A traveler to Canada will often remark immediately that this country is such a wonderful place. Even if they are able to get into something resembling the backwoods-- that is, away from the concrete world they are shown in cities to the overly contrived parks such as Banff, Whistler, Mont Tremblant or even Kluane in the Yukon-- they still see little of what this country wants to keep hidden. Canada is a free market country, and as such has massive poverty, homelessness, unemployment, illiteracy and more social ills that fall under a system that prioritizes capital above all else. Also, this state has massive racism, violence against women and children, drug and alcohol abuse and other social pathologies. These pathologies are enough on their own, but their greatest expression is in Indian Country, that dirty secret that Canada has turned from an embarrassment into a way to sell their tourists trinkets.
In almost any tourist shop across Canada, the plundered symbols of what is left of the Indian and Inuit nations still being systematically displaced by the government and big business are on sale: you can buy a Haida mask, Blackfoot sweetgrass, various Inuit stone carvings & the dream catchers of many nations. When government functionaries hold a major event, there is usually a smattering of token Indian drummers, greeting the guests with a traditional song, playing it beneath the Canadian maple leaf. Perhaps one of the greater perversions yet is the trendy Mukluks on the feet of people who would never so much as say hello to an Inuk. These "Mukluks"-- made in the south-- have Playboy Bunnies and Nike Swooshes on them. It is so common that most do not even see it for what it is. However, there is another Canada-- the real "Canada"-- that people are yet to learn about. I intend to do my part to teach about that Canada, from my perspective as a white Canadian.
While Canada has an average quality of life that places it at the very top of the world, Indians and Inuit continue to live at beneath third world levels in many cases. Inuit and Innu of the north-- from the Western Arctic all the way across to the coast of Labrador-- have among the world's highest rates of alcoholism and suicide. The incarceration rate among Indians and Inuit averages 6 times that of non-indigenous; crime rates average 4.5 times the non indigenous average in urban centres, going all the way up to 12 times in Saskatchewan (with the highest provincial per capita population of Indians). All of these statistics are gleaned from the Canadian government--the same government that that works overtime to portray the issue as "tragedy" not crime, and part of the past being overcome, not part of the present being maintained.
The reservation system in Canada was the model for the Bantustan homelands of the South African apartheid regime and was praised by none other than Adolf Hitler as a useful blueprint for setting up the Jewish ghettoes across the brief Nazi Empire of Europe. In each and every reservation, the land is either nearly useless or is still being threatened. Though the Canadian government likes to posit that the devolution agreements cede some form of sovereignty, in reality they are more like slightly more empowered municipalities. The majority of indigenous populations in Canada still live beneath the poverty line. In cities, this number is four times the non-indigenous average.
All of these statistics continue to have their root in colonialism. The nations who are living in these conditions (some better, some worse than the average) have what amount to two horrific choices. One: continue to try and maintain some semblance of who they are as individuals and people, by attempting to live in traditional ways; ways that are completely distorted and blocked at every turn by the advent of the colonial state. The colonial state has herded people off traditional territory into reservations that are still not sacrosanct, pathetically small and usually made of the worst land as they are. The Rez is not given sovereignty over what happens on their territory. For but one example. A traditionally based fishing nation lives downriver from a clearcut or an oil exploration that pollutes the river. The fish die, which starves the animals into leaving or dying themselves-- this drives the nation into further poverty or into the city for assimilationist identity theft, the second option.
Does not this make it near impossible to know who you are-- where to live as your ancestors always have condemns you to suffering, or to assimilate and join the very concrete world that has destroyed your people? Societies that are historically based on whaling now cannot because of the commercial destruction of whale populations. On the Arctic, Pacific and Atlantic coasts populations have been unable to live as they did for tens of thousands of years due to the nature of the capitalist settler state of Canada's way of exploiting resources, leaving nothing behind. This is true of hunting, whaling, fishing and all subsistence societies--while the environment has been turned into a wasteland, the concrete world alienates and destroys what is left of a people.
The UN convention in opposition to genocide specifically includes provisions preventing denial of cultural practices that are deemed essential to national survival. Traditions with the land for indigenous populations across North America include a relationship with the land that is denied by encroachment on environmental viability. As such, whenever resource extraction--such as mining, oil and gas drilling, forestry and the like--threaten the health of hunting and other subsistence practices, to continue these assaults upon the earth is not only environmentally destructive, it is a violation of the basic human rights of indigenous nations. There is no nation in Canada that is not constantly facing the threat of this annihilation by eco-destruction. Such is the reason all of the many hundred nations will state "We do not want to have to constantly struggle simply for the right to exist as a people".
While defending the environment is a must, many mainstream environmentalists often show a disregard and sometimes outright racism towards Indian society that is beyond breathtaking. The very same "green" groups-- mostly based in the cities-- that would speak of defending wilderness areas only speak of Indians, Metis and Inuit when needed as a ploy to garner more support, often financial. Once the issue is settled, either won or lost, the indigenous population is forgotten again. In extreme cases, such as the Sea Sheppard society, outright attacks that make them the modern Oblate missionaries have occurred. The self-hating, anti-people environmentalists often cannot truly see themselves as a part of the earth they wish to advocate on behalf of, and carry the same colonial holier-than-thou mindset of the early Christian Soldiers. So even when necessity means a nation-- such as right now for the Haida nation on the West Coast-- need to seek allies among some green advocates, the alliance can be tedious at best. Environmentalists too often, like Christians, the Federal government, early traders, energy companies, whiskey bootleggers, all the way back to "discovery"-- can and often do "know better" how to take care of the land that somehow the Indians never destroyed for tens of thousands of years prior.
From a perspective of the Canadian state, such demands appear to be backward looking--they are attempting to return to a time before the colonization of the land by British and French settlers. Yet, from a radical perspective, it should and must be argued that such a comprehension of values is not only environmentally sound, not only a basis for self-determination, but as it attempts to place the needs of the earth and human beings for survival above that of the need of the profit of multi-nationals, it is revolutionary, and is inherently anti-capitalist. Such a view is not readily accepted by even much of the self-identified radical left, who often see the process of displacement and destruction of nations as il fait accompli. Yet the destruction of the earth and those who live with the land continues unabated, with no nation safe and all under continuing constant threat.
Canada portrays itself as a mosaic of cultures, and multi-culturalistic plurality is the ideological weapon used to undermine self-determination. While traveling through Indian Country one can come into contact with the most vicious of anti-indigenous sentiments. Herein lies the mission statement I am putting forward for this trip.
In the summer of 2004 a book was released by Matt Jackson about hitchhiking across Canada, and it was reviewed in the pages of many newspapers and magazines. It was described as a tribute to the cultural mosaic of Canada. Yet my experience on the road in Indian Country and elsewhere in Canada has been much the opposite. I aim to introduce to non-indigenous populations of Canada the true, modern state of affairs for colonialism. There are very few who would not say that what "has happened" in Canada is tragic, but to those who feel sad and express this sentiment, I can do no better than to quote Buffy Sainte-Marie in the song "Now that the buffalo are gone":
"Oh it's all in the past you can say but it's still going on here today The governments now want the Navaho land that of the Inuit and the Cheyenne It's here and it's now you can help us dear man Now that the buffalo's gone."
This is not to say I do not also love this land, I just do not see it as "Canada" that should be embraced. Canada is what most threatens to undermine all that is beautiful and wonderful about this great land, filled with forests, plains, rivers that lead God-knows where, and mountains that reach beyond the clouds. Canada is about colonization, industrialization and the "extinguishment" of all who lived here before the Dominion. Such is still the policy of the Federal government.
In 2000, the Globe and Mail ran a series on John Stackhouse as he hitched across Canada on Highway One. He wrote about the threat to Canada of being taken over by the United States. My trip is about the nations already colonized trying to survive Canada. As much as I have an affinity for anyone who gets on the pavement of the highway to leave the cities behind, the concept he puts forth here makes me cringe, and also makes me wonder if he got far off the Trans Canada anywhere other than in the cities and towns he went through. He has since written of the disconnect between indigenous people and those who have arrived in the last few generations, but his explanation misses the original cause, and instead focuses on attitudes and not structures.
I intend to visit several different nations who have current threats to their very survival as a people. I will hitchhike from Montreal, zig-zagging across Canada westward, stopping in Vancouver before heading directly north, where the greatest threats to both indigenous and environmental survival are taking place: in the Northwest Territories and Yukon. The survival of all indigenous nations is almost always intimately tied up with the health of the environment that we are all a part of, not masters over.
When nations are pushed, against their will one and all, into a confrontation to defend their rights, the question is inevitably asked: "What do they want?" Such a question, however innocently intentioned, is racist by implication. These nations want the very same things that all peoples want: the right to exist as who they are, and to be able to exist without constant struggle to assert these very rights, basic to humanity and essential to us all for survival.
If you wish to support or otherwise help this project, I am in need of a few instruments for recording and transmitting the stories I am able to collect. Such things as a digital camera, a mini-disc recorder and similar equipment will make this project all the more complete. You can learn about the nations I travel to on this webpage, or click on the link to Digihitch below to read of the stories of the hitching itself by following the links that I plan to update approximately weekly, and financial contributions can be sent to the PayPal account on the right. If you choose not to use the PayPal option, please contact me at email@example.com for other options.
Macdonald John Enoch Stainsby