Last weekend, I drove to Whistler for a bachelorette party. As my friends and I blew up the Sea to Sky highway, we passed a green bilingual Highway sign. “Squamish,” it said; underneath, “Skwxwu7mesh.”
As we closed in on the Olympic Village, the signs became more elaborate, with the names of towns and lakes etched into giant stone tablets in English and Squamish.
The stone signs are a relic of the 2010 Olympic Games, when we put our native heritage on display at the opening ceremonies for the entire world.
This is what makes us unique, we said proudly. This is what makes us great.
Not too far out of Squamish, we passed some makeshift signs propped up on a cliff face. “Idle No More,” they said. “Support Chief Theresa Spence.”
Ever since Idle No More gained the national spotlight in December, support for the movement has been growing. Local demonstrators have been raising support at the grassroots level, but the nation’s attention is focused mainly on Spence’s hunger strike, which is a reaction to the housing crisis on the Attawapiskat First Nation.
Unfortunately, the recent release of the audit of the federal money spent by the Attawapiskat council seems to have soured much of the mainstream response to Spence’s strike.
After a state of emergency was declared on the Attawapiskat reserve in 2011, an audit was commissioned to examine the $104 million the government gave the Attawapiskat band council between 2005 and 2011.
The news wasn’t good: The majority of the council’s transactions hadn’t been properly documented, and auditors were unable to determine if the money had been spent where it ought to have been.
Instantly, coverage of Spence’s strike became cold and critical, and her rallying cry for a better relationship between Canada’s government and its First Nations has, to some, been discredited.
Now, it’s not that I don’t think there shouldn’t be a thorough investigation into Attawapiskat finances (I do) or that First Nations bands shouldn’t be held accountable (they should), but there’s a smugness to this backlash against Spence that I find distasteful.
Most galling for me is the line of reasoning that takes the Attawapiskat audit as proof that the federal government has fully discharged its responsibility to First Nations peoples; that we tried to help them, but it didn’t work, and that’s too bad but there it is; that if the situation of indigenous Canadians is to be improved, they must do it themselves; that it is Not Our Problem.
This mental shrug ignores what seems plain to me: That the complications and frustrations of the Attawapiskat situation show just how deeply the structural problems in our society run. That our current system is an imperfect solution to the perennial problems of our colonial inheritance. That if there were easy answers to be had, we would have already solved the problem — but since we haven’t, it’s time to start talking.
This conversation needs to be happening now, because it should have happened long ago.
Spence has criticized the timing of the audit’s leak as a deliberate attempt to delegitimize her protest — and it’s easy to see why. All eyes are on her now, and the movement that she has galvanized.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper initially had no intention of meeting with Spence. He has been remarkably reluctant to discuss Idle No More. That he has agreed to meet with First Nations leaders today should be counted as a success, but in his reluctance, Harper has shown that this issue is not a priority for his government, and it absolutely needs to be.
Looking at the bilingual signs on the Sea to Sky, one would have thought that we were proud of our country’s native heritage. Yet in 2011, so soon after we proudly put First Nations culture on display at the Vancouver Olympics, a state of emergency was declared in the Attawapiskat reserve.
That should have been a moment of national shame for us, but we threw money at the problem (though far less than we threw at the Olympics) instead of talking about structural change, and now we seem to be surprised that the problem’s still here.
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