How Am I Doing So Far?
Why is it so hard to understand the Wet’suwet’en protests?
In a personal attempt to understand colonization in Canada and its effects on our First Peoples, I write this as a documentation of my limited understanding. It is an invitation to intelligent, rational feedback. I know it is folly to think that one small reflection on the subject can possibly capture it, but I submit this as only my process of attempting a start at meaningful understanding.
I have been thinking about the Wet’suwet’en protests and blockades from the time I first saw a poster, in an elevator at Emily Carr University of Art + Design, inviting protest. As a design research educator at the post-secondary level, I feel a responsibility to understand as much of the world around us as possible. I am not a scholar in any related area other than contemporary ethnography. As a Canadian, and someone who has worked with many coastal and interior indigenous governments in my professional life, I want to try to attempt to unravel the complex problems that surround colonialist thinking, other ways of knowing and seeing, unceded lands, self-government and just how we can, as colonizers and First Peoples, figure it all out together.
So far, here is what I, as only one Canadian, think I understand.
Before anyone from Europe set foot on North America, there were people living here in organized groups that supported each other, fed each other, loved and were loved, raised children, educated those children, danced, sang, celebrated and mourned. They fought wars, they found peace. They hunted, fished and gathered. Some established permanent villages where resources were close by and plentiful. Some moved with the animals that sustained their way of life with food, shelter and clothing. Some plundered other groups, killed women and children, and took slaves.
When the British and French arrived, they were armed with a belief in the superiority of their genetics and their culture. They were horrified by the traditions and practices of these people they knew nothing about. All they knew was that Indigenous people seemed primitive, were not like them, and that would just not do. Religion and arrogance allowed the colonizers to believe that they had every right to turn everything upside down in order to have full access to land and resources and to assimilate or destroy the natives as quickly as possible.
The colonizers did everything from try to force Indigenous people to take up agriculture, give up their ways of living, their traditional ceremonies and dress, and to live in houses that were like the ones that “civilized people” would live in. Through the now demonized residential school system, they believed it was their destiny and duty to “kill the Indian in the child”.
The fact is, that if you wish to educate those children you must separate them from their parents during the time they are being educated. If you leave them in the family they may know how to read and write, but they still remain savages, whereas by separating them in the way proposed, they acquire the habits and tastes — it is to be hoped only the good tastes — of civilized people.
— Hector-Louis Langevin, Canada’s Minister of Public Works 1883
Where all of this leads, for me, is an entrenched and prejudicial lack of respect. In a contrast of Othering and Belonging, Indigenous people are “others”, stripped of what they knew, told they have no value and made to be as invisible as possible. To my mind, to this day, we still cannot understand how to see Indigenous people as equals. And if we cannot see them as equals, they cannot really be at the table. No substantive conversation can ever be had about how things should or could work, how reparations can be made, what truth means, what reconciliation means — how we move forward.
To be sure, it’s mind-numbingly complicated. I read every day to try to better understand the hierarchy of band councils, hereditary chiefs, tribes, bands and First Nations. Who negotiates with who? How can one group of the same First Nation say one thing and another group from the same First Nation say something different? This excellent piece in Macleans by Amber Bracken is something of a primer on the subject. I also recommend one witten by Nicole Bogart for CTV News.
Listening won’t create an immediate solution. But it will build understanding and empathy— and will demonstrate a levelling of the power imbalance between the Canadian government and the First Peoples of Canada.
As Justin Trudeau today seemed to draw a line in the snow, that “barricades must come down”, we remain at an impasse that rivals the 401 in a whiteout. We don’t seem to know where to start. I believe it begins with seeing each other as equals. Really seeing each other as equals. We do need a rule of law in Canada as it stands now as a country. But that does not preclude listening — openly and respectfully— to the ideas of our First Peoples. Good listening takes time. We need to listen not just to lists of grievances on either side, but to the knowledge on either side. Let the lawyers leave the room. Let people speak fully and completely. Let’s teach each other how to listen. Let’s experience the respect that comes from an equalization of the power dynamic. Listening won’t create an immediate solution. But it will build understanding and empathy—and will demonstrate a levelling of the power imbalance that has always existed between the Canadian government and the First Peoples of Canada.
We have a lot that we can learn from Indigenous ways of knowing and seeing the world. That knowledge need not preclude the machinations of our modern world, but it may someday enrich them. We may find new ways to share, to conduct commerce and to celebrate our cultures. And I think we all need to begin to attempt our own meaningful understanding of this complex part of being Canadian.