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'Sovereignty summer schools' can mobilize First Peoples for the future

Image: flickr/bcgovphotos

It is so easy to get bogged down by all the problems indigenous peoples face. Poverty, suicide, addiction, disease, incarceration, homelessness, violence -- where does one even begin to address these things?

We can cast our nets widely, and see the big picture in all its ugly colonial horror. This is absolutely necessary; but philosophically deconstructing colonialism can only get us so far when so many indigenous peoples are struggling just to have their basic needs met.

We can cast our nets more narrowly, and focus on a single issue. This is essential to those of us who require tangible outcomes. Perhaps you start a recreation program for youth in your home community. You pour your time and energy into it, trying to ignore political infighting, trying to be responsive to the kids who are coming to the program hungry, sleep-deprived, or who stop coming altogether because things at home are too complicated. You hold on to the successes, and this helps you survive the failures. You try not to take any of it personally and you remind yourself that you can't solve all the problems of the community on your own. You have to focus -- just do this well, that is your part.

We can and we do both of these things. We come back to big picture issues when possible, and we do on-the-ground work. That is the reality that does not grab the headlines, and is so rarely acknowledged by the wider public. The myth of the lazy, corrupt Indian is overpowering. It obscures the amazing work that so many of our people are doing every single day.

What can unite so many different Peoples?

Much ado is made of our divisions and differences, and this is so successful because the narrative of our sameness is foundational to colonial policies. Our differences are only highlighted in terms of conflict, whether discussing historic conflicts between us, or political struggles between us today.

Our differences are not a source of weakness, and we should approach them for strength. In the old days we traded with one another; not just for material goods, but also for intellectual and spiritual ones. Arguably, we do the same thing today. Just as we learn the Anishinaabe origins of the jingle dance, we also learn the Maori origins of the Language Nest.

What unites us, aside from our shared history of colonization? There are many things I could name, but in my opinion, none are so important as: our children, our land, and our education.

Our Children

The practice of removing our children from their families and communities did not end with Residential School. It did not end with the sixties scoop, but continues today. In Manitoba, indigenous children make up twenty per cent of the total child population and 70 per cent of the children in Child and Family Services care. That is seven times the rate for non-native children.

In Manitoba, changes to the entire child welfare system were introduced via legislation rammed through with no consultation with indigenous communities (p.49), ostensibly giving indigenous people more control, while replicating the crushing workloads and underfunding that made the system such a failure in the first place.

Losing our children continues to wreak havoc on our ability as peoples to pass along our languages and cultures. Flipping that around to focus not on the loss, but rather on the children who remain and those children in care that we can reach, we must recognize the incredible potential that exists for us to support and nurture our children.

I am not referring here to just mothers and fathers, but rather our communities as a whole. We do not have to be parents to play a part in nurturing the next generations. Raising strong, rooted, healthy children is the most important act of revolution our peoples can accomplish. Nothing has been so interfered with than our ability to do exactly this.

Our Land

In terms of land, First Nations in Canada occupy one half of one per cent of all the land south of the 60th parallel. That minuscule percentage of land continues to be encroached upon and the erosion of our traditional territories has been unceasing since Contact.

The loss of our land impacts us on so many levels. Our traditional classrooms are on the land, and our pedagogy is rooted in our specific territories. How this manifests itself in specific teachings differs from people to people, but we certainly have this in common. When we are separated from the land, we cannot model our relationship to it, we can only speak of it. This is contrary to the fundamental nature of indigenous education, which is practice based. Ignoring for the moment, the vast economic consequences of having such little access to our territories, the loss of land has a fundamental impact on our ability to pass on our culture to future generations.

To once again turn this in a positive direction, we need to pay attention to successful attempts to use what land we do have access to in culturally relevant ways. This is possible even in urban areas, as people like Leanne Simpson have pointed out. The importance of access to the land is something that unites all indigenous peoples, and provides us with a concrete way in which to ensure our cultural survival through land-based teachings. Those teachings will vary, and their diversity is vital to our growth.

Our Education

For me, all of this boils down to education. I have spoken out against top-down attempts to implement educational reform, but now I want to talk about alternatives. The First Nations Education Act is going to be passed. It will be full of words, and funding will be slow to follow, if it ever truly does. It will not meet our needs, because it has not been designed by us.

So what now? I believe we need mobilization on a massive scale, and I believe that this can happen in a way that takes advantage of our diversity, rather than being crippled by it.

In the 50s, when indigenous peoples were moving to urban centres in large numbers, volunteers came together to create a system of programs and services that were delivered through what are now known as Friendship Centres. No one asked for permission first, or waited for legislation to be passed, they simply saw a need and tried to meet it.

This ‘do it first, ask later' approach is being used in all our communities bother urban and rural, in one way or another. Perhaps we are blind to this because so many needs remain unmet, but it is high time we start acknowledging our strengths, and the fantastic work being done by so many.

I think that it is easy to get bogged down in our differences when we begin discussing delivering indigenous education. So many different languages and cultures, some with access to the land, and others whose access is very restricted. Communities with decades of experience delivering their own systems of education and ensuring their students will also be successful in Canadian institutions versus communities who are just now thinking of how to try this. Access to hundreds of fluent speakers versus a handful in a different territory.

Resurgence, now! Sovereignty summer schools?

I believe we need a national movement, one that also takes advantage of the experiences and expertise of our relations throughout the Americas and in other colonised territories. A movement focused on doing first, asking later, and one that is centred around our children, our land, and our education. I believe we need to pool our considerable resources and expertise in order to set up and implement a system of temporary "schools" akin to the Freedom schools during the Civil Rights movement.

When I say akin to the Freedom schools, I refer to the intention to encourage our children and ourselves to become social change agents through the creation of temporary, volunteer-driven educational programs that must tie into wider action. Our "sovereignty summer' did not materialize the way some hoped it would, but that is not to say nothing was being done. With some planning over these coming winter months, we could be ready to implement a nation-wide program in all our communities, urban and rural, that would sow the seeds for more lasting educational reform.

We could do this by creating for this one year, a system of "sovereignty summer schools" which would provide us with an opportunity to learn about the challenges facing us, the strength and resources we have available to us, and the actions we can take to work towards lasting changes.

I see this as a temporary effort, because the need is immediate and pressing, the long-term goal is a systemic and well-developed system of indigenous education designed and implemented by our own peoples, and such massive effort based on volunteerism cannot be indefinitely sustainable. In addition, we do not know what would come out of these schools and where they might lead us.

I believe that mobilizing in this specific way, will help us to continue forming important relationships between our Peoples, so that our year long or life long work will become more effective. The idea is not to stop what we are doing just to focus on a single project for a short period of time, but rather to find a way to connect with one another through this effort.

There have been so many initiatives taking place: teach-ins and youth conferences along side already established educational programs. We have brilliant and dedicated people who are working hard to create change. What we do not have is a unified effort that is capable of not only respecting our differences, but also drawing strength from those differences in order to link our efforts.

For a time, the pan-Indian movement drew us together and stressed our commonalities. I believe that now is the time to celebrate our differences and share our successes, our expertise, and our energies. I would argue that during the past year, our youth have been lit from within, and we need to ensure that fire continues to burn. Many of those youth have already come up with concrete suggestions for the implementation of the kind of national effort I am talking about here; but few people have heard them.

I am specifically not suggesting topics, methods of delivery, or goals because I think this has to be a communal effort and so many amazing ideas and programs are already out there to draw upon.

A lot of time and effort has been spent on attempting to raise the awareness of Canadians as regards indigenous struggles. What if we focus instead for a time on raising our own awareness? What could we accomplish next summer with some collaboration now?

Our children. Our land. Our education.

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