Sunday, December 4, 2011

I am the Indian: Attempting to teach about Attawapiskat

I am the Indian
And yet the burden lies with me.
-Rita Joe

With the recent media attention focused on Attawapiskat, and the ensuing back and forth over who is to blame and who is at fault: the government’s decision to blame the people in the community for their troubles is deeply concerning.  It did bring to mind Emma Larocque’s 1989 article: Racism Runs through Canadian Society.  Larocque’s article was originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press in 1989 and can be considered a reflective piece that attempts to explain in a few pages the complexities of racism in Canada as it affects First Nations people.  She shares a lot of her own experiences as an Indigenous person and as an Indigenous teacher, while making a point of not blaming anybody.  What she’s doing in this article is “merely pointing to a history of racism…” (Pg 92).  At the same time, she’s explaining how that history is affecting First Nations people, and how it is being disputed, providing numerous examples of each.

 The article points out the various types of racism that affect First Nations people, documenting how extensive and systemic it is; how normal it has become is something that is shocking for many non-Native people.  Whether from the individual point of view or from a systemic, institutionalized malice, subtle or overt, racism is widespread and very much reinforced in our everyday dealings.  Stereotypes serve to reinforce the image and the view of First Nations people, allowing others to take a dimmer view.  

 When confronted with this assessment, there is a need to deny this racism in Canada.  While there seems to be a willingness to confront the difference in black/ white relationships, there seems to continue to be distaste for the idea of looking at the difference that marks Aboriginal/non-Aboriginal relationships.  This refusal to know and acknowledge the problem tends to manifest itself in a variety of ways, from claiming cultural misunderstanding to backlash attacks blaming the victims for their victimization. 

 Darren Lund argues that few “dare to disrupt the assumed absence of racism in Canada” (Pg 63, Lund, Rocking the Racism Boat), and this serves to entrench the politicized racism that Larocque explores.  Her point that prejudice and discrimination serve to maintain the power relationship of white privilege over the Aboriginal is incredibly strong (She does address the issue of reverse discrimination, dismissing it somewhat claiming it cannot be as hurtful due to the unequal relationship.  Having witnessed a rise in this type of discriminatory language recently, I am tempted to disagree; we need to be better than that.  But that is a topic for another post). 

 At any rate, I made the mistake of reading the comments sections of the articles on the online news sites, encountering language and dialogue that has felt very racist and very disappointing to read.  As a society that claims to be a leader in Human rights causes and claiming to be open and accepting of all, Canada still seems to hold a special place of contempt for First Nations people.  There is no point in addressing the statements and arguments directly, as there are ample counter- arguments available everywhere and anywhere, if only the willingness was there to seek it out.  I have lamented the fact that there is a refusal to know the history and experience of First Nations people, an unwillingness to seek understanding about the reality of the lived experience, preferring to listen to the stereotypes and the hype propagandized by the Federal Government, whom have been leading the way in blaming the victim in this current media focus, rather than actually helping the victim.   

 I have attempted to teach this issue in all of my classes, across the spectrum of the varied curriculum I currently teach, taking the time to connect to the prescribed learning outcomes of each course and ensuring that I present all perspectives on the crisis, including the ones that blame the victim and repeat the government line about money- management and so on and so on, albeit with a counter- argument and attempt to explain the real challenges faced by First Nations people and the history of colonial policy that made this situation possible.  I have felt powerless in this endeavour, as I am trying to teach against hundreds of years of negative discourse.  I have had my successes and my failures in this.  I have, on occasion, felt like I was helpless and powerless.

 I have sat down and fought back tears and realized I lack the resources and money to help Attawakispat and Kesechewan, even the Bands in my region, my own.  I have felt guilty because I have not done more, or known what to do.

 Earlier this week, I was visiting a local community, speaking to a group of First Nations youth, at a Health Fair, about my career choice and what the challenges and benefits of becoming and being a teacher were.  In the crowd, there were current students and former students, a few of which introduced me to their children.  As I spoke, I understood the greatest challenge and the greatest benefit: “You’ve chosen to trust me to educate your children.  To teach them to be responsible and caring young adults, who can survive and thrive in Canadian society.” (Not my exact words, but the sentiment is accurate)

 And really, that means teaching all children to think critically about the situation and ensure that there is understanding of the reality of the First Nations experience.  What have I done?  I have taught 180 kids about Attawapiskat.  I hope to eventually get them to understanding it.
If you have any ideas on how to move forward to understanding, I would greatly appreciate it.

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful post, and I think it highlights the role that so many aboriginal peoples take and never receive credit for...that of the bridge builders. We are constantly reaching out, explaining and educating, but one of the national myths we contend with is the one that portrays us as passive victims at best, and lazy lay-abouts at worst.