Srugoonch’uu hah tro’oonjıı: Visions of Social Equality and Respect in Canada’s Future

Having just arrived on Prince Edward Island to attend the highly anticipated A Bold Vision, I share with you my vision for Canada. This is published in A Bold Vision‘s conference anthology, available for purchase on Friday, September 23, 2014.

Fish camp teaches many lessons. My own family’s fish camp is along the Nagwichoonjik (Mackenzie River), on traditional Gwich’in and Treaty 11 territory. Fish camp serves as a highly charged space for contemplating philosophical queries, engaging in cultural reproduction through fishing, actively protesting the historical removal of Indigenous peoples land by simply being on the land, and learning about healthy relationships with neighbours (human or otherwise). Chief among these lessons that I have learned from my Gwich’in family is the notion of acceptance, but not simply acceptance: srugoonch’uu hah tro’oonjıı is the ability to embrace acceptance with happiness. I contend that by embracing the concept of srugoonch’uu hah tro’oonjıı, we, as Canadians, will be obtain a more balanced society in the aim of achieving social equality and respect for all cultures.

In December 2012, a woman of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation and Thunder Bay community was walking to a local grocery store. Two Caucasian men approached her, forced her into their vehicle, and took her to a remote location where they sexually assaulted, strangled, and beat her while using racial slurs, telling her “You Indians deserve to lose your treaty rights.”[1] The assault occurred at a highly politicized time in Canada. Just one month earlier, the grassroots movement Idle No More kicked off on the Canadian Plains responding to the ideological nature of Bill C-45, an omnibus bill that sought to alter environmental legislation in Canada, among other things. In the thick of peaceful and nationwide Idle No More demonstrations, Chief Theresa Spence initiated a hunger strike with the goal of meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper to improve the housing crisis on the Attawapiskat reserve in Ontario.

Idle No More provided new opportunities for Canadians to debate a wide variety of issues relating to colonialism, Indigenous dispossession, and the responsibility of settler Canadians. But the assault of the Thunder Bay woman – at once horrific and frighteningly common – indicates that despite a pan-Canadian rhetoric of tolerance and multiculturalism, the larger socio-political context of Canadian-Indigenous relations is deeply embedded in notions of racism, patriarchy, and social inequality.[2] My vision for Canada over the next 150 years is to educate Canadians, encourage critical dialogue, and foster new understandings of equality for Canada’s Indigenous peoples, especially for Indigenous women. In doing so, I want to I discuss three points to foster new dialogue between Canadians, academics, politicians, and leaders.

Indigenous peoples have maintained a strong presence on Turtle Island (North America) since time immemorial. Indigenous men and women were keepers of the land, savvy politicians and negotiators, and the producers of knowledge and practices. With the arrival of European newcomers, people entered into new relationships and agreements. Indigenous peoples were invaluable to the success and wellbeing of early missionaries, fur traders, and settlers, providing them with information about the land, navigational routes, and food stores. A number of factors, however, changed relationships between early settler populations and Indigenous communities. The outcome of the War of 1812 meant that Indigenous peoples were no longer desired as military allies. The formation of the Canadian nation-state led to the implementation of draconian colonial policies, such as the Indian Act of 1876. The perceived threats of the Frog Lake Massacre and Riel Rebellion, both in 1885, resulted in public executions of Indigenous people and served to fuel rhetoric based on stereotypical fears about “savage Indians.” The dwindling supply of bison on the Plains, the expansion of agricultural settlement, and the establishment of poorly serviced reserves led to the imminent threat of starvation and disease among many Indigenous communities in northwestern Canada during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. There are many other developments of the same era that significantly impacted the role of Indigenous peoples in Canada: residential schools, the Pass System on the western Canadian Plains, the criminalization of Indigenous cultural expressions (such as sundances and potlatches), the implementation of new economic structures (namely capitalism), and the policy of Enfranchisement through which “Indians” lost their status and were forced to move off-reserve and away from their communities. Through these policies, and others, the Canadian and provincial governments sought to almost completely dispossess and further debilitate vulnerable communities.

Although Indigenous women were and are often less visible than their male counterparts in the telling of these events, they are undoubtedly present and active in in all aspects of life, both in the past and present. A large body of literature examines the histories of Indigenous peoples. Academic researchers investigated the histories of Indigenous women in terms of “pre” and “post” contact, theories of social and progressive evolution, and the plight of Indigenous women in their own communities. As historians Mary-Ellen Kelm and Lorna Townsend note, many Indigenous women found these research agendas “unsatisfying and homogenizing.” Scholars went on to question how ‘official’ historical records effectively silence Indigenous voices and are instead embracing oral histories while probing imperial and colonial settings as gendered phenomena. Kelm and Townsend write that “good women’s history will change the way we see society, will illuminate the relations of power, [and] will challenge our assumptions about ‘how things are.’”[3]

A critical part of A Bold Vision is to question hegemonic ideals of “how things are” by challenging existing narratives about Indigenous women, perceptions of what it means to be Canadian, and what the fabric of our nation might look like over the course of the next century. Understanding how Indigenous women have been historically constructed and pointing to the ways in which Indigenous women in Canada are currently leading our country into new conversations about Indigeneity and colonialism will starkly demonstrate how the nation-state and larger settler Canadian populations seek to further silence Indigenous peoples. We need to move beyond these marginalizing narratives.

Historians such as Sarah Carter and Adele Perry show how negative images of Indigenous women became intrinsically embedded in the consciousness of settler Canadians as early as the nineteenth century.[4] Since then, the bodies of Indigenous women have been overtly sexualized, criminalized, and served as objects of polarized rhetoric about Indigenous people. Other historians, such as Joan Sangster and Robin Brownlie, demonstrate that state policies, often executed by Indian Agents, were used to marginalize Indigenous peoples, especially women, in the twentieth century.[5] For instance, Indigenous women lost their Indian Status, as regulated by the federal legislation of the Indian Act, when they married non-Indigenous men. Ironically, white women gained Indian Status by marrying Indigenous men. In 1985, the federal government passed Bill C-31, allowing women to retain their Indian Status regardless of whom they marry. Despite this, there continues to be gender inequality in the Indian Act.

Through times of epidemic, residential schools, political oppression, and cultural alienation, Indigenous women have remained steadfast in their efforts to protect their families, communities, culture, and beliefs. The era of the mid twentieth century spurred a change in Canadian politics. During the post-war decades, Indigenous people secured the right to vote in Canada and the Civil Rights Movement fuelled new questions about equality and freedom. The White Paper of 1969 politicized Indigenous people in new ways and Canadians witnessed the rise of Indigenous political groups seeking meaningful and lasting social, political, and economic change. Canadians, in more recent decades, have witnessed the furthering of Indigenous issues through the debates over Calder v. British Columbia (1971), the failed Meech Lake Accord (1990), and the events that transpired near the Town of Oka and the Mohawk community of Kanesatake (commonly referred to as “the Oka Crisis” of 1990).

Although there have been important self-determination and sovereignty milestones for Indigenous peoples since the 1960s, the marginalization of Indigenous women continues. In May 2014, The Royal Canadian Mounted Police released a report confirming the documented cases of nearly twelve hundred missing or murdered Indigenous women in Canada between the years of 1980 and 2012. From British Columbia’s Highway of Tears, to the highly publicized 1990s Vancouver murders, to the unsympathetic streets of Saskatoon that Christine Welsh shows in her film Finding Dawn, Indigenous women in Canada continue to be victims of colonization, racism, and patriarchy. Successive Canadian governments, both Liberal and Conservative, have failed to prioritize this important issue. The current Canadian government continues to reject the idea of a national inquiry for missing and murdered Indigenous women and has worsened the situation by ceasing funding for projects and programs designed to support women in national and international contexts. In doing so, it continues to demonstrate the patriarchal and oppressive nature of the Canadian state.

How can lasting and meaningful change be implemented in Canadian society? How can settler Canadians engage in nuanced conversations about Indigenous peoples when the intergenerational effects of colonialism continue to emerge and reinforce stereotypical images of Indigenous communities? How can Indigenous communities flourish and find solace in a twenty-first century Canada that continues to openly oppress them through rhetoric, state policy, and the ongoing intergenerational effects of residential schools?

First, the multiple and varied histories of Indigenous peoples must be taught both in school and to the general public. As Canadians, it is our responsibility to make an attempt to understand our nation’s past. Currently, primary and secondary school teachers are recognizing this need by implementing new curricula that include Indigenous histories, the history of the nation-state, and the impact of residential schools on both Indigenous and settler Canadian populations. For example, new curricula was implemented in the Northwest Territories in 2011 focusing on the history of residential schools. While there are questions surrounding who should teach this material and what kinds of historical debates should be shared with children, changes are being made, though at a relatively slow rate. By understanding our colonial history of oppression, Canadians will be better equipped to comprehend how issues like residential schools and forced Indigenous relocation are directly linked to current day social developments and the status of Indigenous women in Canada.

Second, although some people argue that colonialism and oppressive state policies are elements of the past, there is an urgent need for settler Canadians need to recognize that their histories are present in the continued dispossession and marginalization of Indigenous peoples. Without provoking guilt or ascribing personal blame, historian Paige Raibmon asserts that settler Canadians should seek to understand how their lives are embedded in colonial narratives and a achieve a deepened understanding of their current responsibilities in the effort to subvert the mundane practices of colonialism.[6] Some Canadians are contributing to new understandings of what it means to be settler Canadian on “Indian land.” Recently the City of Vancouver formally acknowledged that it rests on the unceded territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh Nations. Indigenous peoples themselves are also contributing to these exciting new conversations. Canada is witnessing a generation of youth who are highly politicized and immersed in many of the current debates of what it means to be Indigenous and what it means to be Canadian. In late 2013, a Saskatchewan Cree student wore a hoodie to her local school that read: “Got land? Thank an Indian.”[7] This statement sparked spirited debates about land ownership and treaty rights across Canada. A key part of making Indigenous peoples equal players, once again, in Canadian society includes encouraging youth, women, and other marginalized groups of people to spark conversations and engage in meaningful dialogue, controversial or otherwise.

Third, and finally, Canadians must build political momentum and insist that the federal government take Indigenous politicians, political bodies, and socio-political movements, such as Idle No More, seriously. In December 2012, as tens of thousands of people engaged in peaceful protest at public events, and more quietly in their homes, online, and on the land, Prime Minister Harper and his government addressed the nation through silence and disregard. His and their silence erodes the very fabric of a supposedly democratic nation. Meanwhile, the Conservative government continues to demonstrate a blatant disregard for Treaty agreements, inherent land rights, Indigenous-environmental concerns, and the socio-economic status of Indigenous people. But there are other concerns too, such as the vexed and uncertain course of events initiated by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as demonstrated by the question of what to do with confidential personal testimonies, if financial compensation has actually helped survivors, and the question of how to engage in further healing practices once the Commission comes to an end in 2015.

There are many unresolved land issues initiated by First Peoples nationwide. Calls for an inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women continue to be unheeded. Further, while a growing number of Indigenous people, and especially women, pursue post-secondary education, we continue to represent a very small minority of graduates. The fields of academia, healthcare, policy studies, law, politics, and social work (to name a few) are in desperate need of an influx of Indigenous academics and content. And support is needed for these endeavours at local, provincial/territorial, and national levels. Until Indigenous people have our own people working on our behalf, identifying our own goals, and utilizing our own practices and methodologies, few benefits will be gained. As the fate of Bill C-33, the proposed First Nations Education Act demonstrates, in-depth and wide understandings of Indigenous debates are necessary.

The assault on one Nishnawbe Aski Nation woman in Thunder Bay in December 2012 is not unique. The safety and flourishing of Indigenous women and Indigenous peoples is an onerous task. We must tackle the ongoing effects of colonization and patriarchy in a society that was built on racial discourses, social inequalities, and oppression. By engaging with Indigenous peoples themselves through critical dialogue and a heightened awareness of historical and contemporary colonial developments, perhaps Canadians can achieve srugoonch’uu hah tro’oonjıı – a happy acceptance of not only Indigenous people, but of all Canadians. It is my vision that Canadians, in the next 150 years, will make an effort to learn about our nation’s past, embrace expressions of cultural respect, and engage in conversations that contribute to the resilience of Indigenous communities and Canada’s First Peoples. Although not all Canadians will be familiar with “fish camp,” I am optimistic that they are capable of understanding the fundamental essence of srugoonch’uu hah tro’oonjıı.

[1] Tanya Kappo, “Hate Crime Against First Nations Woman in Thunder Bay: Family Urges Idle No More Movement to Remain Peaceful.” www.media.knet.ca

[2] Indigenous women and 3.5 times more likely to experience violence than non-Indigenous women. Native Women’s Association of Canada, “Fact Sheet: Violence Against Aboriginal Women” (Ottawa, 2010).

[3] Mary-Ellen Kelm and Lorna Townsend, eds. In The Days of Our Grandmothers (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006), 5, 7-8.

[4] Sarah Carter, “Categories and Terrains of Exclusion: Constructing the ‘Indian Woman’ in the Early Settlement Era,” in In the Days of Our Grandmothers: A Reader in Aboriginal Women’s History in Canada, Kelm, Mary-Ellen and Lorna Townsend, eds. (Toronto: University of Toronto, 2006); Adele Perry, On the Edge of Empire: Gender, Race, and the Making of British Columbia, 1849-1871 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001).

[5] Joan Sangster, “Domesticating Girls: The Sexual Regulation of Aboriginal and Working-Class Girls in Twentieth-Century Canada,” in Contact Zones: Aboriginal and Settler Women in Canada’s Colonial Past (Myra Rutherdale and Katie Pickles, eds. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2005); Robin Brownlie, “Intimate Surveillance: Indian Affairs, Colonization, and the Regulation of Aboriginal Women’s Sexuality,” in Contact Zones.

[6] Paige Raibmon, “Unmaking Native Space: A Genealogy of Indian Policy, Settler Practice, and the Micro Techniques of Dispossession,” in The Power of Promises: Rethinking Indian Treaties in the Pacific Northwest, Alexandra Harmon, ed. (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2008), 57, 77.

[7] Joana Draghici, “First Nation Teen Told Not to Wear ‘Got Land?’ Shirt at School,” Tuesday, January 14, 2014. www.cbc/news/canada.ca

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One thought on “Srugoonch’uu hah tro’oonjıı: Visions of Social Equality and Respect in Canada’s Future

  1. Pingback: OUR SUNDAY LINKS : GUTS Canadian Feminist Magazine

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