The winter of our discontent


By Drew Hayden Taylor

Originally published in February 2013

Paraphrasing a fellow playwright, “Now is the winter of our discontent, made glorious by this son of…”  I think it’s supposed to be the son of York, but many Native people in the Idle No More movement believe it actually refers to a different ‘son of a…” Fill in the Prime Ministerial blank yourself.

The ongoing protests against Bill C-45, which culminated in Jan. 16th’s Day of Action, have certainly given various Native causes a higher profile. From Kingston to Windsor to Portage la Prairie to Vancouver Island, the evening news was tinged red. And the dust hasn’t settled yet.

Talk about your Indigenous perfect storm. There was the Idle No More movement’s protest to Stephen Harper’s unilateral changes to the Indian Act, Chief Theresa Spence’s hunger strike regarding horrid conditions in Attawapiskat, and the recent federal court ruling that says non-status and Metis are Indians in regards to the law. According to William Shakespeare again, “A rose by any other name, would smell as sweet.”

Federal Court Judge Michael Phelan obviously felt the same in his landmark judgment, handing the federal government yet another defeat. Evidently, the courts of Canada feel a Native by any other classification would still smell the same. Not quite as poetic but you get the idea. Putting all this together, it may seem to many that the media has quickly become the “all Native, all the time!” channel.

Add this to other recent less than positive news items like the accusations of police abuse towards Native people in Thunder Bay and the rising swell of dissatisfaction against National Chief Shawn Atleo, it leaves many to believe the old adage from those old westerns is coming true: The Natives are restless.

Or perhaps more accurately, it seems the media is getting restless. They know a good thing when they see it, ever since Ipperwash and Oka. On Jan. 16, I attended one of the Idle No More events outside the British Consulate in Toronto. Organizers logically pointed out that most, if not all, of the treaties historically signed by Aboriginal Nations were with the Queen of Great Britain, not actually the Canadian government which really did not exist at the time.  Therefore, the belief is the current Queen has an obligation and onus to see those promises are kept.

When I first arrived at the Bay Street location, it seemed like there were more camera crews and radio journalists pacing back and forth impatiently than actual protesters, all with a lean and hungry look in their camera eye. Once a sizable crowd had gathered upon the chilly concrete, the multitudes of reporters began circling and isolating Indigenous individuals like sharks in a school of tuna.

Nary a Native person escaped un-interviewed, often by several different reporters. It was like a feeding frenzy. There is a commonly held belief that traditionally Native people were uncomfortable with having their picture taken. Supposedly they were afraid the camera would steal their spirit. If this was true, there shouldn’t have been any noticeable spirit around for the next three blocks. Instead, these were the most spirited people I had seen in a long time. It almost seemed to add spirit to the cause.

But still, despite the cold, the famous Indigenous sense of humour was evident, though not on camera. Ironically, the protest took place in an open square adjacent to a mall, where most predominantly, a large drug store was situated facing the protest. One Native man indicated it looked like there were 80 irate Indians protesting the Pharmaplus. The poor workers inside must have been confused. This man even tried to start a half-hearted “Pharmaplus is Pharmanegative” chant, but with little success.

All this frustration and acting out has landed at the feet of our illustrious Prime Minister, the Right Honourable Stephen Harper. It has been a long time since a single man has stirred up so much ire of so many Native people. I used to believe that in order to get a place in the Aboriginal Wall of Shame, your last name had to start with the letter ‘C’. For Example; Columbus, Cabot, Cartier, Champlain, Cortes, Custer, and some might argue, Christ (or more accurately, some of his followers and institutions). The jury is still out on Chretien and his infamous White Paper. We may have to add the letter ‘H’ to that Wall.

There’s an old joke in the Native community. Why do Indians hate winter so much?  Because it’s white and all over our land. Now we’re all over the television, newspapers and I’m sure a few water coolers.  There was a time we were referred to as the poor vanishing Indians.

My, how times change.