Beyond “to vote or not to vote”.

It often comes as a surprise to many that Indigenous people in Canada tend not to identify as Canadian. What then do they identify as, you might ask? In general, Indigenous people identify themselves according to their nation: Cree, Mohawk, Dene, Métis, Anishinaabe, Inuit and so on. As peoples who have been given many names by outsiders as well as having names for ourselves in our own languages, we have many terms to choose from, but only rarely is “Canadian” among them.

After the question “what do you identify as” invariably comes “why not Canadian”? At the most surface level, the reason for rejecting Canadian as an identifier is based on a strong belief among Indigenous peoples that we never agreed to become Canadian, thus the label is inappropriate. A national identity that has been forcefully and non-consensually imposed on Indigenous peoples, is not to be embraced.

There are of course much deeper reasonings at play here. A rejection of Canadian identity is just one facet of a rejection of Canadian sovereignty over Indigenous peoples and lands. How this rejection plays out within Indigenous communities varies greatly.

For example, the Haudenosaunee lacrosse team will not travel internationally with Canadian passports, insisting on their sovereign right to travel with Haudenosaunee passports for official events. At times, these passports have been accepted, while at other times they have been refused. Taking a principled stance on this issue has a number of times prevented these lacrosse athletes, among whose nations the very sport originates, from competing in international events. The collective decision to insist that Haudenosaunee, not Canadian, sovereignty applies in this situation is certainly not made lightly. Individual Haudenosaunee may choose to travel internationally with Canadian passports, but this tends to be a matter of convenience (or perhaps better put, state coercion), rather than any sign of acceptance of Canadian sovereignty.

Most Indigenous communities in Canada have not yet exercised their sovereignty to the extent of issuing their own passports, but the rejection of Canadian sovereignty and identity often manifests as a refusal to participate in Canadian elections. This of course is not true for all communities, or all individuals. However, the number of Indigenous people who take a principled stance against participating in Canadian politics is significant. With federal elections looming near this fall, it is important to be aware of these dynamics, and to understand that the reasons behind low Indigenous voter rates go far beyond more commonly understood issues of voter apathy and disillusionment.

Within Indigenous communities (and most particularly online), the conversation rarely moves beyond “to vote or not to vote”, and proponents of both positions can become very passionate. Voting, or even worse, running for political office, is often seen as a betrayal of Indigenous sovereignty. On the other side, refusing to participate in Canadian political processes can be viewed as rejecting an important opportunity to correct the overwhelming lack of representation of Indigenous people within Canadian politics. The conversation is fraught with high emotions, appeals to principle or pragmatism, and to be blunt, things can get very ugly. None of this is made any easier by the often patronizing and unsolicited advice of non-Indigenous commentators who rarely seem aware of the deeper conflicts involved in this debate. I want to stress that this conversation within Indigenous communities is important, and contains much more detail and nuance than I have covered here.

There are many avenues of possible exploration here, including what sovereignty outside of the Canadian state looks like, but this piece is intended to focus attention on a discussion of one side of the debate. Over the next few weeks, hosts of the Twitter account @IndigenousXca will be presenting and exploring the relevance of specific federal party platforms for those Indigenous people who vote, or who are considering voting in this year’s federal election. This article is intended to lay out some ground rules for interaction with @IndigenousXca hosts, taking into account the volatile nature of the issues at play.

The first @IndigenousXca guest host to address specific federal party platforms will take over from tomorrow, July 16th to the 23rd, beginning at 7pm EST. Tanya Lalonde is Cree/Métis from Buffalo Lake, Alberta and the President of the Liberal Party’s Aboriginal Peoples’ Commission of Quebec. She will explore the Liberal party as it relates to Indigenous people.

The next week, we will hear from Aaron Paquette, artist, author, entrepreneur and now politician. Aaron comes from Cree, Metis, Cayuse and Norwegian stock and hails from Edmonton, Alberta where is he seeking the NDP Candidacy in Edmonton-Manning. Edit: July 23, Aaron won the candidacy today and is the official NDP candidate for Edmonton-Manning! (Congrats!)

I am still looking for someone to host the week after Aaron’s in order to explore the Green Party platform. I will not be promoting a Progressive Conservative Party host. That decision is mine, and is not up for discussion. Feel free to find another platform beside this blog, and the @IndigenousXca account to explore CPC relevance to Indigenous people.

As the purpose of these next three weeks on @IndigenousXca is to move beyond the “to vote or not to vote” debate, and because that debate itself can become so passionate, I will be taking a much more active role in the moderation of the Twitter account than usual. To facilitate a productive conversation that is not derailed by personal attacks against the hosts, or which becomes impossibly hung up on the vote/no vote dichotomy, here are the basic guidelines I will be enforcing as the @IndigenousXca admin:

  • Interactions with @IndigenousXca hosts must be respectful. This means no personal attacks. Questioning the political positions, policies, and actions of the federal party each host is representing is fine and encouraged. Those who engage in personal attacks against hosts will be temporarily blocked from the Twitter account for the duration of these discussions. I will personally be making the call to block people, and I am not at all interested in debating whether or not specific behaviours crossed the line or not. Keep it clean, folks. Obviously I cannot enforce respectful interactions with the hosts’ personal twitter accounts, but I am hoping that agreeing to host @IndigenousXca will not result in harassment for anyone.

 

  • It is up to the hosts whether they want to discuss their motivations or beliefs concerning participation in Canadian politics. However, I will give latitude to that discussion on the first day of hosting only, to ensure the bulk of the week focuses on specific federal party issues. If a host does not wish to engage in that discussion during their time, then I will enforce that decision.

 

  • If I post from the @IndigenousXca account, I will preface my tweets with [admin] to make it clear who is tweeting. To avoid cluttering up the account with admin tasks, I may also tweet from my personal account @apihtawikosisan. If that happens I will preface those tweets with [IndigenousXca admin]. Moderation from either of these accounts ‘count’, so please heed them both.

Basically, this is a conversation for people who want to explore federal platforms as they relate to Indigenous people, in the lead up to the federal election. This is not a discussion we often get to have in Indian country this side of the medicine line, so let’s try to make space for it. Those of us who feel strongly about not participating at all in Canadian politics still have plenty of opportunity to give voice to our reasons for that. The @IndigenousXca account will follow up this three party presentation with a week further exploring the “to vote or not to vote” debate itself, so there will absolutely be an opportunity then to have your say on those wider issues.

My thanks in advance for respectful participation in this discussion, and again, you can follow the @IndigenousXca account here!

Reaction to the TRC: Not all opinions are equal or valid

After six years, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada held closing events from May 31 to June 3rd, and issued its executive summary of a report which will run to six volumes, and will be translated into six Indigenous languages. The summary itself is 388 pages, and while not exactly light reading, it is incredibly accessible and well-written. Unfortunately, despite incredible media attention and a plethora of opinion articles on the issue, it has become abundantly clear that many people talking about the TRC summary have not read it. (I will not be linking to the more egregious examples of this, as I am also not here to provide platforms for ignorant bigots to spout their bile.)

I don’t necessarily fault people for not having read the summary. Yet. I was flooded with requests to do interviews and provide comments on the executive summary on the day it was released, and in the days after. I hadn’t read the summary at that point and I certainly did not feel comfortable speaking about it until I had. I know many people simply have not had the time to go through the summary, and it seems a bit unreasonable to expect that they would have within a few hours or even days of its release.

I do expect people to read it, however, before they offer their opinions on what it says. To me, that is not at all unreasonable. If you want to opine on a subject, shouldn’t you know something about it first?

There is this pernicious claim floating out there that all opinions are equally valid. Sure, if the opinions in question are about which berry reigns above all (saskatoons, obviously). You do not need to research berries to have an opinion on this. I would even suggest you do not need to actually taste any berries to have an opinion on this; make your judgment on looks alone, if you wish!

However, if you are going to write a piece in a national paper about what the TRC summary has to say, you’d better read it. You should not be given access to a platform otherwise. And given the fact that pages 341 – 345 of the summary discuss the role that media has to play in reconciliation, it is irresponsible for media outlets to be providing platforms to people who speak from positions of profound ignorance.

I understand the pressure to immediately get opinions out there on stories which are literally ‘breaking news’. I do hope that the interest in the topic does not simply die down a week or two after the release of the report, and that more informed discussions are had in the media in the months to come.

With that in mind, I’d like to implore all of you to take the time to become familiar with at least the executive summary. The first few paragraphs are explosive, naming Canada’s conduct via the Residential School system as cultural genocide. Before you fully embrace or reject this statement, read on! See if summary makes this case convincingly. Explore your reactions! Question your reactions! Challenge your beliefs!

There are five sections to this summary, all well worth reading. The Introduction explains why the TRC was necessary, and more importantly it defines how it is using the controversial term “reconciliation”. The Commission Activities section lays out exactly what lengths the TRC went to in order to gather survivor’s stories, and how it began laying the groundwork for wider education on the topic. I personally had no idea that so many events were held across the country! This section also discusses how the Canadian government had to be taken to court repeatedly in order to force the disclosure of documents essential to the TRC’s mandate.

The History section does an amazing job of laying out global colonial history as a backdrop to the development of the Residential School system, as well as providing concrete details about the way these schools were designed and operated. In particular “The Imperial Context” subsection which begins on page 47, should be essential reading for everyone. While many of us have learned this history in fits and starts, this section brings together the history of global colonialism in a way I’ve never quite seen before: clearly, succinctly and briefly. It provides an excellent counter-narrative to the one of colonial superiority that so many of us have been inculcated with over our many years of schooling in the Canadian system. The utility of this section goes far beyond the issue of Residential Schools, and should be used in all educational settings. It is followed by “The Assimilation Policy”, which no Canadian should remain ignorant about any longer.

When I began reading the History section, I was worried I would not be able to handle the excerpts from survivor testimonies that are included. To be honest, sometimes I couldn’t. I needed to take many breaks to go hug my kids and just think of less awful things. If you undertake to read this summary, treat yourself kindly. Take the breaks you need, take the time you need.

If you have ever asked “what does all this have to do with the present?” then the Legacy section will provide you with clarity. The impact of Residential Schools on those of us living right now, is fleshed out and clarified for all who have been confused by this. The TRC also begins its recommendations in this section, nesting those recommendations in the exploration of the issues. What you will find is that the first 5 recommendations deal with the child welfare system as it exists TODAY. Huh? Why? Well, you’ll have to read to understand, and please do.

The final section is titled The Challenge of Reconciliation. This section further lays out a path to follow, with more concrete recommendations and reasons for those recommendations being given.

So often we as Indigenous people are asked, “What is it you people WANT?” Well, this summary gives concrete answers to that question. We are not asking that money simply be thrown at us, as is frequently the claim. We are explaining what is wrong, why it happened/happens, and what has to be done in order to create real change. There is no need for further confusion, no need to keep asking what we want. Many of the recommendations echo what Indigenous peoples have been asking for on many levels, for decades and in some cases, centuries.

I would ask that you use this summary report to educate yourself. I would ask that you use this summary report to challenge what you think you know about these issues. I would ask that you question what is being recommended, once you have explored the rationales given. Then, and only then, should you be engaging in conversations about the report. These conversations absolutely must happen if the TRC report is going to mean anything.

These issues are not going away. There is no putting this off indefinitely. At some point, everyone living in these lands has to face what the TRC was set up to investigate. There is no valid excuse to remaining ignorant, when the information is so easily accessible to you. I for one, and more than willing to engage in conversations about the content of the report, as long as people actually read it. I very much hope that people take me up on that offer.

As for those who write and express opinions on the subject without bothering to engage with the research and the material, I promise not to waste energy on you.

 

UPDATE:

Zoe Todd, Erica Lee and Joseph Murdoch-Flowers have started a project to help make the TRC summary even more accessible. They are crowd-sourcing folks to read sections of the report on video. Here is the playlist so far, if you’d rather listen than read!

FURTHER UPDATE:

Andrew Kurjata has converted the TRC summary into a Kindle format, and into epub format for Kobo, Android and iBooks! I downloaded the PDF onto my Kindle and it was awful, I couldn’t zoom or make notes or highlight anything, so I will definitely be giving this a try!

It’s pretty cool how people are taking it upon themselves to make this report as accessible as possible, in so many ways!

The mythology of Métissage: Settler moves to innocence

In 2009, John Ralston Saul tried to whip together a cohesive Canadian identity in A Fair Country: Telling Truths about Canada, using the Métis as a synecdoche for ‘a unique people’ (i.e. Canadians). He argued that Canadian culture was less a result of English and French Enlightenment values, and more of a result of interactions between English and French newcomers and First Nations. To call this a rosy reading of history is an understatement as vast as the Mariana Trench. The goal of this approach is to encourage Canadians to “learn who they truly are” via reconnecting with their Indigenous roots. Real, or very much imagined.

More perplexing, to those of us who are actually Métis, was the choice to discuss Canada as a “Métis Nation”. Why us? Why the Métis, as opposed to say, the Cree, or the Mohawk, or the Inuit? Why is our nation so attractive to those seeking an Indigenous identity? I’ve previously discussed some of the issues with defining Métis identity, but it basically boils down to the fact that for many people, Métis = mixed. After all, that’s what the French word means, and that is almost exclusively how we are discussed in the mainstream; as a hybrid people formed from the unions between European men and First Nations women. Just us. Apparently we’re the only ones who married out, interbred, mixed. So anyone with a single Indigenous ancestor 300 years ago is mixed, thus Métis.

I hope it is obvious that this claim is ridiculous. Unfortunately, this is precisely the kind of mythology discussed by E. Tuck and K.W. Yang as a “move to innocence”, in their must read piece Decolonization is Not a Metaphor:

In this move to innocence, settlers locate or invent a long-lost ancestor who is rumored to have had “Indian blood,” and they use this claim to mark themselves as blameless in the attempted eradications of Indigenous peoples…
…[it] is a settler move to innocence because it is an attempt to deflect a settler identity, while continuing to enjoy settler privilege and occupying stolen land.

While there are certainly people claiming a First Nations identity based on blood myths (long-lost or imagined ancestors), it tends to be a less common phenomenon in Canada than is perhaps the case in the United States. Part of that, at least where I come from, is a deep-rooted racism against Indigenous peoples that makes being Indigenous in no way an enviable or sought-out identity.

Since moving to eastern Canada however, I have seen that deep-rooted racism expressed in forms that encourage stereotypes of noble savagery, and claiming Indigenous identity is much more hip, and edgy. Perhaps it is a rural versus urban phenomenon?  In any case it is still difficult to claim one is Mohawk, or Mi’gmaq or Cree without a person from one of those First Nations asking pointed questions about relatives and community. Much easier to avoid a fuss and simply claim that any tiny scrap of Indigenous blood (again real or imagined) makes one “Métis”.  In this way, our nation becomes a bin for all those who are “not otherwise defined”.

The problem with this is of course the fact that many of the people claiming us, are not claimed BY us. Self-identification is not enough. As an Indigenous people, the Métis have the right to define our own kinships, without having anyone who wishes come along and successfully claim kinship with us. We are often accused of furthering colonial goals by speaking out about the misuse of our identity as a “catch-all” for those who otherwise find themselves without a clear Indigenous label. Oddly enough, these same accusations are rarely hurled at First Nations who also have the right to question those who self-identify as being part of their nation. Feel free to claim that having a Mohawk ancestor 300 years ago makes you Mohawk. See how far that takes you.

Recently, the mythology of Métissage has reared its head in a very aggressive way in Quebec. While the flavour is different than Saul’s claims (more maple syrup, obviously), the story is roughly the same. Some people, merely by feeling more Indigenous than French, want to identify as Métis. Unique. Not French (European), but something else. Something that belongs here. Something that does not engender guilt. Something that washes away Quebec’s history of colonialism while reinforcing Quebec’s own experiences as a colonized people.

In fact, Roy Dupuis, Carole Poliquin and Yvan Dubuc have an entire film about the Québécois-as-Métis called L’empreinte. In interviews, Dupuis has stressed that the French did not come to Quebec as conquerors, and that they were charmed by the “sexual liberation of les sauvagesses” (Indigenous women). Much like Ralston Saul, Dubuc and Poliquin claim that Quebec’s tolerance for differences (Islamophobia and a penchant for continuing to champion the use of blackface aside) consensus seeking, and love of nature all come from the mixture of cultures; European and First Nations.

All of that would be lovely to acknowledge, true or not, if it weren’t for the way in which such claims are used to claim the Québécois as Indigenous. Yes please, stop viewing Indigenous peoples as “the other”, but do not replace that with “we are all Indigenous”.

“Si les Français sont nos cousins, les Amérindiens sont nos frères.” says Dupuis (if the French are our cousins, the Indians are our brothers).

Quels seraient les avantages de cette redéfinition? Énormes, croient-ils. « Comme le dit Denys Delâge dans le film, reconnaître cet héritage voudrait dire que notre histoire n’a pas commencé avec l’arrivée de Champlain, mais il y a 12 000 ans, dit Roy Dupuis.

(What would advantages of such a redefinition be? They believe them to be enormous. “As Denys Delâge said in the film, recognizing this heritage means our history did not begin with the arrival of Champlain, but rather is 12,000 years old!” says Roy Dupuis.)

Others are not so quick to jump on the bandwagon of imagined Québécois Indigeneity. Gérard Bouchard points out the obvious; that Indigenous communities in Quebec are in general far removed from where the Québécois live/lived, that the Roman Catholic Church always discouraged mixed unions with First Nations, and that First Nations genes represent a mere 1% of the Quebec genetic makeup.

And yet, the myth of Métissage holds a powerful sway. As Dupuis says in this trailer:

“When I arrived in America, I was French, but before long, I no longer lived nor thought like a Frenchman … I was Canadian, from the Iroquois name Kanata. My tribe has given itself other names since — French Canadian, then Québécois …”

In another interview, Dupuis was asked, “Are you more French or Indian?” To which he replied, “Indian”.

Don’t get me wrong. Dupuis is just one more manifestation of a burning desire to claim Indigeneity, and is hardly the only person involved in furthering such claims. However, this move to innocence is far from harmless. A great deal of time, effort and research is being put into claiming Indigeneity via very strained genealogical ties (for example, claiming a Mi’kmaq Métis ancestor from 1684) when that effort could much better be extended in developing healthy relationships with existing Indigenous communities both in Quebec, and throughout Canada.

“Becoming the Native” is ongoing colonialism and erasure of Indigenous peoples, and the fact that this is being done more and more through the lens of Métissage is of particular concern to Métis people. We are being used as a wedge to undermine Indigenous rights and existence (including our own!). It is no wonder then that we are under attack by “scholars” and “historians” who insist that we cannot define who is Métis; that we must make room for communities who wish to self-identify as Métis.

The stakes are high. If enough people attain “Métishood”, it is not inconceivable that the population of “Métis” could outnumber First Nations and Inuit combined, and make us a driving political force when it comes to Indigenous issues. Of course, the agenda would be driven by Settler, not Indigenous needs as we too would become a minority within our own nation. Further, the claiming of Indigeneity by Settler populations means circumventing any need to engage in decolonization.

So expect this topic to pop up again, because one thing is clear: Canadian (or Quebec) myth-making is far from over.

Want to learn more? Darryl Leroux unpacks this myth-making very clearly here: https://soundcloud.com/indigenousstudiesusask/native-studies-speakers-series-darryl-leroux-now-i-am-metis-how-white-people-become-indigenous

I also put together a storify of my live tweets as I listened to the above talk: https://storify.com/apihtawikosisan/now-i-am-metis-how-white-people-become-indigenous

Making space, taking space: Indigenous media

“What do you do when you wake up on a daily basis and the news around you, the media, music, movies & the television you consume does not represent you & you can’t connect with it?

You make your own media.” – Ryan McMahon

The costs associated with creating independent, Indigenous media, have up to this point been prohibitive. Many of those publications or radio shows that managed to find funding have seen that funding slashed, and Indigenous language programs, or Indigenous reporting, have dwindled in mainstream media. Despite the creation of things like the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN) and CBC Aboriginal, the landscape is still shockingly bare of Indigenous perspectives.

Non-traditional “new media” has suddenly made independent Indigenous media more affordable and accessible. So far, this has resulted in an upsurge of social media usage among Indigenous peoples, as well as a shift towards digital publications. Slowly, ever so slowly, other possibilities are being imagined as well.

Ryan McMahon, Ojibwe comedian and great believer in Indigenous media.

Unfortunately, though the costs of creating Indigenous media platforms have gone down, Indigenous media is not particularly profitable, and likely will not be for quite some time. This means that those people trying to create and take up space, are doing so on a mostly volunteer, out-of-pocket basis. As a result, there has been no major explosion of Indigenous media, no huge upsurge of podcasts, tv shows, newspapers, blogs, and so forth. Just a slow, but very important, trickle.

Ryan McMahon is trying to change that. A dabbler in multitudinous platforms, Ryan seems to be trying to start an Indigenous media revolution… and the thing is, this could be totally possible, if we all got on board!

On October 6th, Indian & Cowboy productions officially launched. Its mission statement reads as follows:

Indian & Cowboy is an independent Indigenous media company that creates, produces & publishes Indigenous media projects across multiple platforms on the internet & for broadcast media.

We’re a network of media makers, artists, storytellers, musicians & producers that aim to disrupt, engage & empower.

The first thing Indian & Cowboy did upon launch, was feature six podcast shows. In addition to his long-running, ground-breaking Red Man Laughing podcast, and the all-too satisfying Ryan McMahon Gets Angry podcast, you can now listen to:

  • Stories From the Land, hosted by Hayden King: a collection of Indigenous community sourced stories that connect Indigenous Peoples to place with the aim of reinforcing worldview, philosophies & teachings.
  • Knives and Wildrice:a podcast that takes you behind the scenes of the making of a brand new studio album by Anishinaabe singer/songwriter Nick Sherman. Knives & Wildrice will give the world an unprecedented look at the successes, failures, challenges and victories of being an emerging talent on the rise.
  • Métis In Space: a decolonial sci-fi review podcast by two Métis women in space, Molly Swain & Chelsea Vowel. Listen as they break down tropes, themes & the hidden meanings behind the whitest genre of film & television ever known.
  • Treaty: a collection of histories, stories & factual accounts of the formation of this experiment we now call Canada. Often, history is shared through the eyes of the dominant culture – The Treaty Podcast takes that history back and retells it through an Indigenous lens. (Still forthcoming)

Indigenous media literally went from having one or two podcasts out there in Indian country, to six, all in a span of days. Indian & Cowboy is asking folks to pitch new podcast ideas, and is trying to gather as many Indigenous voices, perspectives and interests together as possible.

Make no mistake, the man behind Indian & Cowboy is earnest, and heart-breakingly devoted to creating and promoting Indigenous media. I say heart-breakingly, because the moment you become even slightly aware of how much work it takes to create and maintain space for Indigenous voices, you quickly realise that this is a Herculean labour of love, not a profit-making venture. Media mogul riding high on the profits, Ryan McMahon is not. Labour of love and “being able to feed my family” are all too often mutually exclusive, and that needs to end.

storiesIndian & Cowboy productions is not just about podcasts, that just happens to be what it is focusing on right now. With support, with help, Indigenous media can and will expand into every conceivable nook and cranny, including platforms not even invented yet. But this Indigenous media revolution will not be funded by government or resource-extraction companies. If we want Indigenous media, we are going to have to make it happen.

metisThat means getting involved. Tell a story! Pitch a show! Think outside of podcasts, think big, think wild, think free, think Indigenous, and MAKE IT HAPPEN. If you don’t want to create the content, then support the content. You can become a supporter of Indian & Cowboy for as little as $10 a month, giving you access to all the amazing content already available, as well as all the content yet to come. Skip two double doubles at Timmy’s a month, and make Indigenous media a reality.

knivesIf this sounds like a pitch, it is. No one is going to do this for us, and why would we want them to anyway? I’ve personally had enough of people talking for and about us. I want to hear OUR stories, our voices. I challenge you to go listen to some of the new content being promoted by Indian & Cowboy, because I believe that it will inspire you. I can’t package that for you, can’t explain it in a way that will make sense, you just have to experience it…and it is literally just sitting there, waiting for you to check it out.

êkosi.

Beginner’s Cree for Adults, October 5th start

Beginner’s Plains Cree for Adults will begin on October 5th. Class will run each Sunday from 5:30 – 8:00 pm. There is a non-refundable registration fee of $250 which covers instruction and materials. This class is only open to people for whom Cree is one of their traditional languages. Exceptions are made for partners of enrolled students, to facilitate use of the language at home. First Nations students who have a language related to Cree (Anishinaabemowin, Oji-Cree, Saulteaux) are also welcome to enroll.

There is still space for enrollment up to a maximum of 10 students. If you know of anyone in the Montreal area that could and would like to take this class, please pass on this information!