The Canada most people don’t hear

Four Indigenous writers respond to what they say is a ‘counterproductive’ piece in Maclean’s

Alicia Elliott, Robert Jago, Melanie Lefebvre, and Ryan McMahon
<p>Members of various First Nations walk to honour residential school survivors in Vancouver, British Columbia June 11, 2015. Approximately 150,000 aboriginal children attended residential schools from the 1840s to the 1990s, which attempted to eradicate the aboriginal culture and assimilate children into mainstream Canada, said a long-awaited report by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.</p>

(Ben Nelms/Reuters)

(Ben Nelms/Reuters)
(Ben Nelms/Reuters)

Last week, Maclean’s columnist Scott Gilmore wrote an article for this magazine called “The Canada Most People Don’t See.” In this article, he recited what we Indigenous people might call “the Litany”: the list of the latest and greatest wrongs done against us collectively or individually. Gilmore concluded his article by imploring his fellow Canadians to “imagine if they cared.”

The impetus for this article appears to have been the revelation the CBC uncovered of the actions of an Edmonton-based judge towards a First Nations sexual assault victim. Gilmore asked readers to “imagine it were their family”: “Against all odds, she survives, and a year later, at the trial, the prosecutor and the judge decide to lock up your wife because they want to ensure she is available to testify. She is put in the same remand centre as the man who raped and stabbed her. They share the same van to the courthouse.”

What was done to that First Nations woman in Edmonton is an outrage. But in our view, Scott Gilmore’s response to it was counterproductive, and demonstrated once again Gilmore’s and Maclean’s failure to listen to Indigenous voices.

When we see the new outrage in Edmonton we connect it to the Cindy Gladue case—a First Nations woman who died under similar circumstances, and whose vagina was cut out by the prosecution and used as an exhibit at trial. There is something wrong with what that court system did to Cindy Gladue, and it’s clear there is something systemically wrong when they abuse yet another First Nations woman. Judges and prosecutors in that system must be held accountable, and an investigation must take place into the inhumane treatment of Indigenous women.

However, in Scott Gilmore’s article, the cause of the problems in the Edmonton court system don’t get a mention. Along with on-reserve problems such as alcoholism, HIV, failing water treatment systems, the incident in Edmonton is merely one example among many of Indigenous dysfunction. While the article carefully recites the litany, Gilmore leaves out any mention of who is responsible. His only call to action is for Canadians to “care.”

And this is a problem with his work. Gilmore does not assign blame or identify causes. This does not appear to be an unintentional omission; in an interview about his article with Ottawa radio station 1310 News, Gilmore was asked why this was happening. “There are a thousand different reasons,” he said. “But I’m less interested in apologizing for all of these different things and more interested in how are we going to fix them …we’re going to have to upset some feelings, there is no way you could get one band to agree with another on every issue, so we are going to have to step on some toes … some of these communities will have to leave and move.”

The call for Indigenous people to leave their homes is older than Canada, and is at the heart of several of Gilmore’s recent articles on our peoples. It is the solution he proposes in his January 2016 article “La Loche shows us it’s time to help people escape the North”.

“The only way we can ever truly help the people of La Loche and hundreds of other remote communities like it, is to give those who want it a viable option to leave, to build lives in southern Canada, integrated into one of the world’s healthiest, safest, most rewarding societies. If we really want to end the violence and deprivation that plagues Canada’s remote Aboriginal communities, we need to help them leave these communities, forever,” he wrote.

The conclusion is repeated in his February 2016 article, “The hard truth about remote communities,” and in his April 2016 article, “The unasked question about Attawapiskat” in which he states: “The residents and leadership of communities like Attawapiskat need to consider other options, and provincial and federal governments would be morally obliged to help those who choose to leave.”

By proposing this as a solution, his articles effectively absolve Canadians and their government of blame and shift it to Indigenous people for choosing to stay in remote communities.

Gilmore’s proposal is summed up in this January 2016 tweet:

In the News 1310 interview earlier last week, Gilmore mused about withholding funds from reserves which he believes aren’t sustainable: “There are very difficult conversations that have to be had with elders in some of these communities about whether if you were going to invest $50 million in trying to make some inherently unsustainable and unhealthy community last a little bit longer, could that $50 million be spent elsewhere.”

In our view, the solutions he proposes in his articles would ultimately rob Indigenous people of their homes, their religion, their culture, their livelihoods, and their collective future—and that serves us up the same kind of assimilation that we’ve been hearing since John A. Macdonald was in diapers.

It appears that Gilmore ignores a chorus of Indigenous voices, coming from people who have been fighting for their peoples’ rights for generations. It presupposes that we have been passively enduring these injustices, waiting with bated breath for One Good White Man to stand up and save us—it removes agency from us.

Of course, as Indigenous people know, that’s ludicrous. Last Wednesday, First Nations academics and activists Pam Palmater and Sharon McIvor demonstrated that agency by testifying before the Standing Committee on Indigenous and Northern Affairs (INAN) about Bill S-3, arguing that the Liberal government should finally remove all gender discrimination from the Indian Act. They’re referring to century-old laws that made it so First Nations women who married non-Native men would be forced to not only give up their legal status as “Indians,” but also to leave their reserves—and thus, their families.

The reason Pam Palmater and Sharon McIvor were in Ottawa was because that so-called solution to what Duncan Campbell Scott infamously referred to as “the Indian problem” failed, and put First Nations women at risk.

FROM PALMATER AND McIVOR: The people left behind in Trudeau’s promised nation-to-nation relationship

The reason Bill S-3 is being addressed now is not because of people like Gilmore. It’s because of women like Sharon McIvor of the Lower Nicola Indian Band, who has been battling the Indian Act’s gender discrimination in courts since 1985. It’s because of men like Stéphane Descheneaux, a father of three from Abénakis of Odanak First Nation in Quebec, who filed litigation in 2011 to argue that the Indian Act’s continued gender discrimination was unconstitutional. Descheneaux was fighting for his daughters’ rights to their identities, for their rights to live in their community.

In our view, this must be truly perplexing for Gilmore, who has boldly proclaimed on Twitter that the cure for Canada’s continued Indian problem is to “shut down the reserves, repeal the Indian Act, and help Canadian Aboriginals escape ‘the land God gave Cain.’ ’’ Why would any woman want to be considered an Indian and live on barren, lawless land when she could instead become a good Canadian in the city? Besides the fact that living in the city as an Indigenous woman means you have to interact with police officers who can physically and sexually assault you before you’re categorically dismissed, as happened in Val-d’Or, Quebec. Besides the fact that off-reserve means “Aboriginal people have to get arrested to access public services,” as Tanya Sirois, head of Quebec’s Association of Native Friendship Centres, testified during an inquiry into the relationship between Indigenous people and the justice system in Quebec. How will mass migration to cities fix that?

Any attempt to address these issues needs to look at the root causes; after all, if you don’t pull a weed out by the roots, it simply grows back. There are thousands of pages worth of documents that have looked at these causes, from the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, to the more recent report from the Truth and Reconciliation Committee, to any of the numerous inquiries into why the Canadian justice continually fails our people.

With real, viable solutions we can begin to address issues such as unemployment rates, which require that government obey court orders and provide equal funding to Indigenous communities; safe drinking water, which means adequate water treatment systems as in the rest of Canada; access to culturally relevant care options, which would begin to treat addiction; MMIW and Indigenous deaths in Thunder Bay waterways, which demand attention and reflect the desperate need for police to protect all citizens as well as conduct thorough investigations.

Indigenous people have spoken loudly and clearly, should Gilmore choose to listen. All of these reports focus on the legacy of Canada’s colonialism, specifically its flawed policies of assimilation. Many leading voices on Indigenous issues in Canada have been blocked on social media by Gilmore during attempts to articulate the nuances of the ongoing colonialism problem in Canada and thus the current state of our communities. One would figure that if Gilmore was trying to search for answers, lived experience and its context would be essential to this ongoing impulse to lead these types of conversations in the public discourse.

Indeed, the word “colonialism” has figured only once in a Gilmore article, where it was cited as just one contributing factor among many. “Assimilation” has also appeared in only one; Gilmore used the word to address—and dismiss—criticism from Indigenous people. His writing does not address how we got here; after all, he has said: “I’m less interested in apologizing for all of these different things and more interested in how are we going to fix them.”

How can Gilmore possibly offer solutions to issues when his writing on the subject does not address their causes? What qualifies him to speak on Indigenous issues in the first place? How does he engage with Indigenous people who challenge his authority to speak about them and their communities? And, perhaps most importantly, why does it appear that publications like Maclean’s are more comfortable asking white men like Gilmore to write about Indigenous issues than Indigenous people themselves?

Following the Battle of the Little Bighorn, in which the U.S. cavalry was defeated by a combined force of Sioux and Cheyenne militia, two Cheyenne women passed over the bodies of the dead Americans, and used long needles to pierce the ears of General Custer. They did this in order to help him hear better in the next life. Refusing to listen to Indigenous voices has a long tradition on this continent. By ignoring his critics online, and not including Indigenous voices in his writing, Scott Gilmore is practiced at this.

Gilmore’s articles on Indigenous issues are met with condemnation and scorn by Indigenous people on social media. Very rarely does Gilmore reply to this, and when he does it is often with a belittling tone, as demonstrated in a conversation with respected CBC journalist Waubgeshig Rice, who said on Twitter: “I refuse to read columns that argue for simply leaving ‘troubled’ reserves. These pundits clearly don’t understand a relationship with land.” Gilmore responded: “Do you also refuse to speak to the majority of indigenous Canadians who have already left reserves, they don’t understand either? And how to do you explain your own decision to live in a city? Are you also unable to understand a relationship with the land?”

Gilmore’s response to Rice about living in a city is one of the more offensive ways in which he replies to Indigenous critics. Like many diaspora communities, there is a deep insecurity and shame that many First Nations people feel for living away from the reserve. It’s a feeling echoed in the words of Jewish writer A.D. Gordon in the early 20th century when he reflected on what he saw as the impoverishment of Jewish culture in their diaspora: “We in ourselves are almost non-existent, so of course we are nothing in the eyes of other people either.” Gilmore’s words to Rice feel, to us, like rubbing salt into an open wound.

Rice, spurred by his confrontation with Gilmore, wrote an article in which First Nations people talked about why they had actually left reserve—with very few citing the reasons Gilmore gave.

But we believe the greater fault lies with Maclean’s magazine. This magazine lately has a troubling relationship with Indigenous people—perhaps best exemplified by its editor, who was among the group of white Canadian media figures who pledged money to help fund an appropriation prize, a tone-deaf proposal that’s very suggestion willfully ignored the painful, ongoing history of colonialism, racism and sexism in this country. While an apology followed, it doesn’t erase the slap in the face that Indigenous writers felt then—or the slap in the face Indigenous writers feel now reading decontextualized articles like Gilmore’s.

As Indigenous people, we have to ask how it is that Maclean’s can’t hear the Indigenous voices imploring this magazine to give a fair representation of our people, and to stop giving a platform for Gilmore to so unfairly represent us in support of his failed solutions. In spite of all the evidence, it’s hard for us to imagine that the editors of Maclean’s don’t care about Indigenous people. So as Scott Gilmore has asked us all to do in his article, we will imagine you cared, and accordingly, we will expect you to do something about it.