An open letter to all my relations: On Idle No More, Chief Spence and non-violence

| January 10, 2013
An open letter to all my relations: On Idle No More, Chief Spence and non-violence

All my relations,

My Anishinaabe name is White Wolf and the name my mother gave me is Aaron James Mills. I’m a Bear Clan Anishinaabe, a Canadian and the son of a single mother. I say “Anishinaabe” and not “aboriginal” intentionally, for this is who I am and how you should understand me. Regarding our relationship, I’m from Treaty #3 Territory. I’m also from Couchiching First Nation, North Bay, Ottawa, Vancouver, Toronto, and now Victoria. I’m a lawyer. I have a graduate degree from Yale Law School where last year I was a Fulbright scholar. I’m 31 years old and I have a partner I love very much.

I am writing to you, all my relations Indigenous and other, because in all I have seen and felt in 31 years, now is the most afraid I have been for you and for myself, the most ashamed I have been of my Prime Minister and of my Governor General, and the most proud I have been of my Indigenous relations and so importantly, our settler allies who have surprised and amazed me. I am humbled by their good words and actions.

I want to explain these statements and to share my feelings with you about the historical moment we are witnessing. In so doing, I speak only for myself. Although I support many of the actions organized as part of the Idle No More movement, I don’t represent it. I’ve been as surprised and overwhelmed by it as have many of you.

I can think of many things of which Canadians might be fearful today: the impacts of global warming and climate change; loss of jobs, pensions or benefits; war; an ailing and inadequate health care system; increasingly authoritarian and antidemocratic domestic governance; federal indifference to the murder of Indigenous women. These are just a few of many serious issues we face together and I am gravely concerned about each. I am terrified, however, of what may happen if Chief Spence dies of hunger.

Because of her hunger strike, on Friday First Nations from across the country will meet with the Harper administration to discuss their relationship with Canada. If the discussions fail to yield the first steps towards re-establishing our relationship on a foundation of mutual respect and understanding, Chief Spence will surely continue her hunger strike. If she dies, in light of the work being accomplished through Idle No More I believe that Canadians who have never given it a thought will be forced to confront Canada’s origin story. More important, they will be forced to confront that the violence of that origin story repeats each day even now. Given our lack of knowledge of our own history, many of us in Canada are not accepting of that story and I fear that as a people we are grossly ill-equipped to be so forcefully confronted with it. And I don’t know what will happen if we are.

All my relations, I don’t know what will happen if we are confronted with our national origin story because most of my fellow citizens haven’t been taught to understand their history of institutionalized violence. Many of them may instead be hateful and act hatefully, for knowledge truly is power and if their elementary and secondary school education were anything like mine, then with respect to Indigenous peoples in Canada they have been systematically denied it. Many thus understand Indigenous Canadians as two-dimensional people: historical and angry. In the face of obvious Indigenous suffering, most Canadians are thus disempowered and I am fearful of what powerless people may do when forcefully confronted. Many know just enough that they feel guilt so overwhelming it must be permanently repressed, but nothing of their power or the willingness of many Indigenous Canadians to work for the interests of all people and to choose a different future, together.

I’ve visited many countries in my life and the more I’ve travelled internationally, the firmer my conviction has become that Canada really is the most amazing country on Earth. As a Canadian citizen I enjoy tremendous privileges many others do not, even amongst other western liberal democracies. But, all my relations, those privileges have not been free and their costs have not been distributed justly. If Chief Spence dies, both as a nation and as individuals gathering at kitchen tables we will have to ask ourselves how this happened. Yes, it will have been her choice, but how could she possibly have made it? The moment we choose to start having that conversation is the moment that the cost of the great privilege Canadians enjoy -- a privilege until now contingent on our lack of knowledge about our colonial history -- will start to be made visible.

Colonization is not a completed historical fact from which all must simply move on; it is a deliberate, daily violence continuing this moment and anyone promoting that Indigenous peoples are ignorant not to accept this violence as legitimate is at worst, racist; at best, living in a dream palace. As the Right Honourable Paul Martin recently acknowledged, “We have never admitted to ourselves that we were, and still are, a colonial power.” Colonial power is violence against Indigenous bodies, minds, cultures and lands. I know that many of you don’t see it. Many of my closest friends don’t see it. I can’t even be angry about this, for as I have said, you were not taught to see it. In a cynical moment I might suggest you were taught not to. But in Idle No More, Indigenous and allied voices have united and through the Drum, sound together. All my relations, you hear it now; you have only to listen. No longer can you claim ignorance. You should listen carefully, for no matter your identity or your politics, this is about you and education is being freely shared on websites, in pamphlets handed out at traffic slow-downs, and in community meetings. If you choose not to listen now, then now you choose also the responsibility for your continued lack of knowledge of your treaty rights, and for a large part of what may come of that ignorance.

All my relations, I said also that I feel ashamed. I am ashamed because my Prime Minister so profoundly misunderstands Indigenous Canada that he thinks meeting with Chief Spence will make him vulnerable. On this misunderstanding, he is willing to allow her to die less than a kilometre from his office. He fails to recognize the incredible opportunity given him to demonstrate great strength and leadership in respect of the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canada. If ever Stephen Harper had a vision for our nation, now is a moment where it should shine. As he spends millions of tax dollars commemorating the War of 1812, the relationship that made our nation possible—which in 1814 secured our nation as a nation and not an American state—is a shambles. But Prime Minister Harper has no vision for Canada, and because of Idle No More, the whole world is watching its absence.

I am also disappointed with the Right Honourable David Johnston, my Governor General, for having side-stepped his role in Canadian history by characterizing Chief Spence’s demand for dialogue as mere politics, and therefore for the exclusive consideration of elected governing officials. He understood very well that Chief Spence’s demands cut much deeper than mere politics; that they go right to the fundamental injustice of the Crown-Indigenous relationship, historic and contemporary. The Governor General hasn’t merely shown a lack of leadership; he has opted out of leadership altogether. I am a Canadian citizen and I am ashamed.

Finally, I am ashamed because no federal administration in my lifetime has done as much as this one to alienate Indigenous Canada. Before the Harper government adopted its position on Chief Spence it had already slashed health funding for Indigenous peoples; withheld documents from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to the point that the Commission, as a result unsure whether it will be able to meet its mandate by its deadline and within its budget, has sought help from the Courts; emptied environmental review processes of meaningful content; unilaterally decided to terminate land claims negotiations in which its existing approach has failed; spent millions defending Canada’s systematic underfunding of First Nations schools and child welfare agencies, including spying on child welfare and education advocate Cindy Blackstock and other non-violent indigenous activists; announced its intention to introduce legislation that would allow for the privatization of reserve land, despite an AFN resolution in 2010 categorically rejecting such a development; ignored demands for a national inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women and accused First Nations leadership generally of corruption and mismanagement. Bill C-45, the catalyst for the Idle No More movement, follows all of these developments.

All my relations, this is why I am ashamed of my government and why it has alienated me. I want so badly to see the honour in the Crown, but this list of dishonourable behaviour is how it has treated my people, and that’s just the last few years. All my relations, As an Anishinaabe Canadian participating actively in Canadian life, engaging critically but positively with Canadian institutions, caring as passionately about your welfare as I do my own and wanting a response for Canada’s harmful relationship with the indigenous peoples who pre-existed it that will work for all peoples, if I am alienated from the state, we have a very big problem.

Finally and most importantly, all my relations, I wish to voice my pride. Two very important aspects of the Idle No More movement demand special recognition. First, the movement has its inception in the thoughts and actions of Indigenous women. These women have stood up for their nations and for all of us. It’s unclear whether they continue to exclude Indian Act chiefs from their advocacy, but except for this possible exclusion they have consistently been very clear that all of us, not just Indigenous persons, are included in Idle No More. They have managed to inspire thousands of people to come together. Without their example, I would not have found the words for this letter.

I also beam with pride at how Indigenous Canada and its allies who have come together have done so with a strict commitment to non-violence. This commitment is directly connected to the women at the originating point of the movement and of the elders standing behind them. For me the way forward must be non-violent. This is why I was delighted to participate in the North Bay flash mob Round Dance at the Northgate Square mall on December 20th and again today at the intersection of highways 11 and 17.

In 2008, Anishinaabe activist and professor Robert Lovelace was incarcerated for resisting uranium mining on his community’s traditional territory despite a court order instructing him not to. From jail, he wrote, “direct action should take its shape and purposes from the intrinsic goodness embedded in Indigenous epistemologies.” This is precisely what we are seeing in the flash mob Round Dances happening across Canada and the United States and it is a tremendous source of pride for me. I hope all of you are watching, listening and remembering. Many Indigenous individuals and communities are suffering and to get your attention, we are holding Round Dances and other non-violent demonstrations. I am so very proud; in many other parts of the world this frustration would be organized and expressed very differently.

All my relations, I have one more thing to say to you and it is only my voice but I hope that it will resonate with others heeding the call of the Drum. For my non-Indigenous relations,

I do not want you to “go home”; this is your home and I will defend your right to be here. As partners in Treaty with Indigenous peoples, you have a treaty right to be here and I honour that. Feel no guilt about it. I have learned much from you and your ancestors and I am grateful. More practically, through my mother, who is not of Indigenous ancestry, I am you and there are many like me. I honour your presence here.

You, too, must honour mine. That means that you do not get to tell me to live like you, if this is not how I choose to live. Indigenous peoples are not minorities who moved here on your terms. We are not stakeholders. We are not an interest group. We are treaty partners and but for our partnership there would be no Canada today. My relations are buried throughout this land you rightly call home. They lived and died here long before you knew your present home existed. It is not for you or your leaders to decide how a life should be lived for both of us. This is what we agreed to. When your leaders presume to decide how my life should be lived or what values I should have, they have given up representing my interests and they are no longer my leaders too. This is my belief and I will defend it. To the best of my understanding, this is what Idle No More is about. Indigenous Canada wants a just and respectful relationship with the state and with non-Indigenous Canadians, not one premised on unacknowledged and tacitly accepted continuing colonial violence. All my non-Indigenous relations, if you accept less than an end to colonial violence, have you not quietly accepted that Indigenous Canadians are worth less than you?

All my relations, demanding an end to colonial violence is not too much to ask. The imperative for non-violence, whether manifest in resistance to ongoing colonial oppression or in the daily conduct of our relationships with one another, is a bedrock foundation necessary for making citizenship in Canada worth having. And despite the efforts of those who seek to keep your ambitions for change low through fear, it certainly does not mean the end of Canada as you know it. It does however mean there must be profound changes in our relationship. It means that you must want those changes for your own identity as a Canadian and thus for how you want to understand yourself. I truly believe there is room for all of us to live a good life as we know it, and that together we can accomplish this reality without violence. All my relations, I mean no disrespect, but you would be foolish not to demand the same of your leaders, especially of our federal government. I am concerned that it is afraid of Chief Spence, that it is afraid of Indigenous unity, and that it is especially afraid of non-Indigenous Canadians realizing that “Indigenous issues” are their issues too. I am concerned that without your voice, its way may not be one of non-violence.

All my relations, I have no tolerance for violence and I am committed to defeating it. This commitment finds its genesis in the teachings of particular elders and mentors who took time with me from their lives and from much talk throughout mine of smudging and tobacco offerings. These practises have created in me a profound love for our land and for the treaties which connect and unite us.

Let us reject the violence that keeps us mired in the past, let the drum sound colonial power no more, and let us celebrate our differences so that we can come together.

 

Waabishki Ma’iingan

North Bay

 

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