Like this article? rabble is reader-supported journalism. Chip in to keep stories like these coming.
It’s early morning and I’m playing with my daughter. Her blocks are scattered all around us: different types, shapes and sizes that she has inherited and collected from various people and places.
I have a tendency to play with the different styles of blocks separately. My imagination isn’t as elastic as my daughter’s, and it seems cleaner and easier to piece similar blocks together. They interact and fit better together. They make sense to me that way.
I study her movements. Even when it doesn’t seem like pieces are compatible, she keeps trying new configurations with confidence that modifications can help lead to a new outcome. At the same time, she also seems willing to cut her losses when attempts at incremental change repeatedly fail to lead to improvement.
In these contexts, there are foundational issues that need to be resolved before anything more productive can be achieved. She never hesitates to start over and learn from where she went wrong.
Her approach reminds me of the ongoing work that is involved in revisiting, rebuilding and renewing relationships. It might even lend insight into the seemingly perpetual issues plaguing the relationships between settler and Indigenous communities.
The policy promises that have been circulating in the lead up to the next federal election propose marginal additions or changes to the status quo to address what are perceived to be the main issues in Indigenous communities — education, poverty, health, infrastructure and violence against Indigenous women, among others.
The dollar amounts being thrown around not only fail to come close to the commitment that would be required to bring on-reserve living conditions to a point that is comparable with provincial standards, they also divorce these issues from their underlying causes.
Party politics in Canada are not greatly influenced by those who are marginalized by structural forms of oppression. This is not because Indigenous peoples have accepted our subordination without question, but because of historic and ongoing factors have both excluded us and limited our desire to participate in the democratic system.
Many Indigenous peoples do not choose to vote in federal and provincial elections as they do not recognize the assumed authority of Canadian political systems and choose to direct their energy towards political communities and processes they identify with instead.
Other Indigenous people identify wholly or in part as Canadian citizens and participate in these political systems, seeking change from within the structures of power.
With either action, evidence of even the minimum level of human rights protections that the majority of Canadians take for granted as a basic feature of citizenship remain absent in Indigenous communities.
Rights to life and security of person have done nothing to address the housing crisis or lack of access to safe drinking water on reserves. Nor have they provided any protection against the disproportionately high degree of violence, suicide and death in Indigenous peoples lives.
If members of the suburban middle-class were unfortunate enough to find themselves faced with these issues on a regular basis, there is no question that they would register as important to those in power.
Because of the localized and marginalized contexts in which these issues exist — that is, within the communities that Canada was built on the backs of — they are accepted as normal elements of background structures of domination that the general population feels little to no responsibility towards.
But it is precisely because these issues are located within the Indigenous-settler relationship and are upheld by the racism, sexism, and paternalism that marks Indigenous peoples’ everyday interactions with settler individuals that we all have a role in addressing them.
This involves holding those in power to higher standards but also becoming more conscious of our own responsibilities within the relationships we inhabit rather than proceeding with uncritical acceptance of the status quo.
Unsurprisingly, current and potential leaders of a nation built upon the exploitation and accumulation of capital at the expense of entire communities and ecosystems are not eager to dismantle the very power relations the maintenance of the nation hinges upon.
Their proposals focus on solutions, on settling outstanding claims or putting an end to a problem rather than contemplating their roles and responsibilities in creating a stronger relationship that could in turn lead to a comprehensive range of improvements in the lives of Indigenous peoples.
Some Indigenous Elders say that the first step in bringing about change is for those in power to recognize their mistakes and acknowledge the terrible mess that they and their predecessors have made out there.
But recognition on it’s own does not bring about healing or restitution. It represents the start of an ongoing process that can only take place through a conscious commitment to revisiting and renewing the way we understand our relationships and responsibilities towards our environments and those we find ourselves co-existing with.
Forging a new relationship does not mean forgetting the past.
It means being willing to engage in the difficult and ongoing work of getting to the root of contemporary issues. That is, the illegitimacy of the unilateral exercise of Crown sovereignty over Indigenous peoples and their territories.
It means acknowledging that healing from more than a 150 years of genocide will take time and a continuous commitment to support victims and survivors.
It means understanding the forms of suffering, oppression and violence faced by Indigenous peoples not just as historical features of their relationship with settlers, but as impacts of ongoing colonialism of Indigenous peoples and this land.
I look around at the pile of blocks that surrounds us. Some might see this as a terrible mess, and they are indeed right. But my daughter seems to regard this mess as an incredible opportunity to start over and create something new. We should be so lucky as to have our understanding of relationship informed by such endless imagination, creativity, and commitment to learning and improvement.
We all have a lot to learn about relationships, and we don’t have to invent practices from scratch. There is inspiration for better ways of co-existing all around us.
The first place we might look is to the frameworks of co-existence outlined in treaties, which can teach us about reciprocal ways for communities to interact in a shared space while maintaining our respective legal and political orders.
They can also teach us how to live in a place of care for one another by elucidating our individual and collective responsibilities within these relationships.
But this means dismantling the myths of treaties as mechanisms of cession and surrender that provide the grounding for Crown claims to authority and jurisdiction, as well its imposition of legislation aimed at civilization, assimilation, and accommodation of Indigenous peoples.
It means altering the current configurations of power to align with Indigenous understandings of treaties as relationship agreements between autonomous communities that entail perpetual responsibilities for anyone who makes their home in this land.
Addressing these and other foundational issues would help lay the groundwork upon which we might begin to endeavor to create something new.
Gina Starblanket is a member of the Star Blanket Cree Nation and is a PhD candidate and sessional instructor at the University of Victoria.
Photo: flickr/ Michael Scott