COLUMN: I've had it with smoke and drums
We returned from vacation and Idle No More had vanished. What happened? Is the conversation over?
I’ve learned a few things from the Idle No More movement.
One: I don’t know enough First Nations people. I know four of them well enough to discuss INM, four who would take the time and not take offence. They are writers and activists, artists and survivors of addictions. A neighbour is Metis, but does not discuss her heritage. I once taught school with a First Nations colleague, and it was great to know her and learn a bit about her family and their life on the north coast. I had First Nations and Metis students in my classes. I met their parents but mainly on a child-centered basis. We never spoke about the Indian Act, protests, history, or rights.
And I don’t know any people who live on reserves. I have little idea of their lives, the day-to-day commonalities and differences, pleasures and challenges. I don’t want to be some do-gooder white woman, some tourist gushing over carvings and skipping over painful issues. I stayed at Winnie’s house in Gingolx, Nisga’a territory. I washed the dishes while she cooked, and we talked of our children and of blueberries. I don’t know her, but I know I like her—they way she fed everyone, the way she teased me about my appetite for crab. But how do I get to know First Nations people? And do they want to get to know me? I don’t think so, but then neither of us has tried very hard. Talk about two solitudes!
Two: I’ve had it with smoke and drums. I’ve participated, and learned about smudging ceremonies and the power of the drum. But I want more than that. That’s the cultural level made shallow by repetition on TV newscasts. “First Nations people marched today in …” cue the drums and singing. I want to know what the INM protesters think, in words not jargon, the details of their concerns, not the shouts of a rally. I’m ready to listen to the next level of discourse.
Three: I appreciate and applaud the divisions in the INM movement and the leadership of First Nations. That’s healthy. We shouldn’t think of First Nations as one irrevocable entity, and neither should they. Diverse opinions can be a strength. Diversity forces people to focus on the big issues of humanity, and the process of resolving those divisions can bolster a movement.
Four: My concerns lie with First Nations governance at the band level. I’m sure it is complicated by the Indian Act, which needs revision. I’m sure that accounting can be done much better, by First Nations or by someone they hire to do it. This is where public support dwindles, no matter how much we care about living conditions or resource sharing. They need to show due diligence with money. “No documentation” in an audit doesn’t wash, and then legitimate demands lose credibility.
Five: My inner voice always pairs “rights” with “responsibilities.” While First Nations are demanding rights I long to hear their leaders speak of responsibilities as well. Personal and public responsibility could help address the problems they face: education, addiction, diabetes, imprisonment, unemployment, and child welfare. Reduce the planeloads of junk food and drugs being delivered each day up north. Help each other avoid alcohol during pregnancy. Support each other off reserve when they leave for work or to get an education. Many bands already take responsibility for their own well-being, and prosper because of it.
The Idle No More movement seems to have lost steam, lost the headlines anyway. But I’m sure it will re-appear, to the joy of some and the dismay of others.
Oh it’s not simple, is it? I look forward to learning more as we all go forward.
• Anne Hopkinson is a Burnaby resident still working on the three Rs: reading, writing, and rambling.