Columns

Occupation Anxiety

LISA BIRD-WILSON

Rebellion is on her way

August 9 is International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. In 217, the day honoured the tenth anniversary of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), which establishes “the minimum standards for the survival, dignity and well-being of the indigenous peoples of the world.”

UNDRIP was adopted by the General Assembly in 27. For the following eight years the Canadian government, led by Stephen Harper, former prime minister, refused to sign onto the declaration. For a solid eight years Harper didn’t just refuse to sign, but actively voted, on behalf of all Canadians, against UNDRIP. With 144 UN member states voting in favour, Canada was one of just four votes against.

Harper’s refusal was shameful. It took a new government, the current Liberal majority, and a new prime minister, Justin Trudeau, to get the job done and Canada finally became signatory to the declaration in 216. So, while the rest of the world celebrated the tenth anniversary last year, Canada celebrated its first anniversary as a signatory.

UNDRIP outlines the principles of basic human rights that consider the unique position of the world’s Indigenous peoples. Earlier this year, Romeo Saganash, MP for Abitibi—Baie-James—Nunavik—Eeyou, introduced a private member’s bill, C-262, proposing to conform Canadian laws to UNDRIP principles. When the vote on bill C-262 went to the legislature in early June 218, seventy-nine Conservative MPs voted “No.” The bill still passed, 26 to 79, and was sent to the Senate, but social media erupted with outrage over two Conservative MPs who high-fived each other after registering their “No” votes. One of those high-fiving MPs was Rosemarie Falk from the Battleford—Lloydminster riding. The riding that is home to the family of Colton Boushie, the unarmed First Nations teen shot and murdered by a settler farmer who was subsequently found not guilty by an all-white jury. A riding that has in the aftermath of the verdict become the site of online and real-world hatred and vitriol.

The MPs’ high-five, while contested by MP Rosemarie Falk as having nothing to do with the vote, but rather a joyous expression in celebration of the end of “nearly an hour of voting in the House of Commons,” should alarm all Canadians. The “nearly an hour of voting” that Falk was so relieved to complete in June should be considered against a twenty-hour Conservative filibuster in March 218—retaliation for Liberals voting down a Conservative motion. In that context, the fifty or fifty-five minutes of voting hardly seems gruelling. Or high-five worthy. Frankly, it’s tough to buy the explanation Falk is selling, and there are still the seventy-nine Conservative “No” votes to grapple with.

In an era of so-called “reconciliation,” at least seventy-nine of Canada’s Conservative MPs toed the party line and actively opposed Indigenous rights. Not one stood up against the parliamentary norm of voting along party lines to recognize a basic rights charter endorsed by the UN. But then again, the “No” vote should really come as no surprise in a country that, in 218, found Boushie’s white killer not guilty, saw a teenaged Tina Fontaine murdered and dumped in the Red River, then acquitted her accused white killer. The same country that continues to accept social, economic and historic inequities faced by Indigenous people in areas of education, justice, clean water access, safe housing, health, jobs and so on. The country where this spring an all-Indigenous boys’ hockey team faced a barrage of racist taunts, war whoops and tomahawk chop motions by opposing players, spectators, parents and coaches. The players on the all-Indigenous team were children: boys of thirteen and fourteen years old. The boys learned a valuable lesson that day about Canada, about their rights as Indigenous people, and about what they can expect from an indifferent nation.

Like so many Indigenous people, I’ve been left deflated by the latest round of events. Perhaps Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, a talented Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg writer, thinker, and artist, says it best: “…occupation anxiety has worn our self-worth down to frayed wires.” In the face of hopelessness, Simpson offers advice we can latch onto. She gives us permission to stop waiting for colonial Canada to make space, and to instead elbow our way past and take the space for ourselves, because our lives depend on it.

Louis Riel famously stated, “My people will sleep for one hundred years, but when they awake, it will be the artists who give them their spirit back.” The role of art in reconciliation cannot be understated. In her 217 collection of poems, songs and stories, This Accident of Being Lost, Simpson demonstrates for us the powerful role of art in decolonizing our minds and bodies, and reconciling Indigenous people with reclaiming our spirits.

In light of the many means and ways—high-fives and tomahawk chops—Indigenous people are continually assaulted by colonialism, I’m inspired by writers like Leanne Betasamosake Simpson who can maintain a knife-sharp sense of humour—because we can all use a good laugh—while at the same time telling unapologetic truths about where it’s at in terms of Indigenous-settler relations in contemporary Canada.

Simpson is frighteningly genius in her description of what it’s like to get fucked by colonialism: “We know what your people think about us. We know you feel pity because the largest city in the country is on top of us, thrusting in and out like it’s our benevolent Wiindigo, fucking us in time to our screams like it’s death metal.”

One story in the collection, “Akiden Boreal,” is set in a future state where the characters have the chance to visit the last piece of boreal forest together. Simpson uses the physicality of place (at one point in the story the narrator says: “Akiden means ‘vagina.’ Literally I think it means ‘earth place’ or ‘land place,’ though I’m not completely confident about the meaning of the ‘den’ part of the word and there is no one left to ask”) and of the characters’ bodies (“I’m losing track of my body; the edges are dissolving and I’m a fugitive in a fragile vessel…there is a yellow light around his body and I can feel it mixing with my light”) as metaphor to convey the deep sense of loss and longing for our ancestral lands, and for all that has been lost. The story is spiritual and profound, acknowledging “we are from people that have been forced to give up everything.” And while the setting is a future state, the closeness of it seems all too real. Simpson is fearless because, as she states, “everything we are afraid of has already happened.” Or is happening. A sharp reminder that a cold shadow looms, resonant in those seventy-nine “No” votes registered with such glee.

And yet, Simpson’s writing restores optimism. The poems, songs and stories in This Accident of Being Lost are raw, written with Indigenous readers top of mind, full of material that feels like it matters to Indigenous people, and stated with grace and humour and a healthy dose of “we have to protect the fuck out of ourselves.” The writing is a fine example of art in the act of decolonizing, a medicine to encourage us to “infect tiny bodies with the precious things they beat out of you,” because “we almost always survive.” Reading Simpson, we want to trust when she says, “meet me at the underpass/ rebellion is/ on her way.” Simpson’s writing is like oxygen to a dwindling fire. Hope springs in the ashes. We’ve got this. We always have.

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LISA BIRD-WILSON

Lisa Bird-Wilson, a Métis and nêhiyaw writer from Saskatchewan, is the author of three books: The Red Files, a poetry collection (Nightwood Editions, 2016), Just Pretending, short stories (Coteau Books, 2013) and An Institute of Our Own: A History of the Gabriel Dumont Institute (Gabriel Dumont Press, 2011). Just Pretending is the 2019 One Book One Province selection for Saskatchewan. Her first novel, Probably Ruby, was published in 2021 by Doubleday Canada. Her shorter works have been published in periodicals and anthologies across Canada. Bird-Wilson lives in Saskatoon, SK. Find her at lisabirdwilson.com.


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