Sometimes, I think it’s still 1763. Don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t around back then, so I can only imagine what the cruel, short life with its bad breath and poor dental hygiene was like. And I—a vanguard of the shifty future (and hopefully good teeth because braces are expensive)—willfully use the Internet and all the other doo-hickeys that define a generation of 140 characters, immediate satisfaction, and flickering attention span… that’s a nice stapler on my desk.
Instead, my 18th century conceptual fixation is grounded in the fact that as far as First Nations development and autonomy go, we are stuck in a time of fur trade, unsliced bread, and dying of one noncommunicable disease or another. And heck, we may be better off doing so anyways.
Because as it stands, the modern age isn’t the even the best century for Indigenous people. It may be among the worst.
Two hundred and fifty-one years after the Royal Proclamation, a document put forth by King George III as a way to claim both British territory and issue that all other otherwise unpurchased land belonged to the First Nations, one would hope that much has changed. But it hasn’t. Compared to regular Canadian citizens, Aboriginal life expectancy is lower, there is higher unemployment, infant mortality is twice as high, their living conditions are squalid, the reserves often lack basic amenities like electricity, healthcare is lackluster, the people have lower incomes and higher incidences of drug rate, suicide rate, disease rate, and abuse towards women. Colonial powers and structures still ring louder than a powwow, as much of the Indigenous culture, heritage, and education has suffocated under the Crown.
Consider the recent resignation of the Assembly of First Nations national chief, Shawn A-in-chut Atleo, in light of the fallout of Bill C-33, dubbed the First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act. While the legislation has been put forth as a constructive and sincere effort to move forward on Aboriginal educational systems – one which currently maintains less than a 40 per cent high school graduation and has suffered assimilation under the Residential school system, bland standardization, and hilarious under-funding (which is probably the best joke ever told if one looks at the figures)—many chiefs do not see it as such. They believe it is a further step backwards towards the mperialistic and paternalistic approach: the government to provide the bills (in more way than one) and make the rules without extensive Indigenous input.
Of course, the Indigenous Chiefs may be better off not rejecting the bill outright, as has currently been done, in order to try to facilitate a strained discourse that would be like breathing through a straw. It can be further argued that this bill has been years in the making, that it represents a $1.9 billion dollar increase in funding, and that Atleo has a Master’s of Education and the Chiefs don’t and the government cronies at the top with their elite educations know better than some lowly reserve folk.
But that kind of thinking – the rejection of Aboriginal culture as something equal to Western-dominated pedagogy and belief – has created this mess in the first place.
More importantly, however, is that the Bill itself is not built in the spirit of conciliation or, better yet, any improvement to current Indigenous education. As all things in politics, it’s a game, and in this case, the lives of children, First Nations people, and the whole of Canada is at stake.
Here are the outcomes of the ultimatum-like gamble:
1) A lose-lose for the First Nations. Either agree completely and unanimously with the Harper government – a requirement by the Chiefs in order to pass anything by the Council of First Nations – or let the education of Aboriginal children continue to suffer.
2) A win-win for the Canadian government. They present a strategy that seems to give copious funding but spreads it thin over many years, that does not consult the interested parties intimately, that borders on arrogant paternalism, that takes in the media positivity, and that can be accepted only if all the different and unique First Nation Chiefs agree totally (a task that the even old farts at the Senate cannot do); or have it rejected and make the Aboriginal Chiefs argue against themselves showing how divided they were, how incongruous the situation is, how it wasn’t ol’ Harper’s fault—he was practically giving away the money—and then shrug and say how hard he tried. Years, he’d probably emphasize.
Then, maybe some hundred years later, some Canadian politician will have to say how sorry they were for failing the Aboriginal people one more time, how it won’t happen again, and the speech will take up maybe five minutes of Senate time, and then he or she will sit down, and that’ll be that.