Unionism on Turtle Island: Report
Unionism on Turtle Island: Report by Dennel Pickering
SEIU-West recently held a course about Unionism on Turtle Island, and I wanted to share my report with all of you. If you have any questions, I am happy to meet to discuss.
I wasn’t going to go to Turtle Island training. I felt that I already understood so much about the history of the treatment of first nations peoples and I wanted to save that spot for other members. However, staff at SEIU-West nudged me to go. I’m so glad I did. We started and ended our day in the circle, where we got to hear from everyone. I found it was a great way to get to know each others hearts.
There was much to learn throughout this course, but by far, what impacted me the most was from our members. We had a woman who was deeply hurt by the damage done to her mother and also to her when she entered residential school at age 4. We heard the impact it had on her. We cried with her. We laughed with her. She was truly an inspiration. I heard from a woman who saw neglect among first nations children and didn’t understand why. I heard from a refugee who had similar cultural beliefs to those of First Nations Peoples and said that had First Nations Peoples been able to keep their culture, maybe she wouldn’t be so homesick. I heard from a brother, with passion, as he explained Trudeau Sr’s White Paper Plan to say what happened is over and we are all equal now. There was a powerful visual to show that life doesn’t work like that because when he called the White Paper, Aboriginal Peoples were at such a huge disadvantage that they didn’t suddenly become as well off as the rest of society.
We talked about the myths that are out there. I have heard them many times regarding taxation, education, housing, special privileges, and most importantly, whether Aboriginal Peoples are responsible for their current situation. There is a lot of judgment out there, and I like to remind people – I have no idea where I would be if that was the life I lived. I believe people do they best they can with what they have.
We were lucky to have Elder Hazel with us for the training. She is a wonderful storyteller, a passionate educator and wonderful spirit. We heard the story of Turtle Island and the Story of the Snake. She told us of the culture of First Nations Peoples. Extended family is very important. They are humorous people. She explained the importance of tobacco as a sacred gift. We learned of wampum, shell pictures as a written story. We heard about the importance of 4 and circles through directions, elements, time of day, seasons and stages of life. We heard of Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women. 1200 have gone missing or were murdered since 1980. Aboriginal women are 4 times more likely to be murdered and three times more likely to report being the victim of violent crime.
We explored the treaties and colonization. What I found interesting is that the First Nations Peoples had a verbal agreement with the government that differed from the signed treaties. There is documentation from someone they hired to transcribe. But even the treaty that was signed wasn’t honored. Reserve land is 0.2% of Canada’s land. And they are fighting to keep even that much as oil pipelines are a threat to the remaining land. Aboriginal Peoples thought it was an agreement forever and the government thought it was renegotiable.
We learned how Metis Peoples were treated differently by the government and how the Indian Act stripped First Nations Peoples from even more rights. We heard how the Metis fought back against a government hell-bent on destroying them.
We discussed how even now, Aboriginal Peoples are under attack. Eliminating the long form census has had an impact on funding needed because we won’t know what’s needed because we won’t understand what First Nations Peoples are facing. Changes to the Navigable Waters Protection Act is a threat to Aboriginal land rights, affecting their environment and ignores the voice of First Nations opposing the pipelines. Privatization of Aboriginal lands could be disastrous because, sure, it would allow First Nations on reserves the rights to own their own homes, but what if they sell? That land could be lost forever. Reserve land is protected by treaty and it breaks the treaty to allow private ownership. Fracking is a huge threat to First Nations Peoples. It is a huge environmental threat, both by bringing toxic chemicals to the surface of earth and the earthquakes it is causing. Protesters have been arrested. Canada Jobs Grant continues to put First Nations Peoples at a disadvantage for jobs and training. What happened by our government in the past is done. What continues to happen today can be stopped, if we all join together and not accept what our government is doing.
What hurts my heart the most is residential schools. Often, I hear, that it happened a long time ago by our ancestors. We should get over it. But residential schools ran from 1872-1996. 1996. I was 16 when the last residential school closed. Residential schools weren’t all bad. I get that. But the ones that were, left lasting damage on the entirety of Canada. This affects us all. What has always bothered me was the superiority of our government and religions that truly believed that “we” were a superior race and we could “fix” these “savages”. The reality is that First Nations Peoples were and are amazing. They were incredibly resourceful, living off harsh Canadian lands. They were respectful, not wasting anything. They were happy. They had this sense of community that I admire. Capitalism has been so admired, but looking out for others, not just yourself is by far superior in my eyes. First Nations have come a long way on their journey to heal. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report was healing. The acknowledgement of the damage done is healing. Some of the artifacts seized by the government has been returned to First Nations Peoples. That’s healing.
I deeply feel that unless and until society understands the pain and the history of aggressive assimilation (or attempted genocide of a culture) that First Nations and Metis Peoples have endured, no one can heal. We need to stand up and demand better.. My heart was so happy to see that everyone in the group “got it” and committed to share their knowledge with their community. This is how we create change. This is how we heal.