Editor's Note: Since this article was first published on Pamela Palmater's blog Indigenous Nationhood, AFN Chief Shawn Atleo resigned in a shock move Friday afternoon, citing his controversial relationship to the First Nations Education Act (FNEA). For more, read Dr. Palmater's earlier post, "Chief Shawn Atleo should tear up FNEA."
Since the time I was small, I have always been told by Chiefs, politicians and elders about the importance of our unity - unity within our Mi'kmaw families, our communities and Nation. Leaders even spoke about the importance of inter-tribal or inter-nation unity. I come from a territory where the Wabanaki Confederacy, a political allegiance of multiple Nations, built upon our Nations' diverse backgrounds for common purposes. The relationships which came from this confederacy have lasted until present day.
At the same time, my elders were careful to explain that unity is not about sameness. Unity is a type of bond or treaty amongst Indigenous Nations which celebrates the different strengths, histories, cultures, insights and skills of each Nation and brings them together to make the whole stronger. Unity is a celebration or embracing of those differences to make the treaty group stronger in defending its sovereignty, territories or peoples. It is not an agreement on all issues at all times. Nor is unity about each Nation conforming to one way of thinking or acting. Diverse Nations inherently have different needs, outlooks, priorities and ways of accomplishing their goals.
Several long-time leaders also told me that unity for the sake of unity can cause more harm than good. Unity for the sake of unity denies the very differences we celebrate as Nations and shuts out the voices of caution, overlooked facts, multiple perspectives and potential outcomes. Sometimes these lone voices are mischaracterized as oppositional, trouble-making, politicking or disloyal. Consensus building takes a great deal of effort and time; so when these brave voices speak out against the consensus, sometimes its hard not to lose patience or be frustrated.
Yet, elders have told me that those voices which delay consensus for a time are sometimes the most loyal citizens -- citizens who care so deeply about their community or Nation that they risk ridicule and exclusion to raise potential threats to the collective. They may not always deliver the message as we'd like or even have all the facts, but that is what consensus building is about -- providing everyone with all the facts, potential outcomes and perspectives so that when a decision is made, everyone understands and accepts its -- even if not in total agreement. I believe the future of our Nations depends on the consideration and inclusion of all voices.
The biggest impact on our ability as Indigenous Nations to maintain our unity in times of need is the impact of colonization. Generations of colonial ideologies, residential schools, Indian Act restrictions, federal divide-and-conquer tactics, and systems of government-imposed rewards and punishments have impaired our ability to see unity as we once did. Canada has divided us into good Indians and bad Indians -- those who comply versus those who resist. In so doing, the hard work of unity-building within Nations is impaired because the focus is on one-size-fits-all Indians. In fact, pan-Indianness is so ingrained that we often criticize ourselves for not being unified as "Indians" when we should be unified in resisting pan-Indianness.
Our unity as Nations is like a treaty -- a coming together of certain Nations at certain times to assert or defend certain causes. We can be united to defend our right to control education but different in how we want to assert that control (depending on each Nation's priorities and needs). Sometimes our unity is based on historical relations, regional similarities or broad national interests. Our unity is no less powerful because the Mohawks educate one way and the Cree another. The similarity is in the assertion of sovereignty and jurisdiction over our right to control our own education systems, methods, content and outcomes.
With regards to Prime Minister Harper and National Chief Shawn Atleo's education "deal", this was not made in a good way, nor in the spirit of unity. In fact, the countless secret meetings, lack of information, and surprise announcements are counter to our traditional ways of building consensus and capitalizing on our strengths and differences in unity. The biggest problem is that no space was ever made for the possibility that there would be no unity on this deal -- the deal was made for us without us at the table. The result is wide-spread distrust, anger and reaction -- all justified. Now, our leaders are forced to account to their citizens for decisions of which they had no part, causing even further disharmony amongst our Nations. Yet, none of this had to happen.
For many decades, First Nations have been tightly unified on their views about First Nation education. While we may have taken very different approaches to other issues, on First Nation education we all agreed. First Nations are united in their views that we have jurisdiction over every aspect of our education systems (however we choose as individual Nations to define them) and that we should be the ones in control. We have always held the position that Canada must live up to its legal obligations to recognize and implement our treaty, Aboriginal and other rights to education with adequate funding. We have always asserted that Canada needs to make amends for the damages caused to our languages and cultures from residential schools by providing the supports needed to advance and protect them in current education systems -- First Nations or provincial.
How we choose to get there is up to us. Some of us may want to negotiate sectoral self-government agreements in education; some may wish to use the current systems with modified funding, some may want a treaty-based system, and others may want to design and implement their own systems independently with completely different funding agreements. We may have different methods, but we are united in defense of our right to choose how we will implement our right to control our own education systems. We are not all one mythical race of Indians after all.
Our current initiatives in resisting the Atleo-Harper deal on education are not about sour grapes, jealousy, politics, the next federal election, the next AFN National Chief election, or who's "right". Those are all red-herrings critics throw in the mix to keep people from focusing on the real issue -- control over our own education systems. The reason why so many Chiefs, grassroots citizens, academics, lawyers and Canadian allies are against this deal is because it violates our fundamental right to control our own education systems. We are not fighting against unity - we are fighting desperately to maintain our long-held unity in education.
The Harper government has become very adept at its divide-and-conquer techniques. It also uses funding as a reward-punishment tool to further control and divide us. It's most effective tool so far has been using First Nations individuals and organizations to promote its assimilatory agenda. Trojan horses filled with assimilatory Aboriginal warriors march forward to implement Harper's plan under the guise of what's good for us. The numerous bills being imposed on us all have wonderful titles and great media sound bites that distract us from what's inside the bills. Calling a bill "First Nations Control" is a lie if what's inside is increased Ministerial control.
I think most of us expect this from Harper, but the most hurtful and offensive part is that we don't expect our own leaders to do this to us. National Chief Shawn Atleo has hurt us all by acting as if he had the right to make this deal in the first place; by acting so secretively and outside our traditional ways of building consensus; and then standing in defense of this destructive bill -- no matter what First Nations say. Part of being a leader is being humble and admitting when you have made mistakes. Atleo could still stand with First Nations against this bill, but he refuses to do so. Atleo destroyed our negotiating leverage in Ottawa and now he has broken our unity on education. He refuses to listen to us.
Unfortunately, we don't have time to commiserate about it -- we have to act. We cannot give Harper any ammunition to use against us as he tries to ram this bill through the House and Senate. We have to show that Atleo does not speak for us, as the Minister is already relying on Atleo's endorsement of the bill as his "proof" of consultation and consent. We cannot let Harper hide behind any First Nation individual or organization to roll out his assimilation plan.
Most of all, we have to stay united against this bill to protect control over our education and save our cultures and languages for future generations. If we voluntarily allow Canada to legislate our treaty rights, there is no undoing it later. Harper is desperate to turn the treaty right to education into a discretionary program and service that is subject to Parliament's budgetary whims. We can't let Harper do that.
Harper is scared of our voices. AANDC is running scared and is tweeting in defense of itself. Harper can see the growing opposition from First Nations and is speeding up the review of the bill. We have the power to stop this. When First Nations stand in unity, there is no piece of paper, no legislation, or crooked politician that can stop us. The "winter we danced" as Idle No More showed the world how powerful in peace our people are when we stand together. I've always believed in the power of our people to make change -- let's stay united on education and give our children some hope.
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