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I found this gem at Elder Fred Kelly’s house while interviewing him about the Red Power Movement in Canada. This comic book was made by Indian Affairs under John R. Nicholson. It was seen as part and parcel of Canada’s attempt to assimilate ‘the Indians” at the time. Kelly laughs and says he remembers employees from Indian Affairs telling him, “Fred, you have promise, just like John Wapoose.”

Elder Fred Kelly, was one of the many leaders within the Red Power Movement in Canada. He is a citizen of the Ojibways of Onigaming, a community of the Anishinaabe Nation in Treaty three territory.

From his home in Winnipeg overlooking a small lake reflecting the sun, he tells me about why he led a march to city hall in Kenora in in 1965. He also shows me scrapbook upon scrapbook of newspaper articles of him in 1965.

“Race relations were absolutely horrendous. Some of our people in coldest days of January had to wait outside a bus depot, while white people and dogs were allowed. They allowed dogs, but didn’t allow us. That was in 1965, ” Kelly said.

The demands of the 500-person march made national headlines. The group wanted an extension for the fur trapping session in Treaty 3, radio telephones in many communities that didn’t have indoor toilets or plumbing not to mention a health care station, programs to deal with substance abuse issues, and a plan to address racism.

“I started talking about human dignity. I felt we should be accorded the pride we deserved, after experiencing the subjection we suffered as people at the hands of Indian Affairs and the churches, and the treatment we underwent of sexual and physical abuse.”

Even though Kelly appears in article after article in magazines and newspapers, one even calling him Martin Luther Kelly, Fred is quick to correct me when I ask about his impressive leadership.

“Our people needed to know about this, and enough is enough. But this couldn’t be my own issue; it had to be the collective. The people who led that march were the 500 people who took to the streets to stand up against racism, they are the ones who had the courage to address the way we were treated.”

Kelly smiles as he tells me about the week after the protest was held. He saw Indigenous people walking around Kenora with traditional headbands and clothing– he says examples of pride and a people wanting to assert their identity.

The Indigenous led March through Kenora in 1965 became known as the birth of the indigenous civil rights movement in Canada. It inspired other Indigenous people across Canada.

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March 31, 2015

Bitter Sweet Goodbye

Arriving at Massey College for the first time, I envisioned a space where I’d share my gifts with the community — my art and my journalism, stories about my people, indigenous lives, lands and our politics. I imagined as the “first Aboriginal William Southam Journalism Fellow” in history, my contribution would be something memorable, something juniors, seniors and quadranglers would learn from, engage with, and later teach to others. That happened and to a much greater degree than I had ever imagined.

But I also anticipated an environment similar to which I came from in mainstream media — many awkward conversations about indigenous political, social and even spiritual landscapes; many vague understandings; many stereotypes; and a lot to say- in essence a colonial narrative, one that often seems challenged, to say the least, to be penetrated by change. And I did see this. I toasted the queen, humbly; I smiled when I was asked by a Southeast Asian junior fellow what my “Indian name” was, and we laughed when I asked what his was; I bit my tongue when someone I admired called, what we refer to as the assimilation policy of the century, or the White Paper, the best proposal for my people. Yes there were struggles- external and internal I faced, indeed.

But I did not expect to meet people who would change my perspective entirely, who would say in their own skin, breath, words and private clubs, that the Indigenous issue is the most important one of the day. I did not expect encouragement and empowerment from those who are without a doubt part of Canada’s most powerful elite. I never expected to sit in a mansion and have a heart to heart about who my people are, and why we should be celebrated not relegated nor neglected nor deemed as irrelevant. I never expected, ever in my life to build trust and genuine meaningful friendships with those whose ancestors purposely ignored mine.

And in my own personal journey, I did not expect to become so much more than just a journalist without a view, or just an Indigenous woman with a view. I did not expect to be leading a geo chemistry class as a guest lecturer, talking about First Nations and the oilsands. I never anticipated being seen as an expert for ALL indigenous issues and having to dig into the complex and sensitive issue behind, Toronto Indigenous lands – and I’m still struggling with that one.

Who would have imagined that a First Nations homeless child growing up in care would in her adult life be briefing a former Canadian national defense minister about Indigenous economics, resource development and violence against women.

I envisioned a lot, but I did not expect to witness this massive transformation right here at Massey and within myself. Because it is mor than conversations, more than relationships and more that epiphanies. It is abut going back to that colonial narrative, and realizing through this experience, right here at Massey, that change IS possible, that Canada can become that place of common respect, mutual understanding, gifted with all those values we speak so highly of. This year has given me a new sight to see this, a hope to believe in it, and a faith to seek it. I want to personally thank Anna Luengo, and Bob Johnson, Amela Marin, Linda Shorten, Marci Mcdonald and Clair Balfour, Lisa Bowen Balfour, the selection committee, Hugh Segal, my journalism fellows and the Massey community at large for teaching, listening, and learning – all of us together. Ham’ya (from the kindness of my heart.) Keep asking questions.

 

January 11th, 2015

Early week I was inspired to organize and moderate an event called Reconciliation: The Way Forward, at Massey College in Toronto. The panel featured activist and Ryerson professor Pam Palmater, NDP Member of Parliament Romeo Saganash, health expert and UofT professor Anna Banerji, and author and thinker John Ralston Saul. It was an intimate evening with room for about 100 people. It sold out in four hours and was widely received.

Timing for this event could not have been better. Four days before Canada’s first Prime Minister John A. Macdonald’s 200th birthday. As the Indigenous twittersphere exploded with biting cynicism about the dominant figure of Canadian confederation, other’s were planning events to honour him. That didn’t bode well #SirJam’s critics. Macdonald did after all frame an assimilation plan including the development  and implementation of the notorious Indian Residential schools. Other’s reduced Canada’s first PM to nothing more than a drunk.

One of his famous quotes goes as follows:

When the school is on the reserve, the child lives with its parents, who are savages, and though he may learn to read and write, his habits and training mode of thought are Indian. He is simply a savage who can read and write. It has been strongly impressed upon myself, as head of the Department, that Indian children should be withdrawn as much as possible from the parental influence, and the only way to do that would be to put them in central training industrial schools where they will acquire the habits and modes of thought of white men (James Rodger Miller). 

But so what. What does this have to do with anything today you ask.

Everything.

At the event Saganash quoted a recent statement by current Prime Minister Stephen Harper: ‘We have no history of colonialism.” He also estimated the federal government spends about five hundred million dollars per year fighting Indigenous rights. But refuses to give actual figures. Saganash said that perspective to refute colonisation in Canada and continue fighting against Indigenous rights shows this country and its leadership are still far from recognizing and constructing a real reconciliation.

I never really thought about reconciliation. It was something bureaucrats thought and talked about. Growing up a mixed blood with a Gitxsan father and a Newfoundlander mother, you’d think it would be on my mind. But it was another CBC reporter, Jody Porter who got me thinking, well into my 30’s.

Both of us travelled to Berlin with our journalism fellows via Massy College’s William Southam Journalism fellowship. Both enamoured with how the Germans recognize history. Not just the good, peaceful, harmonious and heroic parts. All of it. The good, the bad, and the ugly as my mother would say.

In Canada, it is a whole other ball of wax. We can refute many things. We can debate whether or not the early architects of assimilation intended to torture, sexually abuse and kill Indigenous children. We can debate whether or not genocide happened. We can interpret the treaties in different ways. But we can not deny that most of us know nothing about this part of Canadian history-  at all.

Pam Palmater’s answer to my question was emotional and real. It struck a chord with many. I asked her this “Environmental protection was the predominant issue of Idle No More. Sharing land has always been a deep-seated issue in Canada. But how might this happen more equitably than in the past?” She answered by telling a story about sharing a garden. How people came to Indigenous lands and we sick,  We helped them get better and shared what we had with the Settlers. Once they were better the newcomers began erecting fences and not allowing us in. Then they sprayed the gardens with pesticides and watched us get sick, and in some cases die.

There is a lot more to her allegory than I can recall (stay tuned for it in one of her new books). However the moral of the story was that a sorry is more than words, it’s an action that will require sacrifice. Resolution will require giving back, sharing and the all the necessary time, effort and patience required to restore justice.

It is stories like this, that help us remember. But it is stories like this that have been presented as whining about the past, of radicals wanting justice, as people stuck in an irreversible past .

Thinkers like John Ralston Saul would ask us, why those asking that question are so stuck in the past. Why is there such a pervasive desire to cover up history and such a strong defensive reaction to protect that veil and a pattern to repeat history over and over again..

Palmater brought up that tens of thousands went to residential school but hundreds of thousands are now in child protection. Indigenous children on reserve do not have the same rights, or resources as d the children off reserve. Racism is at an all time low. And there are now over 1200 missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in Canada. The panelist all asked why.

If you asked my opinion. My thought is that history repeats itself until you treat it like a thing. It existed. Face it. Address it. Surrender to it. Release it. It’s not easy, but really its not that complicated either. Identify history – not within a saviour trope, not within a victim trope

What Jody had opened my eyes to was that reconciliation is not some cheesy attempt to pretend everything is good between Indigenous people and non-Indigenous people. It is a way for us to understand, together what went wrong. It’s not about fixing it, heck no one can do that, but it’s a way to expose, educate and come together to think about, to act on and to deal with this horrible past and subsequent relationship that came out of it.

Nah, it’s not about “Kumbaya songs.”

It’s as Anna Banerji talked about, dealing with racial profiling and racism so prevalent in the health care system. How to deal with deaths of those who need help, but are left to die. It’s about facing our fears, our racism and coming to terms with that past, that of course, if we do not come face to face with, will be repeated all over again.

This is the power of suggestion. Of thought. Of wrting. Of journalism. Of travel. Of sharing. Of learning. Of being brave – to admit, I know nothing. And being smart enough to say, yes, I want to learn. And for people like me to trust those who are invested in that process.

A guest at the event said that, no, this is not about voting a new government in, it’s not about just becoming a friend with a First nations person. This is a highly

 

 

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