After hearing how Native people were swindled in land deals, imprisoned for practising traditional ceremonies, and tortured in residential schools, participants in our cross-cultural awareness workshops will sometimes haltingly ask if I feel more like an Indian or a Canadian.
It’s a tough question.
I’ve always believed that Canada is the best country in the world because of the very reasons our Yankee neighbours often poke fun at us: we are a nation of peacekeepers who would rather mediate disputes than provoke them, and we believe that we are our brother’s keepers -- that a wealthy country like ours has a moral duty to ensure that not one of its citizens goes without food, shelter, or health care.
To our go-for-the-jugular cousins to the south, that makes us “wimps” when it comes to dealing with “the enemy”, a term that has seemed to apply at various times in recent U.S. history to Muslim imams, Pete Seeger, Pierre Elliot Trudeau, labour unions, homosexuals, and unwed mothers.
My journey of discovery about my Native heritage has made me keenly aware that Aboriginal people living in Canada simply do not have as much to be proud of as others living inside these borders. Even our most-recently arrived immigrants are treated with a respect that many First Peoples have seldom if ever experienced. Millions are spent on programs to orient newcomers to life in Canada, while many of the people who have been here the longest live in poverty without running water or prospects for a happy and healthy future.
During the four consecutive years in which the United Nations Human Development Index ranked Canada as the best country in the world in which to live, the same socio-economic indicators placed our collective Aboriginal population 64th on the list, right next to Borneo.
I come from an era when we stood for the national anthem in movie theatres, but it’s tough to continue feeling patriotic when you know that successive governments continue to ignore not just their moral, but their legal obligations to honour treaties and start settling 800 land claims that are the key to ending aboriginal poverty and opening the door to prosperity for our generations to come.
During our cross-cultural training sessions, we play a little trick on participants: we ask everyone who has treaty rights to raise their hands. When only the two or three Native facilitators do so, we point out that everyone in the room has treaty rights. In fact, it’s primarily Canada’s non-Natives who have benefited from treaties by enjoying the wealth that has been mined, clearcut, and harvested from the traditional Native territories that their ancestors agreed to share with our ancestors.
Over a century later we’re still waiting for our share, which is why you can expect to see more Natives getting restless when they see prospectors pitching tents in their front yards.
So I usually answer the “Canadian-or-Indian” question by saying I currently feel more like a citizen of the Anishinabek and Haudenausonee Nations, but look forward to the day when I am proud to be called a Native Canadian because this country has kept its promises.
This might annoy the people who condemn First Nations citizens fighting for their rights at places like Oka, Ipperwash, and Caledonia for accepting the “benefits” of being Canadian without showing enough gratitude. But most of these critics are ignorant of their country’s history, and some of them simply resent people whose customs and traditions are different from theirs.
Meanwhile, I will continue to stand at attention for the playing of O Canada, because I believe in respecting the sovereignty of all nations, as I would expect them to respect mine. I might even join in and sing or hum along, if I feel the occasion is special enough.
I will not sell military secrets to “the enemy” -- including Pete Seeger and unwed mothers.
I will continue to pay my taxes – yes, Virginia, Indians do pay taxes, contrary to what you may have read in the National Post.
But I have switched flags, replacing our red and white Canadian maple leaf with the red and white Anishinabek Nation thunderbird. I did so the week after Canada’s representative on the United Nations Human Rights Council voted against the adoption of the draft Declaration on Indigenous’ Peoples Rights, a document which says “Indigenous peoples and individuals are free and equal to all other peoples and individuals and have the right to be free from any kind of discrimination in the exercise of their rights….”
Stephen Harper’s Conservative government says they have some problem with the declaration’s “broad and unclear” wording.
Of the 30 Human Rights Council members casting votes, only one other country beside Canada found the declaration’s wording unacceptable – Russia.
I won’t be flying their flag either.