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Why First Nations can’t ‘just get over it’

Probably the most important outcome of the Idle No More movement has been to pique the curiosity of Canadians about exactly what it is that is making the Natives so restless.
Probably the most important outcome of the Idle No More movement has been to pique the curiosity of Canadians about exactly what it is that is making the Natives so restless.

High-profile INM spokesperson Pamela Palmater says she’s constantly having Canadians come up to her and ask: “Why don’t First Nations people just get over it”, but none of them can tell her what the “it” is that First Nations people are supposed to just get over.

Canadians were really wondering what “it’ is on Jan. 16, when Idle No More demonstrators – many of them First Nations citizens -- stopped passenger trains between Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal, stalled major highways and rail lines in parts of Manitoba, Alberta, New Brunswick and Ontario, and slowed traffic across the Ambassador Bridge between Windsor and Detroit , North America’s busiest border crossing.

A national day of action included round dances and prayer circles in shopping malls and public spaces across Canada. It’s easy for police to disperse and discredit demonstrators who are breaking store windows. But you better not turn the riot squad loose on people who are engaging in spontaneous outbursts of prayer or traditional dancing.

Actually, First Nations people have gone to jail for practising their culture in Canada. Sacred objects like Pipes and Wampum Belts were confiscated by authorities, and spiritual practices like smudging, dancing and drumming went underground to avoid the scrutiny of Indian agents.
This is just one of those “it's” that First Peoples find difficult to “just get over”.

Another one is the network of residential schools that the federal government operated for over a century, resulting in the abuse and even death of thousands of Indian children who were taken from their parents and forced to attend. The last one -- Akaitcho Hall in Yellowknife – just closed its doors in 1996. I have been inside that building and others, and can tell you that the experience made my skin crawl in the same way as it did when I visited former Nazi concentration camp sites in Europe.

This “it” was a Canadian genocide, an attempt to "kill the Indian in the child,” as a government official put it. Unfortunately, the experiment actually resulted in killing a lot of the children, as well as crushing the spirit of many of their classmates.

There are simply too many “it's” for First Peoples in Canada to “just get over”.Where does the list start?

Highest youth suicide rates in the world, 80,000 First Nations residents living in homes without a supply of potable water, 25% of children living in First Nation communities living in poverty, highest incarceration and unemployment rates in Canada.

When will the list end? When Canadians truly understand their own history, and demand that their elected representatives respect the rights of all peoples within its borders to live their lives in human dignity, with equal opportunity to education, employment and healthy communities.

Idle No More has played a key role in helping stage “teach-ins” that educate Canadians about the tragic legacies of historic government actions, which include breaking treaty promises and ignoring aboriginal rights protected by the courts and the Constitution.

It is a cop-out for Canadians – much of whose “education” about First Peoples issues comes from ill-informed journalists – to dismiss issues raised by Native leaders as simply more political rhetoric; when Grand Council Chief Patrick Madahbee talks about the need to “break the shackles of colonialism” he is not merely reciting some party line. He experienced an “it” first-hand; he was forbidden to speak his own language when he attended a government-operated day school on Manitoulin Island.

Unfortunately politics has become so dominated by polarized viewpoints that even the most reputable public figures can become the source of skepticism; their audiences are tuning them out.

I once heard Elijah Harper advise Canadians to stop waiting for elected leaders to do the right thing, advice being followed by Idle No More supporters.

If Canadians are more likely to listen to non-elected voices speaking about First Nations issues, maybe they are closer to understanding there are some things you don’t “just get over.”


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.