Jesse Wente is an Anishinaabe writer, broadcaster and chair of the Canada Council for the Arts – the only First Nations person to ever hold the position. His first book, Unreconciled: Family, Truth and Indigenous Resistance, will be published later this month.
Although few people wanted the country to go to polls, since we are indeed having an election it would be nice if it were an election that rose to meet the stakes. I’m not referring to the political stakes. The ultimate winner has no effect on what the stakes are. And they are big. Existential big.
There was a moment, early in the pandemic, where there was a sense that our communities could rise to meet the global health challenge – even if our elected governments and associated institutions may have floundered. Does anyone feel that now, a little more than a week before the country elects a new government? Does anyone truly feel that the safety net Canada has long cherished is anywhere close to adequate? What about the climate? Does anyone reading this – as a large portion of the country still faces wildfires, and other parts will soon likely face flooding – feel like this issue is being talked about enough on the campaign trail?
And then there’s reconciliation. Remember when this was a centrepiece of Canadian electoral politics? Remember when it was broadly seen as the most important issue facing the country? But that was before it proved hard, and before the truth was revealed to be buried in the literal ground, now too obvious to deny or obfuscate.
I was asked to write about how I’d like to see First Nations, Métis and Inuit people represented in the election, how the issues our communities face are handled by the parties and the media covering them. But Indigenous people are not an election issue, as our relationship with the state supersedes electoral politics and transcends the mandate of any single government. After all, it was many governments, over many years, that have caused harm to us and our relationships, and it will take the same to secure even a small measure of the reconciliation so often spoken about.
If this country desires to approach reconciliation, then it needs to approach it with the same resolve that it brought to depriving First Nations, Inuit and Métis of their cultures, languages, land and lives. This has been a generational project that has extended beyond any single election cycle or political party and has required enormous resources, both human and otherwise. To think that reconciliation could be done on the cheap and quickly is beyond unrealistic – it’s how you ensure its failure.
Nowhere in this election, or any election, have we seen a commitment or even a discussion of the type of effort and expense that reconstituting Canada’s relationship with the nations of this land’s first peoples requires. Nor did previous elections flag for voters the ways in which the government was entrenching the need for reconciliation in the first place. Colonialism itself is never on the ballot, just its tentacles, but if we are to actually face the truth and chart a new path, then in fact the kraken itself needs to be part of every election going forward.
Elections provide an opportunity to envision a shared future, to move the many in a direction of mutual and sustainable success. In this moment, any national election should be a parade of not just big, but enormous, ideas, for that is what this moment requires. This would include a genuine attempt to consider what moving away from colonial-based relationships of domination means and looks like. How self-determination for First Nations, Métis and Inuit can be achieved while considering the future of a national state that maintains the shared achievements of Canada. We should be hearing robust and bold strategies to shift the national economy away from fossil fuels and global resource extraction. We should be hearing about investments in shared community infrastructure, from long-term-care facilities and housing to child care and a minimum basic income. This should be the most aspirational election of my lifetime, focused keenly on what will better serve human beings and their shared interests. Does anyone feel that is what we are having?
I think Canadians yearn for an election of substance, for an election where we can dream together, and in the remaining days, I hope that is what we see. Now is not the moment to shy away from the most difficult discussions, but instead to embrace them and the discomfort they are sure to bring. Being comfortable is something Canada as a country, and indeed, we as a species, simply can’t afford any more. Comfort for a few has been the focus for too long, and if that remains the case, it will inevitably lead to discomfort for the vast majority, even beyond the imbalance we currently endure.
So if there is an answer to the question of how I would like to see Indigenous issues dealt with in an election, it’s that I would like to see them treated as they are – as human issues that extend well beyond whatever results we will have later this month. That the success of our communities is understood as being in the best interest of humans, and that the best interest of humans includes the best interest of our non-human relations. I would like to see this election meet this moment, knowing that, even if it doesn’t, humans will have to meet it anyway.