Idle No More Québec and national myths

17 Jan

Screen shot 2013-01-17 at 11.08.52 AMLast week, I attended a presentation on Idle No More in Québec City. It was the first time I heard about Indigenous solidarity in a Québec context.

For the most part, it was very similar to other events I’ve attended. The crowd had a lot of questions and the two presenters did their best to explain the complex and difficult relationship between First Nations people and the Crown.

There was one intervention made, though, that I would have never expected to hear in Toronto, not because I don’t think this opinion exists, but because I don’t think anyone that has this opinion would be interested in attending an event about Idle No More. His words reminded me that with Québec comes a different kind of relationship and sometimes, a particular mentality toward Indigenous people.

The older man insisted that the history of colonialism in Québec is not the same as the rest of Canada. Where genocidal policies may have decimated language and culture, in Québec the relationship between Indigenous people and the Québécois was congenial, even mutually beneficial. As such, Idle No More’s demands are more of a “Canada” thing, rather than a “Québec” thing.

The intervention caused people to express their disagreement. I wondered though, how widespread is this belief?

On Wednesday, Lysiane Gagnon wrote a piece for the Globe and Mail about Idle No More that sounded like the intervention that I had witnessed a week earlier. Gagnon argued that Québec has had a “more serene relationships with its aboriginal population than many other provinces.” She says this despite referencing Oka in the same sentence as “one of the worst standoffs between aboriginal militants and the authorities in Canada’s recent history.”

This analysis directly clashed with everything I’ve seen posted by Idle No More Québec on Facebook. It contradicted everything I witnessed at the round-dance at Place Laurier in Ste-Foy and the January 11 rally where a few hundred people marched to Québec’s National Assembly.

Of course, Gagnon is not necessarily representative. One person on Facebook likened her to Margaret Wente. But, just like Wente, she needs to be challenged for the content of her columns.

It’s true that Québecers, through their descendants’ first points of contact, have had a longer relationship with First Nations people in this region of Turtle Island than, say, in British Columbia.

It’s also true that, like with Indigenous people, the British colonization of New France imposed assimilation policies on Québecers who resisted these colonial pressures so impressively that the province remains remarkably French today.

There are some similarities between the colonial experience of Québecers and Indigenous peoples. But to suggest that the relationship was harmonious, or as Gagnon argues, that Indigenous people in Québec were co-founders of the province, not victims (words that are all-around loaded) is misleading.

In fact, it hides the truth.

Québec was not immune to the genocidal policies inflicted against Indigenous peoples. Residential schools operated here. Pretending that First Nations in Québec are treated differently completely ignores the fact that the Indian Act is still present and still controls the lives of First Nations people in this province just like in the rest of Canada.

Yes, Québec and Indigenous people have a common enemy in the federal government. But Québecers, as citizens of Canada, also have a responsibility to demand that the federal government change its approach to First Nations relations. They should fight together as allies, and this means using the power mechanisms available to them. Québec commentators like Gagnon should not gloss over the history of this territory and argue that somehow the colonization of Indigenous people stopped at New Brunswick and restarted at Ontario.

Gagnon’s approach further colonizes Indigenous people, a dangerous approach for a province with a strong independence movement. While the colonized-turned-colonizer paradigm exists in nations around the world, Québecers must be careful to not take that path as the province evolves. Discussions about independence, for example, cannot be premised on the notion that the Jesuits brought education and order to a wild territory (one of the comments that I heard here, for example) because policies that flow from this belief will re-colonize Indigenous people.

Her column is also an attempt to silence the impressive work that activists have undertaken in this province. Blockades, round-dances and rallies have happened here just as they have happened in other provinces. She ignores this fact and instead highlights a few dissenting Indigenous voices, including a seemingly random letter to the editor.

The civil rights movement that has crystallized under the banner of Idle No More has created a space for White commentators from all regions of Canada to dredge up myths and lies about Canada’s history. Just like Tom Flanagan’s revisionist histories, Gagnon’s article (written for an anglo, Globe and Mail-reading crowd) tries to undermine the movement by claiming that the problems that have identified don’t really exist.

Luckily, their versions of the truth wont change the facts: Idle No More allows Québecers (and Canadians) to be better allies to Indigenous people; to build the bridges necessary between nations and to collectively fight for self-determination and independence.

That’s its strength, regardless of what the settler punditry says.

2 Responses to “Idle No More Québec and national myths”

  1. fem_progress January 18, 2013 at 3:33 am #

    I am the one who compared Lysiane Gagnon to Margaret Wente.

    I agree about everything you wrote. I just want to add two things: 1. some “old-style” nationalists (à la Lionel Groulx? I don’t know him that well) or souverainistes are also racist and antifeminists. Why? Because they want a white, Catholic, 100% francophone Québec (which is conveniently ignoring the rights of the Anglophone minority) and lots of little white babies. So the First Nations don’t fit in the picture.

    People my age all had the same “histoire du Canada” garbage in school, with the “méchants Iroquois who mass murder people in their beds in Lachine” (where I live) and Kateri Tekakwitha… I feel sorry she abandoned her culture. It is very easy to remain in ignorance, especially when the colomnists just rehash the same clichés and falsehoods (this is why I compared Gagnon to Wente).

    The other thing I want to mention (and as far as I know, no one has written on this) is la Paix des Braves signed by Premier Bernard Landry. I am told it is the best deal the First Nations ever had, but I would really like a second opinion on that!

    • lagatta à montréal January 18, 2013 at 5:10 pm #

      I am really not very worried about “ignoring the rights of the Anglophone minority” (unless you mean the rights all human beings should have not to suffer discrimination, and, in so for as possible, to have access to health care and legal services in language they can understand). The Anglophone minority had massive privileges, and it was not only the right-wing Lionel-Groulx type of Québec nationalist who opposed that. Nothing to do with the oppression, marginalisation and cultural destruction facing Indigenous peoples, in Québec and throughout the Americas.

      Here is what I wrote at Nora’s rabble blog:

      I don’t think the relationship was necessarily less oppressive in Québec – residential schools and health institutions such as sanitoria for tuberculosis patients taken far away from their homes in Northern Québec attest to that – but there were differences; there is a general tendency to more intermarriage with Indigenous peoples of the Americas in Latin, Catholic countries than in English and other Germanic ones (such as Dutch). Moreover, Québec itself was conquered, and is thus a historically-oppressed nation (as is Acadia, subjected to the only real “ethnic cleansing” of people of European descent in the Canadian state).
      Countries oppressed and exploited by US imperialism oppressing and discriminating against their indigenous populations is a constant throughout the Latin countries south of the US. There is a lot to be studied there.
      Gagnon is very similar to Wente, I believe they are friends. Gagnon is more savvy and less lazy than Wente, but she espouses (and spouts) the same general line of support to the status quo. She is a carhead for one thing, always complaining about progressive measures taken here to take space away fromt the car and promote cycling, walking and public transport. She was on the left when young, like fellow shill for the powerful Alain Dubuc.

      I wanted to add an interesting difference between the reactionary nationalists of the Groulx school and progressive Québec liberation movements from the 1960s on. The former tended to deny the obvious melding of Francophone Québécois with both the Indigenous populations and with Irish famine refugees. For the latter, the contributions of Indigenous peoples to Québec’s culture were to be valued and the Irish national liberation struggle was an example.

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