On Being Political

The following is a excerpt from the introduction to my book Featherfolk, a work in progress.

The book will be seen as political. And it is, in the sense that it is an attempt to influence people. It is also partly directed toward the educational system of Canada, an arena already supercharged with cultural politics. The intention of this book is both to inform and to advocate change, change in people’s thinking and assumptions, change in the way, for instance, Canadian educators—and their directors—interact with and serve the Indigenous people who are among their clients.

I make no apology for being political.

An article in the Vancouver Sun[1], vintage 2005, cites the Aboriginal graduation rate from Vancouver high schools: 14%. The comparable rate for students of other ethnicities is given as 82%. This is a remarkable discrepancy, and you might suppose it indicated a problem with the schools. If Aboriginal people were 5 of 6 times more likely to die at a certain hospital than non-Aboriginal people, you might be excused for thinking there was something wrong at that hospital, and that maybe something ought to be done about it. No excuses. No alibis. Just solve the problem.

But no, according to the Vancouver Sun’s analysis—and the apparent consensus of the education officials interviewed by the newspaper—the problem lies with the First Nations themselves, and the “poverty and domestic instability” which characterizes their lives. The article states, “The reason for failure among first nations [sic] children are as varied as the lives of those who fall away.”[2]

But blaming the Aboriginal students’ failure entirely on the dysfunctional lives they live outside of the school system doesn’t make sense. The figures refuse to add up. To be workable as an explanation, 80 or 90% of the Aboriginal families in Vancouver would have to be living lives ravaged by poverty and/or a crippling domestic instability. Yes, everybody knows that the problems in the Aboriginal community run deep. But really, guys and gals, not that deep.

To satisfactorily explain the Aboriginal failure rate in Vancouver schools (and everywhere else in Canada, for that matter) we’ll have to do better than scapegoating Aboriginal poverty. The reality is that some people somewhere are not doing their jobs right. They have been hired to serve all the children in the school system equally, but they have not been serving Aboriginal children anywhere near as well as they have been serving non-Aboriginal children. To add contempt to incompetence, they blame the Aboriginal children themselves for this failure. A poor workman blames his tools, and a poor school system blames its students.

And the local media, well, they blame the students too. So nothing is done. In fact, nothing is even promised.

In the face of such attitudes, what is an Aboriginal educator to do but get political about it? Politics is inescapable if you want something to be done.

Regardless, being born Aboriginal in Canada sometimes feels like a political act all by itself. You have to answer for it somehow.

You tell me you are Aboriginal, sir. Explain yourself!

I have found myself defending my Aboriginality on street corners and classrooms, in bars and buses, during dinnertable conversations and in job interviews, to school counsellors and fishermen, law students and bureaucrats, sportsmen and evangelists. In the courtrooms of Canada, lawyers in dark robes explain it to learned justices. In 1492, on the beach in Hispaniola, the Tainos tried to explain it to Columbus.

No one has to choose to be political if they are Aboriginal. It is a role we are born to, thrust into by the very fact of our existence. To be Aboriginal is to answer for the actions and words of every Aboriginal person, live or fictional, that a person has ever heard of. Whaling? That’s my business, whether I am Inuit or Metis, whether I live by the sea or on the prairies or in the mountains. Taxation? That’s my business, whether I have an income to pay taxes on or not. Scalping? That’s my business, although nobody I know has ever practiced it, and I’m fairly sure it’s no longer a problem in Winnipeg or Toronto, either.

To be Aboriginal is to be the object of a thousand theories, most of them predicated on ignorance, whether with good intentions or bad. To be Aboriginal is to be spoken to, spoken about, examined, criticized, lauded, explained, and deconstructed without ever truly being seen. We are told that we have too much when so many of us have neither property nor dignity nor pride, when so many of us have had our parents stolen, our children, our culture, our languages, our religions, our freedom and our lives.

Somebody said once that for a moment on the beach in the Indies in 1492, there seemed a chance at understanding. Columbus wrote in his journal, “At daybreak great multitudes of men came to the shore, all young and of fine shapes, and very handsome. Their hair was not curly but loose and coarse like horse-hair. All have foreheads much broader than any people I had hitherto seen. Their eyes are large and very beautiful….”[3]

For a moment, there was wonder, acceptance, but as quickly it was gone.

The next day Columbus wrote: “I could conquer the whole of them with fifty men and govern them as I pleased.” It has been a long struggle to return to that lost moment, just before conquest.

Is the message that I present political? Indeed it is, for without presenting this dimension, the picture would be incomplete. Without an acknowledgement and an elucidation of the expressly political in the Aboriginal experience, this work could be nothing more than a tourist brochure of some foreign port:

Come ashore, learn some local phrases, buy a miniature totem; tomorrow we visit an ancient site, eat bannock and see a Native dance

—and if the local feather-folk have concerns beyond my entertainment, what is that to me?



[1] June 18, 2005, C1-C4.

[2] Terms designating ethnic groups are commonly capitalized in English. For instance, English, Latvians, Mennonites, etc. To use non-capital letters in the term First Nations is the stylistic equivalent of referring to a grown woman as a girl.

[3] This quote and the one in the following paragraph is taken from Lies My Teacher Told Me by James W. Lowen. Simon & Schuster, NY, 1996.

Illustration by Haisla Collins.

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~ by fathertheo on August 29, 2008.

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