A grandmother's optimism

By Sylvia Olsen, February 2013

Idle No More is a healthy sign, a rejection of victimhood.

Thirty-nine years ago I moved to Tsartlip First Nation on Vancouver Island. The reserve was my home for 35 years. I was an 18-year-old “white” girl then. Now I’m a non-indigenous mother, auntie and grandmother to some of the next generation of indigenous Canadians. 

From my perspective, Idle No More is a movement, make no mistake. My Facebook feed indicates that the news is vastly understating the numbers of gatherings and attendees. But then why wouldn’t there be thousands of frustrated young indigenous people in our country? They are educated. They have been learning their history and it’s not a great story.

It doesn’t feel good to know how your beloved grandmother or grandfather was treated at residential school. It’s hard to see pictures of your family huddled in shacks more suited to livestock than human beings. It’s personal. Many of this generation are mix- blooded like my children. They are conflicted by the burden of their heritage.  

It’s not surprising that these gatherings are not violent. Some of the protesters promote an aggressive approach, but mostly the drummers and singers are parents, students, teachers, millworkers and nurses, just like their neighbours. After the gatherings, they are heading off to do the grocery shopping or to take the car in for servicing. They have to get their kids to hockey or karate or dance lessons.

Theresa Spence has not articulated a clear message. But Idle No More is not about Ms Spence or about chiefs meeting Stephen Harper. It is about young indigenous Canadians, sparked by concerns regarding Bill C45, who are speaking up and leading elders and non-indigenous people. They are voicing environmental concerns about the way the bill promotes potentially harmful resource development. They are defending their right to be consulted on issues that concern their well-being. They are saying it isn’t right to make decisions about First Nations without First Nations. They are meeting together in person and communicating through social media. They are feeling good about their messages, about each other and about themselves.

The post-war baby boom changed Canada in the 1960s and ’70s. Now Canada has an indigenous baby boom and it will change our country in the next few decades. Most of us old baby boomers don’t like this movement any better than our parents liked our protests. But it’s not about us. Remember? Back then we wanted to change the status quo. The indigenous baby boom wants to do the same thing.

There are difficult and compromising social issues to deal with within indigenous communities, but this is an exciting generation. They are evolving in their own way. They are maintaining old identities and creating new ones. And, equally as significant, they are becoming economically successful.

Indigenous and non-indigenous relations have always been contentious in this country. We have issues that are hard to deal with politely, like good Canadians. We are suspicious on both sides of what the others might be getting that we are missing out on. “Indian benefits” and “white privilege” bother us. But what we are really missing out on is each other.

I hear young indigenous people saying: “We wish our country would listen to us. Our message is more complex than we can easily articulate. We have a long and troubled message about racism and exclusion and alienation and poverty. It is best spoken through the rhythm of our drums. We are rich and wonderful people with a lot to contribute to our country. We are angry at the past and hopeful for the future. We are going to make mistakes just like we have seen Canadian society make mistakes in the past. But we love being indigenous. We love our reserves even though they are troubled little colonial corners of the country—they are our homes and we will turn them into vibrant communities. Come on Canada, times are changing. Of course our traditions are not exactly like they used to be, but one thing we know for sure is that we want to leave something for our children and grandchildren that is good and healthy and we don’t like what we see the Harper government doing to our territories.”

This might sound too much like grandmotherly optimism for some of the cynical amongst you. But positive change is bubbling up everywhere. Canadians, indigenous and non- indigenous alike have become too familiar with negative stories. We have all been complicit in thinking about indigenous people as victims. Even indigenous leaders and academics have flogged these stories in the hope of achieving more for themselves and their people. But Idle No More is saying enough now—we do not want to be victims any longer.

I think it’s a good day to embrace a new chapter in the old story. A wave of young indigenous people has come of age. They bring with them many gifts for our country. Yes, it is truly a good day to open our minds to the possibilities.

Sylvia Olsen is an award-winning author and Canadian historian who has lived most of her adult life in Tsartlip First Nation on Vancouver Island. She works in housing on reserves across the country. As a Phd candidate at UVic, she is writing a history of on-reserve housing in Canada.