Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Face-to-face with the post-colonial reality

I just spent the better part of last week in Winnipeg, dealing with that lovely and burgeoning example of the best of aboriginal promise, APTN. I had a lot of fun – their membership is bright, brave and willing to do a lot of things, and they shine with the brilliance of promise and the novelty of speaking in our voices in a way the majority of Canadians have never seen before. I salute them and their youthful courage, their ambition and drive. They made me feel proud.

But you know what... I have to say I found Winnipeg incredibly depressing. I shouldn’t because it’s probably the one place in Canada where the indigenous reality of this country is reflected in the population, but damn, the in-your-face clarity of our post-colonial reality was too intense, too heartbreaking, too concrete for me to celebrate what should be a success story. The evidence of our degradation and colonization was everywhere, in the methed-out skinny teenagers with scabs all over their faces, in the rail-thin elders begging in the streets, in the obese beaten-down women pushy wailing children in rickety strollers, in the freaky facial deformities that are the stark reminder of fetal alchohol effect, in the poverty and the jaded hopelessness that pervades through the city like a black miasma. It was depressing, almost too much for me to articulate.

Maybe as a sheltered Haudenosaunee from Southern Ontario I get to be spared the worst of our post-colonial reality. Maybe I’m one of the lucky ones, insulated as I am through a combination of luck, a functional family, an education, a well-paying job. I am incredibly fortunate when I think about it. Born into a family that functioned, that was not battered too badly from the loss of culture and our language, a family that was able to adapt and prepare its members to function in the white man’s world. Because seriously – all of my family is capable of doing that. We are lucky. None of our progenitors had to go to residential school because they were able to figure out a way to send their children off the reserve to be educated and they in turn came back to start the education system on the reserve. We also value a higher education and finding employment, to make ourselves into model citizens that retain the core of our Iroquoian ways. My entire family is extremely proud of our heritage and work in ways to let that be known. In fact, my family name precedes itself, opening doors in the aboriginal world in a way I wasn’t really conscious of until now. It’s kind of cool. And the noble history of the Haudenosaunee precedes itself as well. People were telling me, “Where would we be without the resistance of the Iroquois?”

However, if I had to live there I would be spending my entire time plotting and scheming and scrimping and saving to get the hell out, to launch myself into orbit. But I shouldn’t be such a snob about it. Everyone tries to do their best with what they have. It’s just that the post-colonial deck is stacked against some of those beautiful and bright APTN workers, especially the young women.

And what beautiful girls they were! God I loved them – they were so cool and eager and ambitious, you could see the flame burning in them and I want them all to shine with supernova brilliance. I want them to burn gloriously like stars. I think they are capable of it. Moreso than the men. I don’t know why that is but it seems to be a reality of our people, the reality of all of us who have been colonized. Or maybe that’s my own personal projection, but still... I know they can do it – they just need to be given some time and the grace to be able to.

I want to say to those beautiful and bright girls that I met, come with me, come to Toronto, we’ll hang out and do cool things and buy pretty clothes and shoes and bags, and you will have a beautiful life, you will be a star...But like me they will find a city that becomes their home, and close to their families, close to the place that sustains them and where the bones of their ancestors lie, and I can’t make things easier for them. I wish I could, but they have to learn in their own way how to be a modern indigenous woman in Kanata. I can only hope that they will.