Covet not thy neighbour's sash

Hanns Skoutajan risks spiritual gluttony

By David McLaren
Special to True North Perspective

David McLaren has worked with First Nations in Ontario for over 20 years and he lives on the Chippewas of Nawash Unceded First Nation. He wrote two reports for the Ipperwash Inquiry which help to explain why Canada is not a Métis Nation. They can be found at: (scroll to Chippewas of Nawash Unceded First Nation).

A Métis flag, image courtesy of Wikipedia.  

I have great respect for Hanns Skoutajan, whom I know to be on the side of the angels and one of the brave few who stood up to a nasty backlash against Native fishing rights in Owen Sound several years ago. However, when he covets a Métis sash, as he does in his “Spirit Quest” article of 12 August, 2011 (see "Some thoughts inspired by an encounter with a Métis sash"), he is risking spiritual gluttony.

That appeared to be a common urge amongst church people who came up to help us back in the 1990s. Most were more interested in receiving a hit of Native spirit (as my wife put it) than in giving us secular sustenance. A little less love and a little more lobbying would have gone a long way toward peace in "the fishing wars". Not everyone, of course – Hanns was an exception. And so was a fellow by the name of David Maxwell, the United Church minister in Tobermory, whose congregation disowned him for his active support of Aboriginal fishing rights and whose Church did not back him up.
The appeal to John Ralston Saul that “we are a Métis Nation” – that we have somehow acquired something of the Aboriginal spirit by dint of living with First Nations for four centuries – is also troubling. I fear that others not as careful as Hanns will use it to get a “spiritual hit” which they will confuse with revelation and reconciliation.
First, the logic in A Fair Country is wrong. We have not “been inspired … by four centuries of life with indigenous civilizations,” because we have not, as a nation, lived with Native people. On the contrary we have done what we can to marginalize them in every way imaginable, including the imagination. It’s hard to read Susanna Moodie or even her sister Catherine without seeing the cultural distance they keep between themselves and their First Nation neighbours.
Similarly, it’s impossible to read early legal cases regarding Aboriginal rights and land claims (The Catherine Millings case for example) and not be appalled by the overtly racist things the best legal minds in Canada said about Aboriginal peoples. And just how did Duncan Campbell Scott’s vow to “kill the Indian and save the child” by ramping up the residential school system inspire Canadians to adopt a Native way of doing things?
Our historical and human rights record does not support Saul’s conclusion.
On another level, Saul’s idea is dangerous. It fosters the notion that we can take what we like from FN culture (including land and resources) because we are, after all, just like them. And we no longer need to pay attention to their claims of uniqueness or their pleas for programs that recognize and embrace (instead of frustrate) their ways – teaching methods geared to their way of learning for example, or culture-based justice programs that are more successful at keeping aboriginal people out of jail. We can ignore these now, because they are just like us. Or, to paraphrase Pogo: “We has seen the Other and they is us.”
First Nations are not us and we are not them. We and they are as different from one another as it is possible for two peoples to be. The Haudenosaunee Two Row Wampum expresses this and so, if read properly, does the Anishinaabe 24-Nation Wampum. “We are not like you” is what chief after chief, from Red Jacket to Chief Seattle to Sitting Bull, in speech after speech, tried to tell Americans and Canadians.
A United Church report out of Saskatchewan, called Beyond Ethnicity and written in the 1980s is helpful here. A concluding sentence goes something like this: To treat those who are not the same as though they were the same is to discriminate.
If discrimination is directed at a racial group, it is racial discrimination. It goes on to say that there is an insidious progression to racism: a society starts out by emphasizing, and then codifying, the differences between its members and the Other (as Europeans did almost from the point of first contact). But once the Other has been suitably marginalized, the mantra becomes “we are all the same”. Magically (and erroneously), justice is now for everyone, not just us, and if the Other continues to fail, it’s not our fault, it’s theirs.

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