As a non-Indigenous person, what is my role in the process of helping create change and seeking justice for my Indigenous friends?
Certainly not to speak for them. Nor is it my role to fully understand how they feel, or their wants and needs — even if I wished to, I could not. It is not my place to try to figure out what they need to do about governance or gaining their rightful place and identity in our political and social landscape.
So, do I have a role, as a non-indigenous person, in the Indigenous revolution nicknamed Idle No More? Yes, myself and all settler persons do. Our place is to simply stand with our Aboriginal brothers and sisters as they fight for justice and recognition.
You may have heard the illustration that if you see a mouse and an elephant fighting, and do nothing, you are taking the elephant's side. It is important for those of us who are settlers (the term for non-Indigenous, colonizing cultures), to realize that we cannot be neutral when it comes to Indigenous reconciliation and justice. We are the elephant who has been fighting the mouse for centuries.
The Indigenous population of North America currently stands at two per cent. However, it is estimated that there were more than 50 million when the first settlers arrived. The elephant and mouse analogy is appropriate today because of the incredible devastation, oppression and genocide which these indigenous cultures endured. We are the descendants of centuries of abusers, betrayers and murderers of our Indigenous brothers and sisters. For us to stand by, idle, and claim it's not our fault, that we can't do anything about it, is wrong.
Let's look at a closer illustration: the experience of a person in an abusive relationship with someone in authority. Here, the abuser uses his or her power to hurt someone who becomes a victim by no fault of their own (again, we need to reflect on how the very fact that settler explorers, soldiers, politicians and teachers were unjustly given authority over Indigenous people, the result of a profound betrayal). If there is to be any reconciliation in such a relationship, the victim must first seek protection and healing. Our Indigenous friends have always sought protection, healing and a reconciled relationship. Even after incredible pain, they have stood up and sought a better way. Right now, through the Idle No More movement, they are doing just that. They are doing all they can. But reconciliation takes two. It takes two to stop the abuse and heal the relationship.
For this healing to take place, if and where possible, the victims need to remain open to the relationship after taking steps to protect themselves. (My Aboriginal friends do not want to be seen as or treated as victims. But historically they have been violently betrayed and abused to such an exent that they cannot be considered otherwise.) Of course Indigenous people also need to address the corruption and abuse happening in their own communities — largely the outworking of personal and cultural devastation — but not much else is within their power.
It is the perpetrator, the abuser, who needs to come to terms with themselves and commit to change in order to make way for reconciliation. So, what is the settler elephant doing, or not doing. . .?
As the Idle No More movement gains momentum and popularity among both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, it's important to realize that growing discomfort and conflict is inevitable. It is one thing (and an encouraging thing) that more non-Indigenous people, including myself, learn about the effects of colonization and genocide. However, it is quite another thing for us to come to terms with the fact that the prosperity many of us enjoy today has been built, largely and cruelly, upon that colonization. The historically- and legally-proper demands of our Indigenous brothers and sisters (for recognition, as nations, resulting in self-governance and claims to land) cannot be meaningfully addressed without a major shift on our side. So this will, and should, affect our lives. This is where it gets hard.
If the lives and futures of First Nations people are going to change for the better — the hope and goal of everyone in Idle No More — then the Canadian status quo has to change first. Our notions of progress are laid on the foundation of systemic, exploitative practices (resource- and land-grabbing being two primary ones). We cannot maintain our economic system, our worldview and our rate of resource consumption, and at the same time address First Nations concerns. We cannot get around the fact that we live our lives and lifestyles on their backs of Indigenous people.
As I stand with them in the name of justice, my role as a non-Indigenous person is to listen, learn, and be willing to face some changes in my own life in order for their lives to improve.
What does this look like in real terms, as I look at the many complex issues around me? Well, let's take two: the oil sands and their pipelines. I admit that I have been a quiet opposer to these for years. I have heard about the contamination of the Athabasca river and the cancer rates within the Wetasawin First Nations community, now polluted by the tar sands. I have read about and seen pictures of the largest and most environmentally-destructive industrial project in the world today, there in my own backyard (I grew up in Alberta) — as well as its plans for expansion.
My roots are in the oil industry. My family is in the oil industry, and this has made it difficult for me to publicly take a stand against it. But the time is now. There are so many reasons why the tar sands and pipelines need to be halted. For me, my relationships with my Indigenous friends the most acute reason. Globally, the exploitation of the environment must be curbed. But more immediately and personally, the continued racism against my friends and the dismissal of their rights can no longer be condoned.
Therefore I stand with the Idle No More movement.
If you have any questions or comments, please email me at [email protected].