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A house with boarded windows is seen on a reservation in Ontario.Louie Palu/The Globe and Mail

Clarence Louie has been Chief of the Osoyoos Indian Band, in the South Okanagan Valley of British Columbia, for more than 35 years. He is the author of the new book Rez Rules: My Indictment of Canada’s and America’s Systemic Racism Against Indigenous Peoples, from which this essay has been adapted.

I love being on a Rez – any Rez. I have set foot on more than 300 of them in Canada and the United States. I seek out Indian reserves and reservations, rich or poor, on my travels. It’s an ancestral feeling, a heritage and cultural feeling that I seem to need. Seeing Rez people young and old living and playing on their own Rez is very special to me.

But one thing that catches my eye right away, and makes my heart heavy, is broken windows on Native houses. It is really sad to see some houses with multiple broken or boarded-up windows. On one reserve in Northern Alberta I saw so many houses with boarded-up windows that I mistakenly thought the houses were vacant and abandoned. I thought, Why doesn’t the leadership get rid of those eyesores and tear down those condemned houses? The school teacher who was driving me around the Rez that day told me, “Those houses aren’t empty – families live there. The way you tell if a house is empty is if the front door is boarded up.”

How can anyone live in a house where they can’t even look out the living room or bedroom window? I took pictures of houses with every window boarded up and with graffiti painted on the walls and the plywood window coverings. Families were still living in those houses! It felt like I was driving through the worst part of a rundown major city. Not all of the Rez was in bad condition, but I felt so sorry for the children who were being raised in homes like that. It is not right, anywhere in the world, for children to grow up in a house with broken or boarded-up windows.

To me, broken windows are unacceptable.

Where is the leadership on that Rez? Not just where are the chief and council members, but where are all the leaders – the department heads, social services people, those who hold the senior jobs and those who call themselves Elders? Real leaders (not politicians) stand up to obvious problems. Yet only a few blocks away from this disaster zone was a modern, fancy administration office. It was a contrast I have never forgotten. It still pisses me off.

The reason I was there was to give a keynote speech on the accomplishments of the Osoyoos Indian Band. When I travel for reasons like this, and if time permits, I always ask someone to drive me around to see two things: first, their band or tribal headquarters and other community buildings; and second, their housing and the playgrounds where children play. I have been on the poorest of the poor reserves, as well as on those that have huge economic development and are making hundreds of millions of dollars, so I want to make it clear that I’m not looking for fanciness and luxury. What I’m looking for is Native pride of ownership. Do the people there look after what they have? Do they respect and keep clean what they have?

Most Rez Natives were raised without much material wealth. Their homes were the classic Indian Affairs matchbox two-bedroom, very modest homes. Most people, especially the old-timers, really looked after what little they had. My mom still lives in a little two-bedroom Rez house that was built back in the 1960s. I have also noticed that the best-looking yards are usually those of the old-timers. The old people suffered at the hands of the federal and provincial and state governments and had to work very hard to survive. They had to respect the home that gave them shelter and allowed them to raise their families. As Chief, I rarely get requests from the old people to fix a broken door or window.

Your yard says a lot about you. If I see a yard with garbage all over it or littered with wrecked and abandoned vehicles, I take that as a public statement by those who live there. That’s why, when I’m on a Rez, I want to drive by the community buildings and houses. When I return home, I often get asked by my people, usually the Elders, “How are our people back East?” Or, “How are those Indians up North or down South?” Or, “How do their houses and band office look?”

I love that deep feeling our old people have about other tribal communities. The old people know those other Native communities suffered through the same racist “Indian Problem” policies of the federal government. They know that, sadly, they’re still thought of as the “Indian Problem” by most Canadians and Americans.

While I was taking pictures of those boarded-up windows and graffiti-splashed houses up North, I noticed a little kid playing in the yard of one of the worst buildings. I shook my head and vowed I would never let that deplorable, sad, heartbreaking image appear on my Rez.

A few hours later, I was in a community hall filled with local band members – some of them likely living in those boarded-up houses. I shared my experience as a Chief and proudly spoke of the Osoyoos Indian Band’s economic and social accomplishments. But I also let people know Osoyoos is not a perfect community. My Rez has dysfunctions. My Rez has some dirty yards and poorly kept homes. Some of our community buildings could use a little tender loving care. It is a mistake to think that the Osoyoos Rez, which has been called a “Miracle in the Desert,” is somehow without problems. We have our share, and we, too, need a kick in the rear every once in a while to remind us to roll up our sleeves, clean up our backyard, and have “Native pride” in what we have built.

As I finished my talk, I wondered if I should mention how upset and disappointed I was in what I had seen in that short drive through the community. I know a politician will not tell the truth if the truth will lose him votes or put him in a bad light. But a leader says what has to be said when it has to be said, and will always stand behind their statements. I thought about bringing up the broken windows to a few council members in private afterwards, as that would have been easier and much safer.

I finished talking about the Osoyoos Indian Band and thanked the organizer for bringing me out to speak to their Rez. Then I told them that as Native people we have to look out for one another and share our stories – the good, but also the bad. And in the Indian way of teaching, some of the best lessons come from bad stories. Our Coyote (Senklip) stories use examples of bad situations to teach people what not to do. I was also taught by a Mohawk leader that “scolding” is part of our culture and that sometimes the old people must scold the younger people to get them back on track. Such scolding is a natural way of teaching.

Remember, those who scold you are the ones who truly care. No one likes to scold, but sometimes it is called for, and one must be emotionally strong to do it and be willing to take it if those being scolded don’t like what you’re saying. It’s easier not to say anything and just let the bad behaviour carry on. Easier, but not right.

Since I do care, I found I could not walk out of that hall without bringing up the very bad example that I had found there. I didn’t hold back. I told them how ashamed I felt to see the physical damage to property and sense the emotional damage to those who lived on the Rez. I told them no child should be growing up in a house with broken windows. A window is the view to the outside world. It is very important for kids to look out of their living room window every day and observe what is outside – to see the sky, to see the rain or snow – so that even when they are indoors they will still have that visual connection with nature.

I told them that we are all parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles. When you leave your house, and your kids or grandkids are there, remember to glance backward and look at who is looking out of those windows. You want to see those little faces watching you leave, sometimes waving their little hands. As a grandparent myself, I always look back at my living room window to see if my little granddaughter is there watching me leave. That image always tugs at my heart. And when I pull back into my yard at the end of a work day, I always look up at the living room window. To me, one of the best sights in the world is seeing my “little boss” jumping up and down, waving and smiling to welcome me home!

Indian up!” I told them sternly.

I spoke angrily about the conditions of some of the homes I’d seen. I told the members to show some leadership and spray-paint over the graffiti. I had spoken in front of a Rez crowd hundreds of times, but this was the first time I’d felt the need to scold. I finished what I had to say and stood with the microphone in my hand. The room was deadly quiet.

Then an elderly man started to walk up to the stage. I thought he was going to tell me to mind my own business, that I wasn’t from that Rez and had no right to pass judgment on the conditions there. The elderly man asked for the mic, and then spoke to both me and the silent room. I cannot recall the exact words he used, but it was very much along the lines of: “I am so ashamed that a Chief from another community had to come here and see the damage here. It is our responsibility to clean up our mess. It’s about time we take a stand against the Rez punks who are giving us a bad name and hurting the childhood of our kids.”

Someone else spoke up and said, “If we spray-paint over the swear words, the drug dealers will just put them back.”

No one said anything, so I took back the mic and said, “Yes, the punks will probably spray-paint the houses back, but the leadership on this reserve should not give up. The big question is who is going to give up first – the good people or the punks?”

It was awesome to stand there and see other law-abiding members who cared about their reserve stand up and say, “I’ll buy a can of paint.”

I repeated, “No more broken windows. Get those windows fixed. And find out who is breaking them and give them a good, old-fashioned Rez-kicking.”

I am very proud to say, though, that the vast majority of Rez communities I have been on still have the old Native pride of ownership. Streets and yards are clean. I have been invited to speak in James Bay Cree communities many times, and I see Native pride of ownership there. No broken windows; clean yards and nice homes. Many remote reserves in Northern British Columbia have very nice subdivisions. Yes, there may still be a few starving Rez dogs wandering about, but overall I give most Rez communities a thumbs-up!

The problem of broken windows goes far beyond the visual sight or, for that matter, the cost of a new window. A broken window is a reflection of the lifestyle of the family inside that house. A boarded-up window is also an indication of the broken spirit of that Rez. Some things on the Rez don’t take much time or effort to fix, and sometimes the bruises reappear and have to be tended to again and again.

The bottom line is that every home on the Rez must be a safe, loving home, not just a house. Every Rez kid should be able to look out of every window in their house and see the beauty of their community.

A simple Rez rule: Keep your yard and community buildings clean! The youth are watching. So are Indians (your cuzzins) from other communities.

Excerpted from Rez Rules by Clarence Louie. Copyright © 2021 Clarence Louie. Published by McClelland & Stewart, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited, a Penguin Random House Company. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.

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