Two tipis, about a kilometer apart, marked Canada Day in Ottawa. One tipi represents the relationship white Canadians want and expect with First Nations. The other tipi represents First Nations as we really are.
The first tipi, which we’ll call the “teepee,” as it is most often spelled by non-Natives, is located in Major’s Hill Park, next to parliament, this teepee was run by Chad, a First Nations man, dressed in traditional Algonquin clothing, and stationed at a small canoe with a variety of local crafts around him. Chad was soft-spoken, unfailing polite even in the face of offensive questions, and presented his culture well and with patience.
A few hundred metres away was the other tipi — the one you may have seen in the news. We’ll call this one the “tipi,” as it is most often spelled by First Nations people.
The tipi was erected on Parliament Hill itself by a group of Anishinaabe activists, along with non-Native student supporters. They did so in order to ensure that the original residents of the Ottawa area – the people for whom the city was named – wouldn’t be overlooked and forgotten during the celebrations of Canada 150.
The people in the tipi spoke loudly, were polite where possible, and in their words, they were “sh*t disturbers” when required. In the face of offensive questions, the tipi people didn’t turn the other cheek, but instead shouted: “stop”.
Unlike Chad’s teepee – which as far as I can tell didn’t generate one news story in the last ten years – their tipi protest was widely reported, with much of the attention focused on the press conference they held on the eve of Canada’s 150th birthday.
The press conference was led by Jocelyn Wabano-Iahtail, from Attawapiskat First Nation and culminated in this series of questions from CBC reporter Julie Van Dusen: “Most Canadians feel that Justin Trudeau is making an effort, I gather that you don’t feel what he’s doing is worthwhile?”. A representative of the protestors replied to mention the current crisis of Native deaths in Thunder Bay. Van Dusen shot back with: “How can [Trudeau] be blamed for that? You don’t think anything he’s doing is helping the situation, is it, is he an improvement over Stephen Harper, what – talk about his record –”
Wabano-Iahtail responded to Van Dusen firmly saying:“Excuse me? did I just hear you correctly? How can he be blamed for that? Excuse me, don’t speak to us that way. Step out. I don’t want to hear from you.”
Glen McGregor of Global TV followed Van Dusen and re-asked her question. Which ultimately led to this: “You know what, white people? You’ve had your voice here for 524 years. 524 years we’ve been invisible, white lady! Invisible for 524 years. Look how fast your white man comes and steps up for you. Where is everyone else to come and step up for us?”
The media quickly spun the disagreement as a racist attack on Julie Van Dusen. Writing in iPolitics, Martin Patriquin wrote: “What Wabano-Iahtail said was both racist and sexist — and I don’t use either term lightly.”
This view was echoed by Alt Right Media figures like Milo Yiannopolous, as well as in the pages of the National Post, and on nightly news broadcasts on Global, and CBC. The conclusion was also heard strongly on social media, where media figures such as Warren Kinsella chimed in with “This “white lady” & “white man” crap is just as deplorable, and arguably as racist, as what they came to protest.”
The controversy reached a peak of condescension with an opinion piece in the Ottawa Citizen, in which David Reevely commented:
“That news conference didn’t go smoothly, erupting into a confrontation between one of the speakers and the CBC’s Julie Van Dusen, who asked a very ordinary Parliament-Hill-type question about comparing Justin Trudeau’s record on indigenous issues to Stephen Harper’s and got yelled at to leave. Apparently the question added to 524 years of “holistic genocide.” Indigenous people have been bearing with us for a good long time already, it’s true, but explaining what’s wrong with an apparently straightforward question asked in good faith seems like it would get us farther than trying to evict the person who asked it. Don’t assume malice if correctable ignorance would do just as well.”
The media personalities so quick to defend the integrity and professionalism of Julie Van Dusen confirm one thing about her above all – that she has spent her life in political Ottawa. If that life in Ottawa testifies to her professionalism, it also testifies to the extraordinary feats of ignorance displayed by Van Dusen in not having learned the difference between a group like that led by Wabano-Iahtail and a “very ordinary Parliament-Hill-type” group.
Van Dusen appeared to be expecting someone like Chad and his good natured teepee banter. Her shock and the media’s outrage appears to stem from the fact that instead they got Wabano-Iahtail and the urgency and authenticity of the tipi group. Chad would undoubtedly have answered Van Dusen’s question in the way that Reevely proposed, and without any uncomfortable comments about genocide.
Wabano Iahtail on the other hand told Van Dusen to stop. But stop what? Look at the question she was asked before she exploded: “How can [Trudeau] be blamed for that [the crisis in Thunder Bay]? You don’t think anything he’s doing is helping the situation, is it, is he an improvement over Stephen Harper?”
Had Van Dusen or any of the Canadian Parliamentary Press Gallery understood the difference between the teepee and the tipi, they would have known to take a minute to learn more about who they were talking to – not just what they wanted, but why they were there. They would have known to treat the people they were speaking to as people, not as ‘spokesthings’ they can batter answers out of like a half empty ketchup bottle.
I visited Wabano-Iahtail at the Tipi on Canada, and asked her about the press conference – here’s how she described herself on that day:
I’ve got bruises on my body because they [the police] tackled me, and thank God because my colonial settler friends who are my allies, it was my Caucasian friends I need to say that, I’ve got friends from all walks of life and races […] they shielded me, I was getting pulled one way and pulled the other, and they were literally shielding me with their own bodies, you know
If you’re going to throw terms like ‘you’re being racist’ because you call out a person for rolling their eyes for a whole half hour, like the rest of Canada didn’t get to see that right, but those of us that were in the front, that’s what we were contending with. They were damn lucky that we lasted as long as we did. But the grandmother had enough, and then when the grandmother said something, they kept doing that – you know (sighs) – we’re talking about our children dying.
You know, Marlan Chookomolin that was killed in Thunder Bay they had to remove him off life support just two days before our press conference, that was my cousin’s son.
He was on a bike at 12.30 in the afternoon and then they found him behind a hotel at night. And then the doctor said it was too late to save his brain.
Wabano-Iahtail buried a daughter. Each day she cares for her son, a young man, who suffered brain damage while in state care, and here just two days before the press conference another young relative dead in Thunder Bay – in what the family believes is a murder.
Thunder Bay looms large in the Indigenous imagination. Indigenous media has been focusing on the city as a hotbed of racism and dysfunction for years.
To First Nations people, the mainstream media’s indifference to the crisis in Thunder Bay – their failure even to recognize it as a crisis – is a sore point. Van Dusen took that indifference one step further, by speaking directly to a family member of one of the many First Nations dead from Thunder Bay, and suggesting that things have been getting better under Trudeau.
Under Trudeau the police chief in Thunder Bay has been arrested, the mayor has been arrested. The city’s police force is under investigation by the provincial government. Barbara Kentner, a First Nations woman was murdered by a white man who shouted “I got one” from his truck as he shattered her internal organs with a trailer hitch. The dysfunction is so severe that a month after Marlan Chookomolin’s death, the police have not only not declared the death a homicide, but they’ve stopped communicating with the family entirely.
Julie Van Dusen appeared on CBC Radio’s “All In a Day” political panel to discuss the tipi. During the interview she proposed two possibilities for the tipi on Canada Day: “Who knows how this is going to end – will it be peaceful on Canada Day? Will it be as they’re saying it is, an educational tool?”
Van Dusen went on to describe something like Chad’s teepee, where people can come and ask offensive questions and be greeted with a smile and information. But Chad’s teepee hasn’t got any messages out, and it’s not about that – it’s about silencing us, and putting us in our place. Wabano-Iahtail and the protestors at the tipi understood what white Canada wanted and rejected it, saying: “you didn’t hear us when we were kind, when we were compassionate, we’ve been giving and giving and giving, we’ve been giving so much, that you don’t even see us, you just want more and more”
There was no violence at the tipi on Canada Day, nor was there any hint of it outside of Julie Van Dusen’s imagination. But there were also very few questions. At Chad’s teepee there was a steady and long queue to talk to him. In the two hours I spent at the tipi, in the midst of a crowd of 25,000, I didn’t see a single non-Native speak to the protesters.
When non-Natives set the stage and the rules for the encounter, like at Chad’s teepee the answers won’t be too challenging. At the protest tipi though, where First Nations people control the encounter, the answers are harder and more pointed.
Chad’s teepee is a comfortable fantasy for non-Natives. It gives the illusion of Reconciliation with the Indigenous fact in Canada, like reading a Joseph Boyden book, or buying a dream catcher. It’s an Indigenous experience made by and for non-Natives. But authentic indigeneity is more challenging.
First Nations Canada, as it really is, can be found in the tipi whose people Van Dusen and her defenders didn’t try to learn about. Our Canada is made up of ideas, and accusations, and aspirations clearly and powerfully expressed by the people the 25,000 Canada day revelers didn’t speak to.
Fortunately, and unlike Chad’s teepee, you don’t need to wait in line to hear what the people in the tipi have to say because they’ll bring their message to you. On Parliament Hill, in the heart of our cities, and in your homes. The people in the tipi don’t ask permission to express who they are in their own country, and they no longer care if you think they should act more like Chad – in their words: “I know what my truth is and I don’t care what you think of me at this point”