Idle No More: A chance to repair a sad legacy – by Jim Coyle (Toronto Star – January 13, 2013)

The Toronto Star has the largest circulation in Canada. The paper has an enormous impact on federal and Ontario politics as well as shaping public opinion.

The truth about stories, says the author and son of a Cherokee Thomas King, is “that that’s all we are.” It’s a notion at least as old as the Psalms. “We spend our years as a tale that is told.” And in our lifetimes, we’re shaped and guided by the stories we hear about who we are, where we come from, what we might be.

But stories can also be dangerous, King said in his Massey Lectures of 10 years ago. “So you have to be careful with the stories you tell. And you have to watch out for the stories you are told.”

As much as anything, Idle No More — born of a rally organized in Saskatoon in November by four aboriginal women — seems to be an attempt by Canada’s First Nations to insist that their story be reclaimed and heard, to galvanize their people and the wider public into addressing a long-standing national disgrace.

To get lost in the diet particulars of one hunger-striking chief in Ottawa, or the accounting idiosyncracies of one reserve’s band council, or a decision in Attawapiskat by a people grown wary of media to ban a TV crew, is to miss the larger and legitimate point of Idle No More and the opportunity it presents for essential change.

That drastic change is needed — at a time when the northwestern Ontario community of Pikangikum is called the suicide capital of Canada, and an inquest is soon to be held in Ontario into the deaths of seven native young people who died after leaving their remote home communities to pursue education in Thunder Bay — is beyond question.

After all, if any of that — much less the inferior schools or abiding squalor of daily life — had happened in Leaside, or Shaughnessy, or the Glebe, all hell would have broken loose. But in most of Canada, the misery of First Nations is usually out of sight and far from mind — the collective conscience salved by the stories we’ve been told.

Let us reach back in Canadian history only so far as our first prime minister, John A. Macdonald, for evidence of how long the label “idle” has been strung around the necks of First Nations and why Idle No More was a movement whose time had come.

The problem in his day, Macdonald said, was that his government had been “overindulgent” with Indians.

“But what can we do? We cannot as Christians, and as men with hearts in our bosoms — allow the vagabond Indian to die before us. Some of these Indians — and it is a peculiarity of their nature — will hang around the station and will actually allow themselves to die, in the hope that just before the breath leaves their body they will receive some assistance from the public stores.”

It was “the ways of the white man” that would lead aboriginals to prosperity, the PM mused, if only the idleness that was their peculiar nature wouldn’t stand in the way. And so the story has endured for 125 years.

As a young Saskatchewan lawyer during the Depression, John Diefenbaker did not charge Métis or native people who came to him for advice. “I was distressed by their conditions, the unbelievable poverty and the injustice done them.”

Generations on, another prime minister would vehemently concur.

“We signed treaties with many First Nations because their co-operation and their lands were essential to the growth and success of our communities,” Paul Martin wrote in his memoirs.

“And then, when our economic and military needs changed, and the peoples with whom we had contracted solemn oaths had been enfeebled by us, we simply abandoned our honour, ignored our agreements, and did what we damned well pleased. It is our national disgrace.”

What Martin went on to describe was worse than disgraceful. It was tantamount to a program of ethnic cleansing.

For the rest of this article, please go to the Toronto Star website: http://www.thestar.com/news/canada/article/1314325–idle-no-more-a-chance-to-repair-a-sad-legacy

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