Blockade in Belleville

Reconciliation, but only if it’s hassle-free and on our terms

Many non-Indigenous Canadians have dropped their masks in the wake of recent protests, and their true faces are not pretty.

Considering how much this country has pretended to immerse itself in reconciliation talks these past few years, and how much money and time has been spent in finally appearing to make amends for the genocide committed against Indigenous communities, our national dedication to the cause is fickle at best.

Barely a few weeks and a few million dollars of incurred costs in, and many Canadians have already dropped the masks and revealed their true faces. As cross-country protests and blockades continue to pop up in solidarity with Indigenous Wet’suwet’en people, who are fighting to protect unceded land from a pipeline project, it’s easy to glean from the hateful online comments that many Canadians believe peaceful acts of civil disobedience are tolerated, until, of course, they affect the country’s economy or them personally. When that happens, they demand protests be shut down — by brutal police force, if necessary — and we all quickly go back to pretending we’re one big happy family. In other words, everyone’s big on reconciliation until it becomes a pain in the butt.

Amidst the many calls to violence, even the Canadian Civil Liberties Association felt compelled to remind people that peaceful civil disobedience is a right. “The protesters are bringing attention to a systemic problem,” they tweeted. “The reaction should not be to try to limit people’s constitutional right to protest. Disruption equals violence.”

Reconciliation or inflammation?

Sadly, violence has always been the state solution when it comes to Indigenous people, both here and abroad. As Canadian paramilitary and police forces increased their presence in some camps, some politicians increased their tough talk, trying to appease their base, demanding a quick resolution to this “inconvenient problem.”

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said in a press conference that “Albertans will not tolerate blockades that prevent ordinary people from getting to work, putting food on the table and keeping our economy running.” Interesting choice of words. As if the people protesting and trying to protect their unceded territory and their way of life aren’t “ordinary people,” too. As if they also don’t deserve dignity, autonomy and the democratic right to protest and engage in civil disobedience. Then again, Freudian slips can reveal a lot about perceptions, prejudice and the systemic and discriminatory hierarchization of people.

Quebec Premier François Legault took it a step further and felt the need to inform Quebecers that provincial police hadn’t moved in to dismantle the Kahnawake protest because protesters in the Kahnawake Mohawk territory possessed assault rifles; specifically, AK-47 rifles. Legault’s statement was not only needlessly inflammatory and designed to cause panic, it was also, according to Grand Chief Joe Norton and protesters (and many journalists) on the ground, completely unfounded. Even Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller challenged Legault’s claims, which many feared could escalate tensions and put the lives of peaceful protesters at risk, asking him to “choose his words carefully.”

Denise the piece

With some folks explicitly urging violence against the protesters, Journal de Montréal columnist Denise Bombardier threw oil on the fire by writing a spectacularly ill-informed op-ed. In her piece, Bombardier described Kahnawake as some sort of terror-riddled no-man’s land, where residents hoard the kind of guns that can be found in the hands of “the military, terrorists and, often, mass murderers.”  

I shook my head while reading her column. I paddled dragon boat and outrigger canoe for years. I competed with and against paddlers from Kahnawake — paddlers who have become my friends. Every year, the local paddling season begins with the Onake Festival at the Onake Paddling Club in Kahnawake (this year it takes place on June 6, if you’re interested in checking it out). Many of Onake’s paddlers have competed at the national, international and Olympic level. When I think of Kahnawake, I think of good times, pow-wows, good chili and bannock, a welcoming community, side-splittingly funny friends, and women who are strong, smart and total dynamos. I think of my friend and editor and publisher of The Eastern Door, Steve Bonspiel, who sends me quick messages of encouragement or congrats out of the blue simply because he’s awesome.

I’m not saying I “know” Kahnawake, because I don’t. I’m saying I have been privileged to have seen a side of the community that has allowed me to form different associations when I think of First Nations reserves.

One story

As cringe-inducing as Bombardier’s column was, however, it reveals the crux of the problem: the danger, as Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie put it, of the single story. “Show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become. […] They make one story become the only story.”

Most non-Indigenous Canadians simply don’t know much (or anything) about FN reserves. Some, I suspect, imagine some sort of lawless, dangerous society, instead of just a normal community (with its good and bad) like the ones they also live in. Montreal Gazette reporter Christopher Curtis has commendably been doing a hell of a job trying to educate people about this via Twitter, but it saddens and exasperates me to see how much work is required to bridge those knowledge gaps.

A quick look at online comments and it’s obvious to see how volatile the situation can quickly get, and how easily some could take Legault’s comments as permission for violence against protesters. The Premier’s words were incredibly irresponsible in this current climate, when one considers that the UN has warned of a “drastic increase in violence against Indigenous people around the world because of their resistance defending their lands, the environment, or Indigenous rights, nearly always in the context of private sector projects.”

Inconvenient truth

A recent Angus Reid poll revealed that 53 per cent of Canadians want the crisis to be solved by force, not negotiations. It’s funny to see how the minute people become inconvenienced in the slightest, suddenly reconciliation is out the window and Twitter “jokes” consist of mowing protesters down with a train. As if 60+ reservations still affected by boil-water advisories isn’t a major “inconvenience” for Indigenous communities. As if forcing people to physically lug containers of potable water to their homes daily, for years on end, isn’t an “inconvenience” for them. As if Indigenous people haven’t been “inconvenienced” by colonization, residential schools, the ‘60s Scoop, forced sterilization, illegal development on their lands, thousands of missing and murdered Indigenous women, systemic racism and discrimination.

How do we reconcile this national dissonance and this willingness to simply ignore how First Nations have been “inconvenienced” by those who came to forcibly displace them? Why do we not have the moral courage to acknowledge harm in a meaningful way by prioritizing respectful and equal Nation-to-Nation talks?  

“The fact is, the primary way that Ottawa and Washington deal with us,” says Thomas King in his indispensable book, The Inconvenient Indian, which should be mandatory reading in all Canadian schools,” is they ignore us. They know that the court system favours the powerful and the wealthy and the influential, and that, if we buy into the notion of an impartial justice system, tribes and bands can be forced through a long, convoluted and expensive process designed to wear us down and bankrupt our economies. Be good. Play by our rules. Don’t cause a disturbance.”

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who was instrumental in uniting South Africa after Apartheid through a similar (but much more communal and public) truth and reconciliation process, said that “true reconciliation is never cheap.”

No, it’s not. It’s costly, it’s painful, it’s slow like molasses and it’s often a big, giant mess. But it’s also the only true way through to something real and lasting.

Take this opportunity

It would appear that no one wants to pay the price, though. When it comes time for respect, remorse and the willingness to truly listen and make amends, we’re not interested in the terms. We’re interested in superficial words, symbolic land acknowledgments, some vague notion of respect for Indigenous communities that doesn’t necessitate us doing absolutely anything that could possibly penalize us in our daily routine. We’re interested in doing nothing.

Talks have now begun, and one cautiously hopes that the proposed agreement between the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs and government ministers, and the process now set in motion, proceeds in good faith. But if the federal and provincial governments’ goal is not true reconciliation, but only quick resolution, they are missing the point — and an opportunity. By choosing to focus solely on this current problem and the short-term politics at hand, they will be opting out of forging a lasting and meaningful Indigenous-settler relationship.

They may get the trains running on time and our goods moving, but true reconciliation will, once again, be a road not taken. ■

See more editorials by Toula Drimonis here.

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