes, we are three broadly drawn communities: English Canada, French Canada, and 600 variations on the Indigenous nations of Canada.
Canada can’t be a democracy, because one of these nations so vastly outnumbers the others. Of the three founding nations, our current constitution was written and passed by one of them alone. We live in a country unfairly dominated and run in the sole interests of that single nation—English Canada.
Canada can’t continue being run as the private estate of the English Canadian elite. Canada is a communal state. A communal state is one in which each community governs itself internally by its own rules and come together at a country-wide “national” level, each with reserved positions in the communal administration, each with a veto. In a communal state, 1.4 million natives would have an equal say in the running of Canada. Not equal to 1.4 million Ontarians, but equal to all of English Canada, all of French Canada.
Natives were kept outside of national society. Then, confined to the reserve, we were brought in one by one. Then with the rights era, we formed groups which tried to mediate our entry into the national society. The next step in our development as nations is for us to work towards forming a union of equals with Canada. Not a union of equals with Canadians—democracy prevents that—but a union of equals with Canada. Which sounds impossible, but how many of Quebec’s demands sounded impossible before they were granted? We need to learn from the Quebec model of crisis diplomacy and take it to heart. Each referendum, each riot, strike, threat, moved Quebec’s national interests forward. And unlike us, Quebec isn’t hobbled by a weak accommodationist leadership with no love of nation.
Our Indigenous leaders have the national vision and spirit of a small town chamber of commerce. In order for us to advance, we need to get rid of this leadership. We need people who have a national vision, and who will do anything to instigate a crisis that will move us forward. English Canada feared the loss of Quebec because they can’t resist the pull of America without them. They didn’t cave into Quebec for love of Quebec culture, or the Quebec people. They needed them. A means to an end. Our current leaders want to make friends, want English Canadians to like us. That’s why they always restrain their people.
We don’t need Canadians to like us. We need them to fear us, and fear not giving in to us. We natives live with the Canada Problem, and we natives can only solve that problem ourselves. Democracy won’t help us, rights won’t help us. We need to be harder on our leaders until they grow a spine. And we need to get rid of those fake leaders who will sell us out.
Again, the Canada Problem is basically a problem of numbers. By their numbers, they steal our democracy, lay claim to our lands and resources, and ignore our needs. But besides this sham democracy are the two other cornerstones of Canadianness: inclusiveness and love of nature.
The Canadian idea of inclusiveness is one of their proudest accomplishments. Think of Trudeau and the Syrian refugees: “They walk in as refugees and walk out as permanent residents of Canada, with an opportunity to become full Canadians.” Trudeau went on to define Canadian as “people with a shared set of values, aspirations, hopes and dreams.” Undoubtedly, a Syrian could share those values easier than I could, than my community could. Because those are the values of rootlessness, of refuge, of the quiet, nomadic life. They aren’t Native values.
To a Canadian, Native values are wrong. To be Native is to be defined by your background, not in spite of it. Our great grandparents lived free, citizens of 10,000 year old cultures that developed unique ways to live and to know God. Our grandparents survived an apocalypse, saw the whole world fall around them, and they made it through and rebuilt. That we’re here now, shows that that earlier generation was one of the greatest in the history of humanity.
The next generation suffered through the darkest days of our oppression, virtual prisoners on their reserves. Our parents fought for our rights, became the first generation of Native professionals, rebuilt faith and family life. The work of those people in this country—that defines me more than a health card or an insurance number. It brings with it an obligation to carry the torch for the next generation, and to make all this work have value. To the Canadian though, this is old country garbage that should be cast aside to make way for Canadianness.
Canada can give you a lot. It gives that freely to some of the neediest and most deserving people from around the world. The price, though, is to sacrifice a part of your identity, your sense of belonging and duty to your ancestors. Our rooted identities are destructive and antithetical to what it means to be Canadian. To be Native is to be based on ancestry, and land, and struggle. All alien to these foreigners who rule us.
The Canadian concept of inclusiveness is exclusive of First Nations people and is a threat to us. You all know Jay’s Treaty. It gives Canadian First Nations people access to the United States, but denies American First Nations people the reverse. In Canada, a nation with a quarter million immigrants a year, the only wall they put up is against our people. In my job, I write letters ten times a week that ensure work permits for foreigners. I bring 1,000 to Canada each year. But I can’t bring Natives. I’ve tried. I wanted to bring my own people over the border. But the barriers are too high.
Inclusiveness ends where roots begin. Rootless, drifters come in and share our values. Share our blood and land? Stay out. Inclusiveness is about the desire to vanish. To melt away, turn off that sense of obligation, and live only for yourself. Yourself and your kids obviously. Mostly the latter.
You know, we could do it too: be included, be multicultural, give up our lands, vanish, and take equal services. Every problem could be solved if we gave up our ‘hunger strike’ and took on their values and became Canadians. But in the ruins of our villages, with dead all around, on the same land my family lives on now, someone thought of me. And, today, I think of them. They kept on because of their obligation to me, and I trade the easy out for my obligation to them.
These people who come to Canada to share in Canadian values? They’re as anomalous as the Canadians themselves. The majority of the Irish, the Jamaicans, the Chinese, felt the same pull we did. To love of homeland. They stayed put. Inclusiveness excludes our way of being. And inclusiveness worsens the numbers problem more every year.
I’d like to finish my thoughts on the Canada Problem by discussing its professed love of nature and the outdoors. Do you know Scott Gilmore? Maclean’s writer, spouse of the environment minister? He’s most known in Indigenous circles for stuff like this. He writes articles telling natives to leave. To move to cities, to end their ‘hunger strike’ and surrender the North.
But don’t doubt for a second that Gilmore doesn’t love our land. He has a business that sells the white kitsch version of it. As part of that business he gives himself the title of “Sagamore” (aka ‘Sachem’). And it’s not a contradiction for someone who’s so vocal in their call for us to leave the North to take on a Native title. He does it playfully because we’re a colourful and “fun” part of the history of the North. Not part of its present. The perceived present, sans the Hunger Strikers, is a clean, protected land, with a history of explorers and wild men. The Great White Sagamore is quintessentially Canadian in his love of our north.
The definitive Canadian statement on their connection to our lands is the Glenn Gould radio documentary, “The Idea of North.” In it, the pianist Gould interviews people from across the North about their love of the region, their concept of it. And in that documentary, Gould does not speak to a single Indigenous person. Instead, we hear a literal justification of colonialism, a treatment of the lands as an ahistorical terra nullius.
The Idea of North is the idea of Canada. It’s the joke that a Canadian is someone that knows how to make love in a canoe. It’s the dream of our land empty and open for exploration and adventure. Our land, cleansed of us.
Look at how they portray their country, our land. The only people there are them, having fun, in land unsullied by us. Look at their hundreds of trip ideas. Where they live, the experiences are about culture; where we live, the experiences are about a wild, untouched land—our cultures made invisible.
The one thing that wrecks their love of the outdoors is to tramp through it in their expensive clothes with all their gear, and to find us packed in, ten at a time, in our hovels, drinking brown water. We wreck nature.
They want us to leave our remote communities—but never tell the same to their exploitative corporations. They want to disperse us and destroy our democratic potential, undermine our legitimate claim to our resources. And by weight of their numbers, they have the power to force their vision of The North on us.
Their love of the land that we need to survive is a threat to us. We need to put roads through their perfect wilderness. We need to expand our towns and build more homes in that wilderness; some of us want greater resource extraction. We will protect the land better than they will, undoubtedly, but not for extreme biking, canoeing, and hiking. We will protect the land for our use.
On my mother’s home reserve, we share an island with non-natives. Half is park, half is our reserve. We have to put barricades up on our roads and have security present to keep the non-natives from going through our yards. Their numbers make them feel entitled to take in every park and play area and wilderness. Even when we build one specifically for them, they want ours too. It was bad this past summer. A half dozen squatters. One group plugged their RV into my brother’s home. Didn’t ask him. His house was next to some trees, so why not?
They hate it when we build homes there, cut down more of the island for our growing population. For them, the natives are intruding on the park; for us, the park is an intrusion on our island. We develop these areas for living. But they covet them for fun. There are too many of these to count, the battles to stop them from making our land a playground. Where we do succeed in defending our lands, they see it as us usurping their right to access the outdoors. (The title of that latter article says everything about The Canada Problem: “Ipperwash: Paradise lost, probably never to return.” Their paradise, lost to us. Also note who and who isn’t the public, with a right to the outdoors.)
Take a look at the Twitter feed of Scott Gilmore’s outdoor equipment company. They are all about Algonquin Park. Scroll through that feed and their pictures: you’ll find dogs, White men in canoes, on moose, but what you won’t find are any Native people. Our land, cleansed of us.