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Why Christians Should Be Idle No More: Redeeming “The Word” Delivered to First Nations

Otterburne – Former Providence Professor, Wendy Peterson addressed the community chapel at Providence this past Wednesday, January 23, 2013. An electronic copy of her presentation is available below.

Note: This speech has been modified for this written presentation.

About the speaker/author: After teaching both undergraduate and graduate students at Providence, Wendy Peterson commenced a PhD program in Intercultural Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary in Fall of 2007. Wendy continues to serve as adjunct in the Seminary, as a board member of both the Evangelical Free Church of Canada and the North American Institute for Theological Studies (NAIITS), edits the NAIITTS Journal, serves as a member of the Aboriginal Ministry Council of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada.

Having come to faith in Jesus Christ as an adult, Wendy began her formal theological studies after her youngest child entered school. She earned a B.A in Biblical Studies in 1989 and an M.A. (Theology) in 1994, both from Providence. As a Metis person, Wendy has a passion to minister with Canadian Aboriginal peoples.

 Wendy Beauchemin Peterson


Wendy Beauchemin Peterson
January 23, 2013

I stand here today to mark this moment in time as we know it. These are my own views and no one else should be held accountable for them.

My desire is to address the non-Aboriginal response to a movement that has come to be called Idle No More. Whether one agrees with it or not—and I am certainly not naïve enough to expect everyone to agree—but whether one agrees with it or not, those of us who disagree need to do so in a christianly way.

It is not an easy topic, yet I feel compelled to address it.

Idle No More is truly a grassroots movement, begun by four unassuming Saskatchewan women—Native and non-Native—who are angered by a Federal Omnibus bill known as C-45.

It is over 400 pages long, primarily a budget, but embedded within it are the withdrawal of government protection of most of Canada’s waterways and an undercutting of Aboriginal Sovereignty through amendments to The Indian Act.
From an Aboriginal perspective the two main issues are:

  1. the attack on First Nation Sovereignty as expressed in nation-to-nation covenants more commonly known as treaties
  2. environmental issues related to water and land, and lack of promised consultation on their usage [inherent in nation-to-nation relationships].

I had said this is not an easy topic. For those of you who think politics need to be avoided at all costs, let me tell you that you cannot be Aboriginal in this land without being drawn into politics. I say this because Aboriginal people are the only citizens who are defined and categorized by politics.

It is not an easy topic because we are talking about real people not theoretical issues.

It is not easy because I am reacting to fellow Christians who are saying hateful things about a whole race of people, things often based on hearsay and lack of knowledge.

It is not easy because we are talking about the future of our country, our children, our children’s children. In the perspective of First Nations, we are speaking of the future of children to the seventh generation.

And, it is not easy because it involves thousands of people whose social realities seem insurmountable and cannot be adequately addressed in this brief time. These people share the same negative social realities of many Indigenous colonized peoples including the Maoris of New Zealand, Aborigines in Australia, and others in Indonesia, Africa, etc.

I have experienced pride, grief and anger—as well as fear—related to the Idle No More movement.

I have felt pride, because I see people who I love, who have felt so helpless, stand up and say to the entire nation, No More.

Governments and religious leaders have called First Nations “the Indian problem” for over 100 years. In the words of Thomas King, Indians are “inconvenient”—inconvenient to the advancement of Empire.* Governments and churches have co-operated to outlaw their ceremonies, steal their children, destroy their communities and cultures, force them to relocate time and time again, flood their lands, and have strategically forced them onto welfare and then criticized them for being lazy. The greed for land and resources is endless. Yet, through Idle No More, the people are saying “we are still here, we will not assimilate, and we are not going away.”

I have felt grief and anger as I have heard and read comments of people who name the Name of Jesus, yet who call Aboriginal people ugly names, who repeat slanderous anecdotes and media stories without verifying if they are true, but who will make no effort to read the hundreds of books written by Indigenous people or listen to their stories.

There seem to be four major objections from non-Aboriginals to the Idle No More movement, besides potential inconvenience:

  1. Indians are wasting my taxes.
  2. Canadians are all equal. It isn’t fair that they want or get special perks. I didn’t agree to any treaties.
  3. These things happened a long time ago. Get over it.
  4. Indians are lazy. Why don’t they get off the reserves, move to the cities and become successful like us.

I am going to address these in reverse order.

First, Indians are lazy. Why don’t they get off the reserves, move to the cities and become successful like us. By whose standard are First Nations lazy? How do we measure laziness? I was registering at a hotel in Uganda when a non-African person began to chastise a Ugandan employee. It was humiliating to listen to. When I confronted the woman, we were told we didn’t understand how lazy these people are. Yet, we saw them working in the intense heat laying bricks and carrying their body weight on their heads while the boss remained in air-conditioned comfort. Lazy? I think not.

The First peoples in Canada managed to survive in minus 30 degree weather without European help for thousands of years. You don’t kill bison with a bow and arrow to feed your family by being lazy. Way back in 1969, a Cree lawyer named Harold Cardinal responded to the same charge in his book The Unjust Society. He wrote:

There are white men who believe that the lack of economic advancement among Indians is caused by their unwillingness to grasp opportunities presented to them. More, perhaps, believe that all Indians really want is handouts, a welfare existence. Some will tell you that the problem is simpler, that the Indian just naturally is too lazy to work or that Indians lack the imagination or creativity to do anything for themselves. No thinking could be more viciously stupid and wrongheaded.**

Why don’t First Nations move off reserves? Many have and have found their way to become lawyers, artists, mechanics, doctors, journalists, etc. Some have assimilated. Many, given the choice, chose to integrate. Others may have been forced off reserved land by various laws passed over the decades. But most First Nations love their communities; many are ill-prepared educationally; they do not want to be crushed by cross-cultural-white expectations and values; businesses will not hire them; First Nations’ values may not include the accumulation of stuff as a high priority in life. Difficulties are compounded by the challenge of adjusting to city life with no resources. Add to that—those of you who come from real poverty will understand this—poverty is crippling; if you are extremely poor, have a dysfunctional family, if you have had up to six generations of your family raised in institutions where your kin have experienced nothing but grief, and escape the pain through alcohol and drugs—well it can all be rather overwhelming.

I recently received a Facebook post from someone I do not know. She said, “These things happened 100 years ago. They need to get over it.” After all, she continued, she had left Soviet territory and she got over it. Without intending to demean her experiences, I do hear versions of this complaint frequently, but I wonder, “Will First Nations people who are struggling be welcomed into her former city?” By the millions European and other immigrants have left their homelands precisely because they couldn’t get along with their own people; or, they had nearly depleted the natural resources of their own lands. How simple it would be if Indigenous peoples from Canada, United States, Australia, New Zealand, South America, and other parts of the world where colonialism has left a devastation of cultures and loss of self-dignity—if they could simply move to someone else’s land and “get over it.”

Canadians are equal. Indians should not have any special privileges. It boggles my mind that the same people who say, “I never made any treaties so I am not responsible to keep them,” will also say “I have my rights under the Constitution.” Yet, they didn’t make the Constitution or craft the Bill of Rights.

Treaties are covenants and “a promise is a promise” (Fred Penner said that). As Jesus-followers we count on, we invest our lives in, a promise made 2,000 years ago – the promise of forgiveness from our Creator and eternal life—and a welcoming into the family of God. Old Testament believers understood covenant. When they conveniently forgot a treaty/covenant, astonishingly God still remembered and demanded a costly act of contrition. [Read 2 Samuel 21, if this part of Jewish/Christian scripture is unfamiliar.] Like the people in the Old Testament, Indigenous peoples look at history differently than Westerners. Indigenous peoples “walk backwards into the future” remembering the past, fully aware that they are taking the knowledge of the ancestors with them.

The treaties were a strategic move by Europeans. They determined that treaties provided a short-cut and cheaper means than war as a tactic to access and exploit resources and wealth of “new” lands. The Cree and Saulteaux, as one example, believed the words of covenant spoken by Alexander Morris in 1874 when he said “The promises we have to make to you are not for today only ...but for your child born and unborn…. [And] will be carried out as long as the sun shines above and the water flows in the ocean.” Are apologies also strategic?

Indians are wasting my taxes. Hmm. Where does one begin? Has any money ever been wasted by a First Nations leader? No doubt. Are there well run First Nations with honourable chiefs? Absolutely. But what I read and hear are statements that are all-inclusive. All chiefs are branded as dishonest. All First Nations are a mess. That simply is not true.

Are you aware Toronto has a debt many times the ratio of Attawapiskat? Are you aware of our federal government debt? No First Nation, proportionately, has the ability to go that far into debt. It would be an interesting math exercise to go back through the news since November and add up the dollars reportedly wasted by First Nations and compare them per capita with the money reportedly wasted in Montreal, Toronto, and Ottawa. But then we would need to apply the same standard of judgment.

The question might be asked, Why now? Why has Idle No More caught on? Why are Aboriginal people, and as many non-Aboriginal people, making all this noise now? Personally, I would have waited for warmer weather.

Idle No More is a new manifestation but part of an ongoing resistance. Harold Cardinal wrote his book at the height of another phase of the same resistance. But only since about 1995 have countless First Nations had the emotional freedom to tell their own history. This has empowered them.

In 1846, an Indian Superintendent said to the Indians which would have included my great-grandparents, "You will not give up your idle, roving habits to enable your children to receive instruction. It has therefore been determined that your children shall be sent to schools where they will forget their Indian habits and be instructed in all the necessary arts of civilized life and become one with your white brethren." For generations, parents and elders have been silent about their experiences in residential schools. They were too ashamed, too disempowered to talk. But in 1995 two national chiefs and others told their stories publically at Sacred Assembly. And now the children understand why their parents turned to alcohol. Now they understand that parents raised in institutions do not learn how to parent or to live as healthy families.

I said I felt pride, but I am also afraid. I fear because I have listened to the growing anger of young Aboriginals who do not have the patience of the older generations. I fear for them and for this country. Indigenous resistance to assimilation, to being demonized by those who are prospering from breaking treaty promises, will continue. Is Idle No More a sustainable movement? Perhaps. Perhaps not. But Aboriginal resistance will continue. Indigenous people are resilient. Many many of them love Jesus. But few have any desire to assimilate. They want to be who God has created them to be. As long as the sun shines and the water flows in the ocean.

I find hope in the God who loves and ultimately demands justice. Much injustice has been done in the Name of Jesus, in our time, and in our land we call Canada. Idle No More has not created hatred and racism. It merely brings to the surface what has always been there. But it is in our power as believers and as the Church to change the course of history. I am not a fatalist. We can make a difference.

As followers of Jesus we must pursue honest dialogue based on actual facts. We must not join those who slander or demean others. We are to love our neighbour as ourselves. Remember the model of the Good Samaritan? And we need to make the effort to be reasonably informed, to at least understand even if we don’t agree. We can do no less for our children, born and unborn, to the seventh generation.

Canada will never be all it can be until we stop the Euro-Canadian ethno-centrism and welcome the giftedness of the first peoples of this land. In 1970, in the aftermath of the first walk on the moon and First Nation reaction to the infamous White Paper produced by Trudeau and Chretien, Chief Dan George [1889-1981] wrote:

Was it only yesterday that men sailed around the moon? You and I marvel that man should travel so far and so fast. Yet, if they have travelled far, I have travelled farther, and if they have travelled fast, I have travelled faster.

For I was born a thousand years ago, born in a culture of bows and arrows. But within the span of half a lifetime, I was flung across the ages to the culture of the atom bomb. And that is a flight far beyond a flight to the moon….

I think it was the suddenness of it all that hurt us so. We did not have time to adjust to the startling upheaval around us. We seem to have lost what we had without a replacement for it. We did not have time to take your 20th century and eat it little by little and digest it. It was forced feeding from the start and our stomach turned sick and we vomited….

And now you hold out your hand and you beckon us to come across the street—come out and integrate, you say. But how can I come? I am naked and ashamed…. What is there in my culture you value?

Am I to come as a beggar and receive all from your omnipotent hand? Somehow, I must wait. I must find myself. I must find my treasure. I must wait until you want something of me, until you need something that is me. Then I can raise my head and say to my wife and family... listen... they are calling...they need me....

I must go.***

*Thomas King, The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America (Toronto: Doubleday Canada, 2012).

**Harold Cardinal, The Unjust Society: the Tragedy of Canada’s Indians (Edmonton: M.G. Hurtig Ltd., 1969), 68.

***Chief Dan George, “Akwesane Notes, 1970”, in Native Poetry in Canada: A Contemporary Anthology, edited by Jeannette C. Armstrong & Lally Grauer (Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 2001), 1.

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