“There is always a philosophy for lack of courage.” – Albert Camus

“I shouldn’t have to feel like an immigrant in my own country.”

I said that during a dinner with some friends a few weeks ago. Shortly after that I became the target of a hate crime.

We were discussing how we can reach out to the Aboriginal population of my hometown of Hamilton, Ontario. Hamilton has a Aboriginal population of roughly 17,000, bolstered by the Six Nations Reserve, which is about 20 minutes away. Things have been tense in the Hamilton area for Aboriginals ever since they occupied a housing development in nearby Caledonia, claiming it was on land given to them in a treaty signed in 1784. After the occupation and its fallout, I’ve noticed a definite increase in anti-Aboriginal sentiment in Hamilton. Those sentiments flared up again when Idle No More was at it’s height last year.

The dinnertime discussion touched on that Aboriginals in Hamilton face an uphill battle in truly showing what they have to offer. Aboriginal education rates are far below the levels of their non-Aboriginal counterparts in both secondary and post-secondary graduation levels, and Aboriginals are disproportionally over-represented in Canada’s criminal justice system compared to their non-Aboriginal counterparts.

The dinner discussion led to brainstorming ways that we can help Aboriginals, especially young men, rise above the social disparity facing them. We talked about the need for respect, tolerance and forgiveness. We talked about how education was the single biggest factor in determining the potential one’s life has. Unfortunately, all that anger towards Aboriginals came right back to the forefront as we were leaving the restaurant.

A man followed us out and singled me out, convinced that I was one of the Aboriginals who occupied and damaged his home during the Caledonia blockade. I told him that he was mistaken and that I purposely avoided Caledonia because I didn’t agree with what was going on there and didn’t want to be associated with it. My denials only served to further enrage him and he took out that rage by punching me several times, including one hit that broke my nose.

After being hit several times, two police officers on a routine patrol of the area stepped in and arrested him. When I was done giving my statement to the officers, one of them said to me “it’s not that often that we have an Aboriginal file charges. Most of them they seem to want to avoid having anything to do with us”.

In the weeks since that incident, I’ve reflected on what it means to me to be Aboriginal, especially in light of such overt racism. It’s one thing to hear someone talk about an something like racism or a hate crime. It’s a completely different thing to go through that yourself. I’ve read about hate crimes, the victim’s statements, the newspaper commentaries about how our society should be better than this. It’s suddenly all taken on new meaning for me.

As I replay in my head what happened to me, how the incident unfolded, one thing becomes crystal clear: a feeling of being helpless. It’s not that I couldn’t have fought back. I know how to fight. I know how to throw a punch, block an opponent’s punch, look for an opening in their defenses to exploit. No, rather that feeling of helplessness came from the realization that in this type of situation, I couldn’t fight back without quickly being viewed by some witnesses as the troublemaker.

The hardest thing to do when someone is taunting me, trying to get me into a fight, is to stay calm and not go for it. I’ll be honest with you, I have a temper. It can be very difficult to turn the other cheek knowing full well that when I do, the person trying to goad me into a fight will just redouble their attack because they see I’m not fighting back. With the assault, if I fought back just as hard as my attacker fought me, it would be very easy for him to justify to the crowds that every negative thing he believed about Aboriginals was absolutely true.

I wanted to fight back. I wanted to hit him as hard as he was hitting me, but what good would that have accomplished? Most likely I would have been charged with assault, same as he was, and any victory, moral or otherwise, that I could have achieved as an Aboriginal would have been gone. I couldn’t fight back during the assault. It’s almost humiliating on a personal level to stand there and take my attacker’s punches when I know how to fight back. Yet, I took them, knowing full-well that I didn’t want to give him (or any onlooker) any justification for his hateful beliefs. The same goes for times when I’ve been out and people have made racially charged comments towards me. Comments like “I’ve never seen a sober Indian before”, or “What are you doing off your reserve?”, or “Waiting for another government handout?” do get under my skin, even if I seem to not have let them register with me.

The racial comments do get to me. I can’t lie to myself and say they don’t. There have been nights, after someone has said something or done something particularly vicious, that all I can do to get out that anger is punch a couch pillow until my arms feel like lead. There have been nights when I’ve screamed into a pillow until my lungs hurt because that is the only way to get this built-up anger out of me in a way that doesn’t cause more problems. I could have made a snide remark back to the people making loaded comments towards me. I could have pushed back when someone purposely pushes me aside just because of my racial heritage, but what good would that do? Nothing worth doing.

I’m not going to let being assaulted get me down. I have too many other things to work and focus on than being defined by someone else’s anger. As I’ve said before, if we truly desire justice, change, and healing, it can only come when we end our desire to see the other person hurt. I honestly do forgive my attacker for his outburst of anger towards me. He was wronged and mistook me for the person who wronged him. I would imagine hearing someone you believe blockaded, occupied and damaged your home talking about fairness, justice and respect towards others would seem like an extremely hypocritical act.

I don’t harbor any ill-will towards my attacker. I’d rather forgive and move on and hope that he finds a better way to deal with emotions and sentiments he obviously hasn’t dealt with. There’s nothing to be gained by holding on to anger or letting that anger turn into prejudice.

In the weeks since the attack, I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on the evening’s events. I think about the conversations I had over dinner about wanting to find a better way to help Aboriginals live up to their potential. Unfortunately, I can see all too clearly that the road to achieving a better world for Canadian Aboriginals is one that is going to be littered with more incidents like what happened to me, and done by both sides.

I do dream of a day when I no longer feel the need to say “I shouldn’t have to feel like an immigrant in my own country”. I can’t accomplish that dream on my own and I am well aware that for all the positive steps taken towards eliminating prejudice and intolerance, there will always be those who, when confronted with the choice of self-education or racism, will choose racism because it’s the easy road.

I don’t know if my attacker is racist or just someone who reached their breaking point after having to go through a situation where there were many mistakes made by all sides involved. I’d prefer to believe that he just reached a breaking point and made a bad decision. I’d like to believe that in the weeks since that night he too has spent time contemplating a better way. I could be completely wrong but I want to believe in the best in people.

After all, you can’t truly hate someone you believe in; if they do let you down, you hope that one day they can do better.

I hope that better day comes soon.

An Open Letter to the Aboriginal Youth of Canada

As I write this, Aboriginals are making their strength known in Canada as never before. The Idle No More movement has dominated headlines for six weeks now and it shows no signs of letting up. I have tried to figure out what will happen next for us as First Nations people as we fight a bill that will have profound effects on our ways of life for years to come. That’s why I’m writing this letter to all of you, because right now over half of the Aboriginal population of Canada is under 25.

Like you, I am Aboriginal. I am an Ojibway from the Wabaseemoong Independent Nations. Unlike many of you I didn’t grow up on a reserve. I know that many of you who have grown up on reserves have done in so complete poverty. I know that in many of those cases the poverty has been because of forces far beyond your control, the seeds of which were planted 150 years ago.

It saddens me when I hear the stories of addiction and suicide that run rampant on reserves. The world that’s been created for us, both as Aboriginals and Canadians, is unacceptable. We deserve a better world to be born into. Aboriginal children deserve, like all children do, a chance to explore, to learn, to grow and to find love and happiness.

The world we will find ourselves in over the next few years is an uncertain one at best. Our rights, heritage and even our very identity as Aboriginals are at risk. We need to show trust and patience with the generations who’ve come before us, as we all try to chart the best course through these murky times and find the best future for all of us, not just as Aboriginals but as Canadians.

You might ask us why we are fighting so hard right now for our rights and freedoms. The answer, ultimately, is simple: you, the Aboriginal youth of Canada.

It will be the Aboriginal youth of Canada who ultimately receive both the blessings and pays the price for the actions taking place now. It will be up to us, a generation which mostly has never known the abuse of the residential school system, to lead our people past the physical, emotional and spiritual scars inflicted on us there. It will be up to us to figure out how to leave that pain in the past, and most importantly, how to forgive those who inflicted those grievous wounds on us.

I know we have it in ourselves to find that strength to forge a brighter future. I know that given the chance we can rise above the cycles of addictions and abuse that have enslaved us for so long. I’ve seen the potential in Aboriginal youth, and what that potential can do when given a proper chance to grow and face the world on its own terms. I can only imagine the bright future that awaits the Aboriginal peoples of Canada if the Aboriginal youth of Canada are given the fair chance we deserve.

I also know that we can’t do it alone, and we shouldn’t have to. I ask that all of you forgive the older Aboriginal generations for where they have failed you in the past. If they have discouraged you in your dreams it’s because they’ve lost the ability to believe in their own. If they’ve told you that making something of yourselves is an unachievable goal, it’s because the weight of their past has left them unable to see beyond their pain. We are a proud people and that can be both our greatest strength and our greatest fault.

There will always be those who will mock you and try to tear you down simply because you’re Aboriginal. I know this because I’ve been through it myself. But it’s up to you to either accept those words or reject them, remembering that blind hatred is something best left alone. It’s not easy to walk away from hate but we must be strong and rise above all the anger because to give into it only leads to destruction.

The future, our future, is only limited by how hard we’re willing to work and the risks we’re willing to take. I won’t promise you that things will always work out and that people won’t fail you. I won’t promise you that you’ll win every battle or that the victory you seek won’t take everything you have in the process. I won’t promise you the right thing will always be obvious or easy. But I will promise you that there is something greater out there for Aboriginals, and now is the time to come together and work towards it.

We have all the potential in the world to do great and amazing things. The first step is to get an education so that we can unlock our potential and help each other find talents and abilities we might have never known we had. Each of us has a purpose and it’s up to each of you find out what it is.

 The second step is to always remember the special heritage we hold inside ourselves. While the changes that are coming for Aboriginals are uncertain and the end results of our coming together as never before are unknown, know that the key to our future, as both Aboriginals and as Canadians, rests in the choices we make as it becomes our turn to lead.

I look forward to that day.

Apegish wii-zhawenimik Manidoo (I hope you are blessed by the Creator)

Shane Pennells

“The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.” – Alice Walker

There is a growing movement in Canadian Aboriginal circles called Idle No More. Its mission statement is to call “on all people to join in a revolution which honors and fulfills Indigenous sovereignty which protects the land and water. Colonization continues through attacks to Indigenous rights and damage to the land and water. We must repair these violations, live the spirit and intent of the treaty relationship, work towards justice in action, and protect Mother Earth”.

The driving force behind Idle No More is opposition to a piece of legislation before Canada’s Parliament, an omnibus bill with everything from changes to Senatorial pensions to the construction of a new bridge between Windsor and Detroit. The two sections causing the issues in Aboriginal circles are changes to the Indian Act and further changes to the Environmental Assessment Act.

Changes to the Indian Act include changing the rules about what kind of meetings are required to lease or grant interest in designated lands, as well as giving the Aboriginal Affairs minister the authority to call a band meeting or referendum for the purpose of considering the absolute surrender of the band’s territory to the federal government.

The Environmental Assessment Act changes include making major pipeline and inter-provincial power line projects exempt from requirements that they prove they wouldn’t damage or destroy navigable waterways in Canada. A list of lakes and rivers was attached to this section of the bill and anything mentioned on it is no longer under federal protection.

The effects the omnibus bill can have are potentially devastating to Aboriginal land claims. The changes to the Indian Act make it far easier for the Federal government to make expropriation claims on Aboriginal lands. Expropriation might be better known as “eminent domain”, meaning authorities have the right to buy private property for public use as long as there is fair compensation. This by itself isn’t detrimental to Aboriginal land claims, but there are other factors which make the timing of this legislation very suspect. We’ll get to those in a moment. The Environmental Assessment Act changes have taken protection off many Aboriginal-controlled lakes and rivers, making them open for development and resource harvesting. Again, it’s not the changes themselves that are the problem, but discussing what has come before the omnibus bill will make things clearer.

Let’s turn back the clock a bit:

On June 11, 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper stood in the House of Commons and gave a solemn apology for Residential Schools, where thousands of Aboriginal children were taken from their parents and subjected to mistreatment, including physical and sexual abuse. This apology was seen as a strong step towards reconciliation for Aboriginal peoples across Canada and a government with which they have for decades viewed with mistrust.

On October 28, 2011, the Aboriginal community of Atiwapiskat declared a state of emergency for the third time in three years, resulting from multiple issues including housing, utilities, inadequate water and sanitation systems. The media attention the story quickly gathered brought the poverty of many Aboriginal communities to the screens of millions. The Harper government’s response was seen as slow, inadequate and willfully ignorant of the facts of the situation. Many Aboriginals I talked to saw this as a turning point in fighting the sense of increasing marginalization of Aboriginal communities.

On January 24, 2012, Harper met with Assembly of First Nations Chief Shawn Atleo and while calling for an overhaul and updating of the Indian Act, promised that “Our government has no grand scheme to repeal or unilaterally rewrite the Indian Act”.

On June 4, 2012, Bill C-428, the Indian Act Amendment and Replacement Act, was introduced by Saskatchewan Conservative MP Rob Clarke. The bill had mixed reactions in the Aboriginal communities. While the bill called for greater authority for Aboriginal chiefs and councils and less authority for the Native Affairs minister and federal government, it was also seen as a step against Prime Minister Harper’s promise to not repeal or unilaterally rewrite the Indian Act. The bill passed its first reading on December 5, 2012, by a vote of 156-129, with Prime Minister Harper voting in favor of it.

This brings us back to the omnibus bill that set Idle No More in motion. The bill, also known as Bill C-45, was passed on December 5 as well, by a vote of 156-128, again with Prime Minister Harper voting in favor of it.

So now what? From the joy of reconciliation to anger over changes in the Indian Act, it’s been a turbulent few years for Canadian Aboriginals. The timing of the bills, and their affect on Aboriginals is suspect because of the Harper government’s push to build a new oil pipeline, one that would most likely have run through Aboriginal land. The changes in how expropriation claims are made, to me, feels like the government is gearing up to start making claims on Aboriginal lands that run along the proposed pipeline routes by simply saying “the government has need of this land”. The taking away of protection status on some 16,000 lakes and rivers, again to me, seems like a move to make expropriation claims that much easier. What bothers me most is the giving the Aboriginal Affairs minister the authority to call a band meeting for the purpose of considering the absolute surrender of the band’s territory to the federal government. This feels to me like nothing more than a end-game solution for getting land that has politically valuable purpose.

The use of the omnibus bill, in which literally hundreds of amendments to law are pushed together, seems like a tactic designed simply to make it impossible to adequately argue against the proposed amendments in the House of Commons. With so many things pushed together, it becomes overwhelming to try to fully anticipate all intended affects of each section of the bill. The irony in this is that when Stephen Harper was first elected to Parliament, he was an outspoken critic of omnibus bill usage by the Liberal government, calling it an injustice to democracy.

I have no desire to turn this into an anti-Harper tirade. That’s not going to help anyone, especially in a situation as politically fragile as what we find ourselves in now. What I will say is this: when I see ads on TV promoting the proposed pipeline I smirk to myself because I can only imagine the amount of money and political wrangling behind that advertisement. Let me put it this way: if the pipeline was not such a political minefield, you wouldn’t need commercials to sway interest because there would be little opposition to it to begin with.

As for Idle No More, here’s my take on it: I myself am an Aboriginal of Ojibway descent and part of the Wabaseemoong Independent Nations. I was not raised in an Aboriginal home but was adopted by a Caucasian family. In this way I am, in many ways, an outsider looking in at my own culture. At the risk of opening up a firestorm, I am glad that I was adopted because it has given me opportunities that wouldn’t have been there if I had been raised by my birth family. Unfortunately my birth family falls in the category so many other Aboriginals have found themselves in, one where the cycle of addiction and brokenness only repeats itself with each passing generation.

A friend of mine teaches in a school in Fort Albany, Ontario, on James Bay. It is a mostly Aboriginal community and the stories of broken families she’s relayed to me are heartbreaking. Many of her students often miss class because they have to take care of their parents, who often spend their days and nights getting drunk. A number of those parents went to residential schools, and the abuse they suffered there has left them hardened and bitter towards any non-Aboriginal person. My friend, who is Caucasian, has said to me several times that “if you’re not Aboriginal, the chances of you being accepted in the community drop greatly”.

I say all this because I want to try to convey to you what’s at risk for the Aboriginal community. This isn’t just about land claims or bitterness over past treatment. There is a very real sense among Aboriginals that this a move to slowly do away with Aboriginals as a distinct society within Canada. If you slowly take away land claims, legally and politically assigned rights and privileges, eventually there will no distinction between Aboriginals and any other Canadian citizen. Perhaps the best way I can phrase this is that it’s “assimilation via the installment plan”.

I spoke at an Idle No More gathering and said that the time has come for Aboriginals to stop letting ourselves be marginalized and that it’s time to break free from that cycle of brokenness that has affected so many families. Most importantly, the time has come to forgive those who wronged us, whether it be by sending our children to residential schools, or putting us on reservations that limited our livelihood, or by any other way that we’ve been wronged.

Shawn Atleo, Aboriginal First Nations Chief, said ” We can’t work in isolation. The status quo has to be significantly changed, and these young people in the communities where I go need to see, taste and feel results sooner than later. I hope we’re in the kind of tipping point movement that other movements have experienced, whether it’s civil rights, women’s rights, the environmental issues”.

I do find myself torn when it comes to the Idle No More movement. On the one side, I can see where the merits are, where the possibility of change lies, but on the other, I really do wonder what lasting affect this activism will have, especially in seeing self-implosion of the Occupy movement. That said I do dream of a day when Natives are able to live up to their full potential in Canadian society. I dream of a day when the vicious cycles of addiction are finally broken. I dream of a day when I no longer have to worry about slurs and vitriol being flung at me simply because of my ethnic heritage.

Aboriginals have a voice and they have a vote that counts as equally as any other Canadian’s but up to now we’ve squandered that voice. For too long we’ve heard cries of “I’ve been wronged” instead of “I have something to contribute”. We are guilty for our predicament in that we stopped believing we could be more than what we were constantly told we were.

The first step is forgiveness. If we can forgive, we can move forward. I’m excited to see so many of my Aboriginal brothers and sisters coming together in a way never before seen. I just wish it didn’t take the threat of the end of our status as Aboriginals to ignite the fire.