by Heather Menzies
In early January, a man identifying himself as a seventh-generation descendent of Chief Tecumseh, who led the Native Nations in an alliance with General Isaac Brock in the War of 1812, came to see Chief Theresa Spence on Victoria Island. He stood across the sacred fire from where she sat, and explained that he’d felt “called” by the spirit of his ancestor to “stand up” and support her. “You speak from the heart of the earth,” he said.
As I listened, I realized that he was using a language that’s virtually extinct in public discourse. Yet it’s a language that
must be revived across all the nations, communities and generations that make up modern Canada if we are to realign our relations with the earth and with each other.
This is why the guidance of traditional teachings has remained central to Idle No More’s peaceful unfolding. It’s also why the four founding women were triggered by the bullying passage of the Harper Government’s second omnibus bill, C-45. It epitomized the denial of this language, the language of mutual respect and recognition, of dialogue and relationship building.
Instead, Harper used his nominal majority to exercise absolute power, sweeping aside volumes of common-good policy, including to protect the commons of the land, the rivers and lakes, and opening the way for unilateral action on the part of resource companies and their allies in finance and infrastructure building. This language, of power as control and dependency, has long been associated with the elites who have shaped relations between government, people and the land in Canada. And it’s brought us to the current impasse: deepening inequalities and alienation among the human inhabitants of this land, evidenced most dramatically in First Nations communities, plus the degradation of the land itself, dramatically evidenced in the prognosis for the Athabasca River watershed in light of plans for the Alberta tar sands. There is deep public anxiety about these developments, and a longing for hopeful change.
The Idle No More movement is an opportunity for such a change. In its call for all people to join it, in a Common Causes network, it’s an opening for a new alliance between native and non-native people in this country, at the democratic grassroots level. But to succeed, it must maintain the language of right relations in all its dealings and its approach.
The challenge for me as a fourth-generation settler-Canadian is to draw from my own heritage when my Scottish ancestors lived in direct relations with the land. They carried on living in self-governing commons almost until the Clearances drove them to settle here. As part of that local self-governance, they set limits, called stints, on the number of sheep and cows to be sent to the upland common pastures, called shielings. The stinting practices were informed by traditional knowledge practices – observation embedded and immersed in daily life on the land, plus oral interpretation of this in light of storied memory of weather and topography. And these in turn were reinforced by Celtic Christian faith practices that kept them attuned to the sacred (God) present in all they did and wherever they walked.
The research I’ve done recovering some of this heritage is my way to approach the sacred fire of the Idle No More movement. It’s my way to take up the “sacred responsibility” Clayton Thomas Mueller, a Cree with the Indigenous Environmental Network, talked about at the January 28th Idle No More march on Parliament Hill. By this he meant the responsibility “to speak for the ones that cannot speak for themselves – the fish in the Athabasca River” etc.
Together, perhaps we can revive the language of right relations and bring it back to Parliament Hill to give ethical voice to the repeal of bills C-38 and C-45, and to restore democratic and environmental due process to policy making in this country.
Heather Menzies is completing her 10th book, which speaks to the themes of this movement. The working title is To the Shieling: A Memoir on Reconnecting with the Earth
'Rise' image by Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw artist, Andy Everson