Working with First Nations a real eye-opener

Esther Darlington MacDonald thinks back over a long association with First Nations

Scarcely a day goes by that some item doesn’t appear in our daily and weekly newspapers about Aboriginal affairs. These issues surface like whales, the wake of their surfacing washing over our affairs, both civic and federal. The latest is the news that government workers experimented with half-starved children to determine the effects of undernourishment in remote rural communities, rather than feeding those communities suffering from food shortages.

I recall, many years ago, reading about such conditions in northern Manitoba, when I resided in Winnipeg. But what we didn’t know about were the experiments. The dearth of information about native conditions at that time, and for too many years after, created an enormous information vacuum. It left most Canadians ignorant of the scope and consequences of government actions, and inaction, in Indian affairs. It is the consequences of those actions and decisions that the government is dealing with today.

Once in a while I am questioned about my personal interest in Indians. What prompted it? Why? One young woman put a forthright question to me that has remained with me for years. The question came as both of us sat at the front window of her home on Government Street, watching the children at Ashcroft Elementary School playing soccer in the field across the street.

“Why do you identify with the victims?”

The question sort of threw me. That Rebecca George saw my native stepson George in this light, as he moved with other members of the team on that field. More of the surprise was that she saw native Indians as victims. I have wondered since, how many Canadians actually did see native Indians as victims? And, if they did, in what areas were they being victimized? Indeed, what constitutes a definition of “victim”? But even then, 25 years ago, native Indian issues were part of the daily or weekly intake of news.

I am wondering today if there is a growing, general recognition by Canadians that awful things happened to the Native population; things that have created consequences. The Residential Schools are just the tip of the iceberg. There were all sort of undercurrents dealing with education, the politics of governing native communities across Canada, and the kind of general discrimination that we read about that happened in the USA; iniquities in almost every area.

All I know is that in 1976, when I was offered the job of working with the Bonaparte Band as a sort of administrative assistant to the Chief, I quit my new job with the Pioneer weekly newspaper and promptly went to work with the Band. Looking back, I think it was that inherent journalist’s curiosity that prompted what some friends thought was a hasty decision. But I have sensed that it was more than simple curiosity. There was a whole backlog of images and transient experiences that must have evoked an emotional response in my young heart.

One of the first came when I was about seven or eight years old. I was hiking alone along the “rocks” on Lake Winnipeg one morning, further away from the camp of cottages closer to the beach and boardwalk than usual. In the distance I saw a thin spiral of woodsmoke wafting above a copse of aspens.

I didn’t see them until I was upon them. It was so quiet. The father sat on a wooden box repairing a fishing net, the long lacing of which fell over his knees and onto the sand. I must have stood there, frozen, for more than a few moments, staring at the man, whom I now know was a Cree. He wore one of those caps with a visor, pulled down partly over his forehead. He lifted his head, and our eyes locked as he saw this little white girl with her blonde hair cropped just below her ears who had suddenly appeared. Behind the man, around the small fire, sat his wife and children.

I had invaded a place and a moment. I had entered another world. Some instinct prompted me to leave without a word. As I made my way back along the sandy lakeshore, studded with enormous boulders, that family and that man and that little fire were locked in conscious memory. Not long after, I painted a little picture of that man with the fish net and the face that had looked up and stared back at me. I think it was my first oil painting.

In the neighbourhood I grew up in, in Winnipeg’s Fort Rouge district, there were a few families of Métis (people of mixed French and native Indian heritage). We went to school with Métis kids. Across the Red River from Fort Rouge was the city of St. Boniface. This city, with its magnificent cathedral, stood out from the junction where the Assinaboine River meets the Red. The site was made famous in history books, which described the narrow strips of farms where Métis people had settled two hundred years before. Louis Riel is buried in the cemetery at St. Boniface Cathedral.

Inside the city, connected by a wide limestone bridge with the downtown core of Winnipeg, the street signs are in French. Store signs are in French. French is the common language, but English is a second language. As part of a gang, we kids would venture into St. Boniface and meet the French kids on the other side.

French Canadian was a common factor in everyday life. My mother would sometimes tell me “Switch the radio to CKSB,” which was the French radio station, because she liked the classical music they played. We didn’t own a record player then, in the 1940s, and didn’t get a stereo system until the 1950s. So it came as a shock, when I moved to B.C. and discovered the antipathy about French. “They are trying to stuff it down our throats,” I heard.

Sometimes I have encountered persons in B.C. who have similar prejudices and feelings about native Indians. Working for several months for the Bonaparte Band, and later with the Cooks Ferry Band at Spences Bridge, I learned something about what you might call the politics, or governance, of band affairs. It was an eye opener. I was made aware of the concerns, issues, and management in the many areas of the communities, that are much like our municipal affairs. And I am still, today, hearing misinformed persons voicing opinions I know to be either false, or only partly true.

We Canadians owe it to our fellow Aboriginal people to become not only informed of how native communities govern themselves, but how government and church have colluded in the past to create conditions and problems today. The consequences of past mistakes – the misguided goals and assumptions – have to be addressed. And they are being addressed, to a greater degree than ever before.

It is heartening. There is definitely more understanding, and greater appreciation of the Aboriginal peoples and their contribution to the cultural life of our country. And the pride of the Aboriginal people grows with every generation, adding greatly to the development and renewal of this precious segment of our collective history.

Esther Darlington MacDonald