Part of my commitment to understanding my First Nations heritage means a commitment to understanding our contemporary struggles. Every single day I learn something new- usually several things. Some things really hurt the spirit, like this video, from today’s APTN national news. The Attawapiskat Nation of James Bay is living in such impoverished conditions, they have declared a state of emergency. Of 300 homes on the reserve, almost half are condemned. Several are living in tents, many more are living without running water, electricity, indoor plumbing, and with mold. Timmins-James Bay MP Charlie Angus (NDP) says, “The citizens of Attawapiska-they are citizens of Canada, they are citizens of Ontario, and this is a humanitarian crisis that’s unfolding. If this was happening anywhere else in this country, the army would have been sent in, you would see a massive response, and yet because it’s in the north, because it’s on the reserve, in Indian country, we see this jurisdictional hands-off approach. That’s not good enough…we want the province working with us, we want the federal government working with us, we want aid agencies to come in and ensure that these people have the same basic rights to dignity and safety that any other Canadian should be able to enjoy.”
It is hard to believe to believe that Canada, a country that pride itself so profoundly on its humanitarian commitments, could treat First Nations people this way.
I am currently researching the Saskatchewan treaties, and just today I read about treaties 8, 9 and 10. The Attawapiskat signed treaty 9 in 1905. The treaties were born out of a situation where First Nations people faced starvation because of the disappearance of their traditional renewable resources (namely game and furs, due to the new capitalist economy and loss of habitat caused by settlement), disease (brought by the newcomers to which they had no immunity), increasing hostility from the settler community, and encroachment of the settlers on their lands. Throughout the treaty making process, First Nations leaders continually pressed the government on the issue of aid during times of destitution. The government repeatedly assured the leaders that the government would come to their aid, and that they could count on and would receive the Queen’s ”bounty and benevolence.”
In less than a decade after signing Treaty 4, First Nations leaders lobbied the government for aid, because it was quickly realized that the terms of the treaty were insufficient for pursuing and sustaining First Nations livelihood, and because the government had largely failed to come through on their end of the bargain. First Nations people pressed the issue peacefully, even though they were dying of starvation, because they were committed to coexisting peacefully. Over a century later, what has changed? Our people are still starving because the government refuses to honour their treaty obligations, and we have yet to see any indication of the Queen’s ”bounty and benevolence”.
These realizations fill me with anger, which I don’t feel the need to suppress. On Wednesday I attended a public lecture at SFU downtown, given by my professor, Dr. Glen Coulthard. The incredibly insightful lecture was called, “Seeing Red: Recognition, Reconciliation, and Resentment in Indigenous Politics.” Basically, Glen was saying that resentment doesn’t have to be debilitating- quite opposite, in fact. Resentment is what “gets shit done.” So, I’m not going to cool my resentment, and I don’t think our people should, either. We need to educate our resentment, and we need to funnel that energy towards getting shit done.