One native life

Jan 142013

Court adds 600,000 Indians to government responsibilities.

by Richard Wagamese

The Federal Court decision recognizing that Métis and non-status Indians in Canada are “Indians” under the Constitution Act had a lot of non-native Canadians scratching their heads. The question the ruling raised most was: What does it mean to be Indian in Canada today?

It’s a heady question, that will spark much debate and a likely appeal of that decision by the Harper government. The ruling could mean that Métis and non-status Indians are entitled to the same benefits as registered status Indians. Those benefits include some tax exemptions if living on a reserve, hunting and fishing rights, and some health and education benefits.

The new “Indians” inherit the same struggles, frustrations and denials their status brothers and sisters have endured for some 140 years.

But the issue is deeper than that, and goes way beyond a mere political grab bag of rights. It goes to the fundamental idea of Canada itself because, if the ruling stands, there will be 600,000 more Indians for the federal government to deal with. It means that the new “Indians” inherit the same struggles, frustrations and denials their status brothers and sisters have endured for some 140 years.

To be Indian in Canada today means that one signatory (to the nation-to-nation agreement that frames your life) forgets that it’s a treaty nation. Canada became a treaty nation when it sought to bring the Indians into treaty. It entrenched itself historically when it signed those documents. Unfortunately, the years since have been an ongoing process of denial of obligations and responsibilities under treaty.

To be Indian in Canada today is to see your children suffer. On reserves, in Métis communities and in the cities, aboriginal children go hungry, lack warm clothing and solid educational resources, die as infants at a rate two to four times the national average and endure immunization rates 20 times lower than the general population. They suffer because different orders of government dispute who’s responsible to pay or provide for a service.

To be Indian in Canada today is to see youth languish in chronic unemployment and malaise, and high rates of alcohol, drug and solvent abuse and suicide.

To be Indian in Canada today is to see youth languish in chronic unemployment and malaise, endure high rates of alcohol, drug and solvent abuse or die by suicide at a rate five to seven times higher than non-aboriginal youth. It is to see the future of your people fail to finish high school or get skills training; too often they become parents themselves at a frighteningly early age. This, despite Canada’s being a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

To be Indian in Canada today is to know that your women are likely to be victimized, murdered or go missing. It’s to know that you may have to share a two-bedroom house with as many as 16 other people. It’s the understanding that running water is a luxury or clean drinking water a rarity. It’s the awareness that Canada has known about these grave issues for decades, but they still persist.

To be Indian in Canada today is to know that your people’s part in the history of Canada isn’t taught in schools. It’s to know that, when we speak of our treaty rights, most of the country doesn’t know what we speak of. It’s to hear your spiritual connection to the land referred to as nothing but a “romanticized attachment” by educated journalists. It’s to have your traditional role as a steward and protector of the land denounced summarily.

This is the reality that greets Canada’s new “Indians.” But there’s more. To be Indian in Canada today is to stand in solidarity and equality with brothers and sisters across the country to say that we won’t live this way any longer. It’s to be part of a movement of people that says we won’t idle any longer or wait for our chiefs to tell us when or where to move. It’s to seek to enlighten our non-native neighbours to the truth of who we are, our history, rights and what we want.

To be Indian in Canada is also to be part of a movement of people that says we won’t idle any longer or wait for our chiefs to tell us when or where to move.

To be Indian in Canada today is to watch our youth and our women take to the forefront of this direct action and lead. It’s to know that our future is secure so long as they continue to bring their energy and their vision to the attention of a nation that has never truly heard us before. It’s to be galvanized. It’s to be strong.

To be Indian in Canada today is to learn from history so it’s never repeated. It’s to turn to our elders and wise ones for guidance in turbulent times. It’s to be prayerful and gentle at the same time we are resolute and unwavering. It’s to be a spiritual warrior in a quest for the greatest good.

This is what awaits the new “Indians.” I say welcome.

Nov 232012

Beautiful vista teems with stories that are the essence of Canada.

by Richard Wagamese

On a calm day on Cowichan Bay, the air is so still that the water is like a mirror. Fishing boats line the wharf and they seem to hover in mid air. The reflection of the island a mile offshore is its perfect twin. The world is glass. Here, I feel that time does not exist. The smell of salt water, fish, rope, marine oil, and gas transports you to a simpler time. Wayfarers and mariners. Here they still exist.

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Nov 122012

Drifting through powder snow together brings true grace.

by Richard Wagamese

November is magic time at our house. Sometime in late October I’ve already started watching the weather forecast at our favorite ski hill, a forty five minute drive away. That’s one of the first things I do every morning once the leaves fall. The accumulation of snow is vital to my well being because that hill opens around the middle of the month — an event that is right up there with baseball’s spring training for me. That’s huge.

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Oct 122012

There are things that come to you suddenly in life that you don’t expect. Sometimes the surprises are difficult, and demand the most of you in order to navigate your way to peace with them. Other times all they ask you is reflection. All they ask of you is a commitment to time in order to flesh out your insides with the definitive impact of their arrival. As I get older I’ve become better at both but much prefer the latter.

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Sep 242012

A library card is still my most prized possession.

by Richard Wagamese

When I think back, the number of books that have affected my life is incredible. The line of volumes snakes back through fifty-five years and touches on virtually everything. Sometimes I feel as though the doorway to a library was where I was always supposed to go.

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Sep 102012

I learned that my people, the Ojibway, tease each other out of affection.

by Richard Wagamese

I’ve come a long way in my understanding of Ojibway things. When I first returned to my people in 1978 I’d been lost in foster care and adoption for 24 years.

I knew nothing about my people or myself. But I desperately wanted to know and I asked questions all the time. When something huge is lost to you, getting a chance to reclaim it, to learn and comprehend it, becomes as vital as breathing.

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Jul 272012

Our first physical act when we're born is reaching out — the desire to touch someone.

by Richard Wagamese

I'm brown. It's the second or third thing I notice about myself every morning. The others are that I'm alive and that I have things to get done by the end of the day. Depending on the state of my bladder, the second thing is sometimes shuffled.

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Jul 242012

Giant fish proves to be foe worthy of respect.

Rivers fascinate me. When I was a boy I loved nothing better than solitary wandering along their serpentine lengths, studying the water, searching the places where fish would lie, watching the creatures that lived there, and lying on their banks lost in thought under the seemingly endless blue skies of boyhood.

Back then a river was an opportunity. Within it lay the fish of my dreams or the magic passage away from the world that had me snared. I was an unhappy kid. Only in solitude did I feel safe and only in the aloneness that the land and rivers represented could I find the freedom to dream and create.

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Jun 122012

Bird family brings youngster a sense of belonging.

by Richard Wagamese

There are birds on the water. There are red wing blackbirds, and bluish swallows that dart and wheel crazily in the hard slice of the sun between mountains. Against the treed rim of the far shore, loons offer their wobbly cries. In the reeds there's a thin gray poke of heron, mute and patient, and a pair of Canada Geese behind him.

It's spring now, as the earth turns out of winter slowly and lazily. It's as if the land is a bear, sluggish from sleep and unconvinced about motion. There's a peacefulness to the new season that fills me, gratifies me. There's something in this ballet of motion that kindles in me a fire that first burned a long, long time ago. A tribal fire, even though at first, I didn't recognize it as that.

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Jun 062012

Stuff is only as important as we make it.

by Richard Wagamese

In the corner of our yard nearest the gravel road is an old wringer washer. It sits beneath a fir tree with its barrel filled with earth and dirt and sprouting flowers over the rim. Further back, near the front door, an old wagon wheel leans against a pine tree. Both of them hearken back to a simpler time. Rustic, some might say, but for me merely elegant and uncomplicated.

When we came here we had to disassemble everything, strip away the clutter of life. A painting that seemed relevant in a city context suddenly became unnecessary here. Books that marked the footsteps in a cosmopolitan journey were rendered irrelevant by the presence of bears.

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