On Kanien’kehá:ka Land
Coming off the metro at Atwater station a couple of days ago, I noticed a commotion in the usual spot where people sit begging for money. Two police officers had confronted a bedraggled Inuit woman and were going through her wallet, bombarding her with questions. One of the officers seemed to be writing up a ticket. What was the point, I thought. Would she have the means to pay it, anyway? How was this going to solve the bigger, underlying problem, the pain and suffering our own peace and prosperity have cost Canada's First Nations and Inuit people? Did those Montreal cops, sworn to serve and protect, have any concept of the irony of issuing a ticket to someone who had more right to be on that land than they did?
Most Canadians these days are familiar with our national myth— that the country was only a vast, empty territory occupied by a scatter of Indians and Eskimos before it was settled - slowly, peacefully, respectfully - by the Europeans. Anyone listening to the news these days knows the myriad problems affecting our Indigenous inhabitants in the aftermath of their colonization: deplorable housing conditions, underfunded reserve schools, dirty drinking water, the outrageous cost of northern travel, exorbitant food prices, escalating suicide, and years of government neglect in the file of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.
As I stood there watching the police officers do their job, watching them interrogate and humiliate her, I knew I wanted to do something. My blood was boiling. Then I remembered I still had one Tim Horton gift card in my purse, leftover from Christmas, a small, personal gesture I began this year to help out the homeless for the holidays.
I walked over and asked one of the cops whether I could give the woman my card. The two looked at me strangely. They looked down at the card. Despite my hopes, I suspected that neither felt an iota of shame. One of them nodded that it was okay. I extended my offering.
“Here,” I said to her, “go buy yourself a coffee and a muffin.”
She looked into my eyes, something that the Inuit generally avoid doing. “Nakurmik,” she said, holding out her hand. Thank you.
I tried to hold that memory for the rest of the day, despite the fact that Montreal’s finest immediately went and ruined it. “C'est une bonne idée, Madame,” said the cop writing up the ticket. “That way,” he added, “she won't be able to buy beer.”
Later that night, I attended a literary event with acclaimed authors Thomas King and Joseph Boyden. Before the show, the moderator welcomed everyone with an invocation that recognized that we, the audience, were guests on aboriginal territory— specifically, Kanien’kehá:ka.
In his 2012 bestselling book, The Inconvenient Indian, King argues “The issue has always been land. It will always be land, until there isn’t a square foot of land left in North America that is controlled by Native people.” As for Boyden (of Irish, Scots and Métis descent), I had no idea until earlier this week that the author of The Orenda, the 2014 pick for Canada Reads, had suffered a great deal growing up. In his recent article in Maclean’s, about the desperate need for investment and education in Attawapiskat, Boyden spoke candidly about his own suicide attempt at 16, and argued that all of Canada's First Nations communities deserve and require immediate, serious attention. They don’t need stopgap measures that ignore Indigenous perspectives and perpetuate colonial stereotypes. They need real government assistance and permanent, humane solutions:
“I lay down in front of a car speeding toward me. I believe I understand what it is like for an Indigenous youth, albeit a mixed-blood one in an urban setting, to feel despair so crushing you don’t want to live anymore. The difference is, I was immediately swarmed with the best medical attention. When I was able to walk again, I was made to see a psychiatrist for the next number of years. I was given medications and all form of support and counselling and help. Why are the people I love up north not getting this same help in times of deep crisis?”
During the event, held at the Musée d'art contemporain, Boyden and King kibitzed with the moderator, read from their work and enlightened us. During their talk, I thought about how education and good fortune had somehow found these writers and allowed them to live a comfortable, productive, creative life. Then I thought of the morning kerfuffle at the metro station and the marginalized Inuit woman just trying to make it through another day. I thought of how much of the good in people’s lives hangs on the resources available to them when they are most in need.
Mostly I thought about the irony of how centuries ago, the First People welcomed the Europeans onto their land and helped them survive the hard, cold winters, and how now they have to beg, wait patiently, and bang on doors with an armful of demands just to be welcomed back into their own house.