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Watching the Watchdog: Talking Idle No More With a Former APTN Journalist

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Tim Knight writes the regular media column Watching the Watchdog for HuffPost Canada.

It's 21 years ago. January 1992. Winnipeg. Bitterly cold.

The Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN) is about to be born and I'm leading a team of trainers tasked with coaching the new network's journalists.

Morale in the newsroom is incredible. After all these years during which Canada's First Nations, Métis and Inuit have been mostly ignored by other Canadians, the nation's original people have finally found their own voice. APTN is the world's first TV network dedicated to news about aboriginal people and staffed by aboriginal journalists.

One of the most interesting of the journalists is Ken Williams, Cree from Saskatchewan, already a video journalist, and good-guy-to-have-a-beer-with. Also, a good guy with words. After the workshop he writes "This has been the most challenging and most fun month in my life." Which, in spite of the cold, more or less sums up our trainers' attitudes too.

Flash forward these 21 years and Ken Williams, APTN video journalist, has turned into Kenneth T. Williams, eminent award-winning playwright. Author of Gordon Winter, Thunderstick, Bannock Republic, Suicide Notes, Three Little Birds and now Café Daughter, playing here in Toronto last week.

Café Daughter is based on the life of Williams' own cousin, Senator Dr. Lillian Eva Quan Dyck, who's a neuroscientist born of a Cree mother and Chinese father. She's played by the splendid Yvette Wong, herself a mixture of Cree, Saulteaux, French, Métis and Scandinavian.

Just for the record, I'm a white, English-born Canadian.

But enough of this triumph of the Canadian mosaic. A couple of days after I see the Kenneth T. Williams play (I laugh some, learn some, mist some, enjoy greatly) my old friend Ken Williams and I go for beers at my local tavern.

He hasn't changed much since we meet back there in the APTN newsroom 21 years ago. Still boyish, with now-greying spiky hair, an easy laugh, and the confidence that comes from doing what he wants to do which is writing plays which, in Canada, is only slightly more likely to bring fame and fortune than writing poetry or being unemployed.

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We order and I ask Ken about Idle No More.

Tim: Is the protest going to last?

Ken: It will change. It will alter. What we can hope for is that there's a fundamental shift in Aboriginal and government relations in this country. What has shifted is that there are more people who are becoming more aware of the role of indigenous people in this country and the relationship we're supposed to have -- and they're on the side of indigenous people.

Tim: Let me quote another famous playwright, a fellow called Shakespeare: 'There is a tide in the affairs of men. Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune.' Is Idle No More at the flood for Aboriginal people in Canada?

Ken: I think it's the beginning of the flood. This is a long process. We're not gonna fix this in one meeting, two meetings, or a year. We can't rush it. We have to build on the history we're presenting and overcome a lot of ignorance.

Tim: I'm fascinated by the very, very strong female presence in all this. In fact, it's one of the columns I've written for Huffington Post. Almost everything [in the protests] seems to be female-driven now.

Ken: You're seeing what exactly is there. Speaking from a First Nations male point of view, they've carried the burden of keeping First Nations together far more than First Nations men. First Nations women ... if it wasn't for them ... we would have been done for. If they'd given up a hundred years ago it would have been over. It's just that men are now listening [laughs]. It's not a cliché, unfortunately, that First Nations men have abrogated their responsibilities in a lot of ways.

Tim: Give me an example.

Ken: They consider fatherhood [to be] how many children they have and not how many they raise. They become members of gangs, addicts. Of course, there's a huge range of societal reasons why that is. But First Nations women have suffered those things too ... and even worse because they've been abused by First Nations men. And yet they're the ones who had the strength and wherewithal to dig through that and rise up. I think what happened is that the men finally figured out 'we've been doing this all wrong' [laughs].

Tim: It's taken a long time ...

Ken: We've screwed this so badly. And finally the generations of youths who've been raised by single moms and aunties has figured out who the leaders truly are in the community.

Tim: They've been raised by the women.

Ken: Yes. This generation and the generation before that.

Tim: Georges Erasmus [then Assembly of First Nations national chief] said 25 years ago ... hey wait for the next generation. They're not going to take this crap. Although that wasn't the word he used. This is the next generation he was talking about.

Ken: And it seems to me perfect sense that it's women leading this. Women who've finally had enough. And I'm more than willing to listen to them.

Tim: Is there much male resistance?

Ken: Not so much resistance as accusations of usurpation.

Tim: Two years from today, what's the situation?

Ken: What I feel is going to happen is that the conversation about First Nations and the treaty relationship in this country must reconcile itself. The power of what Idle No More did is that it maintained a very strong presence in the media despite the fact hockey came back. Because us damned Indians aren't giving up.

Tim: How will it end?

Ken: This is not going to end until Canada comes to grips with its responsibilities as a treaty nation. This nation was not conquered. This nation was not built on war or on blood. It was built on an agreement between First Nations people and the settlers. That cannot be ignored. And the reason why we get uppity is because of that. And we're not going to let you forget it.

Knight edited and condensed the interview.