Fear, distrust on both sides hinder future for Aboriginal Canadians

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January 27, 2013

Goodhand-MargoLOGOWINNIPEG, MB, Jan. 27, 2013/ Troy Media/ – It was 10:30 on a cold Saturday night. I had just left a birthday party at a downtown Winnipeg restaurant.

I was wearing the $35 ‘vintage’ fur coat, with the hunk missing on the right elbow, and driving the family van south on Maryland Street just past St. Matthews Avenue when I saw him.

He was a fairly big man, in his late 20s or early 30s, walking purposefully north on the road towards traffic. Only there wasn’t any traffic; just me.

From less than a block away, I saw him move in front of my van’s path in the west curb lane.

I slowed down a bit, moved over a little. He did a little hop and moved into that lane, once again directly in my path.

At this point, as I realized what he was doing, I started to yell inside the van, though of course he could not hear.

‘What are you doing?’ I stammered out loud in fear and rage, slowing down and veering further east to avoid hitting him.

By now he could see my face, and I could see his. It wasn’t menacing, it wasn’t registering distress. It was impassive, resolute. He intended to stop my van. He moved again, and lifted his arm.

And I sped up.

I almost grazed the far-east curb but managed to pass him, fishtailing a bit in the burst of speed. He whacked the passenger side of the van as I went by. In frustration? Anger? I didn’t know.

All I knew was an immense sense of relief. It was hours later that I began to rethink the incident.

Was it an attempted carjacking or robbery? Was he looking for help? Would I have reacted differently at another time, in another place, to another person? What made me assume I was in danger?

In his early days as a Mountie, writes entrepreneur Jim Treliving, he learned the power of a gut reaction, especially with only seconds to decide. ‘We were taught never to freeze,’ he writes. ‘You can’t second-guess yourself. You can’t overanalyze. You make a decision and then you act.’

So this, then, was my gut reaction.

My family said I did the right thing. Did I?

It stuck with me, over the next week, as Idle No More blockades took over the news.

There have been at least a half-dozen high-profile blockades in the province, including two Jan. 16 on a rail line about 90 km west of Winnipeg and at the Trans-Canada Highway near the Ontario-Manitoba border. Monday (Jan. 28) was another day of public action.

Two opinion polls this month found a growing ‘disengagement’ with the movement, and more hostility in Manitoba and Saskatchewan than anywhere else in Canada.

Commenters are feeding off a wave of self-righteous outrage on every local media website. How dare they disrupt traffic, how dare they block the rail line, how dare they threaten us?

A recent op-ed in The Winnipeg Free Press that called for more open minds and less knee-jerk criticism of Idle No More generated more than 1,000 furious responses in a matter of hours, much of it unpublishable.

A community newspaper in small-town Morris waded in to give a ‘thumb’s down’ to ‘Canada’s native community . . . who in some cases are acting like terrorists in their own country.’ Reaction was swift, on both sides.

There’s a wrenching amount of distrust and fear these days in Manitoba on both sides, in a place where we should be leading the country in trying to bridge that chasm.

More aboriginals live in Winnipeg than any other city in Canada. Aboriginal people make up more than 15 per cent of Manitoba’s population, the highest per capita in the nation by far. (Alberta ranks third at 5.8 per cent).

And this demographic is growing at about four times the national average. As Lloyd Axworthy and Wab Kinew wrote in the Toronto Globe and Mail this month, our country’s future is “tied to the well-being of its indigenous people.”

First Nations issues are front and centre in Manitoba every day. The federal government has been caught up in a multi-million dollar eight-year legal battle over the large and valuable tract of land which once housed the Kapyong Barracks. Just last year, the City of Winnipeg was sued by a First Nation over rights to its water source of Shoal Lake, Ont.

And that’s not counting Manitobans’ ongoing concerns over social issues like education, rampant diabetes, homelessness in the big cities and unemployment on reserves.

We have huge issues here which require great diplomacy and leadership, something we have yet to see from any level of government or the First Nations leaders. In fact, flood-evacuated residents of the Lake St. Martin reserve have been living in hotel rooms in downtown Winnipeg for almost two years, victims of an appalling political standoff.

If we can’t learn to communicate, to surmount ignorance, fear and distrust, how can the rest of the country find a way forward?

Someone asked me later if the man who tried to stop my vehicle looked ‘wasted.’

No, not at all, I told them. Just determined.

And what did he see, as he stood there in my path? A white woman in a black fur coat, shouting at him.

There’s a long road ahead, for all of us.

Troy Media Eye on Manitoba columnist Margo Goodhand is the former editor of the Winnipeg Free Press. She is currently working on a history of the women’s shelter movement in Canada.

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