When I was growing up, the differences between Native people and mainstream Canadians were often remarked upon as striking.
I grew up between the late 1950s and the late 1970s. Now, during that time there were tremendous strides forward in Native life, including the right to vote, the freedom to gather in public and to practice our spirituality, but every inch closer to an authentic citizenship seemed only to widen the gap between our neighbours and ourselves.
These days, it can seem sometimes that not much change has occurred. Any conversation with so-called ‘liberal’ thinkers, and I count numerous friends among them, almost always arrives at the ‘us and them’ barricade. There are the philosophical barriers of the Indian Act, the reserve system, treaty rights, land claims, and fiduciary wardship that only buttress their arguments.
We’re different. We’re separate. We’re a problem to be solved.
In my day-to-day life I seldom feel like a problem. Here in the mountains we work hard at maintaining our property, staying above the waterline of debt, taxes and bills, and enjoying the fruits of our labours at the end of the day. Sounds awfully normal to me. Held against the mirror of our neighbours lives’, it’s neither a poles apart reality or ethnically dissimilar.
We drive the same road to the same town in the same kinds of vehicles to do the same types of chores and business. We watch the same channels for the same news and often draw the same conclusions. We read the same magazines for the same gossip, see the same movies and hear the same music. We use the same computer programs to communicate at the same speed.
The truth is, Native life and the lives of our neighbours are more alike than is sometimes imagined. It all depends on the lens you use to scrutinize. A sociopolitical lens would offer a polarized view, while a humanistic lens would show a people given to the same spiritual, communal yearnings as everyone else. But if you just used the English language to examine our differences, the gap would cease to exist.
For instance, as an Ojibway man of nearing 53 years I have been marginalized, analyzed, criticized, ostracized, legitimized, downsized, Supersized, politicized, socialized, dehumanized, philosophized, fractionalized and one day, eulogized. What ordinary Canadian can’t relate to that?
In my time here have been uneducated, untrained, unskilled and unemployed. As a result I have been displaced, dislocated, disenfranchised, disinherited, disaffected, disappointed, disconsolate, disqualified, disrespected, disquieted, disentangled, disheveled, discombobulated, disingenuous, dishonest and disinterested.
In trying to come to terms with my identity I’ve been misinterpreted, misplaced, mismanaged, misfiled, misunderstood and misguided. Further, I’ve been misinformed, misdirected, misjudged, mismatched, misstated, mistrusted and misused. Occasionally I’ve been misquoted and mistrusted. Mostly these days I’m misgoverned and misrepresented.
Like most Canadians I have been overtaxed, overburdened, overextended, overdrawn, over-analyzed, over-the-barrel and overwhelmed. I’ve been overbearing, overbooked, overcharged, overcrowded, overdressed, overdue, overexposed, overhauled and overmatched.
I’ve often been overruled, overpowered, overseen, and sometimes oversexed.
By contrast, I’ve been under-funded, under-represented, under-appreciated, underwritten, and under-the-gun. Like my neighbours I’ve tried to be low-key, low-profile, low-maintenance, low-cal, low-cholesterol, low-impact, low-risk and low-pressure. Despite all that I’ve been low-browed, low-balled, low-budgeted, low-rated, and low-income. Sometimes I’ve been low-slung, low-tech and low-end.
I’ve been exasperated, exhausted, excepted, expropriated, extrinsic and excluded. It’s become apparent that all along I’ve been excepted, exhorted, expedited, explained, explored, extenuated, extrapolated and expunged. But marching along with my head in the clouds I’ve allowed myself to be expressive, exuberant, exclamatory, expectant and exotic. I’m an ex-athlete, ex-smoker, ex-drunk, and ex-husband.
Alliteration aside, becoming a fully functioning Canadian has caused me to be ethnic, multicultural, nationalistic and culturally specific all at the same time. I’ve had to learn to be open-minded, politically correct, gender sensitive, globally conscious, and self aware. I’ve had to learn to embrace the New Age as I approach old age. I’ve gone from the Good Book to Facebook, fireside chats to cyberchat, and from being offloaded to downloaded all in one lifetime.
I can be Googled these days. I can be faxed, instant messaged, Skyped and video-conferenced. I have a website, poor eyesight, the gift of hindsight and the occasional insight. I’m a multi-tasking, metrosexual, techno-geek with an I-pod. I surf the ‘net, play with the remote, rip CDs, burn music and tear it up on weekends.
All things considered, it’s our everyday language that brings us closer. We can spend a lot of time deliberating politics and differences, and in the end it only ever serves to highlight the separation between us. That’s likely because we’ve all come to trust our minds so heavily. We want things to be obscure, obtuse, and difficult. It makes our discomfort with each other valid somehow.
But in the words we use, in the lexicon that has come to be the scrutinizer of our time here, the ways in which we are similar become clearer and the pathways to resolution of outstanding problems and issues are markedly visible. We need to talk to each other. That’s how simple it is. We need to learn to use the language we share to introduce ourselves properly and share our stories.
It’s a matter of stepping out from behind the politics. It takes courage to do that. It means risking exposure. It means courting doubt and darkness and unknowing. It means being human and vulnerable with each other. It means allowing ourselves to be ourselves and letting the gift of language ease our worries and concerns. It means good talk with good minds.
I figure the politicians are best equipped to continue the obfuscation of detail. For me and my neighbours, my friends here in my community, we lean over the back fence and gab to each other. We use the local lingo. We chat openly. We use metaphor and simile, imagination and outright exaggeration. We use humour and we use tact and we learn that we are the same beneath the skin.