Coming of the Zhaagnaash
by Neil Garvie
For my Metis wife – giving voice
to her Ojibwe Anishinaabe ancestors
The elders tell us
the zhaagnaash are coming
with their pale arms, clumsy boots
and nervous chatter about change
Change is hard to picture in this place of forever
where the wind whispers through the pine tops
causing boughs to wave to the spirits
filtering just the right amount of sunlight
for the mushrooms that rise after each rainfall
Here, streams trickle over round pebbles
until they are worn to speckles of sand,
signaling the great bird to lay more,
reminding us that everything exists in a circle
We are told the zhaagnaash do not value
such talks about forests and pebbles
We are told the Zhaagnaash follow instructions
from books bound in leather, not seeing
in the forest and streambed
that all Life returns to where it started
Our people have always walked among the old ones
trusting in the Creator and the spirits
We have never troubled
asking questions about tomorrow
But the elders say the zhaagnaash consider us lost
in shadows of imagination
after being too long in the forest
We are told the zhaagnaash believe the world can be
bought and sold, that treasure can be found
by clawing at roots, damming waters
They won’t find riches under the trees
or in wild mushrooms
We are told the zhaagnaash teach their children
that when anyone dies
they should dig great holes in the ground
allowing the dead to take all they can with them
Useless, all that hoarding
Useless, all that rushing to the future
Useless, all that nervous chatter
What would the great stone bird say?
I pray the zhaagnaash will one day find
contentment with the forest, the wind,
the stream washing over pebbles.
(From Neil’s new release, Mother Nature Eats Her Kind, available at his website, garvie.ca)
During the past year the question of systemic racism has been raised several times and certainly deserves our due care and attention. It obviously is part of the United States culture with their history of slavery, discrimination, segregation, and Jim Crow laws that have limited the African American voting rights and their ability to adapt to the political, economic, and social structures. But what about Canada? We certainly have our issues with discrimination against people of color, and there are multiple examples of injustice towards our citizens of African descent, but it is not ingrained like it is in the United States. In my opinion it is not systemic; however we cannot let ourselves off the hook on this issue. We have our own systemic racist problem in how we have treated our indigenous population.
First of all, we have to define systemic racism. Systemic is defined as relating to a system, especially as opposed to a particular part. That means we (the dominant culture) have adapted policies and practices opposed to another culture (Native Canadians). Racism shows up in our personal lives, across our institutions, and throughout our multiracial society. When we look at our native peoples, we see wealth gaps, massive unemployment, substandard housing, inequitable incarceration, and an imbalance in health standards including higher rates of infant mortality. Yes, we do have a problem with racism in Canada, but is it systemic? To determine that we have to look at the history, the role of government, and the role of other institutions within our society.
The history is bleak, not as vicious and not as close to genocide as in the USA, but in some ways just as destructive. The only good part of this history, I believe, stems from my French background. We were mainly interested in the fur trade. The Hurons, and later the Cree and other First Nations, became our trading partners. Some of my ancestors were courier de bois. My great grandfather married a Cree woman and they settled in Quebec back into the French culture. When land opened up in the west, my whole extended family moved to Saskatchewan to establish cattle ranches where buffalo once roamed. We were part of a mixed culture that the British referred to as Half Breeds while the French gave us the kinder name of Metis. However, my ancestors successfully hid our indigenous roots and we denied our indigenous heritage so that we would fit into the social structures of the new west.
But there were some metis who proudly accepted their duel heritage. Louis Riel, who was half French and half Cree, was a true patriot and true Canadian hero who tried to bring other Metis and the First Nations peoples into the mainstream Canadian way of life. Government reaction to him and his cause was the turning point in our history that led to systemic racism. The Canadian government under Sir John A. MacDonald refused to recognize their rights to the land and ignored their desire to become a part of the Canadian mosaic. They sent an army of red coats west to put down the so called rebellion. Treaties were signed to restrict indigenous people to a small corner of the land while the rest was opened up to the new wave of European pioneers.
The prairie solution with treaties and conditions outlined by those treaties made the problem politically systemic. From 1885 to 1960 indigenous people were relegated to second rate citizenship and were not allowed to vote, hold office, or even leave the reserve without written permission from the government Indian Agent. In British Columbia there were few treaties with the exception of the 14 land purchases on Vancouver Island conducted by Douglas that are known as the Fort Victoria Treaties. Even with the treaties there were hundreds of examples where we did not live up to the moral and legal obligations. It was not until July 1, 1982, that the Constitution Act with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms was enacted whereby Section 35 of the Constitution Act legally guaranteed that “existing Aboriginal and Treaty Rights of the Aboriginal people of Canada are hereby recognized and affirmed.” The things said and implied by those treaties then became fair game for legal action resulting in the ability of First Nations to defend themselves legally but with little subsequent political will for the kind of progress that would lead to systemic changes.
Indigenous people remained socially isolated from mainstream culture while their own social structures were systematically destroyed. The treaties and the reserves, rather than establishing a base for participation in the Canadian economy, became a prison where native goals were ignored, culture stagnated, and the people suffered wide spread injustices. Some of our social systems made paternalistic attempts to provide for basic needs but most was left up to the religious organizations that strived to convert native peoples to the white man’s religion and way of life. This included a vain attempt to bring them into mainstream culture by destroying their beliefs that were the backbone of their old culture. This is where the residential schools came in. The most tragic aspect of these attempts is that they were made by good people in good faith who did not really know what they were doing. In other words, they were systemic. As long as indigenous people were kept on the reserves, the rest of us did not really care what was happening – out of sight, out of mind.
After the reform movement of the 1960’s, many indigenous people began to move to the cities to look for employment and a better way of life. They had not been prepared for the transition. A few integrated successfully, but most were unemployed and fell into the woes of the welfare system which barely kept them alive. They attempted to educate their children in the local schools where they had difficulty competing academically and were shunned socially by students and teachers alike. As long as they were quiet and did not cause any trouble, they were tolerated, but no attempt was made to help them be successful. No one really cared when they dropped out of school and out or mainstream society to became part of the tragic environment that we still see today with massive unemployment, our jails filled with angry young men who do not feel they belong, and young women who are marginalized, abused, and even murdered without a real effort to find the perpetrators. In addition the justice system continues to put them at risk with some untrained and unsympathetic police and correctional officers who treat them with disrespect and occasional outright abuse.
The social institutions and attitudes continue to have a tragic effect on indigenous people in most areas of our country. We have seen in the past year what has happening with the Micmac fishermen in Nova Scotia where their ancient rights to the sea and land has been challenged. Even though the Supreme Court of Canada has recognized those rights, the fishermen of Nova Scotia do not. We have seen protests over the senseless killing of troubled indigenous people who should have been treated and subdued with respect without the use of lethal force. Meanwhile, there is a tendency for Canadians to ignore what is happening and say it is not our problem.
Well, it is our problem. When one suffers we all suffer, be it the guilt of knowing what we have done and continue to do, or the economic burdens to our social services, health care institutions, and justice system. However, much more importantly, we risk losing our humanity as we ignore the horrendous human suffering that is happening to these once proud and prosperous people. We ignore what is happening because if we see the reality we are left with the feeling of helplessness. We are basically good people. We want to do the right thing. We want to help our brothers and sisters heal themselves, but we are still under the delusion that our way of life is the best way of life, and that it is they who have to change and not us. If we could take our cultural blinders off for just a few seconds, we would see that we are indeed the Zhaagnaash. Our systems are the cause of systemic racism, and our systemic racism and hard cold callousness is what is destroying this planet and the beautiful indigenous people who inhabit it. Indigenous peoples offer us traditional cultures of compassion, love, and respect for the land and for each other that we all desperately need if we are to survive. It is time to listen to the shamans, elders, and indigenous poets and artists, and let them teach us how to survive and thrive with partnership with each other and with the land.