Tuesday, April 2, 2013

"Resisitng the State: Urban Colonization and Resistance" UPDATED!!!!

Chapter Three of Scott Neigh's Talking Radical: Resisting the State is based on interviews with Roger Obonsawin and Kathy Mallet, two First Nations people who worked to build friendly spaces and services for their fellow FN people in Canada's urban centres.

Roger Obonsawin

Kathy Mallet

Neigh begins by discussing the urban environment and how First Nations responded to it. He points out the dual dilemma wherein First Nations peoples were confined to isolated, impoverished reserves (which remained impoverished as a result of deliberate federal government policy) but if they moved to urban centres to escape this poverty, they were met with blatant and outrageous levels of racism, discrimination and abuse.

Obonsawin is from Quebec but has done most of his work in Ontario. His mother was French Canadian and his father gave him his Indigenous background. They moved to Sudbury when he was young and his mother was quite active in getting services for Francophones in the city. Obonsawin's father tried to keep quiet about his culture because knowledge of it would endanger his night-job as a bartender. When he graduated from high school, Obonsawin worked in the mines for a while before being hired by the Ontario Department of Public Welfare. The government sent him to Toronto, to what is now Ryerson University for extra training and Obonsawin decided to focus on First Nations' social welfare supports. [Reading this section made me think about what a different country was being created in Canada in the 1960s and 1970s. Governments were building services to meet genuine needs in society and the end result (together with a tight labour market) was a strengthening of the confidence and dignity of more and more members of the population. I think it was that, more than "stagflation" that produced the neo-liberal counterattack on the welfare state that has brought us to this depressing political-economic environment.]

Obonsawin was first radicalized by the Trudeau government's 1969 proposal to eliminate the separate constitutional status of the First Nations and assimilate them into Canadian mainstream society in the infamous "White Paper on Indians." Obonsawin was a young man, only beginning to become politicized and his own involvement against the White Paper was slight. But the crisis opened the eyes of First Nations peoples across the country as to the real nature of the government. Furthermore, even though the White Paper was pulled, Obonsawin says that assimilation remained the goal of every federal government since.

Obonsawin joined the Union of Ontario Indians, which was the only institution for First Nations in Ontario and, together with national groups like the National Indian Brotherhood, fought back. The federal government's new tactic was to kill with kindness. They began to offer funding to these organizations.

The tenor of the meetings changed quite dramatically before the demonstrations and after. Before the demonstration it was more "How do we organize ourselves to fight this?" They were very effective in organizing to march on Ottawa. After that the tenor of the meetings was more, "How do we access funds to keep our organization going?"

Government money was directed to specific groups and nations, Status, Non-status, Metis, ... all would have to campaign separately for separate funding grants. Now, personally, I can see that this went down one of two ways; Neigh and Obonsawin see it as a deliberate process of divide-and conquer. Me, I see it no doubt partially that, but I can also see that well-meaning bureaucrats within the Department of Indian Affairs might think that smaller groups within the broad collective of First Nations might like their own funding for their own issues, so as not to be drowned out by the larger groups. There might also have been simply a desire to impose some rationality on the system. Instead of giving a huge lump sum to some amorphous collective, provide specific funds to specific groups to do specific things. Part of my reason for thinking this way is that the Canadian government isn't that smart. I don't think the Ontario government hired people like Obonsawin who had little training and then paid for their education as some sort of sinister plot. I also don't think the entire federal bureaucracy knew the devastating impact of hundreds of millions of dollars in funding for a long-term crushing of the spirit of First Nations resistance.


Right, where was I?

Oh yeah. So, Obonsawin gets involved with Native Friendship Centres in the often very unfriendly urban environment that so many "awesome Canadians" believe is the go-getters' alternative to the reserves. How unfriendly are Canada's urban centres? Check it out: The northern Ontario town of Red Lake was where Obonsawin went to manage a Friendship Centre. Soon after his arrival, he gets a call from a Native couple. They desperately need a car to get the wife to the hospital. Neither the ambulance service or the police would do the job because it was determined by these public servants that the wife was probably just drunk.


I mean, the icing on the fucking cake is that neither the husband or the wife drank and he was holding down a good job in the mines, but hell, ambulances will show up at a junkies' flop-house if they're called, but in racist small-town Canada, those crackers won't even do that.

On pages 86 and 87, Obonsawin speaks about how he had to go all the way up to the mine manager to get decent housing for Native mine workers. In Canada, in the 1970s, the main employer in a mining community provided the First Nations workers with shacks, outhouses and a communal water tap, while giving their white workers heated homes with plumbing. First Obonsawin was told that the Natives preferred living that way. Then, when confronted with the line-up of frustrated First Nations applicants for housing spots, the mine's housing manager said that the First Nations people would "mismanage" their housing. Obonsawin had to go all the way up to the mine's manager to solve the problem.

Obonsawin tried to steer the Friendship Centres to focus more on fostering Aboriginal culture. At Red Lake he switched the meetings from English to Ojicree, which necessitated Obonsawin needing a translator, rather than the bulk of the Centre's clients. When he moved to Toronto, Obonsawin found the same absence of First Nations community in Toronto. Unlike other groups, First Nations in Toronto have no neighbourhoods to call their own. They have no street full of shops and restaurants celebrating their culture or community.

Using the Friendship Centers to foster cultural awakening turned out to be an incredibly important beginning to restoring some sense of pride and purpose among First Nations in Toronto. (This is something that can't be emphasized enough. I've recently started pointing out how so many Christian Canadians feel so bent out of shape about the imaginary "war on Christmas" that they're suffering, or the way cultural conservatives feel now that they're not encouraged to fag-bash anymore, or how Tea-baggers in the USA are having conniptions over a black president. Culture matters. And cultural dislocation and alienation are devastating. If so many mainstream Canadians are bawling their eyes out over multiculturalism, imagine how the First Nations feel having had their languages almost destroyed, their religions outlawed for decades, their economy eviscerated and their laws abolished?)

Finally, with the 1982 Charter of Rights & Freedoms, Obonsawin's activism went towards defending the traditional legal and economic rights of his people in the face of further attempts at deliberate assimilation on the part of Trudeau.

I'll finish this section on Obonsawin with this quote from the book:

I've always seen Indian Affairs as the enemy. People don't see it that way, but they really are. They are not there to further our interests but to protect the government's interests.  ... I really believe that Indian people are just an afterthought unless you really push yourself in there, unless you're visible and just say, "No!" ... That means civil disobedience sometimes, that you are prepared to go to jail for your principles and your beliefs, or prepared to go to the front lines for them.
Kathy Mallett's story centers around the welfare of indigenous children, racism in Ontario schools and the theft of indigenous women's "Indian Status" by the state when they married a non-Aboriginal man.

As is detailed in the book Dark Legacy, the First Nations had been systematically targeted for destruction via their children. "Kill the Indian in the Child" was the goal of the residential schools. By the 1960s, the religious perversion, rape and tuberculosis of the residential schools became untenable to maintain. It was in that decade that the Canadian state which had done so much to torture and abuse First Nations children in their residential schools decided that it was vital for the welfare of First Nations children that they be removed from their supposedly incompetent parents and sent to live with non-native families, often in other provinces or even other countries.

Eventually, there was an uproar in Manitoba, led by the Dakota Ojibway Tribal Council (DOTC) who spearheaded efforts to create indigenous-controlled child welfare agencies and to challenge the Manitoba CAS. It seems that Kathy Mallett was a student in Aboriginal Studies at the the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg and leader of the Aboriginal Students Union at this time.

We did lobbying, we did public speaking to white social workers [laugh] to let them know what we wanted for our community. We got a lot of flack from them. That's fine.

We did not know how to use [the media] initially but as we got involved with them and  became friends with a lot of the reporters, we got to know them, they got to know us. Some of them would say to me, "Kathy, you're so accommodating. We phone you up, you're busy but you are there. We call up some of these men in these political organizations - "I don't have time to talk to you." We got to know how to use the media quite well.
Things came to a head when a First Nations woman approached Mallett's group to find out why her child had died in a foster home. This child was taken from her mother by the state, and given to a foster home that was only supposed to have four children, but this baby made five. She drowned in the foster parent's bathtub.

Mallett's group wanted to conduct a full-scale review of the Manitoba CAS and then build their own indigeneous child welfare capacity. Mallet says that some First Nations men thought that by putting Aboriginal workers within the traditional CAS they could solve their problems without reinventing the wheel. Mallett looked at the CAS director, a union-hating, pink-Cadillac driving tyrant of a woman, and thought otherwise. Winnipeg's First Nations formed the Native Family Services and the Urban Child Welfare Coalition. First Nations activism forced the provincial government to form an inquest into the young girl's death which ended up calling for changes in the way CAS was run and acknowledged the First Nations' concerns.

The CAS director called all of this one-sided and "melodramatic." When reports came out of First Nations youth being illegally placed in solitary confinement at a youth facility, the battle-lines hardened. But all of this stress began to provoke splits between CAS workers and upper management.

Pages 98-100 deal with Mallett's group and their successful resistance to the CAS's clumsy (and eventually fruitless) attempt to buy off FN anger with token positions on the CAS board of directors. Buy the book and check it out!

Hmmm. T'would appear that I'm spending way more time on this series than I'd planned to. I'll finish my chapter summaries, but they'll be WAY shorter. I still hope to whet some appetites for social justice readin'!


Beijing York said...

Good gord I'm a Luddite. I still keep an eye and some interaction with 5 discussion boards and I still read and comment on my favourite blogs. I don't do twitter.

But yes, the discussion board communication has been dying for the last 5 years, some barely clinging to life. As for blogs, it seems that the same fate is creeping in. I don't like twitter and the focus on super hip 140 character retorts.

Anyway, this is an excellent entry and I look forward to hearing part two. I definitely agree with Neigh and Obonsawin on the divide and conquer whether it was deliberate by front line workers or not.

thwap said...

Beijing York,

Someone said that the Blogging Tories board was slowing down too. That's what made me think blogging is running out of gas.

To clarify about my "internet activism" thing, ... I didn't say that I was going to stop blogging. I just didn't feel much like criticizing and calling for change on a regular basis because there didn't seem to be much point to it.

I'll be doing these things for Scott and posting other stuff from time to time though.

karen said...

I am going to order this book and read it as soon as this semester is finally done. It sounds fascinating. Thanks kindly for the review.

thwap said...


Thanks for telling me that! Scott's a pretty cool guy. (He doesn't know shit from shinola when it comes to revolution, but he knows this stuff!)

[Har-har. Hardee-har-har!]