Two Histories by Joe Desjarlais

On January 13, I sat at a Federal Table about industry impacts with my BC Métis Federation colleagues that consisted of over a dozen senior federal government and other officials and senior First Nations leaders. The ongoing dialogue represents a window of opportunity for governments to recognize and affirm the histories of Canada’s Métis peoples.

It was clear from the outset from the discussion that Aboriginal leaders are skeptical of the process. The prevailing view is that governments don’t meaningfully engage. They come to meetings with preconceptions about what Indigenous people need. Governments set the talking points and it is framed as mostly technical language, mere formality at best. The Aboriginal leaders made it abundantly clear that consultation cannot remain at a superficial level, merely facilitating what one chief termed “drive-by consultation” by governments and industry.

I was very proud as I listened to Keith Henry and Lyle Letendre share with conviction about the hopes and aspirations of Métis people amidst the deep challenges. They spoke hope and possibility into a context where there was much conflict, disillusionment and suspicion.

I was honoured by the opportunity to share my thoughts. I began by stating that there were two histories, two different ‘ways of knowing’ represented in the room an only one was dignified and shared in and through the current process.

Instead of an ‘open sustained dialogue’, the agenda for negotiations was being co-opted by narrow, technical language that ignores or discounts Métis ways of being, oral and written histories, values and perspectives.

I explained that Métis across Canada were impacted and the Federal government has a long colonial history to reconcile when it comes to Canada’s Métis peoples and their histories and cultures. I stated that if officials took time on our website to learn the issues they would encounter evidence of this colonial history. On behalf of Métis people, I invited the government of Canada to negotiate a path through the injustice of the past, to take the opportunity to reset the relationship to one of respect and to help Métis people, communities and nations within Canada to get back their dignity.

If I had more time, I would have added that Canadian legislation and policies have not produced a better socio-economic future for Canada’s Métis people. Technical jargon has only masked a harsh reality for Métis people. Even more Métis have been pushed into the class of the working or unemployed poor. Education remains focussed on narrow outcomes and ignores how to think and be creative and this is precisely the kind of education that is needed for life and our governance. I would have reminded the government that current polls are saying that the decline of democracy in Canada is a big problem. This is even more pronounced in Métis politics because of economic and political co-optation by mainstream governments.

The reality is that I felt that governments did not come to the meeting to engage. They come with their minds made up and they choose to employ technology and facts as ‘truth’ to justify their ‘rightness.’ PM Harper narrowly views the pipeline and other projects as about integrating aboriginal people into the global economy to solve all their social ills.

As colleague Keith Henry stated, the meetings were all about governments increasing their own internal(strategic) capacity. All the while they cut funding and capacity for both aboriginal and mainstream organizations and conceal information. The public stories are mostly controlled and told from the perspective of governments and industry.

As one chief stated bluntly in the room to the government, ‘ you have no credibility.’

I ask myself what price Canadians and Métis will have to pay for progress that this government says is ‘in the Canadian interest.’ Within their justifying rationale, it is easy for governments to condone the continued violation of a historic treaty relationship with First Nations and Métis as a necessary price to pay for what amounts to an obsessive hunt for riches by elite politicians.

On behalf of Métis people, I posed several of the challenges and summed up on a positive note with an invitation to the government of Canada to negotiate a path through the injustice of the past, to reset the relationship to one of respect and to help Métis people, communities and nations within Canada to get back their dignity. I explained how our commitment to dialogue at the BC Métis Federation is based upon five movements that are committed to shift Métis and mainstream institutions in new and increasingly just ways.

1. Métis communities have the right to begin to re-imagine themselves as nations and make them known to Canadian society.
2. Dialogue must commit to an ongoing, positive, open negotiation of Métis identities. This means we need to facilitate a dialogue about the practice of historical difference within and between Métis communities and across communities in Canada. We advocate for national historical differences between communities
3. Negotiate a principled path to protect the ability to live in proximity and translation.
4. Explore possibility of co-existence through creative democratic citizenship engagement.
5. Support the idea of good governance through visionary and responsive leadership

After the meeting closed, I silently pondered how great it would be if government and industry representatives were able to imagine a model of coexistence that enabled them to share power. Judging by the meeting, I have no doubt that the ‘contests’ are shaping up around these issues.

The shape of the day also underscored a deeper message. The overarching ideas that came out challenged the idea that Métis are just ‘stakeholders.’ This message eclipsed the false urgency to get Métis people on board, to sell them on a way to make money or ‘fit in.’ How will this point in our history be recounted? Will Métis histories be repressed and distorted or will two histories be heard? Thus far, government words and actions have certainly been an impoverished way to characterize a historic relationship between the Crown and Canada’s Métis peoples.

I was reminded that the current challenging situation represents a significant moment. This could, if handled properly, be a decisive time for all Canadians in our shared history when respect, dignity, partnership, and co-existence could once again redefine the relationship between Canada and all aboriginal people, including Métis.

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