I can understand the sense of moral attractiveness which comes from working for Indigenous people—or with them, it makes no difference. You live in Canada: the best country in the world. It’s a country that ranks high on the Human Development Index. It’s the country that belts out northern lights in Yellowknife and Iqaluit; the country where canoeists mount their oars under the midnight sun—where everyone asks freely, Where are you from? alongside their how-are-you’s; the country without Donald Trump. Amidst such freedom, glory, and privilege, you think, there’s still but one sad case in the back: the case of Indigenous people. You ask, Where are their rights? What about their missing and murdered women and girls, their lack of clean drinking water, and their sacred lands? We need to implement UNDRIP—fast. We need to get those TRC Calls to Action going—fast.
For all that, you refuse to let Canada’s glossy national character bleed out, and bleed hard. And you don’t want to risk your own ethical complacency, so you must ask, as a way to be grateful and yet conscious of a place that has both its opportunities and its problems, How can we let this happen in Canada? Our Canada, the yours-mine-and-ours Canada!
It’s a narrative of decent intentions—a sense of the dutiful, a quest for equality. You make it a personal matter of I’m paying it forward or I’m amplifying marginalized voices or I just want to do good in life. You arrive resolutely at the conclusion that we have problems of our own. Indian problems within our own borders. Except, you are no longer of Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s ilk, who brought the 1969 White Paper, nor of Stephen Harper’s, who didn’t give a damn. Now, you are allies and partners in reconciliation dealing squarely with these Indian problems—these injustices toward Indigenous people. This is an attractive connection for you to have, the one with Indigenous people, for it is a working relationship that comes with an ethical payout. It is the appearance of doing good for this marginalized segment of Canadian society that provides you a moral boost and a reputation, whether as a consultant, a politician, a scholar—or even as an all-round decent Canadian.
I can understand the renegade urgency with which you push back the historical wrongs done to Indigenous people. Now, you simply want to make things right. It is great to have the support of all-round decent Canadians as I embark upon Project Reconciliation and Project Decolonization.
What’s with my understanding? you ask.
I cannot say for certain. It’s not a matter of empathy, it’s of what I see. I see a contemporary narrative—that of Project Reconciliation and Project Decolonization—for which I am thrust into the collective identity of Indigenous People, Indigenous People of Canada, Indigenous Canadian, etc. It is a collectivity for which it is probably best that I burn my Indian Status Card before joining the ranks (I’m reminded of my nephew, 9 years old, who was recently proud to show me his own Indian Status Card—how to break the news to him?).
It used to be that we were Indians, with the understanding that some were Inuit and some were Métis. It used to be that we were First Nations, Aboriginals, and Natives. Yes, these used-to-be’s are still in common parlance, in some circles, but they now lack the rigour of what’s socially acceptable. I should either know my real identity, in the ethno-cultural sense of the word, or stick to Indigenous and expect to be called upon for specifics.
Which begs the question, What does it mean to be Indigenous?
It means a recognition of the obvious: after the first day when a White man entered the continent, all manifestations of colonialism succeeded in ravaging Indigenous people—stripped for the most part of their languages, their land, their sense of self-worth and their spirituality.
It means a self-consciousness of that history, that colonial legacy, and the need to break from it. It means a belief in the self-determination of Indigenous people, and in the reconciliation process so long as it provides an equal voice to Indigenous people in whatever context.
All good stuff. I wish we heard more of it early on. Yet I cannot help but wonder about whatever context. How much of this narrative actually relates to me?
I have a hard time keeping track of expectations, that’s all. There are lots of them. I had a job interview, recently, with a regional transportation authority, for a role called Senior Indigenous Relations Lead. To gain a fuller appreciation of Section 35 of the Canadian Constitution, thinking it had mattered and thinking this the right preparation for the job, I spent three weeks reading the relevant case law. At the interview I was asked whether I knew about UNDRIP. I wanted to say, Yes, and I suppose we can thank Romeo Saganash for it, but I felt stunned and defeated. I only said my understanding of UNDRIP was “basic”—which is true.
Other expectations of being Indigenous come as loaded questions. Do you support pipelines? Are you a two-spirit, or do you buy into the binary gender business? And what are your Calls to Action for Canadians?
I remember a community engagement meeting I attended as a host, on behalf of the Sahtu Land Use Planning Board of which I am a member. (The board has its origins in the Sahtu modern treaty.) After the meeting had finished an Old Lady approached us, her voice irate and yet calm (the balance of which, in my experience, probably had to do with the alcohol in her breath) when she said, “The Queen, she don’t fucken trap around here. Who the hell she thinks she is? She don’t even live in this country. And you guys, too, you work for the government, eh? Don’t fuck with my land.”
A part of me had the jitters—the part that says I’m Indigenous and she’s Indigenous, and she’s right. She’s conscious of the colonial legacy. Finally, someone local who gets it. I wish there was more talk like it. But the other part of me, the one that likes to believe there’s humanity in everyone, had the sense that this was no way to have a respectful conversation.
As I look ahead, I’m reminded of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the irritation I had felt when he apologized, with tears, for residential schools. Didn’t Stephen Harper already apologize, without tears, back in 2008, on behalf of the government? Shouldn’t Trudeau get started on changing law and policy respecting Indigenous people? The words “moral attractiveness” and “appearance” come to mind.
Why Old Lady and why Justin Trudeau? I’m not exactly sure. I can only go with what I see. I’ll accept my whatever context and the expectations of being Indigenous. I have to prepare for an upcoming job interview and an upcoming board meeting. I have to read my copy of UNDRIP and my modern treaty. ◉
Dakota Erutse was born in Yellowknife and raised in Fort Good Hope, NT. He is a participant of the Sahtu Dene and Métis Comprehensive Land Claim Agreement. He lives in Vancouver, BC.