One halcyon day at the University of Winnipeg last October, we stood across from each other in a bond of fellowship: one presenting the other with a sacred Anishinaabe pipe. Elders had requested this ceremony as a way to build bridges between the indigenous and non-indigenous communities.
To answer the obvious first question, the pipe is loaded with tobacco. To answer the obvious second one, the pipe itself represents a communion with the spiritual realm, the gifting of it a great honour. The ceremony itself created another sort of communion as first nations leaders rubbed shoulders with Winnipeg’s business elite.
Community members of all age, class and colour laughed, ate and celebrated together. There was a delegation that day from a Ghanaian university. This is the image of Canada we hope they hold on to: as one that’s strengthened and enriched by the indigenous peoples of this land.
As the Idle No More movement marches its way into our national consciousness, it has become too easy to forget that this country began with co-operation between indigenous and European peoples. The responses have divided many, making supporters of some “average Canadians” and drawing vehement and, occasionally, vitriolic opposition from others.
While discussion always strengthens democracy, we ought not to get too caught up in the bickering to ignore the broader opportunity that Idle No More offers us: the chance to engage in nation-building, to make the country we love stronger. Canada’s future is strongly tied to the well-being of its indigenous peoples.
There’s a “baby boom” happening in first nations, Inuit and Métis communities. This as we face a shortage of skilled labour in many parts of the country. Surely some of that future labour force should be found among first peoples. Remember that 2007 report from the Centre for the Study of Living Standards that shows if indigenous peoples were able to achieve the same level of education as non-indigenous Canadians by 2017, the country’s GDP would increase by more than $160-billion?
The federal government estimates there are natural resource projects worth $500-billion to be developed in the next decade. Our Constitution directs that we have a duty to consult the indigenous people in whose backyards those resources lie. Many in industry have already recognized that better relationships with indigenous people are cultivated at the negotiating table rather than in the courtroom or on the picket line.
Some Canadians may fear that they’ll be worse off or face a higher tax burden if indigenous people do better. But the nation’s well-being is not a zero-sum game. Right now, there are thousands of young indigenous people who face much longer odds on the road to success than the average child. If we help them better fulfill their potential, they’ll eventually contribute more to our society. As the first peoples do better, we’ll all do better.
There’s a strong moral argument in favour of doing right by this country’s first peoples as well. Idle No More has garnered international attention, in the form of solidarity protests and also from some serious media outlets. Do Canadians really want to stand in front of the world opposed to equal and equitable opportunities for first nations, Inuit and Métis children? Do we really want to say we’re a country that dishonours its treaty commitments? We think not.
Indigenous people are standing up for themselves, but they’re also standing up for the benefit of all Canadians. Their cultures call on them to be stewards and protectors of the land, and so they raise legitimate concerns about the future of our environment. This will benefit all of our descendants. Their internal dialogue, while sometimes full of rancour and discord, reminds us of the spirited nature of democracy. They’re revitalizing cultures that still have reams of untapped wisdom and knowledge to share with the world. As indigenous peoples young and old, professional and working class, take to the streets and social media, we must ask ourselves one question: What are we doing?
There has been a major shift in the past few weeks. The seeds of a new relationship are here, but we must work together to sow them. The pipe ceremony we shared last fall offers a glimpse at a way forward. In the words of a great Lakota leader, “it is not necessary for eagles to be crows.” At some time in the future, we can argue about which side are eagles and which side are crows. For now, let’s celebrate each other.
Let’s work toward mutually beneficial solutions. Let’s be divided no more.
Lloyd Axworthy is president of the University of Winnipeg. Wab Kinew is director of indigenous inclusion at the University of Winnipeg.