A broken promise is not a victory

The community where I live is well outside the city. It's a half hour by car to get here and the drive into the mountains is an inspiring journey every time. The geography changes with each couple kilometres.

The community where I live is well outside the city. It’s a half hour by car to get here and the drive into the mountains is an inspiring journey every time.

The geography changes with each couple kilometres. You move out of the arid semi-desert of the river valley into the flat open range land that sits between mountain ridges. Then, a steep and winding upward climb takes you into the fir, spruce and aspen of the high country. Near our home the bush is thick and the land sweeps upwards to the crests of the peaks. It’s a magnificent drive.

We live quietly here. There’s a lot of room between houses and people pretty much keep to themselves. In the evening as the sun sinks at the far western edge of the lake there’s a feeling of peace, contentment, rightness, if you will. Though we know our neighbours and have become friends with many of them, everyone is content to let each other be. There’s an unspoken compact centered on privacy and quiet.

That’s why we chose to live here. It’s a lifestyle. What you choose when you live here is solitude, quiet and space in exchange for convenience, hustle, bustle and noise. It takes a certain kind of person to come and settle here, to make a home in the rustic, removed peace of this place. The land is lulling and people here come to be slower, more home centred and family oriented. I guess that’s why we all get along.

It’s so quiet that you could almost come to believe that it’s a separate peace, that it’s a community removed from the heartbeat of Canada. While that’s a nice thought and quite probable when loon calls wobble through the dusk, it’s really just a removed part, a chunk of Canada separated by the sweep of open territory.

It’s an Indian reserve. We all lease land from the local band and none of us are property owners in the normal sense. We’re tenants and a First Nation is our landlord. We pay taxes and leases and we’re at the whim of a government few of our neighbours understand or comprehend. No matter how connected we feel to the place, no matter how deep the emotional and spiritual attachment, someone else owns the land.

There’s irony in that. The irony lies in the fact that First Nations themselves live the same scenario. The Crown owns the land reserves sit on. No matter how deep the emotional and spiritual attachment, someone else owns the land. Like us, they can only really occupy the houses. The lawns we mow, the trees we trim, the renovations we make to our places are moot because of the underlying truth of our reality – it’s never, ever really going to be ours.

But we leaseholders chose the situation. First Nations were legislated into that relationship. We looked at the alternatives and made a decision to come and live knowing full well the reality of things. The land will never belong to us. Now, as the first decade of a new century nears its end, I wonder how long the situation can persist. We need to amend the Indian Act and dismantle the bureaucracy that sustains it. We need to create equality if Canada is to fully be Canada. That’s the obvious truth.

When the Indian Act was drafted it was because Canada was young and the new government suddenly realized that they had made a lot of promises in the treaties. Holding to those promises was going to be expensive. So they created a legislation called the Indian Act to monitor the delivery of those promises. Then they had to create a bureaucracy to monitor the provisions of the act. All the money that’s paid out every year to native people? Most of it’s gobbled up by that bureaucracy.

Decisions about our communities are made by people who have never been to those communities. Decisions about education, health care, housing and amenities are made by people who have never met the people. Legislation is deeply impersonal. Bureaucracy is stunningly oblivious to reality. You don’t have to be a native person to know that.

What divides us is an archaic legislation meant to put off the fulfilment of promises. First Nations were never conquered. We were signatories to agreements that have never been honoured. As long as that archaic legislation persists, our communities will always be separate from those of our neighbours. That’s the plain and simple truth of things.

Here in the mountains we live in peace without division. We’re all the same. There’s a pervasive sense of community here on this land, on this reserve. Even though we’re guests here, we feel that. I only wish the community of Canada could feel the same feeling of togetherness.

Richard Wagamese is Ojibway and the author of Keeper’n Me. He won the Canadian Author’s Award for Dream Wheels and his new novel, Ragged Company, is out from

Doubleday. He can be reached at richardwagamese@yahoo.com

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