July 01, 2008

What is Canada?

On my last trip, I picked up a hitchhiker just outside of Fort Nelson.  He was decked-out in custom-altered clothes that were covered in colourful badges that were stitched on with big, sloppy stitches.  With his shaggy hair and a guitar and an old suitcase and a clipboard that clearly spelled out his destination, he was so obviously a hitchiker that I felt quite comfortable giving him a ride1.

He introduced himself as Kenny J Kim.  Kenny's home is in Victoria at the downtown Visitor Information Centre, where he sleeps in the back doorway at night.  Kenny is a street person, but he's a street person by choice.   For him, it is a lifestyle decision.  He is able to get everything he needs.  He gets his clothes from the Salvation Army and his meals from a soup kitchen and food bank when he can't afford to buy his own food.  He doesn't believe that he should be on welfare because he's perfectly capable of working.  He knows people who abuse the disability and social assistance services and is vocal in his distaste for what they're doing.  Kenny earns his living by busking; playing guitar and singing songs about love.  That's his job.

Although some might disagree, I think that Kenny is a successful man.  He is doing exactly what he wants to do and is living the way he wants to live.  He is happy.  Boy, is he happy.  He is a man of simple needs and great enthusiasm.  If most people speak at level five on a ten-level volume scale, Kenny speaks at level eight.  When he's really excited about something, he goes off the charts.  He is very enthusiastic about Canada.

A Canadian citizen, Kenny is originally from  a village between the two largest cities in South Korea.  He has seen much of Asia and the United States, but he loves Canada the best.  He says it's because the women aren't afraid to speak their minds and because the people genuinely care about each other.

He told me  stories about people who have shown him great kindness by doing simple things: offering him food or money to buy food (and him refusing when he doesn't need it), giving him a day's or a week's work when he needs it, giving him a lift when he's hitchhiking, etc.  It comes across that it's only in Canada that Kenny can live the way that he wants to live; partly because people are not as quick to judge him or persecute him because of how he chooses to live, but mostly because Canadians care.  

Kenny got me thinking about how Canadians really, genuinely care about each other and about how we care about others around the world.  Wilderness and natural splendour aside, isn't caring about each other the essence of Canada?  Isn't that what makes Canada great?

All of our greatest achievements have been founded on the basis of caring for other people.  We care about the health and welfare of Canadians and those of other nations.  We care about Canadian immigrants and their children and their children's children being able to preserve their religions and their cultural identities.  We care about each other's quality of life.  If we didn't care, we just wouldn't be Canadian.

Maybe that's why last week, for the first time in my entire life, I was disgusted with my home and native land.

It happened when I witnessed a presentation from a Government of Canada land claim negotiation team.

The Dehcho First Nations and the Government of Canada have a different interpretation about Treaty 11, which was signed in 1921 and 1922, shortly after oil was discovered in Norman Wells, NWT.  

Treaties are signed between sovereign nations.  In the eyes of the federal government, the treaty was about having the Dene "cede, release, surrender and yield up to the Government of the Dominion of Canada, for His Majesty the King and His Successors forever, all their rights, titles, and privileges whatsoever to the lands"2.  The Government of Canada needs this claim of title transfer to assert their legal control over their land.

To the Dene, the concept of land ownership is foreign.  In their view, the land was put there by the Creator to be used and cared for.  According to documented accounts and oral histories3, release of title was never up for consideration.  In fact, the people expressed concerns that they would be taken off the land and put on reserves like the First Peoples in the south.  As the Dene understood it, Treaty 11 was a peace treaty, intended to allow for peaceful co-existence with European-Canadians who would be coming into the area.  1921 isn't all that long ago and, when research into the treaty signing took place, it was with people who were actually at the treaty discussions.  Their stories, Dene and non-Dene alike, corroborated the peace treaty view.

To resolve the issue, the Dehcho First Nations proposed a system that would allow for co-management or shared stewardship with the Government of Canada.  Known as the Deh Cho Process, the system accounts for two very different belief systems and allows for equal participation between the Government of Canada and the Dehcho First Nations on all "Crown and Commissioner's lands".  It also takes into account self-government, which the federal government has already negotiated with other First Nations.

After years of work on the Deh Cho Process, the Government of Canada decided to try force the Dehcho First Nations into land selections - something of great financial benefit to the Government of Canada, on account of the vast natural gas reserves in the territory, and something  that goes against fundamental Dene principles.  At the presentation, the federal negotiators went on declaring that the Government of Canada has only two policies concerning land claims and the Deh Cho Process is not one of them - in spite of the agreements that were signed and years of work on the model by both parties.

The negotiators' presentation upset me because it wasn't about working towards a common solution.  It was about threats.  It was about pushing, grabbing, bullying and taking.  It was about greed.

By trying to force the Dehcho First Nations into land selections through a variety of veiled and semi-veiled threats, the Government of Canada stands to gain a great deal.  Faced with threats and the fear-mongering of the federal negotiators, should the Dehcho people give up on their cultural belief that the land cannot be owned - something fundamental to their entire belief system?

This is but one example.  Today, the Government of Canada and First Nations across Canada are attempting to come to terms with hundreds of claims.  The claims will take over a hundred years and will cost billions of dollars, even with a new specific claims system being introduced.

The issues goes much deeper than land claims, though.  Many unresolved, documented injustices still haunt First Nations peoples:  historical denials of rights that other Canadians enjoyed, experimental medical testing, and even eradication policies that included sterilization and pre-meditated biological extermination. 

This is my country that did this?  

This is my country that did this.

This is my country that, in less overt ways, is still doing it.  

If you don't want to believe this - if this seems too difficult to believe - do a little research of your own.  

The Prime Minister's recent apology on behalf of the Government of Canada meant a lot to people who were affected by abuse in the residential school system, and by the loss of their culture on account of a long-standing assimilation policy.  The assimilation policy may have been well-meaning, but its implementation had devastating consequences and continues to do so.  

The residential school apology was a step in the right direction, but does it really mean that things have changed?  Or is it still just business as usual?  To me, it looks like business as usual and that's why I was so disgusted with my country when I heard the negotiator's presentation.

Nothing's changed - it's just not as blatant.

Canada is a nation that welcomes immigrants with open arms and allows them to enjoy their cultural beliefs and practices.  Yet Canada is a also nation that continues to advance its own interests to the detriment of those to whom it owes the most. 

So, on this Canada Day, I haven't been the patriotic-to-the-core Canadian that I usually am because I've come to realise that what makes Canada what it is, is not being applied fairly.  The Government of Canada doesn't really care about aboriginal peoples because it's much more lucrative not to.

And that's not the way that Canada should be.

By hitchhiking and busking, Kenny has seen most of Canada.  He was on his way to Dawson City for the music festival because some friends had told him how good it is.  He's never been to the Maritimes and that's where you'll find him next year.

Canada has been good to Kenny.  If you don't believe me, watch this:

I wish I could say that Canada's been that good to everyone.

1Don't worry Mom, I had a can of bear spray tucked under my seat, just in case.
2Text from Treaty 11 on the Government of Canada website.
3"As Long As This Land Shall Last" by Rene Fumoleau is an excellent read.


Anonymous said...

Another aspect of the imbalanced relationship: at least some of the treaties guarantee that First Nations people would have education and medical care looked after by the government.

Of course, all Canadian children are given basic education, anyway, (I won't go into the resourcing for schools in communities with rampant learning problems brought on by social issues), but some First Nations people are entitled to more medical care than the "average" Canadian... some free dental work, medications, etc.

However, there is so much demand for these comparatively under-resourced services that the waiting list is months long, so that many people never really get the care they need... or only in a stop-gap way. One dentist I know who worked both in NWT and here in Yukon said they could never get everything done that needed to be done and got so frustrated with the job that he finally had to quit for his own sanity.

Anonymous said...

Interesting post, I would agree with some of what you said but not all. I am just seeing if this will post but I will add to the conversation shortly.

Anonymous said...

Wow it works. Ok here is my take on the blog, I don't celebrate Canada day because it would mean I am proud of the destruction and the continued assault on our people and most importantly our land. Colonialism is destroying us, mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually and to believe the Canadian government has stopped is exactly what they want you to believe. They continue on their policies of assimilation which they strategically planned to get to do away with Indian problem. That what we are because we stand in the way of development of the land. On to the "apology", Yes, a lot of people seen it as a step in the right direction but what direction? I think if Canada was truly sorry they would give us our land back because if you examine what the residential schools were about you will see they were to take the Indians off the land. To severe the ties to our life. The schools were not to educate they were strategic insofar as they would instill colonial values to view the land as a commodity. Which is happening today in the land claims negotiations. I see the apology as a politic of distraction, it only deals with the symptoms but does not address the true issue which is the land. You brought out land claims and Guaranteed the people who are negotiating land claims are residential school survivors who think they can make progress working along side their oppressors . And elder once told me, "if you play by their rules in their games its no wonder you get screwed in the the end". SO I am glad you see the how Canada is not the peaceful nation it is made out to be.

Unknown said...

Good post - lots of good points from everyone. There are a bunch of rabbit trails we can chase down on this. First of all let me say that it is absolutely a fact of history that Canada has been despicable to the First Nations people and their certainly do continue to be issues today concerning treaties and the interpretations thereof.

So if I get this right - oil is found on treaty land - gov't wants it and is bullying their way into getting it. We're pissed because we all thought we were past this nonsense as Canadians.

Here are a few points. In this world we live in with the current crisis - if the oil is economically accessible it WILL be had by somebody at some point - get used to it. If it's not this gov't it will be the next one. It will happen though. Next point - what way would this project be made acceptable to the First Nations people involved? Not doing it at all is probably not realistic so what WOULD work for them? Have they considered that or simply cried out against the injustice of it all? (it is unjust - but it is also GOING to happen if the almighty dollar says it should) Third point - what can we do about it other than not be proud of Canada.

I realize I sound quite jaded here but it does seem futile to me to simply talk about what should be idealistically when it just isn't going to happen. It would be nice to be able to "give all the land back" to the First Nations people and allow them to return to a land based culture. That isn't going to happen though no matter how much we want it to so it becomes moot wishful thinking but without any practical value. Canada has evolved beyond that and there is no going back to what was. Some things are facts of life. We can wish all we want that there would be peace between Muslims and the West and that the warring factions in tribal Africa and the Middle East would be nice to each other and live peacefully. Good luck with that.

Perhaps we all have to accept some of these things as reality and find solutions that will work for everyone. It is unfortunate that these people are in the way of the bulldozer of progress and "colonialism" as one of you put it but they are - and it is pretty tough to push against a bulldozer that's coming at you at full speed. Rather find a way to make the bulldozer do some work for you that you want done.

Speaka said...

I love Kenny!