Oh, To Be Young and Aboriginal!

Margaret Wente of the Globe and Mail is a blunt and practical woman, a columnist I always find interesting even when I don’t agree. (On the other side of the coin of opinion, Globe-ster Rick Salutin often strikes me the same way.) She had a column yesterday on the Caledonia/Six Nations standoff. Said standoff, with its barricades and its bipolar policy of mutual assured inconvenience, has this worst quality: it makes it look as if there are two sides, a White Towny one and an Aboriginal Activist one. This is another of those persistent and phony dualities, so easy to set up and so damned difficult to extract from people’s thinking. There are MANY sides to this thing. Anyway, back to Ms. Wente.

She begins with an assault on cliché, one of her specialties. The politicians haven’t learned anything from the last standoff at Ipperwash, we’ve been hearing, but Wente says, “Baloney. They learned everything from Ipperwash. Above all, they learned not to touch a native protest with a bargepole.” Her frequent tone is one of weary dismay. She can dish out caustic commentary, but mostly isn’t a slave to cynicism. “As usual,” she writes,

the roots of the dispute are buried deep in ancient history. Who knows where justice truly lies? Not I. I doubt the myriad of lawyers and mediators, who have laboured on this case for many years, know either. The paperwork now amounts to a staggering 70,000 pages….  In any event, for many native people these disputes aren’t really about the facts. They are about respect, recognition, and identity. The politics of protest are enormously empowering. The young adults who make up the majority of the protesters grew up on images of Oka. What would you rather be — a 20-year-old high-school dropout with dim job prospects, or a Mohawk warrior in combat fatigues…?

 The “dropout” comment is inflammatory – it’s another overstated either/or view of the reality that exists for native youth – but the comparison does contain some much-needed seeds of white understanding of the long-term combination of despair, stoicism and anger that lives in Aboriginal communities across Canada. And Wente, alongside her rejection of the “politics of protest”, shows some comprehension of the history that has created it. (Though she undermines her credibility a little with a reference to the “Six Nations Reserve in Caledonia”. South and west, actually. Yikes.) But she is like a lot of Caledonians these days, and many pretty bright Canadians: she wonders what’s wrong with native people, especially the young.

After all, the explanation goes, consider their advantages: tax-free buying, tuition-free education, and the best country in the world to live in. What’s their problem? Here’s Wente again. “Today the opportunities for young aboriginals in Canada have never been better. And yet, it’s hard to see the opportunity all around you when you’ve been nurtured on so much grievance and injustice….Many of the injustices were real. But how do you move on? How do you make peace with the modern world when you are haunted by ancient wrongs and obsessed with a romantic version of an idealized past?” She summons an alternative example, the story of Skawenniio Barnes, a Mohawk from Kahnawake Reserve who is on her way to the Ivy League on full scholarship. I agree with Wente: Ms. Barnes is a brilliant example, someone with great talent and drive who “changed the script”. But when the columnist goes on to say that this student’s wonderful – I would even say heroic, miraculous – accomplishments and prospects are “worth all the land-claims settlements in the world”, I shake my head.

I, too, wonder how far we go with apologies for historical wrongs, and the re-packaging and re-naming of land. I wonder when enough is enough, but I don’t doubt that land will be (must be) part of Canada’s attempt to get anywhere near justice on matters Aboriginal. But if whites think native people are so deeply fortunate, with all their perceived “extra rights” and advantages, how many would want to exchange positions? Maybe it ain’t so easy being red. Maybe we should be trying harder to answer this excellent question: Why aren’t there more like Skawenniio Barnes? I’m pretty sure we would be abashed and ashamed if we actually listened to honest answers.

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