Getting it All Out in the Open

Media Appearances, Aboriginal Futures, Frontier Centre

A couple of Maori men toured the country this month promoting their successful child literacy program and making it very clear that they’ve done it without the support of the Indigenous leaders in their country. Along the way they’ve provided a great deal of fodder for those who would bash First Nation leaders in this country.

Alan Duff and Henare O’Keefe are clearly committed humanitarians.

Duff is the hard-nosed one. As one of New Zealand’s best selling — and certainly most controversial —authors, he knows how to create a sensation.

An Indigenous person who sounds like many members of the “get off your butt and get a job” school of social policy “thinkers” who can be found in great numbers on the right side of the political spectrum, Duff is not at all popular with the Maori leadership. Not that he has a lot of use for them, either.

He calls them “ticket-clippers” and self-interested passengers on the government-funded “gravy train” who provide little, if any, service to their people; too many of whom he reminds us, are in a bad way.

His type of message is not unfamiliar in this country. There’s been an outbreak of that kind of talk by homegrown Indigenous people in recent months.

Calvin Helin, the Haida lawyer who wrote Dances With Dependency, opens a lot of his speaking engagements with a joke along these lines: “The Indian Affairs minister took a pratfall the other day. He was alright, but seven chiefs broke their noses.”

Osoyoos First Nation Chief Clarence Louie, whose community is located in the fertile southern BC Interior, and which has become the shining example of what a First Nation can be economically, tells people that if their lives stink, it’s because they stink, or words to that effect.

The Winnipeg-based Frontier Centre for Public Policy sponsored the Maoris on their tour and will feature Helin this month. That institution employs Don Sandberg, another First Nation man who blasts away at the chiefs on a regular basis.

So Indigenous people who shatter the political correctness barrier are in great demand. The question of whether some of those people see the demand and seek to meet it because of certain financial possibilities, or whether they’re simply saying what they really think, is a fair and useful one to ask at all times.

The latter of those two options is legitimate, the other cynical and corrupt. And each individual must be analyzed and judged independently. To decide that all of those speakers fit into one or the other of the two categories would be simplistic and unfair.

Honest dialogue is needed. It’s been stopped too often by the charges of racism that are invariably levied by chiefs and their supporters whenever a non-Aboriginal person dares to raise certain issues. And even if the racism charge sometimes has some validity, it’s not helpful to kill the debate outright, although that seems to be the aim of the strategy.

All too often attempts to start an honest and open debate that might just end up with changes to the status quo are stymied by people who have a lot to gain by protecting the status quo. That should always be suspect.

But there is always an element of Social Darwinism in a lot of this “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” kind of thinking. Social Darwinism is a self-congratulatory philosophy wherein those who sit at the top of the socio-economic order in a society decide they are where they are because it’s where they belong. The cream rises to the top, they say, and, of course, the fact that they are at the top means they must be the cream.

But it’s interesting to note that in Canada, as in other former British colonies such as New Zealand, the cream is still mostly “white.” Those who want to attack the First Nation leadership without first looking at the mainstream leadership that has had most of the power and influence all along, are skipping a few pages in the “let’s clean this mess up” handbook.

Indigenous peoples have indeed been marginalized and confronted with disproportionate obstacles to success. Canada’s own laws have been flaunted as that has happened. And all too often the Social Darwinists who just want Indigenous peoples to “get over it” have the hidden agenda of trying to avoid some accounting for the illegal and immoral actions from which they have benefited. And strangely enough, these are the same people who generally are very much in favor of accountability and harsh punishment for others. That’s called hypocrisy, by the way.

The one thing we do know for sure is that grassroots people tell us on an almost daily basis that there is some truth to the allegations about the Indigenous leaders. We know that the one sure way to make a conversation with anyone at the Assembly of First Nations come to an abrupt halt is to ask about chiefs that have gotten themselves into trouble with the law. That tells us, if nothing else, that the chiefs protect their own and cannot be trusted to do the right thing and speak out about corruption.

So it’s a good thing that people like Duff are willing to start the debate. We’ll maintain a lookout for those who are doing it for the wrong reasons, but we welcome this new trend and hope it will grow.