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In the mid-1990s I moved to Mi’gma’gi to go to graduate school. I was expecting to learn about juvenile Atlantic salmon on the Miramichi River. I was naive and misguided. Fortunately for me, the Mi’kmaq people saw that in me and they taught me something far more profound. I did my first sweat in the homeland of Elsipogtog, in the district of Siknikt. I did solidarity work with the women of Elsipogtog, then known as Big Cove, as they struggled against imposed poverty and poor housing. One of them taught me my first song, the Mi’kmaq honor song, and I attended her Native Studies class with her as she sang it to a room full of shocked students.
I also found a much needed refuge with a Mi’kmaq family on a nearby reserve. What I learned from all of these kind people who saw me as an Nishnaabeg in a town where no one else did, was that the place I needed to be wasn’t Mi’gma’gi, but in my own Mississauga Nishnaabeg homeland. For that I am grateful.
Nearly every year I travel east to Mi’gma’gi for one reason or another. In 2010, my children and I traveled to Listuguj in the Gespe’gewa’gi district of Mi’gma’gi to witness the PhD dissertation defense of Fred Metallic. I was on Fred’s dissertation committee, and Fred had written and was about to defend his entire dissertation in Mi’gmaw (Mi’kmaq) without translation—a groundbreaking achievement. Fred had also kindly invited us to his community for the defense. When some of the university professors indicated that this might be difficult given that the university was 1,300 kilometers away from the community, Fred simply insisted there was no other way.
He insisted because his dissertation was about building a different kind of relationship between his nation and Canada, between his community and the university. He wasn’t going to just talk about decolonizing the relationship, he was determined to embody it, and he was determined that the university would as well.
This was a Mi’kmaw dissertation on the grounds of Mi’kmaw intellectual traditions, ethics, and politics.
The defense was unlike anything I have ever witnessed within the academy. The community hall was packed with representatives from band councils, the Sante Mawiomi, and probably close to 300 relatives, friends, children, and supporters from other communities. The entire defense was in Mi’gmaw, led by community Elders, leaders, and Knowledge Holders—the real intellectuals in this case.
There was ceremony. There was song and prayer. At the end, there was a huge feast and giveaway. It went on for the full day and into the night. It was one of the most moving events I have ever witnessed, and it changed me. It challenged me to be less cynical about academics and institutions because the strength and persistence of this one Mi’gmaw man and the support of his community changed things.
I honestly never thought he’d get his degree, because I knew he’d walk away rather than compromise. He had my unconditional support either way. Fred is one of the most brilliant thinkers I’ve ever met, and he was uncompromising in his insistence that the university meet him halfway. I never thought an institution would.
All of these stories came flooding back to me this week as I watched the RCMP attack the nonviolent anti-fracking protestors at Elsipogtog with rubber bullets, an armored vehicle, tear gas, fists, police dogs, and pepper spray. The kind of stories I learned in Mi’gmagi will never make it into the mainstream media, and most Canadians will never hear them.
Instead, Canadians will hear recycled propaganda as the mainstream media blindly goes about repeating the press releases sent to them by the RCMP designed to portray Mi’kmaw protestors as violent and unruly in order to justify their own colonial violence. The only images most Canadians will see is of the three hunting rifles, a basket full of bullets and the burning police cars, and most will be happy to draw their own conclusions based on the news—that the Mi’kmaq are angry and violent, that they have no land rights, and that they deserved to be beaten, arrested, criminalized, jailed, shamed, and erased.
The story here, the real story, is virtually the same story in every indigenous nation: Over the past several centuries we have been violently dispossessed of most of our land to make room for settlement and resource development. The active system of settler colonialism maintains that dispossession and erases us from the consciousness of settler Canadians except in ways that is deemed acceptable and non-threatening to the state.
We start out dissenting and registering our dissent through state-sanctioned mechanisms like environmental impact assessments. Our dissent is ignored. Some of us explore Canadian legal strategies, even though the courts are stacked against us. Slowly but surely we get backed into a corner where the only thing left to do is to put our bodies on the land. The response is always the same—intimidation, force, violence, media smear campaigns, criminalization, silence, talk, negotiation, “new relationships,” promises, placated resistance, and then more broken promises.
Then the cycle repeats itself.
This is why it is absolutely critical that our conversations about reconciliation include the land. We simply cannot build a new relationship with Canada until we can talk openly about sharing the land in a way that ensures the continuation of indigenous cultures and lifeways for the coming generations. The dispossession of indigenous peoples from our homelands is the root cause of every problem we face, whether it is missing or murdered indigenous women, fracking, pipelines, deforestation, mining, environmental contamination, or social issues as a result of imposed poverty.
So we are faced with a choice. We can continue to show the photos of the three hunting rifles and the burnt-out cop cars on every mainstream media outlet ad nauseam and paint the Mi’kmaq with every racist stereotype we know, or we can dig deeper.
We can seek out the image of strong, calm Mi’kmaq women and children armed with drums and feathers and ask ourselves what would motivate mothers, grandmothers, aunties, sisters, and daughters to stand up and say enough is enough. We can learn about the 400 years these people and their ancestors have spent resisting dispossession and erasure. We can learn about how they began their reconciliation process in the mid-1700s when they forged Peace and Friendship treaties. We can learn about why they chose to put their bodies on the land to protect their lands and waters against fracking because—setting the willfully ignorant and racists aside—sane, intelligent people should be standing with them.
Our bodies should be on the land so that our grandchildren have something left to stand upon.