Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Idle No More - My two cents

I am a White woman, who grew up in Moose Factory, just south of Attawapiskat.  This is my perspective on Idle No More.  There are a lot of things, besides the problems with how First Nations are funded, or the problems with the Indian Act that Ezra Levant has pointed out; there is also the fact that whatever privileges Native peoples have, they need to stay on the reserve to receive them or to even be considered Status Indians. They lose their status if they leave. So they feel like prisoners. They hate the reserve, hate being stuck there, but are forced to stay there if they want their treaty rights.

At the same time, even if they do decide to leave anyway, White society is an extroverted society. Introverted whites grow up in that, and they learn to deal with it. Native society is much more introverted. So it isn’t just another culture, it's also another personality-type of culture.

I stayed for 6 months in Paraguay in 1993.  The similarities in culture between Paraguayans and people I knew in Moose Factory was actually quite amazing. Paraguay is mestizo, so it is very Aboriginal in its culture and way of thinking. It is very laid back, (in fact, Paraguay’s unofficial motto “Así no más” could very well be Moose Factory’s as well).  It is very quiet spoken, very extended-family oriented and community-solidarity oriented.  It is very macho, but at the same time, mothers/women have a big place. Very much like Moose Factory.

There were so many things people who went there with me questioned that I didn't even notice until they mentioned them! For example they would misunderstand "We should do this" for "Let's do this" and wonder why the Paraguayan never showed up.  Just the way they laughed was similar, or the way an event was supposed to start at a certain time, but that's only when people STARTED to arrive, and things really started 1/2 an hour later, once everyone was there, and they'd all had to time to greet each other first and chat each other up; get all the latest gossip.

Unless you are naturally an extroverted Native, or you have had frequent contact with white society, it is really hard as a Native, especially if you are naturally introverted, to leave the reserve and do well in white society. It can be very overwhelming. I know it wasn't easy for me to leave Moose Factory the first time I left, and I was brought up in a White family! Societal norms are different, the way of thinking is different, Whites are economy oriented, Natives are community oriented. It can be hard to sell yourself to get a job, because you're "not supposed to brag”. I STILL have that problem. I am always afraid of being too pushy, so I never really go out and get what I want, because you're not supposed to be pushy. Even after 22 years (over half my life) living in a White world, I STILL think that way, and I STILL can't get over it.

So, people who wonder why those in Attawapiskat just don't leave?  Well, they do.  They try.  But they come back. They love their land, and... living in a White world is hard.

Also, the way Native people negotiate is not the same way White people negotiate.  Without getting into the fact that Native people spend a lot more time discussing and making sure that everyone gets a say (which can be very frustrating for a White person who wants this taken care of yesterday), The Native person will tend to accept a deal for what they can get for now and then come back later.  The White person will refuse a deal if it does not give them all they want, (the all-or-nothing mentality vs the I’ll-take-what-I-can-get mentality) so when the Native comes back again, to the White person, who thinks it was all done and settled, it looks like the Native person is just never happy.

I have been doing a lot of observing recently, and I’m getting the impression that both sides are speaking the same language, but without understanding each other.  It’s like a marriage gone wrong.  Two people, one male, one female, one introverted, one extroverted, with opposite personalities, each with their strengths and weaknesses, different value systems and different needs.  Neither one is a bad person.  They are just both very different.

In order to find peace with each other, they need to discover how the other thinks, where he/she is coming from, and most importantly, what they really mean when they say this or that.  As in any relationship, blaming the other side is not going to work.  I am seeing a lot of this, and very little in the way of actual facts or explanation.

It is time to stop the blaming and start communicating.  It is time to seek out couple’s therapy.  A person, or people who have lived in both societies for a long time and are capable of understanding both cultural baggages need to be brought to the negotiation table.

Edited to expand on the "Whites are economy oriented, Natives are community oriented" idea:

Whites are economy oriented.  This is especially evident in the saying "business before pleasure." With Natives, the opposite is actually true.  In Moose Factory, it would be tea and bannock before business. You sit down, drink your tea, chat about the latest news (and I don't mean what you read about in the National Post, I mean what's going on in the community), and then, eventually, you get around to business.  It probably takes 2 or 3 hours to conclude an agreement that might take two White people half an hour or less.  But you built social ties that make that community bond even stronger.

I remember walking across the river from Moosonee to Moose Factory one day when I was a teenager.  I was offered a lift by a taxi driver who was also going over.  Since it was high tide, and there was water on the ice near the banks, I gratefully accepted his offer, which meant I didn't have to wade through water or try to find a way around it.  He dropped me off on the other side of the river and there was never any mention of payment.  It never even occurred to me to offer payment, even though this was a taxi, and he had customers at the time in the car, who were going to pay for his services.  Because what comes around goes around in Moose Factory.  Today, you gave me a lift across the ice.  Next week someone else will help you with something, and next month, you might help an elder bring her groceries home because her bags are really too heavy for her, and next winter someone else will help you dig your car out from the snow bank you slid into, on the icy road.  No mention of payment, ever.

In Paraguay, to offer payment for a service offered to you was a little like a slap in the face.  Kind of like implying that the only reason the person was offering in the first place was for the money.

When I moved to Québec, it took me years to finally understand that pretty much every single time someone offers to do something for you, you must offer money for it.  And this is not necessarily because they want the money, but because this is how gratitude is shown, and not only that, but how generosity is shown.  Because you will offer the money, but the person will most likely refuse it.  It doesn't matter.  In order to be able to refuse the money, it MUST first be offered.  And if you do not offer, the person will think you ungrateful.

I still, 22 years after moving away from Moose Factory, enjoy sitting down to chat before talking business.  I still have trouble accepting payment from friends even when it is my job.  They are my friends!  It feels wrong somehow.  Were I still in Moose Factory, I might provide free hair cuts to my friends, but maybe my friends might get a hold of a moose hide from a family member who hunted it, and they might make me a pair of slippers, for free.  So in the end, I'd still receive payment in a way.

There is more I could say about how bad of a business person I am in the White world and all the discreet nuances between the way White people do business and the way Native people do business, (and I am much more Native than White in that way), but suffice it to say that for Native people, unlike White society in general, relationships and community come before business.  Native people tend to build relationships and do business while they are at it.  White people build businesses and often leave relationships out of it.

Edited again in regards to equality vs assimilation:

When negotiating with First Nations, one really must remember that there are a lot of unforgotten issues that First Nations have with White people, (especially Government and Church) among the most important of which is the issue of residential schools.  Children were taken away from their parents with no regard for the desires of either and put in schools where White people basically tried to take the Indian out of them.  Imagine you are 5 years old and you are taken from your parents to live in a place where you are punished for speaking your own language or doing anything Indian.  Imagine then, returning to your home, after years of residential school, never having learned the traditional ways.  You haven't become White.  But you no longer fit in at home either.  You fit in nowhere.  Imagine the resentment towards White people that this would create, both from the children who lost their identity, and from the parents who lost their children.  Generations later, this continues to influence life in Moose Factory.  When I grew up, "White man" was the worst insult you could come up with.  You were not allowed to be proud of your achievements at school, because that was somehow "White".  If you did well, you would be brought down.  I know lots of people who moved out of Moose Factory, so that their kids would not have to go through the same kind of bullying they went through.  Suicide is a terrible thing that Moose Factory has to deal with all too often. This colours First Nations relationships with Whites today.

In itself, desiring all people to be equal and not have any special rights is not a bad thing.  I know black people in the US who say that to treat blacks preferentially is just as racist as apartheid was.  Every people should be treated with equal respect, European peoples included.  We are all human.  We are all brothers and sisters.  But say this to First Nations and they are not thinking "Abolish the Indian Act and give power to First Nations so they can have self-government, etc, etc...  No.  They are thinking assimilation all over again.  That is their greatest fear.  That the government will swoop in again and try to make them White.  It truly backfired the last time.  I think most White people know this.  But it is still the number one fear, from what I can see.  You cannot force a people out of their culture and customs.  You can treat them equally, you can give them the same rights, you can demand the same responsibilities of them, but you cannot assimilate them.

I think this is one of those issues that White society does not understand.  Between the French and the English, there was only very gradual assimilation in some cases, as French people married English people and generations lost the French language and culture outside of Québec, and sometimes the opposite happened inside Québec.  But this was not forced assimilation.  There was never any sense of loss, never any sense of not belonging anywhere.  For White Canadians, to treat everyone equal does not mean that suddenly either the French-Canadian or the English-Canadian must give up his or her language, culture and customs.  It does not even occur to them at all to think that.  They mean no harm at all in promoting equal treatment for all.  But to the First Nations, who have not yet forgotten Residential schools, "equal treatment" does not mean "equal rights" it means "assimilation".

Which is why, I reiterate again, the importance of the presence of people who understand both cultures during negotiations.