Growing up in Winnipeg it was not uncommon to encounter aboriginal or native Canadians rummaging through the streets and back alleys around the once grand Royal Alex in a disheveled state of drunken hopelessness and discontentment.
While some looked upon them with condescending indignation others, such as my family, viewed them through a compassionate yet distantly skewed lens of sadness for the plight of a people whose future seemed to center on the next drink or fix.
Of course, this was during the 60s, long before the hypersensitivity of today’s world in which a wayward glance could be construed as being offensive would render such recounts as either ignorant or prejudicial, or perhaps even a bit of both. After all, back then it would never have dawned on us to raise protests over the tomahawk chop of Atlanta Braves fans or, the fact that some aboriginals may find the Washington NFL football team’s “Redskins” moniker offensive.
But even in this modern era of enlightened sensibilities I cannot help but wonder if, while society has progressed in its understanding and acceptance of cultural diversity, Native Canadians have become forever stuck in a time warp convergence of an attitude of entitlement coupled with a legacy of prejudicial limitation that preempts their progression has a people both individually as well as collectively.
The fact that references to the confrontation between the Canadian military and Native Canadians at Oka, Quebec in 1990 are front and center in today’s Huffington Post article is along these lines telling, given the prediction of present day unrest by First Nation’s Chiefs if, as they contend, new relationships are not forged with the government at the First Nations Summit later this month in Ottawa.
The real question is what exactly do the Chiefs reference to forging new relationships actually mean, and is it a unilateral demand in that it is more representative of an assignment of continuing blame rather than an assumption of responsibility on the part of a mutually respected and deserving partner? If it is the former, then all parties will be hard pressed to move beyond perhaps the unintended but very real Jim Crow existence of Native Canadians. After all, one cannot be truly respected as a partner at the negotiating table if the wrongs of the past are used as a means of extorting unearned rights in the here and now.
Now some of you may bristle at the last statement claiming that while Canada’s aboriginal people are separate, they are anything but equal. Fair enough but, as I had indicated in my latest book Policing In A Democratic Society: Is America Becoming A Police State? (which I co-wrote with Dr. Richard Weinblatt), it might be time for all Canadians to shed the shackles of historic injustices in much the same way that respected Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., called for a Slavery Absolution in a 2010 New York Times editorial. Specifically, the Professor encouraged the President “to end the nation’s sense of responsibility for the legacy of slavery.”
Or to put it another way, while we are all in principle and intent equal as a nation and a people, the definition is often times over-extended to one of unearned entitlement that has little to do with merit, perseverance and accomplishment and more to do with you did me wrong now pay up . . . over, and over, and over again. This doesn’t represent a quest for equality but instead one of an imposed and ongoing indebtedness that has in many ways led to the very third-world conditions of First Nation communities that was lamented by Perry Bellegarde.
Bellegarde, who is with the Little Black Bear First Nation in Saskatchewan, talks about increased access to prime ministers and premiers, and the need for he and his people to be treated fairly stressing that Native Canadians are not a minority but an indigenous peoples.
In all of these expectant demands no where does Bellegarde or for that matter Grand Chief Stan Beardy, whose own demands for an increased stake in the shared riches of our (and I emphasize the word our here) land and resources, talk about their leadership’s role in the present day plight of aboriginal communities.
Certainly charges of corruption at the higher level’s of Native governance is nothing new, even prompting retired judge John Reilly to suggest that “Becoming an Indian chief in Canada is a license to steal,” in which “some of them use it, some of them don’t.”
Riley, whose book Bad Medicine: A Judge’s Struggle for Justice in a First Nations Community, has been met with fierce criticism from First Nations leaders who claim that his highly publicized remarks are bringing their leadership into “disrepute,” and that he was working to “interfere” in their democratic process.
Is this the case? I will let you be the judge. But it is noteworthy that Riley, whose years on the bench saw as one article put it, a river of victims and perpetrators from the Stoney Nakoda reserve delivered to his Canmore, Alta. courtroom for decades, remains adamant that this is a story that needs to be told.
What is interesting is that Riley’s concern has little to do with the demands for larger stakes in shared resources or greater equality in a country that while far from perfect is admired the world over. Nor does he make reference to a level of increased access to government officials that very few Canadians of any walk of life have. Instead Riley’s primary contention is that the “ordinary member of a native community does not have the protection of the law,” and that “the dictatorship style of (First Nations) government” which he called appalling, is what binds aboriginal Canadians to a life of at times insufferable desperation.
Within this context, it’s time we followed the lead of a Professor Gates and put an end to our nation’s sense of responsibility for the legacy of our treatment of this country’s indigenous people and say enough is enough. When we take this first step towards treating Native Canadians as equals then, and perhaps only then, will they themselves begin to take ownership for their lives.
When this happens, the possibilities for positive change is unlimited.