When I was in my teens, I sometimes dropped by a friend’s place in my neighbourhood. I recall his police officer father making wisecracks from a leather recliner. On multiple occasions, he remarked how he loved to whack native people on the head with his big service flashlight while on duty up north. Literal aboriginal bashing. At the time, I took it to be an authoritarian personality’s failed attempt at humour. Yet with the passage of time, his routine about personal race relations seemed more like reportage than rhetoric.
Racist remarks, casual or caustic, about this nation’s indigenous people are as Canadian as street hockey, toques and red serge. For the most part, such comments have been driven by ignorance rather than malice. The most persistent shibboleth has been how good two per cent of the population have it with their status card benefits. Ah, if only we overworked whites could trade places with those First Nations freeloaders!
Considering the remarks I’ve heard for decades, from locker rooms to dinner parties, many Canadians are on a par with the white Afrikaners of pre-apartheid South Africa, who interpreted the subordinate state of blacks to be the logical result of ethnic inferiority, if not God’s will. Like many of us today, the beneficiaries of the Botha regime were lily-white folks who projected their shadows on the cultural remnants of the indigenous Other.
In the past few weeks, drum circles, flash mobs and aboriginal events have cropped up in malls, city streets and public squares across Canada, driven by the grassroots “Idle No More” movement. According to the IDM website, the movement “calls on all people to join in a revolution which honours and fulfills Indigenous sovereignty which protects the land and water. Colonization continues through attacks to Indigenous rights and damage to the land and water. We must repair these violations, live the spirit and intent of the treaty relationship, work towards justice in action, and protect Mother Earth.”
The chief of Attawapiskat, Theresa Spence, is camped on an island near Parliament Hill grounds in the fourth week of a hunger strike. As the most visible representative of Idle No More, she is attempting to draw attention to the Conservative omnibus budget Bill C-45, which eliminates federal oversight of waterways and abrogates treaty rights by streamlining the sale of reserve land without consultation.
Spence’s town drew media attention last year for its miserable conditions, and the Attawapiskat chief is demanding a meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper. So far, the PM has been a silent as a church mouse on the matter, but on Dec. 21 his official Twitter account featured a food-related clip from The Simpsons. Harper included the comment: “Mmm, bacon.” You cannot make this stuff up.
Spence’s activism has encouraged some media gatekeepers to release their hounds. One of the most rabid representatives of the status quo is Canadian media fixture Christie Blatchford. She recently penned a screed headlined, “Holding Ottawa hostage: Chief Theresa Spence’s hunger strike reduces complex issues and breeds stupidity.” Blatchford excoriated Spence’s “hunger strike and… the inevitable cycle of hideous puffery and horse manure that usually accompanies native protests swirls.”
After some paint-by-numbers remarks about aboriginal suffering, Blatchford returned to maul the chief. “It is tempting to see the action as one of intimidation, if not terrorism: She is, after all, holding the state hostage to vaguely articulated demands.”
Actually, Idle No More’s demands are much more specific than last year’s Occupy movement, although no thinking person should expect journalistic precision, or even a quantum of solace, from the likes of Blatchford. The online comments below her National Post story offer a sad recitation of homebred attitudes toward all things aboriginal. Writes one reader of Spence’s hunger strike, “Stand firm, Stephen, she looks like she could go for months without eating.”
Of course, there are plenty of Canadians who recognize the heart of darkness in our dealings with the land’s first inhabitants. Former prime minister Paul Martin is one of them. “The amount of indifference that’s out there to aboriginal tragedies is beyond belief,” he told a meeting of The Association of Canadian Editorial Cartoonists last year in Montreal. “Canadians are not bad people, they’re just complacent,” he added.
This country is still waiting on its Mandela moment — and some are panicking it may have arrived in the person of Theresa Spence.