Different people just see things differently.
It’s so simple, yet so complicated...and so divisive.
This was never more evident than on July 10 when the 20th anniversary of the 78-day stand-off between 63 Mohawks and over 4,000 Canadian soldiers and Quebec police officers rolled around.
We can’t even agree on the name by which this landmark event is remembered. A generation later, journalists are still referring to the events at Oka, instead of identifying the location as the Mohawk territory of Kanesatake. It was almost three centuries of denial of that fact by the governments of France, England, Quebec and Canada that led to the crisis in the first place.
Of course, these would be pretty much the same journalists who the subsequent Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples said were “woefully ignorant” of the day-to-day realities of aboriginal life in Canada. The RCAP report said Canada’s media basically only see First Peoples in this country as “noble environmentalists, angry warriors, or pitiful victims.”
It was the angry warrior stereotype that dominated the headlines and newscasts in the summer of 1990. In fact the memorable Canadian Press photo of one of the masked Mohawk “warriors” face-to-face with a determined young Canadian soldier was still on the front pages and providing screened backdrops for broadcast news readers two decades after the fact. Even the keenest of Canadian history buffs would be hard-pressed to tell you that the majority of those 63 besieged Mohawks were not wearing masks or carrying rifles; they were unarmed women and children.
What the Mohawks of Kanesatake saw differently from most people in Canada that summer was that their historic occupation of that territory took precedence over plans by the neighbouring Quebec town of Oka to expand an existing golf course onto a traditional Mohawk burial ground.
When he looked at that picturesque piece of land into which are rooted towering pine trees, Mayor Jean Ouellette saw golfers lining up to pay their green fees and tax assessment notices going out to dozens of ratepayers living in a new housing development. He saw dollar signs.
The people of Kanesatake, on the other hand, saw a peaceful resting place for the remains of their ancestors.
This is a scenario that has repeated itself over and over again during the past 500 years, from Baffin Island to the tip of Cape Horn. Recent Canadian versions of this seemingly never-ending melodrama are played out in places like Gustafson Lake Ipperwash, Deseronto and Caledonia.
Different people just see things differently.
A textbook project in which I am involved is trying to create teaching materials that will help Ontario high school students understand that First Peoples don’t merely disagree with provincial and federal government officials on issues of historic fact. There aren’t 1,000 unresolved land claims in this country because First Nation chiefs can’t agree with government bureaucrats on the number of square miles or dollars required to forge fair settlements.
It’s because different people see things differently.
The new Grades 10 and 11 texts will try to help students understand what are called aboriginal world views, that First Peoples aren’t noble environmentalists, angry warriors or pitiful victims. They have the same basic wants and needs and hopes as people everywhere .... but they see things differently.
So if the ancestors of the townsfolk at Oka followed the custom of erecting marble tombstones for deceased family members and the ancestors of the Mohawks of Kanesatake did not, it does not follow that the former were civilized and the latter were savages.
The pow-wow dancer is no more a pagan for incorporating weasel fur into his outfit than the Queen who wears a stole fashioned from the same animal. (“Ermine”has a much more elegant ring to it in royal circles than “weasel”. ) The dancer honours the spirit and skills of the creature, Her Majesty merely likes the way it looks.
Perhaps, over the long haul, Native Studies textbooks in the hands of students will accomplish something that newspaper clippings in the hands of politicians have not.
Maybe, just maybe, future generations will understand that there is nothing wrong with seeing things differently than other people – so long as you all share the same long-term vision.
A postscript: before Christmas I wrote that an old friend – Sears --and I would be having a parting of the ways, all because a lifetime of my customer loyalty was betrayed by the retailer’s refusal to honour stale-dated gift certificates given to me as presents by family members.
I am delighted to report that Sears is back on my Christmas card list, thanks to the common sense and good judgment of Paulette Gagnon, manager of the large North Bay Sears outlet, who promptly cashed in my $100 in certificates when she learned of my plight.
Common sense trumps corporate policy every time!
Maurice Switzer is a citizen of the Mississaugas of Alderville First Nation. He serves as director of communications for the Union of Ontario Indians and editor of the Anishinabek News.