Two exciting initiatives came together on Dec. 10 for an event in Ottawa, marking the one-year anniversary of the initial Idle No More National Day of Action and the start of Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence’s hunger strike.
Niigaan: In Conversation, a grassroots Ottawa project led by four Indigenous community members who have held 13 public events since March of last year, partnered with Winnipeg-based Ojibway/Métis comedian Ryan McMahon to host a live panel discussion recording for his Red Man Laughing podcast. The event was also a fundraiser that included food, live music, hoop dancing and an art auction.
Introducing the event, Niigaan organizer Linda Nothing explained how Niigaan came into being, not with the goal of being political. Instead, the aim is to shift thinking in settler society and help re-establish Indigenous ways of living and Indigenous laws to achieve success.
Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs Grand Chief Derek Nepinak started the discussion off by recounting the circumstances of Dec. 4, 2013 when a group of chiefs tried to storm the House of Commons. Panalist Wab Kinew related being part of the first big round dance in Winnipeg that ended with youth leading an impromptu storming of the Manitoba legislature.
Lee Maracle was serving as the Elder of the panel, and brought a historical perspective. She talked about the ancient spiral petroglyphs that are a common feature in different places throughout the country, and of how they represent things starting small, with just a few people, and then growing outwards.
She traced back to railroad blockades and roadblocks that took place more than a century ago, and talked about how active participation grows in an ebb and flow cycle, between confrontation and expansion.
She drew attention to how things have changed, for instance, with 5,000 Aboriginal organizations currently that did not exist 40 years ago, and where now the energy represented by Idle No More has spiralled out to reach the entire world.
A group of front-line land defenders from Elsipogtog were in the audience, and McMahon asked them to stand for applause. He talked of how inspiring their actions, and those of land defenders in other communities, are to people across the country, showing what is at stake and what people stand for.
Leanne Simpson echoed McMahon’s sentiments, while also talking about the need to actively maintain cultural and political traditions, “figuring out how to occupy our territories in a good way, in a way that strengthens the relationships we have to each other.”
Geraldine King added how we need to validate the diverse ways people contribute to building these movements, to not only celebrate confrontational resistance.
Youth empowerment and education was a big topic. Maracle talked about the problem with how schools make a lot of Native students feel really bad, to the point of suicide. She talked of the responsibility of adults to stop the abuse that happens in schools, abuse that comes from both other students and school officials.
There was discussion around homeschooling, language nests, programs out on the land, and bringing Aboriginal cultural practices into schools, or even establishing Aboriginal schools, as approaches that could also help.
Celina Cada-Matasawagon, who teaches at an urban Aboriginal alternative high school program in Ottawa, was brought close to tears talking about how Idle No More activities led some of her students to lose their academic year. Her concern was for the students keeping their personal responsibility as a better path to longer-term collective success.
Serpent River Chief Isadore Day was moved to share his personal story of how taking on so much collective responsibility had made him sick on many levels, and how he had to back up and take care of himself first.
The importance of working where we have the most influence, on our own lives, and then what we can do as communities, and then outwards to nations and then internationally, was Simpson’s interpretation of how we go about fulfilling the treaty responsibility we each have, represented by the wampum belt Day brought to the event.
There were a lot of heavy topics through the two hours of the panel, but there was a good deal of humour that kept the mood balanced. The tone was set by McMahon’s 20 minute pre-panel monologue. While covering some serious subject matter, he also took time to get some joking in.
He poked fun at the timing of Idle No More saying, ‘we had all summer to plan everything, we could’ve went out there in shorts and T-shirts,” but instead it was, “it’s 30 below, let’s get out there!”
He also made a big announcement during his monologue; the Red Man Laughing podcast is set to become a show on CBC radio starting later this year. The podcast has been running for the past two-and-a-half years, with a mix of humour and serious conversation, and this will now be reaching a wider audience through CBC.
Readers can hear the full podcast of the panel at RedManLaughing.com, or the video is available at Niigaan.ca