Between June 21 and July 1 — National Aboriginal Day to Canada Day — we’ll be featuring a series of articles examining and critiquing the uses of Canadian identity, the resurgence of Indigenous movements for justice, and the ways in which activists and thinkers across these lands are addressing these fundamental questions. This is part three of Robert Lovelace’s contribution.
Here’s how it works. Sometimes a truth is revealed in a strange way. Elders have told me that when a song or teaching has been lost it will find a way to be sung or told again when it is needed. Sometimes when the truth needs to be told it just comes out.
As a political prisoner I spent much of my time reading and writing. I also got to know many of my fellow prisoners. Toward the end of my incarceration a young man came onto the range who was originally from the Prairies. He had been raised much of his life in Ottawa and for one reason or another got into the kind of trouble that gets you sent to a provincial bucket. He didn’t know much about Indian politics or the kind of life his grandparents had led but he was interested. One day he asked me, “what is this colonialism all about?” For a moment I was without words. I thought every Indian understood Canada’s colonial history. Certainly a victim of colonial consequence would understand; but I was wrong.
Here was a young man who had been tossed into the gutter before he knew why and had no understanding of the forces that worked against him. Then the words began to flow.
“Well, let me try to explain it this way,” I had no plan but the story began to come out of my mouth like one of the rhythms that everybody knows whether they have heard it before or not.
There was once a man who had many chickens…
The chickens wandered around freely and the man and his chickens seemed happy enough. When the man became hungry he would put down tobacco, offer a prayer of thanksgiving, then he would kill and eat a chicken. When he was done eating he would return the bones of the chicken to the earth.
One day a stranger came upon the man and his chickens. The man with chickens as was his custom offered the stranger some chickens so that he would not go hungry. They shook hands and smiled.
The stranger took the chickens and put them in a cage and not long after sold them in a far away land.
The stranger returned to the man with chickens and asked for more. As was his custom the man with chickens gave the stranger more chickens expecting that the stranger would be satisfied as he now had more chickens than he could eat. But the Stanger came back and said ‘As it is my custom to need more than I have, I shall need more chickens.’ The man with the chickens did not understand but out of compassion he gave some more chickens to the stranger. The man with chickens was sure that the stranger would soon understand the error of his thinking and so as not to bring shame on the stranger he remained silent.
The stranger then approached the man who had chickens and said, ‘look, I now have children and they need more chickens.’ The man with Chickens said, ‘I give you chickens but you never seem to have enough. I also see that you keep your chickens in cages and pens and they are now sad and sick. I have never seen you give thanks for your chickens and when they disappear you never return their bones to the earth.’
The stranger then said, ‘I keep my chickens in cages because they belong to me. Since the chickens around you are free then they cannot truly belong to anyone. I will now send my children to gather the free chickens.’
The man with chickens was beside himself with grief. Had the stranger not shaken his hand and smiled?
When the man with chickens and the stranger met again the man with chickens was leaner and worn out because he could find very few chickens. The stranger was strong and fit. ‘Hey now,’ said the stranger, ‘I’m worried about you friend. You should do like me and put some chickens in a cage, I’ll show you how.’ The man with chickens accepted the cages because his children were hungry. The stranger said, ‘I’ll help you gather chickens,’ but when all the chickens were gathered up, the stranger had taken all the best chickens and left the man who had chickens with enough only for a few cages.
As time passed the man who had chickens saw that his chickens were disappearing and suspected that the stranger was stealing the chickens. Being weak he asked the stranger politely if he was the thief. The stranger smiled and said, ‘No, I am not stealing. I borrow some from time to time but I do not steal. Stealing is wrong and you should remember that.’
The man who had chickens grew desperate as he saw his children were starving and becoming ill. One day he caught the stranger stealing chickens. ‘You are stealing chickens,’ he yelled. ‘I have given you chickens so that you would not suffer hunger but I could never give enough. Then you just began taking chickens until I grew weak. When I began to keep chickens as you keep chickens then you began to steal chickens from me.’
The stranger smiled again and said, ‘My friend you have it all wrong. You must be reasonable and understand. I did not ask for the chickens in the first place. The chickens you gave me were never adequate to meet my needs. The chickens were never really yours in the first place because they were free. Only my chickens could be owned because I kept them in my cages. When you began to keep chickens you used my cages so in fact they are my chickens.’
The man who had chickens complained, ‘but my children are so hungry.’ The stranger replied, ‘but what does that have to do with chickens?’
The man who had chickens said angrily, ‘You are stealing our chickens and I have caught you doing wrong.’
The stranger looked hurt and became angry himself. ‘You can’t prove that any chickens were ever yours. You have no claim to any chickens. So far as stealing chickens it is only this chicken that I have been caught with.’ The stranger’s face softened and he smiled again. ‘I do not agree that this is really stealing and I do not want you to steal from me, so we can negotiate over this chicken.’ The man who had chickens reluctantly agreed.
‘Now,’ said the stranger, ‘to be fair we will divide this chicken in half. I will take the top half and you can have the bottom half.’ The stranger then cut the feet off the chicken and gave them to the man who had chickens and said, ‘This is your share. Make sure that your children are fed well.’
The man who had chickens hung his head in shame.
As the stranger walked away he stopped and turned around. ‘My friend,’ he said, ‘I know you are taking this all very hard. I apologize from the depth of my heart if I have ever offended you. To show you that I never want us to argue about chickens again and that you will never have to worry about chickens, I declare that from now and for all time forward, all chickens, anywhere, will belong to me.'”
Prisoners seldom ever connect with one another after doing their time. I don’t know what became of that young man or whether this story that belongs to him and his need to know has made any difference in his life. I have told the story a few times since but I think it is time that we share it with our brothers and sisters who can understand first through a parable. I think this story has found its time.
Robert Lovelace is an adjunct lecturer at Queen’s University in the Department of Global Development Studies. His academic interests include Indigenous Studies, Sustainable Development and Aboriginal education. Robert is also an activist in anti-colonial struggles. In 2008, Robert spent 3 ½ months as a political prisoner for his part in defending the Ardoch Algonquin First Nation homeland from uranium exploration and mining. Robert is a retired chief of the Ardoch Algonquin First Nation. He lives in the Algonquin highlands at Eel Lake in the traditional Ardoch territory.