#IdleNoMore: A White Man’s Conversion

I was born and raised in Canada. I love it viscerally. I have travelled widely, but life would not be worth living if I could never go home.

It is a beautiful land. Few places on earth compare. And the incomparable beauty of the land is matched, by and large, by the spirit of the people who live in it. Kind-hearted, generous, fair minded and decent. We have our share of clowns and shits, just like any nation. But our instincts are good. We want to believe the best in human nature, and we’ve been brought up to aspire to it.

But that’s easy for me to say. I’m a WASP from Toronto; born into privilege and luxury, and the heart of the Canadian establishment. I try and excuse myself this through the fact of my rampant homosexuality, but the fact remains that by background and upbringing I am the quintessence of white.

And that whiteness has come with certain privileges. I grew up in a beautiful, upper-middle class part of North Toronto, attended elite private schools, and graduated from Oxford University not long ago; a place which, despite its best intentions to change, remains at bottom a proving ground for young members of the global establishment.

I have to face up to that. And writing this is, in part, an exercise in doing so. But while I’m perhaps an extreme example of white privilege, I don’t think I’m alone in needing to face up to the fact that my economic comfort and security comes from my background. I think a lot of us have a lot of hard truths to face, and a lot of serious thinking to do about the unique privilege of being Canadian.

A privilege for which we owe indigenous Canadians quite a lot.

Canada is the most perfectly realized colonial state in the world. Some may rankle at the use of the word, but it remains the accurate one. We are a settler colony of the former British Empire, whose founding, which we celebrated just the other day, dates from an uneasy accommodation of the interests of two different ethnic European groups; the French and the British. It was a celebrated bit of deal making, and it laid the groundwork for what was to come.

Our political instincts run to consensus and compromise. Indeed, those two things are necessary in order for us to get anything done in the system we’ve built. We have never succumbed to chauvinism, or denied our origins as a nation of migrants. We have kept the door open, and build a strong, multicultural community. And as a result, our immigrant society is peaceful, ordered, tranquil, and prosperous.

But it has never included aboriginal Canadians.

It’s patronizing to pretend otherwise. It’s our dirty little secret as a country. The thing we don’t often advertise, but the simple truth. The outright contempt for indigenous peoples that is rampant in the Conservative Party notwithstanding, the pious bleating of our two opposition political parties, which represent between them the decent majority of Canadians, can give a false impression of respect and deference for aboriginal peoples. and stunts like the appropriation of symbols like the Inukshuk for the Vancouver Olympic games, ridiculously inappropriate as it was, can give us the impression that we respect and value aboriginal culture. That we have atoned for the sins of our ancestors, and that our government essentially treats the indigenous population with dignity. The truth is rather different.

The truth is that, as Stephanie Irlbacher-Fox points out on the #IdleNoMore website, ‘for the most part, settlers simply have no clue, are not engaged in a relationship with Indigenous peoples, and assume that the government is following the rule of law and doing right by Indigenous peoples.’

The truth is that for most Canadians, the plight of aboriginal peoples in this country only becomes truly visible when they stand up and take action to shake us out of our indifference, like they did at Oka, or like they’re doing now with #IdleNoMore. Or when the mainstream media deigns to notice the plight of communities like Attawapiskat, and the scandalous deprivation that is their normal. And when they do intrude on our consciousness, the backlash of racism, contempt, and sanctimony that inevitably follows is as disheartening as it is insidious.

The truth is that Canada has a long way to go as a society before it can truly be said to include everyone who lives within its borders.

This is partly because of the fact that aboriginal Canadians make up a very small (albeit rapidly growing) portion of our national demographic. On the streets of our major cities you are unlikely to hear Cree, Ojibwe or Mohawk amid the babel of languages from every corner of the earth you can otherwise hear. Nor are our children likely to know their fellow indigenous Canadians in their classes and in their schools. I think few in urban, middle class Canadian life can claim that they have many native friends and neighbours in the big cities of Canada. I’m sure there are exceptions to this rule, as there are to any, but I doubt they are legion.

So I’m going to commit here to try and make myself an exception. I’m going to consciously make myself an ally of the First Nations, because we’re going to need more of them in the months and years ahead. Harper’s reign will continue at least until 2015. There is still room for him to do incalculable amounts of damage to our country. It is up to us to stand up to him.

This post represents my personal rejection of much of the conventional wisdom and easy complacency of Canadian life.

Indeed, when I first heard the words Idle No More, I thrilled a little. It was such a direct challenge. Such an inescapable truth.

We have been idle, as a nation. We’ve been bought with comfort and easy living. We acquiesce in the destruction of our environment, the emasculation of our social programs, and the assault on our very democratic heritage by the neo-conservative Harper Government because we’re very well sedated by the pleasures of a fully developed and peaceful capitalist society.

#IdleNoMore represents a challenge to that society. A clarion call to all of us to rise from our apathetic slumber and do something to protect the land we love from those who seek to rape it.

Native Canadians are challenging the rest of us to live up to our own best instincts. To change the way we think. To acknowledge that there are some truths older than capitalism; firmer foundations for society than endless resource extraction; better ways to live than mad, unthinking consumerism, and that we ignore them at our peril

As Martin Lukacs put it succintly in the eminent British newspaper The Guardian, ‘finally honouring Indigenous rights is not simply about paying off Canada’s enormous legal debt to First Nations: it is also our best chance to save entire territories from endless extraction and destruction. In no small way, the actions of Indigenous peoples – and the decision of Canadians to stand alongside them – will determine the fate of the planet.’

I for one, accept that challenge. I refuse to be passive any longer. I refuse to wait on larger forces to get their act together. And above all, I refuse to be complicit in the crimes of my government against the environment, against society, and against democracy. I am Idle No More. From this day, until my last day.