On Monday night, WSIC hosted a discussion about Aboriginal Justice at the Duke of York pub. As the event organizer, I admit I was a little apprehensive since this is the first time we’ve come under vitriolic attack for our topic choices. A twitter user labeled us as “racist” for suggesting that aboriginal justice should not be the same kind of justice faced by everyone. Treating a subgroup of people differently was in and of itself racist.
This notion hit me hard and I was very worried about what might come out of this discussion. I had wanted to host it because movements like “Idle No More” have brought the issue to the forefront. As someone who is relatively up to date on current events, I knew if I was ignorant of the issues, I would not be alone.
Todd Ross started off the discussion with a hat tip to the Two Row Wampum treaty that will be celebrating its 400th anniversary this year. The entire concept of a nation growing in two parallel rows that move together but don’t intersect was created to acknowledge how different the first nations and settler cultures really were. Two vessels can travel together, but neither would steer the other’s boat. It was the basis of non-interference in each other’s culture.
Dr. Carolyn Bennett opened her remarks by highlighting some basic inequalities between aboriginal and non aboriginal people: the percentage that finish high school is much lower; aboriginal women are more likely to be abused than non-aboriginal women; aboriginal people are only 4% of the Canadian population yet 20% of the prison population; the sad list seemed to go on and on. She also spoke about how her life has been enriched by learning from people who were so completely different than herself and the life philosophies they wisely hold. For example, when making important community decisions, traditionally First Nations people think about what their ancestors 7 generations ago might think and consider the consequences to their descendants 7 generations out. Contrast that to our obsession with quarterly profit and loss!.
Dr. Bennett also contrasted our treatment of aboriginal people and their cultures with New Zealand’s. In New Zealand, all children learn about Maori culture (as opposed to treating it as a single unit in history class). Maori culture is integrated into the NZ system (which is easier since they make up 20% of the population). School kids would not sit on desks because that is unacceptable in Maori culture. What we learn about aboriginal people from school by contrast is embarrassing. I was born and raised in Ontario and I had to read about Louis Riel on my own as an adult. I finished high school and completed my post secondary education without knowing anything about such a historical Canadian figure. I had no idea how many First Nations I was living alongside right here in Ontario, travelling the same path without intersecting.
One of the most pointed questions of the evening challenged Bennett and Ross to define who is and isn’t “aboriginal” now that we have such heavy mixing between cultures. Neither speaker wanted to tackle that issue head on. Everyone acknowledged that is a very complex issue. Many aboriginal men who fought in the First World War gave up their status so they could collect a pension as a war vet. Now their descendants have lost status but are clearly aboriginal; some will certainly feel as if their veteran ancestor was tricked into selling their birthright for an army pension.
The most moving part of the evening was when an aboriginal gentleman named Gary took the mic and described his personal journey. Bennett had spoken earlier about the plight of missing women but until Gary took the stage, it was still an abstraction. As Gary told his story, I started to realize that these aren’t just women that nobody knows; these are mothers, daughters, sisters… Gary’s mother was murdered when he was a child. Her unsolved murder led him to believe that nobody cared. He never found closure in his loss and turned to alcohol and drugs for comfort. Finally he cleaned up his act and started the pursuit of justice for his mum. Despite the evidence he was able to uncover about the suspect, police still did nothing. What is the message that we are sending to aboriginal people? Your people don’t count as part of our justice system?
As the night continued, some tweets came in response about how aboriginal people should start paying their fair share (I guess sharing land isn’t worth anything), and creating a separate nation for aboriginal people is nothing more than apartheid.
I started to realize that we are trying to square a circle. From our lofty places of privilege, we were trying to fit people into the world view that we think is “normal”. During my travels to Africa, I read a story about basic miscommunication. When the Europeans first arrived, they asked if they could buy the land. The tribal elders said “yes”. They thought the Europeans wanted to USE the land. How could anyone own land? No one has the right to own land. Land is for everyone to use and share. When the tribes protested the Europeans blocking access to the land, they pulled out legal agreements of the sale. I couldn’t help but wonder how many men were killed for trespassing. How many “crimes” were committed that weren’t really crimes? Does our treatment of aboriginal people here parallel that experience?
Another aboriginal guest lamented that the same sorts of discussion taking place right then had been happening for 30 years and he is worried they will still continue to happen in another 30 years. When can action actually take place?
Both Ross and Bennett stressed the importance of education if we are to achieve anything; education both for aboriginal people but also education of the Canadian population about aboriginal issues. Both speakers also agreed that the Indian Act had to go.
From the very limited knowledge I have and what I saw from the discussion, I couldn’t help but feel that we set off on the wrong path from the word go. How could we have a Two Row Wampum and expect societies not to cross paths yet share the same physical space? Yet this commitment of non-interference is keeping aboriginal people out of our political system and denying them a voice in a very powerful system of governance. At the same time, the philosophy of not interfering is putting up a barrier to integration and understanding of the aboriginal value system.
Bennett and Ross are right: the issues are systemic, and the only way to fix them is to look long term and start with learning about each other. To learn more, donate, or volunteer, here are some good places to start:
Native Canadian Centre of Toronto
ANDPVA (Assn for Native Development in Performing and Visual Arts)
Native Child and Family Services
Native Women’s Resource Centre
Anishnawbe Health Toronto