Racism and white guilt have resulted in a great divide between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Peoples in Canada and especially Calgary, according to the city’s former poet laureate Kris Demeanor.
But Demeanor believes forging “authentic” relationships between those two peoples can help bridge that divide, something Aboriginal leaders agree with and a goal that one Mount Royal University professor is trying to accomplish.
Before that gap is closed, a briefing on the treaty is needed: Treaty 7 was a peace treaty signed between the Blackfoot Confederacy (Siksika, Kainai, Piikani,) the Tsuu T’ina, Stoney-Nakoda people and her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.
But why has it taken 138 years after Treaty 7 was signed to start this conversation?
For Amelia Crowfoot Clark, president of Old Sun Community College and a descendant of Chief Crowfoot (The Chief who signed Treaty 7 in 1877,) said racism in Canadian society has deep roots.
“From the very beginning, there have been people who just want to completely eradicate us, to wipe us off the face of the earth and, unfortunately, it’s a very deep, systemic issue,” Clark said.
And, according to Demeanor, those roots remain because, “No one encourages you to want to understand (Aboriginal Peoples) so you hear these racist notions about First Nations perpetuated all your life.”
Demeanor said some non-aboriginals try to overcompensate for this racism by forcing relationships with an agenda to clear their conscience. For example, hosting one-time events that bring Calgarians and First Nations together.
“It makes you feel like you’ve made a difference, but you’re not really putting in the time and energy it takes to making it meaningful,” explained Demeanor. “They want a pill of acceptance, that says ‘Yep! Hey, everyone knows I like them! And I hope they like me!’ Then they move on with their life.”
Demeanor said, instead, non-Aboriginal and Aboriginal Peoples have to develop “authentic” one-on-one relationships through “continued dialogue and conversation.”
Casey Eagle Speaker, an elder from the Blood Tribe, agreed with the need for authentic relationships, saying, “If we can’t see each other as human beings then you allow these stereotypes, those myths to take a stronghold. It makes it more difficult to break those barriers.”
An example of such an authentic relationship would be when Clark’s father passed away.
Her entire family, 16 in total, had gathered to be with him in his final days at the hospital. They packed the room and even spilled into the hall. Clark’s father had been sharing a room with another man, whose son was there for a visit.
Clark said the son “became quite indignant and made a complaint” about the noise her family was making.
But the next day, the son approached Clark’s sister and said,, according to Clark, “’I’ve had all kinds of dealings with First Nations people, you know just the other day, I’ve witnessed another side. I’ve noticed they are family orientated, they have large families and they love their families and then I’ve heard the prayers. They are a spiritual people.’”
Clark suggested, “this man’s attitude completely changed — all it takes is a one-on-one approach.”
That’s the same approach Mount Royal University professor Liam Haggerty is trying to use at a field school designed to bring aboriginal and non-aboriginals together. The school takes students on a nine-day tour across the territory that encompasses Treaty 7, stopping at powwows, museums and aboriginal historical landmarks such as Writing on Stone, Blackfoot Crossing and Head Smashed-In Buffalo Jump west of Fort Macleod.
Along the way, the students talk to aboriginal elders, leaders and community members.
“Watching them interact, work together and build friendships and relationships, that’s a really powerful form of change,” Haggerty said.
Nikkole Heavy Shields, a student who was on a recent trip organized by Haggerty, saw these changes first hand.
An elder had given a talk about how the West was not won. Instead, First Nations agreed to share the land in treaty.
As a result of the talk, many non-First Nations students became emotional.
“A lot of them we’re crying, and they just had to release that out of their system,” Heavy Shields said.
When an elder had asked one non-First Nations students why join Heavy Shields on the trip, the student replied, “We understand we must do something, we must be peaceful. We are treaty people, it’s our responsibility as young people to change.”
The elder then gave the student the right to smudge (a form of First Nations prayer).
Demeanor, who finished his two-year stint as Calgary’s poet laureate in 2014, said he understands people live in an over-worked society, that we think there’s not enough time to do anything about the relationship between Aboriginals and non-Aboriginals. But, he added, that shouldn’t be an excuse not to understand the people who share this treaty land.
“Make an effort! As an individual you need to demand more from yourself when it comes to cultural curiosity,” Demeanor said.