Walrus Magazine 15th Anniversary Speech: The Future of First Nations

My name is Robert Jago, and I’m an occasional contributor to the Walrus Magazine and other places. I write on First Nations issues. I come from BC and I’m a member of the Kwantlen First Nation – part of the Salish people.

Which I mention for context.

I’m going to be talking about what Canada will look like with respect to First Nations, in the coming decades.

But before that I think I should step back and talk about where my thinking is coming from on this.

This past week has been bad. I’ve been in and out of hospital with my mother, and had to help bury two uncles – and for Salish people that’s bury in a literal sense.

One of the 6 steps of our funeral rights involves a shovel.

Queuing up to bury your relative is 3 steps after we burn all their stuff. You ever hear the expression, ‘you can’t take it with you?’ We don’t have that expression. In our culture, you take it with you.

Which I think might sound strange to some people, the image of burning books and photos, and food on a funeral pyr. But increasingly for me and for my people it’s not weird. It was at a point, but the dominance of our culture in our lives, the normalization of it, has been on an upward trend since the early 90’s.

In the 90’s the first post-residential school generation came of age. They were born without the stigma of being Native, and they sought to reclaim their roots, they rebuilt, they built new houses of worship, they resurrected the long repressed festivals and ceremonies, they fought to reclaim our rights. These are the people we buried this week – people who as they lay dying could – rest – assured in the tangible progress of their work – secure in what they’ve made.

I was young when these things were brought back, and learned many of these as if they were a foreign culture.

But after Oka, we were all open to finding pride in who we were.

Today, these cultures are practiced as the natural state of affairs among the young. My nephew is 8, he drops words from our language into sentences, he makes our sign of prayer – he ‘raises his hands’ when the moment calls for it. This is the culture he has been born in to – he lives it more than I could hope to, more than my parents could dream of, and in a way that my grandma – who went to residential school – would be shamed to her core over.

My nephew will grow up, he will have children and as the generations progress the scope of our resurgence will only expand – and as it expands, it will move from faith, more and more into politics, and ultimately the thing we Natives all see as the end points – land and sovereignty. This is the only thing you can universally generalize about Natives, we all want the land back.

I want to paint you a picture of what that could look like. This future Native Canada, circa 2068, when they’ll be burning my stuff on a funeral pyre.

This is a Canada where the map has changed – drastically. We have moved beyond treaties, there is no Department of Indian Affairs, but there ARE 10 or so provinces, 3 territories, and 2 dozen Indigenous Republics.

Each Republic in total control of their territory, entirely self-governing with all the powers of a province – and more – and an integral part of a new Canadian Union of peoples. With no blockades or blocked pipelines, but where we all develop and build together.

This is a Canada that has been re-founded, re-born, re-started back where it actually began in the battlefields of 1812 and in fact in every war before then. Think back to that war to 1812 and not about who or who didn’t burn down the White House, but think about who was there on the border defending Canada. French militia, English militia, and sovereign Native nations and their warriors. Without the latter, this wouldn’t be Canada today.

The Canada of 1812 was a partnership between 3 peoples. The English, the French, and the First Nations. This is the union that made Canada, this is the only structure that can make Canada whole, and this is who we are in 2068.

I recently asked non-Native supporters of Indigenous rights what they want from First Nations people in return for their support of our cause. They told me, in effect, they want to be forgiven for everything that happened. They want to get to a place, where all of us, including us Natives, can look at our flag, our anthem, and our institutions and say this is good – Canada is good. A lot of Native people hold out hope for this too. Last year on Canada Day I met protesters in the Tipi on Parliament Hill. Most told me they can envision a Canada they could be proud of.

This is possible, this is what we all want.

And looking back from 2068, where it has been achieved – we can see that it began in our time with reconciliation, we began it with the nation to nation relationship.

We know the state of affairs on reserve, the poverty, the poor housing, the paternalism of federal authorities isn’t spoken about enough. But in this future, this changed, right around now. Everything that the Trudeau government promised they followed through on.

We began by fixing the problems, not by diktat from Ottawa, but by placing the tools back into the hands of my generation. And with those tools, and with more and more of the money produced by the resources taken from our land, we began to improve things. We patched up the roofs, we wiped out rules that prevented people from fixing their homes, we created water systems, education systems, child welfare systems, and developed an environment conducive to real entrepreneurship.

And we began to expand. Success is popular and rising property values in the big cities, the presence of jobs on reserve, new found safety and pride, looking back again from 2068, we can see that in the 2020’s, 2030’s, these things brought people home, which spurred even more growth. And with growth and the return of many of our best and brightest came pressure.

Lift First Nations out of poverty, and as we see all over the world, the new middle class will demand more – that is the child of reconciliation. More political freedoms, more rights, more land. It is a universal rule that Canada is not immune to. And this critical mass will push us over the Rubicon and into uncharted territory for Canada – territory where big concessions must finally be made.

As our Reserves grow, the pressure for more control of land and resources will create a crisis for Canada. But this is a Canada that would have seen the success of Reconciliation, that would see booming reserves and aggressive young leaders of First Nations who are open to a final settlement. This is a Canada of 2040 or 2050 where its own leaders grew up knowing nothing but equality and progress for First Nations. And so the next necessary steps will be far easier for them.

Ending the Indian Act, moving past the treaties, a new constitutional round that recognizes vastly expanded first nations lands, and where they join as full members of the new state, with their own senators, their own members of parliament, and where in partnership with Quebec and English Canada, they, together set the national priorities.

These new First Nations republics in Canada will have everything they need to succeed.

The children of 2050, couldn’t imagine that the poverty of today could be so near to them. They know only success, they see their flags flying, they live and work in Native towns and cities. They grow up healthy, and secure, protected from things like suicide, and murder, and so at last, they’re just kids.

And it’s from them – from the reconciliation of today which led to the development of tomorrow, which led to pressure from a new Native middle class in the 2030s, from the great compromise of the 2050’s – that we come to these kids in 2068. It’s them that can give you what you want. That young woman in the centre, smiling, and living a full Native life for the first time in 2 centuries, a woman with a certain and positive future – that’s the person there in 2068, who will be able to say that the past isn’t forgotten, but it is forgiven. She will be able to say that this country, Canada – is – good.

[long pause]

But of course, she doesn’t exist, and really, if we’re honest with each other, she can’t exist. A truly reconciled Canada? That’s science fiction.

And it’s fiction, because this young woman can’t exist without this young woman.

She can’t exist without this young man.

Because to be a Canada where Reconciliation was real, where it could lead to progress to a middle class, and to a final settlement between our peoples, where we could all live together happily –

We would have to go back in time. Because you can’t have that Canada without Colten Boushie, or Tina Fontaine, or any of the –

dozens of other names we’ve seen over the last few years, and the many more forgotten names we should have, but didn’t see in the many years before.

No mother wants her child to grow up to be a hashtag – but that’s the reality for too many Native women, and that reality has been beaten over our heads for the last few years, making us know that reconciliation is a fairy tale told to put Liberal voters to sleep, that it’s PR for others, and not meant really for us.

Canada has no respect for our national rights, the recent pipeline debacle tells us that if you didn’t know it already.

These Republics, to come to be, and to give you what you want – real absolution – Canada would have to be a different country.

And it isn’t.

this is what it is.

and so what does that actually mean for the future?

Our numbers will still grow. Our cultural and politics will still advance. But unlike in the Canadian union model I just proposed, we won’t be building things together. *We* will be pursuing our path, and you yours, and when they come into opposition there will be conflict, as we have today on the pipeline, and tomorrow, in the Ring of Fire here in Ontario.

It’s clear that we’re not welcome in your politics, like the pipeline, like Nafta, like marijuana legalization. When issues of National importance come up, we don’t even get a spot at the kids table.

But my generation, and those younger, aren’t content to sit on the sidelines and be spectators in our own lives. And so all over, what we see are people taking charge. Taking care of each other, and this can mean things like the Bear Clan Patrols – patrolling the streets to take care of Native kids at night

Or like the Crazy Indians Brotherhood feeding the homeless, helping the poor, and when needed, taking on the role of the justice system when Natives don’t want to call the police.

At a very small cost, you could have had a more prosperous, and more just future, without this guilt hanging over you.

Instead what you’ll get is something messy, and confrontational. With the civil society of an entire people directed against you.

The Canada of 2068, will be hostile, will be poorer than it needs to be, and the Native youth in it will have grown up knowing nothing but opposition and conflict.  And just as our faith and ceremonies have become second nature to my 8-year old nephew – conflict and opposition to Canada will become second nature to these children of the future, and this is what they will build upon.

At a point these things gain a momentum that can’t be stopped. Or maybe it just seems that way. After all, how many times in the last 50 years have we seen systems of government and societies that seemed cast in stone, change completely in just a matter of a few years.

If Canada is to survive to 2168, that type of systematic, unthinkable change is what needs to happen. Should we ask that young woman of 2068 to do it? To take the decades of resistance culture and turn it on its head and what? assimilate?

Or should we ask you to do it – here in 2018, when the cost isn’t yet too high. And what is change? It means working to understand that reconciliation as it’s presented to you is a lie. Understand that the Assembly of First Nations that your government negotiates with has no support among regular Native people – it is the equivalent of a rat union. Understand that your wealth comes from Native lands. Understand that your government continues today, through the systems of control under the Indian Act,  to treat Native people like they were children.

Understand that and then decide that changing it is more important than appeasing foreign oil interests, more important than lowering the unemployment rate from 4.5% to 4.4%. It’s more important than lowering the deficit or paying down the debt. After all, none of these things matter if you don’t have a country.

And if there is to be a Canada worth living in, someone has to make a change.