While perusing Facebook I came across a comment someone made about being half as old as Canada – which is “celebrating” its 150th birthday, conveniently tagged as Canada 150. This comment made me stop and really consider what was being said and what the coming year will be like.
150 years is nothing in comparison to the fact that we are citizens of nations that are thousands of years old. Canada is a “baby,” but a very destructive one. I’m reminded of one of the words we have for Europeans which describes them as “bratty little kids, the kind you have to keep an eye on or they’ll hurt themselves and others.” They have certainly proven themselves to be that.
What is more disturbing is knowing that there are all sorts of indigenous folks getting ready to help this brat celebrate Canada 150. This just makes me shake my head in amazement as to how intense and thorough the colonization and disruption of our indigenous ways and lives has been. Yet, there are those – for whatever reason – who choose to ignore it and are getting their regalia ready to go and dance for Canada 150.
During World War II the Nazis created a so-called “model camp” – Theresienstadt – where they would take the Red Cross and other humanitarian organizations to see how well they were treating the Jews. This camp had an orchestra that they would bring out and have them play for the visitors.
The circumstances for the people in the orchestra were dramatically different from today. They really had no choice otherwise they would be on the next train to Auschwitz or Treblinka headed for the ovens. But the disingenuous nature of the façade is the same.
The “camps” we live in don’t have physical barbed wire fences or guard towers. The barbed wire and guard towers of our oppression are in the form of laws, policies and practices that systematically deny our humanity, our rights, our existence.
The Nazi camps had these people who were called “kapos,” these were Jews or other prisoners whose job it was to maintain order and the functioning of the camps. For this they were given extra food, slept in relatively better quarters and avoided the ovens for a while longer than others.
This process of co-opting, manipulating and making someone complicit in working against their own people in the interest of the invader or oppressor is an old one, practiced for centuries in the other half of the world. In the 20th Century it was “modernized” and industrialized by the Nazis bringing about the genocide of more than eight million peoples.
Here in North America this practice takes on two different forms, first with the creation of “reservations/reserves” and secondly with the creation of the boarding/residential schools. While the mandate wasn’t to physically exterminate us it was expected that these places would emotionally, psychologically and spiritually exterminate us. As was expressed, “kill the Indian but save the man.”
All too often I’ve been asked by settlers why we hang on to this history, it was in the past, can’t you just forget it and move on? When they say “the past” they’re referencing something more than a hundred years ago completely oblivious to the atrocities that have occurred in the 20th Century and continue into this century.
One of the greatest atrocities that continues to plague our peoples is the inordinately high infant mortality rate that exists in our territories. A report issued by the National Collaborating Centre for Aboriginal Health states: “First Nations compared to the non-First Nations population…Specifically, Infant Mortality Rates (IMRs) were 2.3 times higher for First Nations infants born to parents living in rural areas and 2.1 times higher for First Nations infants born to parents living in urban areas.”
And then there’s this statement from the Joint Working Group on First Nations Indian Inuit Métis Infant Mortality of the Canadian Perinatal Surveillance System: “Striking and persistent disparities persist in the IMRs for Status Indians and in communities with a high proportion of Inuit residents, compared to the general Canadian population. There is an urgent need to work in partnership with First Nations, Indian, Inuit, and Métis stakeholder groups to improve the quality and coverage of Aboriginal IMR information and to acquire information that would help to better understand and address the underlying causes of disparities in infant mortality between the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal population in Canada.”
I’ve underlined some of what I think are the key words that are germane to these issues. Starting with, “collaborating”. A successful system of oppression depends on collaboration by the oppressed. This participation blurs the lines between the oppressed and the oppressor while at the same time giving some legitimacy to the oppressor’s actions.
Within the system of oppression any form of collaboration, partnership, joint effort, etc. does not exist unless it is initiated, defined and managed by the oppressor. The oppressed are granted permission to participate as long as they meet the criteria, terms and conditions of their participation. The focus, priorities, methods, and outcomes will always be determined by the oppressor with very minor consideration given to the inputs of the oppressed.
The second statement reminds me of a conversation I had a number of years ago with one of Paulo Friere’s colleagues. In that discussion we were looking at the power of being able to determine what exists or doesn’t exist. What he pointed out was that being able to make such determinations is a powerful tool of the operations of oppression.
The Joint Working Group is defined as a “surveillance system.” This reminds me of the commercial where a bank is being robbed and people look to a guy who appears to be a guard and he says no, “I’m a monitor. I tell you when there is a problem.” Excuse me, we know there is a problem.
The role of any surveillance system is to gather information, assess it and report on it. And that is exactly what their statement says. The problem arises when we look at what set of lens are being used to “better understand and address”?
My friend had pointed out that one of the power plays that the West has always used is to act from a position that nothing exists unless they say it exists. So one of the functions of their research is for them to determine if something – such as infant mortality – exists and then to define the context of that existence. So when you consider the phrase, “understand and address the underlying causes of disparities” we can be assured they will be absolutely blind to how they contribute to this issue. Part of the problem arises in the fact that they limit their examination to today and refuse to look at how the long term policies and practices of their governments play a central role in the existence of the problem. And they are masters at concocting rationales for why they won’t look at any of these other factors except the ones that implicate us in having a role in the issue.
That implication comes in the form of their research reports that discuss an aspect of the problem such as malnutrition. All of the language of the report puts the onus of not having good quality, fresh and safe foods on us, not on the fact that our food systems have been deliberately destroyed, that we are economically colonized and dependent on external sources for our food, etc.
The good news is that there are a lot of indigenous folks out there who see through this sham and are organizing and acting to take back control of our lives and futures. It involves indigenous midwives, gardeners, educators, modern and traditional medicine people, and those who never give up on our right to exist as the original nations and peoples of this half of the world.
So as this “baby” spends the next year attempting to celebrate Canada 150 we need to be right there disrupting the party and encouraging them to grow up and become responsible, thoughtful and considerate adults in their relations with us and our nations.
Mike Myers is the founder and CEO of Network for Native Futures, a Native non-profit that works with Indigenous nations, communities and organizations internationally. The network’s mission is to support sustainable development and nation re-building through providing of technical assistance, training and consulting.