Some of you may not like this blog and I really don’t care. As I have mentioned many times my blog is not what I do on stage, for rather obvious reasons. Why is there a such a separation? Frankly, on stage I believe I am representing my clients so I apply a rule of appropriateness loosely based on standards of political correctness. Ironically, it is my honesty that has brought me my clients. When I blog, I represent myself and nobody else, not even my wife.
This morning, the news is buzzing about Chief Theresa Spence and Cree elder, Ray Robinson, who have simultaneously ended lengthy hunger strikes today and let me be extremely clear; I hope their health is intact and thankfully they chose to quit before bringing serious harm to themselves. Remember, I have made my living based on a sensitivity to people. But I also know when to call BS. This whole “Idle No More” movement and all the vitriol about racism and degradation is BS. The spewing of inequity and poverty on reserves is mostly BS and I say “mostly” because I have witnessed first hand the deplorable conditions we Canadians have been privy to through a bleeding heart liberal media placing all the blame on a arrogant government who don’t care about what happens to the Indian people in Canada. By the way, I also don’t care what words we use when referencing these people. We aren’t supposed to call them “Indians” so somehow, “First Nations” or “Aboriginal” corrects the general perception and I don’t believe it does.
I know about this because I have lived through many similar arguments regarding “disability”. Is it “crippled”, “handicapped”, “physically challenged”…blah, blah, blah. By the way, many in the activist community of disabled folks don’t like me much because of my misguided approach. In 1986, I was a member of the Canadian Access Awareness Week organizing board, a government sponsored group whose mandate was to create materials and programs for a special week in June to promote awareness of disabled people. In one early meeting, I got into a heated debate with a fellow committee member who happened to be a quadriplegic caused by a diving accident (he dove into a pool that had a big sign “No Diving”). Our debate was centred on the difference between “disabled persons” and “persons with a disability”. From a pure marketing view for visual displays, the first descriptor has two words, the latter, four. His deal was you have to put “persons” first because they are people not “disabled” first because the focus is negative. Honestly, not a bad argument. The point is he was really hostile and got so upset with me he blurted out at me, “What do you know about being disabled!” Really? I guess having no arms doesn’t qualify. Thus my argument.
People like that guy, Theresa Spence, Ray Robinson and a parade of angry people are ironically ”two-faced”. They scream they are only asking for equality but I don’t think so. They are asking for “special treatment”. In the case of disabled folks, whom I understand the best, they “expect” society to “get it”. I do not. Clearly, I believe awareness is much needed and also understand there are many physical accommodations like washrooms, doorways, curb-cuts, etc. that have literally changed life for those with mobility challenges. Clearly, the dire needs of some reserves require urgent attention as nobody, including yours truly, should celebrate someone’s misery. What is misguided to me is the tone.
Clearly, I have been angry many times in my life. I have felt prejudice, been disrespected, made fun of, picked on, called names and had my dignity harmed more times than I can count. In fact, and this is going to be very honest; I hated Indians when I was a kid. I was an equal opportunity target but the kids who led the pack were Indian kids at my school. They had moved from neighbouring reserves and as they were also Catholic, they went to St. Alphonsus Catholic school, right across the street from our home. They not only went to school there, they played there after school too and in many ways, “owned” the playground. By the way, I wasn’t the only target and not every native student was bad but there were four of them, two in particular (I would rather not name them) who were just plain mean. They broke equipment, would stay out late, even had the police called on them (not by my family) on a couple of occasions and they always got away with it because to punish them would be racist! We never saw their parents at school events, let alone checking on them while causing trouble at the playground. Unfortunately, their behaviour set the standard for the community’s opinion on native folks. I really mean “unfortunately” as my negative and yes, racist attitude extended to all native people, and I’m pretty sure I am not alone here.
In 1981, I had a job with the Saskatchewan Council for Crippled Children & Adults, since appropriately changed to the Saskatchewan Abilities Council. I was 21 years old and understandably, pretty naive. Ironically, I also had a prejudice to what we today call, “intellectually challenged” people and there were tons of them in our Saskatoon facility that housed both management offices and workshops where the clients essentially, if not inappropriately, made ceramics and wood products. By the way, we see it being inappropriate today but not then. My office was a tiny room in the main hallway that led from the front door to the workshop so every morning, dozens of clients would have to stop and say good morning, a very charming thing…that I had to learn was indeed charming. The first six months, I didn’t see it that way. I hated it.
Then one day, my boss and I were having an end-of-week beer at a local pub and I asked him what could be done about this annoyance. I will never forget his answer; “You should be flattered and honoured by the attention. They stop because they like you…what’s wrong with that?” Good question. So, I shifted my approach and embraced the morning ritual. As a consequence, my whole attitude towards such folks changed, which opened the door to more growth I obviously craved. I was so young that I indeed had a chip on my shoulder and since my work with the Council was primarily community relations and advocacy, I met a lot of other handicapped folks in the same stream. It seemed the more I spent time with these people, the angrier I was getting but not at them, at the world! The general consensus at the time was you can’t advance a movement without protest and civil disobedience. I played along for a while until something profound and even prophetic happened.
1981 was the International Year of the Disabled (you notice not “Persons with a disability”) and awareness was a major component so government made grants available and in Saskatchewan, I ran my own school awareness program through the Abilities Council so I got very busy. I was invited to the north of the province and would end up spending two weeks travelling to several reserves speaking to native students and their communities. I was very uncomfortable and it must have showed because locals kept asking me if it was my first time “Up North”. I faked my way through the first week and having the weekend off and being too far to go home, I stayed on one of the reserves in a quasi motel without a television, something I truly didn’t appreciate. I was invited to go fishing on the Saturday and since there wasn’t anything else to do, why not? Until I found out it would be in a small aluminum boat with two Cree elders. Honestly, I failed to see the charm and felt my racist pulse start to pound. In keeping with my faking it, I decided to “talk a lot” which was easy because these old Indians didn’t say anything. After heading to their favourite spot far from shore, we dropped our fishing lines (I had been fishing for most of my life spending summers at our cottage) and I just kept talking. All of a sudden, one of the old guys whose name was Joe said, “Do you ever shut up? You white people are all the same. You come up here and bring all you southern stuff with you instead of leaving it at home and appreciating you are here, not there! Besides, you’re scaring the fish! Take as breath, close your mouth and embrace the day!” Sounds a bit like a self-help seminar or an Oprah show, doesn’t it? I was at first offended but then got distracted as my line had a hit and I reeled in a fair size Northern Pike. I got the hint. Spending a few hours on a pristine northern lake, followed by a fresh fish fry over a campfire on the beach was a cure for more than my prejudice of Indians. I can sincerely say it changed everything.
I know this sounds obvious but for a 21 year old, what I finally absorbed was every race has an undesirable element and there really is racism…theirs! Minorities love to claim inequity and while screaming prejudice, some of their most vocal spokespersons are the biggest racists there are. They scream they are treated unfairly but what does that mean? I know this sounds remarkably judgemental but my parents didn’t raise a disabled child, they raised a person and the constant refrain was that I will never believe I am a victim, I will treat people the way I want to be treated and I will never, ever, ever blame the world for my problems. Obviously, some of the rhetoric surrounding this issue has a point…things need to improve in all sectors of society and especially on some reserves but it really is just “some”. Consider this observation.
I have spoken in First Nations communities across North America visiting some of the most amazing, self-reliant reserves imaginable. I have also visited reserves where the number of suicides among their youth was ten times the national average. Am I the only person asking why? More importantly, being recipients of government money means a consistent bureaucracy exists across Canada and all the rules are the same. One of the most irritating elements is First Nations reserves are funded from all taxpayers of countless races across the country but when the spewing begins, it’s all about the “Whiteman”. If that isn’t racist, what is? Here’s one more: First Nations people are very proud but almost too much. If they have challenges managing their affairs on reserve they are extremely hesitant to ask for help, especially their leaders. Leadership knows no race…it is a human element and as all of us know, some are better than others at leading.
But I save the best for last. Government is guilty for one thing in this country…patronization! Pay attention government: Ottawa isn’t Canada! It is in Canada and the seat of government but Canadians, all Canadians matter more. While First Nations, Aboriginal, Native, or Indian (you pick the words) people deserve recognition for their history, so do the rest of Canadians. Isn’t it more important where this country is going rather than where we come from. When I look at how ignorant I was in 1981 and how much I have grown since then, imagine the lunacy of applying 200 year old standards, like treaties, to a 2013 reality. We should all be embarrassed about the way we used to be. Just watch the move “The Help” to see how much “Help” we really did need. The way forward is never easy but can we please just get together on this, rather than further dividing a nation that the likes of Theresa Spence, Ray Robinson and other angry radicals seem intent on doing. As to government, I am very proud (take this any way you like) that at no point in my life have I ever been on welfare, employment insurance or the like. I worked hard, created a company have spoken on six continents to over 2,000,000 people including thousands of my native friends and the idea of letting ” Government” babysit me. They suck at it! My native friends; you are made of so much more.
Hunger strikes? Blockades? Protests? Maybe you should all just shut up and go fishing!