The Indigenous Grandmother

Brian Giesbrecht, Commentary, Culture Wars

On May 15, 2018 CBC Radio aired a story about an Indigenous woman who complained that a security officer, and then a City of Winnipeg police officer, had treated her improperly while she was attending a Winnipeg Jets related “Whiteout” event. The woman, who described herself as an elder, and a grandmother, says that she was standing in a place that the officers informed her must be kept clear. The incident she complained about consisted of the officers’ attempt to have her move from that spot, and her insistence that she had the right to stay put.

I have no idea who was right and who was wrong. What was interesting to me was what the woman said to the police officer. She told him “I am on Treaty One land, and I have a right to be here.” The woman went on to explain that she had heard the opening to the Jets game, namely the now familiar “You are on Treaty One territory”, and she believed that this meant that she had some kind of superior right to stand where she chose to stand.

The police officer’s reply to this claim was equally interesting. He replied “No, this is Winnipeg”.

Who was right?

It’s not even close. The police officer’s reply was obviously correct. How could it be otherwise? The elderly woman’s belief that a “Treaty One” person had some type of superior right to stand where one wanted was obviously incorrect, and would lead to absurd results. For instance, would that woman have a better right to the ones enjoyed by a “Treaty Two” person? Could a “Treaty One” person somehow write rules for herself that overrode rules properly drafted by Winnipeg City Council? Should police officers be required to carry a list of the different sets of rights that various groups of people enjoyed? Would “treaty rights” vary by geography as well as racial background? Would a person entering a Jets game be required to take a DNA test?

These questions can obviously get sillier and sillier. I ask a few of them to illustrate how totally ridiculous the position advanced by the elderly woman truly is.

But, here’s the thing:

This woman should not be blamed for advancing this position. With regularity, she hears the announcement “You are now on treaty land” at most events she attends, and she quite naturally thinks it actually means something. She is making a perfectly reasonable assumption.

Meanwhile, the people making the announcement, and the people listening in silence to it, think they are merely being polite, in the interests of “reconciliation”. They think the announcement is meaningless. If they actually believed what the elderly woman did – namely that they were granting to an amorphous group of people some kind of unacertained, but definitely superior rights within the City of Winnipeg- or to the City of Winnipeg – they would have none of it. They would be very clear that all Winnipegers must enjoy the exact same set of rights. They would – to a person – stoutly protect their own property rights.

And so they should.

But, if the announcement means nothing, why are we making it, and why are we listening to it in silence? By doing so are we not all guilty of building up expectations that cannot be met? One must have a certain sympathy for the unsophisticated, elderly woman who believed what she thought she was being told. In fact, if she did not have this mistaken belief – a belief that all of us, who listen in slight bewilderment, to this chic new opening address – are responsible for instilling in her, this unpleasant incident with the police officer might never have occurred. A perfectly reasonable request from an officer might have met with compliance, instead of leading to this unfortunate boast about “treaty rights”, and the ensuing embarrassment to all parties.

The fact is that all Winnipegers – and all Canadians, for that matter – have equal rights. We should be clear about this fundamentally important point to the elderly woman. And we should be clear about this to one another.