01/25/2012 05:53 EST | Updated 03/26/2012 05:12 EDT

Harper and the First Nations Speak Different Languages


Well folks, there was a lot of "speaking two different languages" going on in Ottawa yesterday.

For me, the highlights of the Crown-First Nation Gathering held in Ottawa came from the mouths of two women, Dr. Pam Palmater and Chief Jody Wilson-Raybould. Dr. Palmater provided commentary during the opening and closing of the Gathering on APTN while Chief Wilson-Raybould addressed the Gathering itself.

I'll admit that I didn't exactly have high hopes about this summit, for reasons that Dr. Palmater laid out far more explicitly and thoroughly than I have room for here. Harper's opening speech confirmed that the Canadian government has no intention to abolish or even change the Indian Act (it's a tree, after all, with deep roots) and National Chief Shawn Atleo's speech (scroll down for the full text in that link), though at odds with Harper's in certain areas, didn't exactly knock my socks off.

Granted, these were clearly all prepared speeches being essentially "read into the record" by politicians who have be very careful about how they phrase things. Lots of references to "a new day" and such. People will analyze their words to death over the next months and even years, so expecting ground-shaking statements might be naïve.

But when Chief Wilson-Raybould finished with her opening pleasantries and then tackled some tough subjects, my ears stopped dozing. Her speech prompted the first rounds of spontaneous applause heard after over two hours of speeches. She said a lot of important things, and I urge you to listen to her words (at 2:24:30).

After giving a series of concrete examples of the obstacles to self-governance and economic development, and offering clear instructions on how to overcome those obstacles, she accepted Harper's Indian Act-as-tree metaphor and stated: "We need core governance reform. When we do, the Indian Act tree will topple over. No gaping hole Mr. Prime Minister, but strong and self-determining First Nations."

In the privacy of my living room, I was able to jump up and pump my fist like crazy without the least bit of embarrassment. Maybe you had to be there.

During and after the Gathering, Dr. Palmater (along with Doug Cuthand) provided razor-sharp analysis of some of the issues raised which made me think it's no wonder CSIS apparently has a file on her.

I particularly liked Ovide Mecredi recounting what a respected Elder told him to do about the Indian Act, advising Mecredi to "act Indian, not Indian Act." Again, this might not make sense to everyone reading this, and I think that is because just as was highlighted at the CFNG: We are often speaking two different languages.

Doug Cuthand pointed out that for most First Nations people, it's "family first, community second, individual third," and noted that Harper had focused strongly on the individual first. This is not the only instance of how we aren't speaking the same language. Chief Wilson-Raybould and Ovide Mecredi both gave plenty of other examples related to governance and the treaties.

What strikes me as the most obvious difference in language and meaning, however, is highlighted by the traditional acknowledgement of the territory one is on. In this case, the CFNG was hosted on Algonquin territory.

When Prime Minister Harper or Minister Duncan or the Governor General acknowledge they are on Algonquin territory, they don't mean it. They really don't. Why? Because it would require acknowledging the sovereignty of the Algonquin people over those lands, which is something Canada steadfastly refuses to do. To these people, the words are just platitudes. Something you say when you're dealing with Indians. Empty phrases.

It is not an empty phrase for us. It is an important affirmation of another nation's territory, a recognition of the reciprocal obligations between hosts and guests, and it is also a constant modern-day assertion of indigenous sovereignty.

So when I read the CFNG outcome statement, I can't help but feel that sure, it really would be a good step if we could manage to speak the same language.

So how about it, Canada? Time for some national language lessons?