Blinded by Privilege

Sunday August 16th

“I am not sick. I am not a victim. I have been colonized. I am a member of a strong and resilient people. The effects of being colonized have made me sick. I have been victimized but that is not who I am. I have been healed, and continue to heal, by the traditional ways and medicines of my ancestors – given to them by the great spirit.” (a paraphrase)

My great-great-grandfather James Reeve brought his family to Ontario because the Church of England would not educate his Baptist children. Ryerson had created a public education system. A system that has benefitted generations of Reeve children. Ryerson also created the Residential school system for Indians.

I too have been colonized. It is difficult to see this from my deep immersion in the privileges that I enjoy. It is difficult to see that my friends, family, and people who share my culture and status are intrinsically a part of a systematic, racist, strategy to undermine the collective power of a people, of anyone, who might stand in the way of progress.

With plain language. With humility. With a lived experience to draw from, Larry Morrissette of Winnipeg’s Bear Clan (one clan among many) explains how colonization has attempted to destroy his culture and eradicate his people’s claims on the land we call Canada.

Larry is the founder and president of Medicine Fire Lodge Inc., an Indigenous organization involved in cultural revitalization through education and training. He teaches at the University of Winnipeg. One day, he tells us, he showed up to give a lecture and a security guard stopped him and asked him if he was looking for the Food Bank.

He says this kind of thing can trigger memories of abuse suffered in the residential school by “mean” nuns. His hope is that the young people – including his children and grandchildren – who learn the traditional teachings and use the medicines of their people will be better able to protect themselves from such attacks on their personhood.

“They thought we’d be gone by now – but we’re still here.”

Larry generously shares the four directions teachings of his Bear Clan with us. Each clan, he explains, has it’s own variations of the four directions teachings. We’re a small group of international witnesses visiting the Grassy Narrows blockade of the clear cutting Whiskey Jack forest. CPT has been accompanying this blockade since it began in 2002.

That’s when young members of the band decided to put at risk any potential benefits of cooperating with the Federal and Ontario government. The Band Council had no success in effecting change working through the official channels of engaging the Federal and Provincial governments. The young people took direct action.

Larry gives us a Canadian history lesson outlining how official policies have served corporate interests in first conquering, then starving, then taking the Indian out of the Indian, then assimilating, and now treating the Indian problem as a sickness – as something to be cured through pharmacology and sociology. From the start, european settlers’ economies led to hardship for indigenous peoples. (Clearing the plains of bison, overhunting the forests, clustering the people on reserves, and later on, clearcutting the forest and poisoning the land.)

“The only reason first nations people were given the vote in 1969 was that Lester Pearson was pursuing status with the United Nations.”

What makes colonization complex – and de-colonization so difficult – is a series of trade-offs that benefits some – while discriminating against any who might stand in the way of corporate interests. The first treaties were a trade-off. Band leaders sought a way to feed their starving people. Then, parents looked for ways to educate their children to equip them for colonial life. Leaders and parents today want what’s best for their children. Because it works for some – it means there is no unity among the people.

An example of this “divide and conquer” strategy that works at all levels is how a few teachers managed to control hundreds of students in residential schools. Larry explains that the nuns would “employ” select students to serve as taskmasters, snitches, enforcers. By adopting the tactics and serving the interests of those in power – life was easier for them.

The question, says Larry, is “what privileges are you prepared to risk and lose in order to be a part of the de-colonized solution?”

“You can’t make deals with Judy.” He’s referring to Judy DaSilva one of the blockade leaders. “She won’t trade her rights for the priviledges offered.”

Undoing colonialism is about a communal worldview. While colonialism serves the rights and interests of individuals – breeding consumerism in its wake, indigenous traditions are all about taking care of the community. In a communal culture every individual understands their identity and role in the context of the community’s health.

For me, as a Christian who desires to follow Jesus, the choice of communal versus individual benefits is at the crux of the question.

The rich young man asks Jesus what he must do. Jesus tells him to give away all his possessions. The young man goes away sad because he has many attachments.

But is that the end of the story? What seed did Jesus’ instruction plant in that young man’s life? Did that young man begin to dig deeper into his indigenous heritage? Did he begin to understand the connections between his personal privileges and the poverty of his people?

Larry works with gang members in Winnipeg’s North End. And he works with over-educated white boys like me. He asks “What privileges are you willing to risk and lose in order to be part of the solution?”

I am sad – for I have many attachments. I am sad – for those attachments are intrinsically part of a globalized systemic corporatization of the resources I call Mother Earth. I am sad – for I am no longer a young man and for all my years of working and protesting and educating others about how to change this system – the planet, the forests, the creatures, the peoples of the land suffer more and more.

Larry asks “What privileges are you prepared to risk and lose in order to be a part of the solution?”

The Roman soldier standing with spear in hand beside a row of crosses asks the same question.

My bank manager looking at my mortgage application asks the same questiion.

My grandchildren unable to eat the fish from polluted rivers and lakes ask the same question.

I am no longer blind. I can see. This is the bad news about the good news of the full life offered in the kin-dom of all my relations.

Photo: Hubert Den Drake

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