I admit I have a serious mental disorder that is the result of my upbringing. It is called “white guy guilt” and I have it in spades. I feel bad I have never been to a sweet grass ceremony, for example, although admittedly, I’ve never been invited. Nor have I tried a sweat lodge or seen the inside of a tipi that wasn’t in a museum. In fact, other than driving through Enoch on my daily commute for thirty years or through the Samson Reserve to get to Ma-Me-O, my exposure to First Nations people throughout my life was practically non-existant.
It is with great regret, frankly, that I have come to realize I am almost totally ignorant of native society, much like a lot of other white guys. It is of little comfort to know that this lack of awareness is mirrored from the aboriginal side, as well. Most are likely to be just as ignorant of the small town society and cultural mores that I am accustomed to either. The sad part is that it is quite possible, this ignorance of one another’s values, heritage and customs is a large part of the problems facing natives today. We don’t know enough about each other to care about the other’s concerns.
Attending Alberta schools during the mid-sixties to late seventies was of little help in understanding First Nation culture. In fact, for the first few years of my education, we received more instruction on American history than that of our own country. Eventually, however, we began to learn about the settling of Canada, although with little mention of natives, other than that friendly ones would trade in beaver pelts for foodstuffs at Hudson Bay posts. There was also a mention that “Indians”, as they were referred to in our social studies textbooks , were a huge help in fending off the hapless Americans trying to take over Canada in The War of 1812. Other than natives being the recipients of the blessings of the white missionaries, it almost appeared the prairies were barren when La Verendrye, the first non-native to see the western side of the Canadian Rockies, arrived in 1738. There was some mention of them slaughtering buffalo, too, come to think of it. (Darned good thing, too, since having millions of head of wild bison still lumbering about the province would be a driving nightmare.)
We did not, however, learn anything negative about native and non-native relations. There was no discussion of the ill-conceived and horribly executed residential school system. We did not encounter stories about the illness and plagues that were inadvertently introduced to the region by the settlers and missionaries. There was certainly nothing about the promises made in the treaties that were originally established between white and native cultures which allowed us to exploit the land.
We did learn, however, we should all be proud that we didn’t have great “Indian Wars” like they had south of the 49th parallel such as the Little Big Horn and such. It was understood that, in Canada, our leaders always tried to do right by our native hosts.
Since leaving school, however, I have discovered our history is not exactly the rosy pictures painted by Heritage Canada commercials. It took decades of successive federal leaders to produce a Prime Minister who had the courage to apologize for the generationally destructive residential school debacle. With the apology came the implicit admission that this country, and its predominately white guy leadership, made egregious errors in their dealings with First Nation folk.
I also learned not all aboriginal people are above reproach in entrenching a status quo that we are told is rife with corruption. No surprise there. Whether it be white guy or native guy, the phrase “power corrupts” is almost a certainty, if checks and balances aren’t in place or properly monitored. It is unfortunate, however, that when a native leader is found to be using the system fraudulently, there are those that apply the culpability to all aboriginals. When the white guy plays the government for personal gain, no one says, “Those darned white guys are always screwing the system!” Reality is that there are tons of white guys screwing the system and a number of them wear pricey suits to their jobs on Bay Street and Parliament Hill. The double-standard is glaring.
Still, as a white guy, I am enraged by other double-standards, too. From commercial fishing and hunting laws to “sentencing circles” instead of court and from the national shames of Oka and Caledonia, to protestors interrupting rail and vehicular traffic in “Idle No More” marches, there seems to be two sets of laws on Canada’s books. This is intolerable in the egalitarian society we expect our country to be. Giving any group preferential treatment creates resentment in the rest of Canada (Hello, Quebec!) Predictably, this resentment worsens the growing wedge between native and non-natives leading to even less understanding of one another. Unfortunately, that wedge of ignorance represents the greatest stumbling block to achieving solutions for the many serious issues surrounding First Nations people and their relationship with the white guy world.
It is therefore incumbent on all of us to actually do some research into the historic and present-day struggles of the folks who hail from the opposite camps of this debate. We loath what we fear and we fear the unknown. Perhaps if we can learn about one another and accept one another as human beings, we will begin to care about finding solutions; for the native culture, as much for ourselves. It may even rid us of our guilt.
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