Tag Archives: indigenous

A Little Surprising

Today, CBC published an article about RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson’s reaction to yesterday’s report – published by the RCMP – about Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women.

In his comments, Paulson said, “We have known for some time that there’s a higher rate of violent victimization within the aboriginal female population, but to see these numbers crystallized as they have was a little surprising.” What’s surprising to Paulson is not surprising to those of us for whom the threat of violence is a lived reality, but what more troubling is that these initial comments about a “higher rate” are not reflected consistently in the article.

From the federal government’s side, Justice Minister Peter MacKay said, “We must continue to take concrete action now, not just continue to study the issue.” This is true. When we relegate this issue to the realm of academic questions, we hold ourselves back from taking urgent actions to protect  indigenous women and girls. But let’s try a little experiment: Raise your hand if you’ve heard this line before with no visible action once the cameras and microphones stop rolling.

Let’s not get lost in the muddy waters of who said what and what responsibility they have. On a superficial level, the statements made by Paulson and MacKay are true. Convenient and obvious, but true. Instead, I want to move beyond the colonial talking points for a minute. Those men only represent two of the institutions that systematize the oppression of indigenous peoples in this country. Let’s take a little time to talk about a third. Let’s take a little time to reflect on how lazy journalism isn’t a neutral action – but an actively oppressive one.

Journalists: who are the voices you present in your story?

Is your article simply about a colonial agency’s report on systemic issues faced by indigenous women, with reactions limited to the non-indigenous man who heads that agency and the non-indigenous man appointed within the federal government to oversee “justice”? If you answered “yes” to all those questions, we have a problem.

I am an indigenous woman. I have agency, and I have a voice, and I am not an anomaly. Where are the voices of the families who are waiting for their missing women and girls to come home? Where are the voices of the families of the victims for whom that hope is extinguished? Where are the voices of survivors who have become spokespersons? Where are the voices of community-based advocates and organizers, the indigenous institutions that are fighting for social justice? I know, journalists. You’re writing to deadline. But in the case of this article, I don’t even see an apologetic “X, Y, and Z couldn’t be reached for comment.” You have agency too; you’re making a choice.

With all due respect, I’d like to state the obvious myself: Commissioner Paulson and Minister MacKay are not marginalized women of colour. Their voices are far from sufficient to populate a meaningful conversation about this issue.

What’s problematic about privileging some voices above others?

A funny thing happens when you end up with a narrative in which nothing is challenged. Namely, there is no room for growth. Again quoting Paulson, CBC provides this reference point: “there were 5,370 non-aboriginal women who were murdered and 1,291 other non-aboriginal women who went missing during the same period.” Paulson also indicates it’s the responsibility of the RCMP to “answer from an informed position and put some context around these numbers.” So where is it?

It’s true: the number of non-indigenous women who are missing and murdered is higher than the number of indigenous women who are missing and murdered. That is a virtually meaningless statement. Where is the “context” (from the RCMP, the Justice Minister, or for that matter, CBC) that this number is not proportional to population size?

Estimates vary, but even at a cautious guess, as an indigenous woman I am four times more likely to experience violence than my non-indigenous sisters. Fully 19% of the cases referenced by Paulson involve indigenous women as victims. But according to Statistics Canada, indigenous women and girls make up only 4% of the total Canadian female population. Let’s reflect on that. Even according to the figures presented by the RCMP, 4% of women are vulnerable to 19% of the violence. Paulson also talks about the “solve rate” for indigenous versus non-indigenous murders: they are similar. But we’re missing the point that the “solve rate” isn’t the only or most important thing.

“Solve rate” vs. Solutions

Injustice isn’t just “murders going unsolved.” Injustice is the substantiated fear and oppression that comes from knowing that as indigenous women, we are four times as likely to face this violence in our lives. Injustice is knowing that colonial institutions and society at large aren’t just ignoring the problem – they’re perpetuating it and benefiting from our subjugation.

Why aren’t journalists investigating the figures instead of dropping them into articles like pointless trivia? There are at least two answers, and neither of them is pretty: either journalistic integrity doesn’t matter, or journalists en masse are intentionally reinforcing and apologizing for the very colonial power structures that create the conditions for this violence to be perpetuated.

In either scenario, journalism is complicit in the problem. It commodifies the violence. It chooses the voices that are privileged. It chooses the data presented and the context given for those data. And in choosing not to be bold or critical or to investigate the facts and figures, journalists enact the oppression they write about when they cover stories like this one.

You might argue it’s not the place of mainstream media to instigate social change. Maybe you’re right. But I refuse to passively accept that mainstream media should submit to being a tool of oppression that reinforces the disproportionate violence that pervades the lives of indigenous women and girls in this country.

So what’s the solution? I believe in a diversity of tactics, but let’s start here: If mainstream media won’t make space for bold, critical investigation, let’s do it ourselves. Challenge the isolated facts and figures. Elevate the journalistic trivia to subjects of serious conversation. Demand journalistic integrity. Speak truth, and seek it in others.

To my indigenous sisters: You are the women who give birth to Nations. For that, you will always be the wellspring of power and hope. And for those non-indigenous people who are solidary with us, let’s continue working together to make a space where meaningful societal change can happen.

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A note to my friends in journalism: Be better.

“Everyone does it,” you might argue. “Why single out CBC?”

Because this is an excellent illustrative example. I get that it’s standard to dump in whatever photos you have on hand that seem vaguely topical. I get that the people who author the articles don’t necessarily pick the accessories. But someone is doing this, and they need to stop.

On March 18, CBC posted this article. I am not disputing the content of the article. I think it’s wonderful and frankly well past time that we acknowledge the incredible work Nations are doing to create sustainable industries that make sense in their communities.

But leaving aside the written content, let’s look at the images. First we see Squamish Chief Ian Campbell in regalia at a treaty ceremony. Second, we see Cree and Tsleil-wau-tuth members drumming and smudging. Third, we see Heiltsuk chiefs in regalia at a protest. Fourth, we see an image of indigenous people engaging in what looks to be an Idle No More demonstration at the Peace Arch crossing.

Here’s my question: What does this have to do with tourism?

I’ve seen phenomenal images come out of Spirit Bear Lodge, the ecotourism venture operated by my neighbours to the north at Kitasoo-Xaixais First Nation. It’s just one of several businesses mentioned in this article that are taking on innovative and exciting initiatives – and meeting vibrant success in doing so.

First of all, for the simple sake of accuracy, why isn’t CBC going the extra step of seeking out photos that are actually on topic? It wouldn’t be difficult. The people running these businesses are smart, and I bet many of them would value the opportunity to showcase some of the images coming out of their ventures.

Second of all, CBC and all your competitors – why are you not trying to be better? By including the photos you chose to attach to this article, you are reinforcing negative stereotypes of angry Indians who are just looking for something to protest. This, oddly enough, is totally inconsistent with the spirit of your article, and so I fail to see why you’re playing into this outdated notion.

Further, I am offended by your implication that any instance of First Nations people practicing their culture and customs is fair game for you to generalize as a spectacle. Were those Heiltsuk hereditary chiefs or Idle No More demonstrators protesting as a performance for tourists? I don’t think so. Was Chief Campbell’s attendance at the treaty ceremony intended as a spectacle for visitors? How about the sacred smudging and drumming of our Cree and Tsleil-wau-tuth relatives? I don’t think so.

Do not mistake ceremony for spectacle. Do not mistake ritual for entertainment.

Our Nations are already challenged to draw clear lines in terms of what is and is not appropriate to share with tourists and the public in cultural performances attached to our specific tourism ventures. You are not helping by appropriating images depicting ceremony and deploying them out of context with the implication that they are therefore equal to entertainment.

As a final note, I’d like to recommend the following gesture of respect:

If you are talking about a Nation, an individual, or a name in an indigenous language, check your spelling. Then double check it. Typos can be avoided and names are sacred. I’m not just saying this because it’s my Nation’s name you misspelled. I’m saying this because it is a mistake you can – and must – avoid.

If you won’t change your practices as a gesture of respect, be mercenary. Do it so you look less foolish and outdated.

Gaiasixa.

Global Tribes

I was privileged recently to join a delegation of First Nations leaders from across Canada in a trip through Northern Australia. This article from a Sydney newspaper shares a little of what we were doing.

Meet one of my heroes, Jeffrey Lee:

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Ancient wisdom sends message across the world

They are on their way to meet the stone country people on the remote Western Arnhem Plateau, but first the delegation of Canada’s First Nations stops in Kakadu National Park to visit the man who said no to millions of dollars.

Senior custodian Jeffrey Lee takes them to Koongarra, his bush site that might have become a uranium mine worth as much as $5 billion. If only Lee had said yes.

”Money don’t mean nothing to me,” he says. ”Money come, money go. Once you take my land away, you can’t put it back together again.”

His 11 guests from nine First Nations find nothing strange in this.

”Heartwarming, but not surprising,” says Steve Nitah of the Lutsel K’e Dene Nation. Nitah says native Canadians derive 70 to 90 per cent of their diet from the land but are fighting their own battles with resource developers, from foresters to gas pipeline builders and tar sands miners. They only wish they had the power of veto that Lee enjoys under the Northern Territory land rights act.

Lee’s father and grandfather had wanted the mine but, after a decades-long battle, he has succeeded in his own determination that Koongarra be folded into the world-heritage park that surrounds it.

When Lee divulges his cut from the mine might have been $7.5 million, a 26-year-old member of the Heiltsuk First Nation’s tribal parliament, Jess Housty, shrugs: ”The money is the least interesting thing. If we want to calculate the value of a proposal, the question is, ‘What’s at stake?’ My identity is based on the stories my people have written in the landscape. If you kill the land, you kill our stories. If you kill our stories, you kill the people. It’s as simple as that.”

They are sweltering in temperatures of 30 degrees-plus. Some of them are more comfortable in -30 degrees. But they find they have much in common with indigenous Australians like Lee.

It is why the Pew Charitable Trusts has brought them here. The US-founded global philanthropic giant, which built its perpetual fund on the Pew family’s old oil fortune, is focusing its environmental work on the world’s remaining ”big scale” treasures – the kind of intact ecosystems over vast landscapes that can still be found in Canada and Australia.

So early on Saturday, we board single-engine planes bound for Warddeken, an indigenous rangers’ camp in the stone country of the Mok clan. This tiny outpost is protecting what Pew’s Australian director, ecologist Barry Traill, calls a ”global gem of biodiversity”.

The Warddeken Indigenous Protected Area is half the size of Switzerland, almost 1.4 million hectares that contain species found nowhere else on the planet: the black wallaroo; the Oenpelli python, rock rats, birds, many plants. It boasts thousands of rock art sites.

But wildfires that can burn for months and grow to ”the size of Sydney” would threaten it all if not for the pioneering indigenous fire management at Warddeken, says Traill. This work earns Warddeken and neighbouring indigenous groups a break-even $1.2 million a year for the abatement of 100,000 tonnes of greenhouse gases.

Warddeken is one of 58 Indigenous Protected Areas that cover more than 51 million hectares of Australia and employ almost 700 indigenous rangers. Launched by the Howard government and expanded under Labor, IPAs are not forms of land tenure. They are agreements between the federal government and traditional owners under which the locals are supported to care for land that is otherwise neglected.

Pew supports several IPAs and believes they can be a model for the Canadians and their own treasures such as the boreal forest, the largest intact forest in the world. The visitors agree. ”I’ve been fighting for something like this for six years,” says Douglas Neasloss of the Kitasoo-Xaixais Nation.

But Warddeken may never have happened if not for ”the old man”, Lofty Bardayal Nadjamerrek, AO. Locals had left the area for bigger settlements around World War II and earlier. Nadjamerrek was among pioneers who led a homeland movement back into Arnhem Land in the 1970s and ’80s and, finally, a return to his own country in the late 1990s. He lived until 2009, just long enough to witness its declaration as an IPA.

Much damage was done in those lost years by wildfire, invasive weeds and feral animals.

Trail says: ”We usually think of conservation and say people are the problem. But one of the biggest problems in outback Australia is the lack of people. In more than 50 per cent of Australia there are fewer people managing the environment today than there have been for the past 50,000 years.”

The IPAs, he says, allow the people who know best to work ”on country”.

The on-site operations manager at Warddeken, Jake Weigl, says their controlled mosaic burning ”absolutely replicates” ancient fire practice but exploits modern tools. In the early dry season, they drop incendiary devices from helicopters. He describes how a helicopter will drop a team of just six to nine rangers – armed with only rake hoes, chainsaws and leaf-blowers – to resist fire fronts as big as 50 kilometres.

”For a fire that size in Victoria they’d bring in hundreds of firefighters, but that’s fire suppression – not management. If they managed it, they wouldn’t need so many resources.”

The chairman of Warddeken Land Management Limited, Dean Yibarbuk, points to the return of emu to the area as evidence of the rangers’ success and the recovery of species.

The Nature Conservancy also supports the operation. Pew has backed IPAs elsewhere, including the Kimberley. It is supporting the Ngadju people to protect the Great Western Woodlands in the south-east of Western Australia.

It worked with graziers and indigenous groups to secure the exclusion of mining leases from the Queensland Channel Country rivers and floodplains that feed Lake Eyre, but now they are battling the Newman government’s declaration that it will allow mining after all.

Pew has some enemies, notably elements among recreational and commercial fishers who believe it has supported research that overstates the threat to global fish stocks. Pew stands by the research. Traill derides a conspiracy theory that Pew is backing marine parks in Australia to exclude oil exploration – to benefit American oil producers.

Pew no longer has any money in oil, he says. When established in 1948, founder J. Howard Pew wanted to ”acquaint the American people with the evils of bureaucracy and the values of a free market”. His heirs have a less conservative focus but the group claims to be non-partisan.

Little of this concerns the daughters of Lofty Bardayal Nadjamerrek, Lois and Hagar. They welcome the First Nations people to their country by inviting them to enter a spring, where they pour water over their heads. In their dreaming, it is the nectar of the sugar bee.

”We are really proud to have that mob coming from Canada,” Hagar says. It was their father’s vision to share their knowledge with the world, she says.

Lois adds: ”I believe we are following his vision.”

The Pew Charitable Trusts assisted Fairfax Media’s travel from Kakadu to Arnhem Land.

Read it here: http://www.theage.com.au/national/ancient-wisdom-sends-message-across-the-world-20130602-2njqs.html#ixzz2VMbFl3w3

Idle No More

With gratitude to A.K., the folks at The Tyee and everyone sharing similar messages of encouragement and solidarty –

Here is a link to a piece I wrote about Eight Ways to Take Part in Idle No More.