Low Blows, Threats and Sideswipes - Nothing Can Silence Grassroots First Nations
I lived my whole life as an Indigenous women, a Mi'kmaw, on the outside. I was denied my Indian status for 40 years because of the gender of my grandmother. I was denied band membership for 40 years because my band didn't want to include my family, or families like us. I was denied a voice at the local, regional, provincial, and national First Nation political levels. I know, however, that this is a function of colonization and Canada's control over our communities.
Because of this exclusion, I was never able to take my Mi'kmaw identity or that of my children's for granted. I was always at risk of losing it forever due to some new law, regulation or band rule that could exclude us for any number of reasons. I therefore followed the lead of my brothers and sisters and exercised my voice in whatever venue I could to stand up for our traditional Indigenous identities. This included off-reserve Aboriginal organizations, native friendship centres, Aboriginal women's groups and First Nations organizations.
In the past, I have been kicked out of First Nation political meetings for being too young, for being a woman, for being a non-status Indian, for living off-reserve, or for allegedly not knowing anything about politics. You name it and I have experienced it. I have been forced to sit at the back of the room (if allowed in at all) and have been called every name in the book. This was all because I was exercising my voice - something my father told me was critically important to the well-being of the Mi'kmaq and for all Indigenous peoples.
Nevertheless, this used to really hurt me - a sort of hurt that I can't even explain. It hurt my spirit but I could also feel it deep inside my chest, like a painful pressure that would not go away. It didn't matter how many times my family explained that these people were just angry, disillusioned, hurting or bitter, every single rejection of my identity or my voice created a scar on my heart. I didn't fully understand the concept of colonization at the time.
What I found very confusing was that as I got more involved in Indigenous issues and exercised my voice in a variety of forums, provincial and federal government officials as well as lawyers would treat me the same way that some First Nations politicians did. I was told I could not attend meetings where we were negotiating fishing rights or employment programs for off-reserve Aboriginal peoples because I was too young, I was not really an Indian, I was not an elected official, I had no "expertise", I had no education, I was not a lawyer and so on and so on. There were times when the words used around the table were so vicious, that it took everything in me not to cry.
I used to think that crying would somehow disqualify me from any hope of ever having a real voice in the political, legal, cultural and social issues affecting the Mi'kmaw Nation. I thought that crying would prove that Indigenous women should not be around the table talking politics. I used to wonder if my family encouraged me to attend meetings, protests and all those hard negotiations when I was little just to help me develop a tough outer shell. Its hard to say now, but I will admit, that although I did not cry at the negotiating table, I was crying on the inside.
It seemed like I was not man enough, old enough, educated enough or Indian enough for any of the players around the table. This might explain my ongoing obsession with politics, law and getting an education. I figured maybe they would all run out of reasons if I just addressed them all. At the time, I was still thinking that it was my many deficiencies that were at fault.
I was raised to believe that my purpose in life was to live an honourable life as a Mi'kmaw and do everything in my power to protect that way of life for future generations. I don't know any other way of being or thinking in this world. People can say I have no right to speak because I am an Indigenous woman but I will still speak. Some might say, my opinions don't count because I am not a Chief, but I will still share them. Some might even say that there is no room in First Nations politics for critique, but I will still offer it. Regardless of how many low blows, threats or cowardly sideswipes people might take at me, I have no choice but to keep exercising my voice.
How could I possibly back down when I am so fortunate as to have a warm house, clean running water, healthy food to eat and a good paying job? What excuse could I use to stop advocating on behalf of our grassroots people given that I am so lucky to have both a traditional education (Mi'kmaw teachings) and a formal one (university). Not all of our people are so lucky - many of them don't even have enough hope to survive until tomorrow. I have seen the toll this takes on family members, friends and community members when all hope is lost - depression, addiction, violence, and even suicide.
I don't have the luxury of fading into the background because some Senator, MP, Chief or right-wing lunatic wants to threaten me into silence. What kind of warrior would I be if I did that? If my ancestors can survive scalping laws, residential schools and forced sterilizations, I can survive a little political heat. One of the benefits of my education is that I have also come to learn that we all suffer from being colonized and that some of us are not as far along the road to decolonizing.
Every time someone tells me I am only a section 6(2) Indian and not a real Indian (like presumably a section 6(1)(a) Indian) - I know that is colonization talking. I know that those who exclude off-reserve members, discriminate against Indigenous women or prioritize individual wealth over communal well-being, often don't realize how deeply embedded colonial thinking can be. Decolonization is so important in order to get the colonizer out of our heads once and for all and to build our resistance to Canada's never-ending attempts to assimilate us legally, politically, culturally and spiritually.
Take for example the fact that Canada always demands that we, as Indigenous peoples, speak with "one voice". This is part of their racializing us into one generic category of "Indian". The legal and political category of Indian ignores our very diverse Indigenous Nations, territories, knowledges, languages, cultures, beliefs and practices. We have lived on Turtle Island since time immemorial and never did we ever speak with one voice. We had strategic alliances between individuals Nations when it was mutually beneficial and at other times we went to war to defend our peoples and our territories. The Mohawks have their own voice, as do the Mi'kmaq, the Cree and many others.
I haven't studied or researched one Indigenous Nation yet that did not allow their citizens to be included in the decision-making process, to speak their minds, and have their voices heard and incorporated - all in different ways. Traditionally, some Indigenous Nations were so committed to the principle of exercising the voice of the people and respecting the different political visions and objectives that an entire community could separate into two, to allow both groups to pursue their own objectives, but still within the larger Nation. So when I hear our own people demanding that we all speak with one voice, I shiver at the thought of how we might unify ourselves into oblivion instead of protecting our inherent differences which make us who were are as Indigenous Nations.
I know that it was Canada that imposed these discriminatory laws and concepts on us, excluded our women, changed our leadership to be top down and male-dominated, but we have a choice. We can open our eyes and make the changes we want for our peoples. It won't be easy and the government backlash might even seem intolerable at times, but we have an obligation to give a voice back to our grassroots Indigenous peoples. Our ancestors did not give up their lives so that a few hundred Indigenous peoples could speak for the rest of us. Every single Indigenous person in every Indigenous Nation deserves to be heard. They are entitled to express their pain and frustration at slow progress and entitled to be critical about the current political relationship that is simply not working. They don't need to have Phd's, law degrees or be officially appointed as "critics" to do so.
Grassroots Indigenous peoples hold all the power and yet their views and critiques are often ignored or downplayed. We expect them to be there when our leaders call for a day of action or to stop a pipeline or halt mining - but how often do leaders take the time to listen to them? What about all of our children trapped in the child welfare system, our men and women caught in the prison system or lost on streets in major cities? How many of our leaders have visited a homeless shelter for Native men and heard their stories of pain and their desires to make their communities better? Instead, our grassroots get to see some of their leaders from afar, addressing government officials or corporate Canada in fancy dinners or speaking events.
Over time, I have noticed that many First Nations leaders have come to see the colonization project for the destructive force that it is, and some of those same chiefs that kicked me out of meetings when I was younger are now my good friends. I have also had the privilege of working with many, many First Nations communities and leaders on issues of critical importance to our peoples and have developed great working relationships. They have come to realize that we are on this journey together and all I am trying to do is help and be a part of the solution. Sadly, there remain some on the national political scene who have not moved on and still treat Indigenous women and grassroots peoples like our opinions don't count.
So, my best advice to those individuals who seek to deny me exercising my voice or would deny the voices of other grassroots Indigenous peoples, you can stop with all the insults, taunts, cowardly sideswipes and threats - because the power of the people is where it is at and the sooner you get on board, the faster we can get on with resisting Canada's aggressive assimilatory attacks and re-asserting our sovereignty together.