I remember with fondness my few months of interaction with the indigenous community of Northwestern Alberta in the mid-1980s, many of whom are members of the Dene Tha’ First Nation.
It’s not that they were leading untroubled lives. Quite the contrary, in fact.
One might try describe the depth of their despair, the prejudice they suffered under the Residential School system, the lies they were told, the anger they felt.
I saw these things played out, brief glimpses of the suffering, a people being devoured from the inside out.
What I remember best, however, are the positive attributes of ‘The People’ – I was told that’s the English translation of Dene Tha’ – their resilience and their generous, truthful and forthright nature.
There’s the time that I was hitchhiking north along the highway on my way to Zama Lake, an oil-patch outpost. An elderly man stopped. I remember him sipping straight whisky from a coffee cup he picked up intermittently from the dash of his old, ramshackle pickup. After an hour’s conversation he invited me to stay in his family’s home on the reserve for the night, even longer, if I wished.
Then there was the time several flats of bread were delivered to the single-wide trailer where I was staying. It was fresh from the back of the bread truck that was in town earlier that day, one might easily assume.
Some things need to be overlooked. This was one of them.
It was my second invitation to the reserve, however, that I remember best. An invitation to meet the mother of a young woman I was acquainted with, one who had often pointed to my “old-fashioned” views on certain matters but appeared also to have recognized the gram of dignity I managed to carry through undignified situations.
It came as a bit of surprise when, for a modest fee, she offered to have her mother fashion for me a pair of deerskin boots with a bit of beadwork.
I would need to be fitted, of course, hence the trip out of town.
I declined, something I’ve regretted many times since. Had I accepted, I might never have left. How things would have worked out, only The Great Spirit knows.
Here in the south, where we also live among First Nation peoples, I’ve often been reminded of my experiences in the north.
There was the time when a young man, a member of the Walpole Island First Nation, refused to shake my hand but after I tried again a few minutes later, reached out. A beautiful moment, one which spoke volumes.
Other members of the same First Nation also reached out last fall when they saw, among their farming community neighbours, an injustice being perpetrated by industry and government. They offered their help and support.
Certainly, First Nations need to be given ownership over their own future, the right to succeed or fail on their own terms, but a greater role may be in store.
Is there not room for improvement to the governance of Canada as a whole?
The First Nations could help. Rather than abolish the Canadian Senate, First Nations members, chosen from among their peers, could become a part of the body, with all the responsibility, and authority, that would entail.
Perhaps then, Canada might consider herself, a grownup among nations.◊