Issue 19 - Evidence, November 19, 2012 (afternoon meeting)
WINNIPEG, Monday, November 19, 2012
The Standing Senate Committee on Human Rights met this day at 2 p.m. to study issues pertaining to the human rights of First Nations band members who reside off-reserve, with an emphasis on the current federal policy framework.
Senator Patrick Brazeau (Deputy Chair) in the chair.
A number of people presented to the Senate Committe on Human Rights in Winnipeg, MB this past November. I was fortunate to be one of those people. My view is that the government is just looking a more ways to divide the Nations. Continuous categorization of Indians to separate them even further. We cannot get caught up in playing that game. Instead we just spoke about Thunderbird House to give some context to the plight of Indians in Manitoba and Canada. Here are the words I spoke to the Senate. There were a number of other speakers there that day. You can click on the heading to link to their thoughts.
Thank you for reading.
Steve Courchesne, Member of the Board, Circle of Life Thunderbird House: Honourable senators, meegwetch. I would really like to welcome you to the area of Treaty 1. As an Ojibway person and signatory to Treaty 1 as our family was, thank you for coming here and allowing us to present.
I sit on the board for Thunderbird House and also Native Addictions Council of Manitoba. We are here to talk about some of the issues pertaining to urban Aboriginal people, especially within Winnipeg.
Let me start off with a story, this is the way the elders back home do it. I am from Sagkeeng First Nation. Back home, every year there are a number of sundances on our reserve. That was not the case when I was a kid in the 1960s. You would not know there was a sundance ceremony going on on our reserve when it happens, people know and they go. The sundance ceremony is a ceremony of sacrifice; you forego food and water and you dance for four days. The elders tell us that is the closest, while you are on earth, you will get to the Creator, who comes and sits. There is a tree in a circle. You stand and you dance and you look at that circle, and that is where Thunderbirds come, and that is where the Creator comes and listens to you. It is not about bravery, like the movies say, it is about sacrifice. You sacrifice for your people for your community. People come and do that.
After this one sundance in our community, after the ceremony was done, the flags were taken down, and people's offerings were taken away, someone from our reserve went to that tree and defecated at the base of it. Now, what does that have to do with Aboriginal people and us? Well literally, as Aboriginal people, we are shitting on ourselves, and pardon me for the vulgarity, my vulgar language, but that is a reflection of where we stand right now. The basis of where we stand is that, you know what? We are damaged people. Why are we damaged? Let us look at the history, and I am not going to go over the stats and rehash everything because our people have been saying it over and over here, and pointing it out quite clearly. I want to say that if you are going to step on the tundra, there is going to be a footprint there. That is what happened to Aboriginal people. The churches and the government stepped on the people and left a footprint. For some people, they have managed to succeed even though they have been stepped on, but many of our people have not.
Look at the city of Winnipeg. You have an exodus of people leaving the reserve and coming primarily to the inner cities. Why are they going there? For a lot of reasons: work, lack of housing lack and resources. There is another reason they go; it is a brain drain. People who are educated are going to look elsewhere for opportunities. There are some good people who stay and try helping the community, but opportunities are few and far between.
Here in Winnipeg, there are a lot of good people out there and a lot of organizations out there, like the Christian sect. If you look around this area here in the heart of Winnipeg, Thunderbird House is on the notorious Main Street, Main and Higgins. At one time, I remember in the 1970s there used to be a bar right where Thunderbird House is situated — the Patricia. Beside the bar there was a row of buildings. In that row, right where Thunderbird house sits now, a place of spirituality and a place of welcome, was a shooting gallery. It was like in the movies where you knock on a hard steel door and people let you in. There is no electricity. It is dark and it stinks. There is no real furniture there, but there are people everywhere, and there are spent needles all over the place. I happened to frequent that place when I was younger.
Anyway, it was an eye opener. People would curl up into a ball and try to find a vein just to get that Talwin, Ritalin — it was Ts and Rs. It was the cheap drug at that time. Indian people were poor. They had to make do. The drug of choice in the 1970s, early 1980s was Ts and Rs. I remember one girl, a friend of mine, they could not find her vein. What they did was there was an old mattress and they laid her down, tilted her head back so she could find a vein.
Thunderbird House and other organizations like it are ship havens in a sea of decay. You have a lot of people accessing the city for hope, but a lot of times there is no hope here. What you have is gangs and unemployment; you have no opportunities.
People talk about equality. Well, we want equality; we want to be equal. That is not the case. What you want is equity, the same starting ground. I will give you an example. When someone goes to race in the Olympics, say the 800- yard dash, what do they do? Nobody starts at the same place; they stagger the start so there is equity in the start, so it becomes equal after the start. That is the same thing with Aboriginal people. It is not equal because it cannot be equal, because there is no equity there. The starting lines are different based on White privilege, education factors, poor this, poor that, and all of that; you know that already. If we are honest with ourselves, we know the history of Aboriginal people and we know the history of the government initiatives. Rather than rehash that, we are going to talk about the realities of the situation.
I volunteer at a couple of places, at a lot of different places. A lot of my friends do. There are a lot of volunteers, a lot of good people out there in the Aboriginal community. There is also a lot of despair. We call it the "Indian factor." Do you know what the Indian factor is? The Indian factor is this: We are hardest on our own selves. Why is that? Like I said, we are stepped on; we are damaged. There are only so many resources out there. There is the Aboriginal Council, there is MKO, SCO. There is a whole bunch of organizations, but only a little bit of resources there. So what happens? Well, we try to step on each other to get on top. That is systemic, colonial mindset.
As my daughter says, "We are whitewashed." That is what happens — a lot of Aboriginal people become whitewashed. We do not recognize our own colonial attitudes towards each other and towards other people. Aboriginal people will be stepping on the recent immigrants because they get resources. That is the reality of fingers — little bits of resources, small pieces of the pie, but there are a lot of people that need it — not want it, but need those resources.
Thunderbird House was built in the year 2000. There has been some political history. Like I said, the Indian factor is there. We attack each other and we bash each other. One of the things about it, it is a safe haven. Aboriginal elders tell you that organizations working for the people are actually working for the Creator, because those are the Creator's children you are trying to help. That is synonymous with what happens with some of the organizations we have here, not just Thunderbird House, not Native Addictions Council of Manitoba, but a lot of the organizations that are here. I am here because I want you to feel what we feel. You know, we are goodhearted people, kindhearted people. We believe in that sharing, that kindness, that honesty and that faith. If you believe in those four things, at least a little bit, then that circle works for you.
I wanted to greet you in Anishinabe, Ojibway. I cannot. Why? Because I am damaged. Years ago there was the Heritage Language Act. Was Aboriginal language part of that Heritage Language Act? Of course not.
Aboriginal people are here in this situation because of the foundations of the roots of our relationship with the Crown, with the bureaucrats and with the church. The church acted as an agent. The story I told at the beginning here, it brings around what we are dealing with.
Aboriginal people have suffered an identity crisis, but there are strong people out there that are keeping that identity alive and people are grabbing at it again. They are embracing their identity. Those are the people you see standing up and saying, "We can do it as Aboriginal people if we look at being in an equitable position."
I will give you an example of what is not equitable. NACM is a native addictions treatment centre. It has been here for 40 years. It is poorly funded. It is in a building the government said itself is dead, basically you are on a life line. Yet, you have a comparable organization like Addictions Foundation of Manitoba, where they have an endless supply of resources. That is the reality of things. You have Aboriginal people down here and the main stream that are up here, and that is not equity.
I just wanted to say that what is happening with the Aboriginal people here, Thunderbird House and all of that, is that you are creating a service dump. In the big scheme of things the feds are getting out of the Indian business. What they are doing is doing a service dump. What they want to do with the service dump is dump their fiduciary responsibilities. Look at the transfer agreements that they started with in the 1980s. That is exactly all it was. They wanted to ease off and give responsibility to Aboriginal people. Really what it was was a "fiduciary dump."
Aboriginal people are not as dumb as a lot of people think. We learn the system just like anyone else.
In closing, I want to say that urban Aboriginal people need places like the Thunderbird House, like NACM. There are a lot of comparable organizations for Christian groups, non-native groups. You look at an example right across from Thunderbird House, Youth for Christ. They have huge money, millions, from the city. You look at Thunderbird House — my executive director here, Sasha, works for nothing. There are absolutely no dollars at Thunderbird House. Yet it shows the need and it shows that it is viable.
One other thing about Thunderbird House is they have a host of ceremonial aspects. A lot of Aboriginals say the city is dirty and they cannot do ceremonies in the city. Where are these people going to have access to do ceremonies? You see a lot of people in the city here, how many people have an eagle feather? I bet one of you have an eagle feather. You look at the average Aboriginal person and they will not have that eagle feather. It is out of their reach. They do not have the resources or they do not have the network to get that. Yet, that is something that is coveted and sacred. A lot of people do not have one. That is something that is basic. They do not have sweetgrass. It is just the way it is.
People like Sasha and a lot of my colleagues here, a lot of Aboriginal people here, are fighting to change that. I will give you an example. We are talking about a partnership with an organization called Comprehensive Community —
* end of time.
Here is what Walter Wastesicoot had to say to the Senat Committee.
Walter Wastesicoot, Advisor Special Health Projects, Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak: My name is Walter Wastesicoot. I have approximately 30 years of experience working with First Nations on issues that directly impact them. In my personal experience, I was at the same residential school that the previous speaker attended, the Mackay Indian Residential School in Dauphin, Manitoba. I have that experience that I have always drawn on in pursuing and attempting to gain redress for First Nations issues.
I have a home that I own in a community in northern Manitoba, Thompson, Manitoba. I have been paying taxes for a long time already, and I know what that includes.
In terms of impacts of First Nations that are leaving reserves, in my personal experience I never had the opportunity to go by choice to live on the reserve because I spent much of my youth in an Indian residential school. Upon leaving that institution, I returned home to find my family all over. They too had attended different residential schools. I believe Robert was speaking to the dysfunction that is left by such an experience in terms of returning home to family.
One thing that we discussed in preparing this presentation was the fact that racism in this country is so normalized. An example of that is the discussion that we are here for today, the fact that we sit in this forum and talk about the difference between on reserve and off reserve in relation to the first citizens of this country. That is an example of how racism in this country is normalized. In our experience, when there is a discussion between on reserve and off reserve, that comes with a certain connotation that usually involves money. People are looking to offload responsibility in certain areas in an effort to save money.
Some time ago the leadership in our community spoke to the issue of on reserve and off reserve. In trying to understand that myself, I approached one of the community elders who happened to be living off reserve but had spent most of his life on reserve. The only reason at the time he was living off reserve was to access health care. However, when I asked him the question about on reserve and off reserve, he was offended because of his belief in the Creator's purpose. He said, "When I was born, the Creator prepared everything on this earth that I would need to sustain myself." The only thing that he had to do was respect everything that was prepared for his use. However, the Creator never told him you cannot go here, you cannot go there. Those were laws and regulations imposed by man.
I think I will leave it at that. Thank you.
That last paragraph from Walter, says it all. A great presentation and emphasis on the Creator never told him you cannot go here, you cannot go there..."