You could see the hunger in the eyes of the Cree family, as they tried to muster dignity in welcoming me and (the late) Metis photographer Murray McKenzie into their home. They knew Murray, renowned regionally for his portraits of the elders in northern Manitoba’s First Nations and Metis communities.
The kitchen cupboards were visibly bare and, despite Murray’s joking overtures to make everyone feel comfortable, doing so was a challenge. I felt such deep shame about their circumstances that I wanted to crawl into one of the numerous cracks in the walls of the run down, fragile dwelling.
On a previous day, Murray had dropped me off at another home, similarly run down, with one exception, an old TV among its furnishings. Here, I found a Cree elder babysitting his pre-school grandson, both of them watching American pop singer Tina Turner hollering her heart out, on morning television.
The elder was highly respected for his politically active role as a chief of his community through many years, a role in which he did his best to protect the well being of his people. Now aged, he still was very articulate about health-threatening issues.
He quietly raised the question, for example, why the provincial government ever said the water from the river was safe to use. At the same time, he added, the government promised to deliver water, which never arrived. The construction of a large hydro project had flooded out the region, drowning thousands of animals upon which these Aboriginal people had depended, self-sufficient and healthy, to meet basic human needs. For that they felt gratitude and joy, celebrating life that included ‘all our relations’ through their cycles of ceremonies.
This elder then described the health problems among his people, who had no other choice but to drink, cook with, and bath in water contaminated by mercury. The children even broke out in sores after being bathed. The large hydro project in that region was one among several built across the Canadian north, to make life comfortable for southern Canadians.
In my northern travels 25 years ago from the Yukon to Nunavut (formerly Baffin Island), and most regions in between, similar scenarios of disrupted Aboriginal life on the land were happening as the results of various types of large-scale industrial projects that included uranium mining. Repeatedly, the lives of the Aboriginal people have been treated as dispensable.
Canada’s shame has been, and remains, the overlooked reality and human rights of our first peoples, particularly in the north, who still live in appalling circumstances – and reduced to them by collective, systemic neglect. (The name that I give it is cultural racism, which I will define more fully in my next blog.)
Our latest shame is Attawapiskat. Once again, as in occasional stories through decades, Aboriginal people make the headlines when a chronic, life-threatening situation dives to yet another unconscionable low point that garners the news media’s attention. The fur really flew – metaphorically speaking – in news coverage throughout December 2011 focused on the latest housing crisis in Attawapiskat, one of Ontario’s remote northern First Nation communities.
The news focus typically swung from First Nations as victims to First Nations as irresponsible in how they spend money in the classic ‘blaming the victim’ posture by Canada’s federal government. Yes, no human society is perfect, and some individuals in some communities have been known to misuse funds. That fact, however, does not reasonably, nor fairly, address the deeper issue of a seriously flawed colonial system.
Where do we find in depth information, from mainstream and Aboriginal perspectives, to try and understand what is a long-term, complex human drama? Regarding Attawapiskat per se, one well-researched background history up to this current crisis can be found at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Attawapiskat_First_Nation, with excellent references.
A very impressive piece of investigative journalism is a special comment feature reprinted in Canada’s National Post, titled “The real math behind Attawapiskat’s $90 million.” It is a real eye-opener, on how government spokespeople misrepresent financial facts. This excellent piece, unfortunately, was wrongly credited to Brett Hodnett. It actually was researched and written by Chelsea Vowel, a Plains Cree-speaking Metis woman in Montreal, on her blog at http://apihtawikosisan.wordpress.com – and the article went viral.
Becoming more accurately informed about Indigenous issues, therefore, whether in our own backyard or worldwide, requires an effort by each of us. The choice is ours. Today, the younger generations of Indigenous people on every continent – particularly who have chosen to be witnesses and the storytellers of their own time – have much to tell us, if only we open our hearts to listen.
The human treasure houses of knowledge, however, are the surviving elders who experientially have learned, practiced and lived ‘Traditional Environmental Knowledge (TEK),’ the carriers of oral history and also those who are the keepers of spiritual traditions. This holds true, again, among all Indigenous peoples on every continent.
One resource for insights about TEK is an essay, interestingly, that uses the example of a mining project near Attawapiskat, published in The Canadian Journal of Native Studies, XXIII, 2(2003):361-390, co-authored by Norbert Witt and Jackie Hookimaw-Witt. They explain the differences between TEK and the Euro-Western perspective on ‘natural resource’ use. Go to: www2.brandonu.ca/library/cjns/23.2/cjnsv23no2_pg361-390.pdf.