(Image credit: Flickr account Justin Donnelly; the image is that this link)
Newcomers to Canada are given a very patchy explanation of First Nations issues. As the number of newcomers grows in terms of percentage of voters, their inadequate understanding causes FN issues to slide down the list of political priorities.
While it is commonly acknowledged that most of the issues causing negative impacts on our First Nations communities have remained unresolved for long periods, there is one particular factor contributing to political apathy towards these issues that has not been discussed. This factor goes right to the heart of ‘participative governance’. In simple terms, political priorities in a participative system of government are decided upon by the people participating. As a result, their priorities become the political priorities of the nation – or at least the priorities of those who prevail politically. This leads to the drawback of ‘majoritarianism’, however, in a nation with a relatively stable composition of the voting population, the effects of majoritarianism are kept relatively in check by existing power bases and political equations.
However, when the nation has a policy of adding a large number of new members (immigrants) to its voting base on an ongoing basis, the balance between the pre-existing power bases gets upended as the political parties compete to win over the allegiance of each wave of newcomers.
Concomitantly, we have also seen that the newcomers bring a baggage of issues from their homelands to Canada. Myopic politicians give exaggerated importance to these foreign issues in their quest for votes, at the expense of issues that are locally relevant to all Canadians. This, then, further reduces the available space for FN issues in the political arena.
Given the fundamental economic reality that ‘resources are finite, and have alternative uses’, allowing political space to foreign issues has another effect, viz. one on immigrants: their time (a resource) is committed elsewhere and so cannot be devoted to gaining an understanding of FN issues.
A final factor leading to their ignorance is the relative invisibility of First Nations in places where immigrants live. This deprives immigrants of the opportunity of interacting directly with FN. As a result, their opinions about FN are informed by occasional stories in the media. Depending on the individual immigrant’s way of thinking, their opinion of FN ranges between the extremes of perennial victims to perpetual crybabies, or points in-between. Regardless of that opinion, however, FN issues do not emerge in their thinking as important political priorities requiring actual action and results (as opposed to performative acts / words and virtue signaling).
If the above narration appears to be lucid (hopefully it does), that is because I have undergone those experiences – but I have also been singularly lucky to have interacted with very smart and articulate individuals from the FN community. These interactions have allowed me to trace the origins and evolution of my thoughts about our First Nations.
This article describes that personal journey.
THE (FOOL’S) GOLD STANDARD
My first impressions of the people who are Native to the Americas were, like most everyone else my age, provided by Hollywood. The first Western that I saw was McKenna’s Gold when I was quite young. I was at once fascinated by and terrified of the Apache character of Hachita, played by the very tall and muscular actor Ted Cassidy. I also covered my eyes at the scene where Hesh-Ke, the Apache ex-lover of McKenna played by Julie Newmar, goes skinny dipping in a pool of water after a long, hot and dusty ride across the desert, hoping to catch McKenna’s attention again.
Many years later, my Kenyan colleague Peter, who was an avid reader, lent me the book by Will Henry on which the movie is based. I noted several differences between the book and the movie. The name of the main antagonist had been changed from Pelon Lopez to Colorado. The book has two Apache men as members of his gang, Besh (‘knife’) and Hachita (‘axe’), but in the movie, the character of Besh is hardly defined. The movie has a concocted gang member who is Apache, named Monkey. The only time he is at the center of action is when he goes lusting after the young white woman Inga (played by Camilla Sparv).
Apart from Hesh-Ke, there is no character of Apache woman that is of substance. Their brief roles are about cooking and getting drunk.
As the story unfolds in the movie, bands of rogue Apache warriors are shown going on rampages. Apart from the sounds of galloping hooves, the only other sound emerging from them consists of their war cries. The movie makes no effort to explain their violence; the viewer is supposed to accept that this violence was just something that the Apache did.
I still love the movie, and have it on DVD. But I do wish that they had done a better job of depicting the Apache.
FAIR & LOVELY
My understanding of Native Americans increased substantially while I was in Kenya, solely through the excellent novels by James A. Michener: Alaska, Centennial, Chesapeake, Mexico and Texas. He presented a much more authentic description of their societies, practices, struggles and triumphs in the centuries before and after the arrival of Europeans and others.
I also came across a fold-out pamphlet about Canada, in which there was information about a Native Canadian who was nick-named Tete Jaune; he was of mixed race and had blond hair. I don’t remember the details, and haven’t come across his name in Canada at all. The pamphlet was some kind of official publication, and I am curious as to why it would talk about an individual whose name doesn’t appear to be commonly known in Canada.
In the days after landing in Canada, I was at a government office filling out a form (I forget what it was for). A few data-items in, I encountered this question:
“Are you a registered Indian?”
The footnote explained that registered Indians were eligible for some programs and benefits from the government. I became excited at the thought of free money.
I asked the kind lady at the counter how I could register as an Indian (I was holding an Indian passport). She explained to me gently that ‘Indian’ meant people who were Native to Canada, and therefore I was not eligible to register as one. The thought of having lost out on all that free money made me feel sad.
Sometime after Prime Minister Paul Martin lost the 2006 election to Stephen Harper and left politics, one day I heard him on radio, saying that he was going to devote his time to the betterment of the First Nations people. I was impressed; I had acquired some understanding of the problems that they faced, and was happy to learn that a person of Mr. Martin’s stature was going to devote time and efforts to resolve them. I thought that with the resources at his disposal, he was bound to make much progress. Mr. Martins’ logic was impeccable: he said that we were living in an environment of unprecedented international competition, and Canada had the distinct disadvantage of a low population. This was a significant drawback against the two main players in the international arena – China and India, both of which had populations in excess of one billion. So his reasoning was that if we leveraged every individual by letting them achieve their potential to the fullest, we could overcome our disadvantage to a great degree. The result would be a win-win situation for both Canada and the First Nations.
In the decade and half since his exit from active politics, I haven’t come across any news of a success story emanating from Mr. Martin’s efforts. Perhaps he tried but didn’t make much headway – or he found other priorities. I don’t know. Either way, the outcome – or the lack of one – illustrates perfectly the difficulty of bringing about positive changes in our First Nations’ lives.
The Wikipedia entry about Mr. Martin says that ‘He works with Martin Family Initiative, which assists First Nations Youth’. It cites an article in The Globe & Mail from September 17, 2011 about this, but the link only took me to the main Wikipedia entry for that newspaper, and not to the article itself.
Bob Rae was the second senior politicians that I heard was devoting his time and efforts to the betterment of the First Nations after retirement. His Wikipedia entry gives details of the various capacities in which he is supposed to have rendered his services in this regard. One of those is as chairman of an entity that represents 15 First Nations from B.C. that was investing a sizable sum in the Kitimat LNG Project. My understanding is that the project is still in limbo after eight years of his joining the efforts to have First Nations benefit from the economic activity relating to the project.
In 2017, Mr. Rae was appointed as Canada’s special envoy to Myanmar in relation to the Rohingya human rights crisis. Then in 2020, he was appointed as Canada’s Special Envoy on Humanitarian and Refugee Issues (thus expanding his role from one being focused on one country to worldwide). Later in the same year, he was appointed as the Canadian Ambassador to the United Nations.
Given these appointments, it would be fair to conclude that he is devoting much less time to the issues of First Nations – if he hasn’t moved on altogether.
In 2018, the contest between the proponents and opponents of pipeline projects taking Alberta’s fossil fuels to the B.C. coast heated up. At the time, I wrote an article (in another publication) titled ‘Pipe Dreams’. Although I did not touch upon the aspect of how this dispute affects the First Nations (the article focuses on the likely political fallout for various leaders), I made an observation regarding the distinction that Prime Minister Trudeau made between ‘permit’ (by government) and ‘permission’ (by community) that is very relevant in the current context:
“This seemingly clever distinction between ‘a permit’ on one hand, and ‘permission’ on the other, in fact has a deeply corrosive effect on the systems of governance; it undermines the writ of the government, including the authority of its regulatory and executive branches, and effectively hands over control to entities that have, as their raison d’etre, active prevention of a compromise between competing interests…
The only thing that would satisfy the objectors is total capitulation by the said parties, any adverse consequences to other stakeholders be damned.”
It needs to be pointed out here that the collective term ‘other stakeholders’ includes a large component of First Nations. They have been historically disadvantaged, including on the economic front. Major projects (whether involving fossil fuels or not) represent a significant opportunity to them for advancement on all fronts, starting with the economic one. Many of the regions where they live suffer from scarce economic opportunities, and this condition stymies development on other fronts such as education and health. There is a genuine need, if ever there was one, to balance protection of environment with economic development. But environmental activism has reached a fevered state where a desire to strike this urgently needed balance gets one branded as an enemy of the planet. To the environmental activists, continued poverty of the First Nations people appears to be a fair bargain for protecting nature, possibly because this poverty does not affect them.
At the time these debates were happening, I came across many people on social media – including some from the First Nations – who pointed out that these activists never present themselves for aiding the FN communities for any other cause. Whenever a protest against a fossil fuels project flares up, they show up in droves, achieve ‘success’ in blocking it, and then move on. While their activism piously projected that they were as deeply concerned for First Nations’ welfare as parents are for their children, once their objective of blocking the project is achieved, they leave those First Nations in an orphaned state.
My weekday talk show on radio was about politics and current events. On Saturdays, I had another one hour show that focused on the positive things happening in Peel region. In one episode, I had as guest a representative of a major charity organization from the South Asian community. The organization has a sizable presence and effect on an international scale. After the show, we talked more and were joined by the producer, a young South Asian lady who also had her own show on Saturdays. She used to start her show with a land acknowledgement.
We were talking about First Nations, and I happened to have on my phone a list of 51 Reserves in Ontario where a boil-water advisory was in effect. The producer and my guest knew each other personally (which is how the guest ended up on my show), so I suggested that perhaps they could team up to get something done to alleviate the crisis of drinking water on the Reserves. I shared the list with them and offered my help. Since both had come to Canada at a very young age, I hoped that they would be more sympathetic to First Nations than other immigrants who came here as adults, and therefore did not benefit from the Canadian education curriculum.
Nothing came of my suggestion. I followed up a couple of times, and then dropped the issue. Since then, I have often wondered what these land acknowledgements are worth – if they are worth anything at all.
Clint Eastwood made his excellent Western The Outlaw Josey Wales in 1976, but I saw it a couple of decades later when I was in the UAE. I thought that he did a greatly better job of developing and depicting Native American characters than Hollywood normally does. In particular, the character of Lone Watie, a Cherokee who was played by the famous Canadian actor Dan George (he belonged to the Tsleil-Waututh Nation, and was its Chief) continues to be loved by aficionados.
In the scene where the two first meet, Josey (played by Clint himself) sneaks up on Watie, and later remarks that ‘It ain’t supposed to be easy to sneak up on an Indian’. Watie’s reply to this is timelessly relevant (beginning at the 0:39 mark in this video clip):
“I’m an Indian all right. But here in the Nation they call us ‘the civilized tribe’. They call us civilized because we are easy to sneak up on. White man has been sneaking up on us for years… They sneaked upon us (in Cherokee territory) and told us we would be happy here. They said that we would be happy here in the Nations, so they took away our land and sent us here… and now, the white man is sneaking upon me (pause) again.”
The common theme between the time and place of the story (immediately after the US Civil War in the American West) and current day Canada is that outsiders are telling First Nations people what is good for them, regardless of what the FN think or want. Just as the Cherokee were pushed out on to the Trail Of Tears and into abject poverty, current environmental activism by an assortment of do-gooders keeps them mired in long-festering problems by blocking economic opportunities and , crucially, denying them their right to decide for themselves. Involvement by the senior-most politicians in our country does nothing to move the needle, and the impasse continues. It is still as easy as it was then to sneak up on the Indians and prey on their vulnerabilities.
At one point, I thought of doing my bit to help First Nations, in whatever small way that I could. But then I held myself back, realizing that I would be just one more outsider ‘sneaking up on the Indian’, adding to the mass of other do-gooders. Our First Nations appear to be doomed to a fate where they continue to be our society’s orphans, even though many ‘parents’ show up from time to time.