Canadians have been swept over the roaring information waterfall and plunged into a kind of suspended frenzy, from the ‘crisis’ of Indigenous railway blockades to the fresh hell of a spreading global virus most of us had never heard of when 2020 began.
One immediate effect is a dizzying distractedness that makes coherent political response at best a matter of sheer luck. And it reduces to just about zero the odds of having measured, respectful, prudent national conversations.
In a mid-February talk at Montreal’s Newman Centre, and in a later interview with me, Cecil Chabot identified several things that interfere with meaningful discussion about Indigenous reconciliation.
“Reconciliation between peoples (can) only be built on a commitment to see, emphasize and cultivate what is best in each other (without being) blind to our common capacity for evil,” noted Chabot. Chabot is a post-doctoral research fellow at Concordia University’s School of Community and Public Affairs and a part-time faculty member in its First Peoples Studies Program.
He admitted, though, that “such a commitment is never easy, either for victims or for those who wish to distance themselves from perpetrators – real or alleged.”
The Newman Centre talk was billed as being drawn for a specific leadership program of the James Bay Cree. But Chabot’s words and comportment are invariably drawn from his personal formation as a rare white kid growing up among northern Indigenous people, and developing a lifelong fascination for how their lives are lived.
It’s not the shortcut of ‘going native’ and seeking to turn Indigenous experience into white-hued fashionability. In fact, in speaking with me, Chabot identified the identity shortcuts, positive or negative, as something to avoid.
“We constantly see the reduction of the ‘other side’ to the very worst characterizations, which can be perceived as a shortcut to strengthening ‘our’ side. But in the end, it’s a shortcut that weakens ‘our’ position because anyone who sees the holes it leaves will be more likely to dismiss the valid points made. What happens then? People move to extremes.”
The shortcut becomes a fast track to ending the conversation and starting the shouting.
“One view says, ‘The problems we have today are because Indigenous people aren’t getting with the 21st century.’ It’s all about Indigenous peoples.
“On the other side, it’s expressed as ‘Look, if we (Indigenous people) have any issues in our community, it has nothing to do with us. It has everything to do with white people, with the government, with colonialism.’
“Both views are entirely reductive and deliberately leave out the balancing effect of success stories.”
Chabot points to a concrete historical example of the “reality of cycles of starvation, displacement and migration” that has shaped the lives of Indigenous people in the north. Canada genuinely came to help and the help was gratefully received to fend off hunger. But that help, even with the best intentions, raised the risk of dependency.
“There are plenty of examples of communities affected by negligent resource extraction, basically poisoning people’s land and waters and sharing no benefits of that extraction with them. But there are also communities where there were periods of hardship that had nothing to do with outsiders, yet outsiders came in to help.
“But how that help is given has to in turn be shaped the right way. It can’t be done in such a way that it further undermines people’s capacity to live their lives as they wish. If you take away people’s livelihood and give them back welfare, you’re not actually giving them something back.”
That isn’t, Chabot stresses, an argument for shredding the social safety net. It’s a call for reconciling the past and present, as well as relating in the future on the common ground of a commitment to seeing, emphasizing and cultivating the best in each other.
“There are moments in early Canadian history when many of the fur traders out on the land would be starved without Cree help. There are also moments when the land was able to provide enough for the Cree, for the Hudson’s Bay Co. and other fur traders. And there were other times when it became critical for the Cree to have the European supply chain for backup. That is what helped everybody through, the fur traders and also the Cree. There’s a long history of partnership.”
Partnership. We need to imagine what the word means.