Heading into Canada Day tomorrow I am about half finished Geoffery York’s The Dispossessed: Life and Death in Native Canada. I have known about this book for probably about 15 years and the cover alone has haunted me for almost that whole time. While I have known about most of the areas covered in Canada’s relationship with the First Nations people what I was not prepared for was to realize the layering and interrelatedness of injustice and abuse this people has faced at the hands of the nation of Canada. At nearly every intersection of contact First Nations were ploughed over.
Take the basic orientation of the relationship.
You are a damned people in need of our salvation.
You are in the way of us establishing ourselves and appropriating these rich and virgin resources.
What did these two motives result in? The attempted reform and actual fracturing of an entire generation in residential schools that wrought profound personal and social devastation. First Nations people are ‘granted’ reservations. I was not aware that many reservations leading up into the 1960s found significant economic models of sustainability (through traditional practices, crime rates were low and substance abuse at a minimum. But then in instances like Manitoba a hydro dam project unfolds in which a reservation receives peanuts for their land and false promises for their future and then their way of life is literally drowned. So in the future band leaders may want to take legal recourse but due to educational, financial, bureaucratic and prejudicial limitations they lack their own resources and cannot afford to hire someone so they are screwed. Some entire reservations were relocated three or four times in the course of a decade due to the government’s growing awareness and desire for particular resources. The shift is always with less opportunities and resources at the next site. And if a reservation is not relocated then mining and extraction companies would descend and kill off traditional sources of food and contaminate water supplies. If an individual or group wants to start a small business they would be unable to mortgage any property (reservation land is not their property) as an operating loan and they must jump through extensive bureaucratic hoops in order to receive funding that should rightly be theirs in the first place. And if they did get permission they often lived in a place with inadequate electricity to power an significant machines. I did not realize the web that this created or more accurately how thorough, how systematic, a beating this group of people has received. And the blows keep coming.
It is hard to imagine this sort of abuse and then we expect them to find their proverbial ‘boot-straps’. Really? Would I want to bend-over in the midst of a dominant culture that has expressed such consistent deception and hatred?
This book was published in 1990 and I do not know how many things have changed at the level of government support and bureaucracy but many of the same stories still surface in the daily newspaper. Insanitary conditions, displacement, land-claim stalling, death by housing fires, suicide, violence and the list goes on. To enter into this situation is at the very least to be overwhelmed as an entire culture has been continually overwhelmed at the hands of a political force that has never made a sustained expression of support and faithfulness to a people.
In as much as anyone wants to ask them to take responsibility for their lives those of us having received the privilege of this land must ask and express what our responsibility is.