by Carrie (Teyon-nanit-skwah-kwá:nyu’) Lester: Land Defender / Water Protector
Kanien’keha:ka (Mohawk) through my mother and her mother, from Six Nations Grand River Territory.
“YOU WALK AWAY? WE STAY!”
That was the chant that broke out from our determined group of about 30 disparate folk who walked into Toronto’s INAC (Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada) office building on St Clair Ave East near Yonge St, in midtown Toronto, on that fateful day of Wednesday, April 13th, 2016,( the day before my daughter’s 26th birthday), as the Regional Director of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada walked away from us and our questions.
Little did we realize, but we were about to embark on a week-long (plus) occupation of the INAC office in Toronto, which would cause a ripple effect of similar occupations across Canada. We were ill-prepared for such an endeavour, as we had no supplies with us to sustain us for more than a few hours, let alone overnight, or more than a week!
So why did our small, but concerned, group of men, women, and children, (Indigenous and Allies, from Black Lives Matter, and other non-Native Settler folk, young and old(er), enter the office of Indigenous Affairs? Well, it’s because after 500 years of non-native settlers (Invaders!) arriving in droves to these beautiful lands, and more than 200 years of colonial domination and warring by the British and the French, and almost 150 years of Colonial Canada, things have not sat well with Native Folk.
Yet another crisis had struck stricken one of our northern communities, Attawapiskat (northern Ontario Cree community, west side of James Bay, the lower part of Hudson’s Bay), in which despairing youth, who saw no future for themselves, had made suicide pacts with each other, and had just tried, unsuccessfully, to take their lives. On the weekend before we paid our visit to the INAC office, eleven Youth had attempted suicide. Several days later, while we were occupying the office, another thirteen had attempted suicide, but there was nowhere to treat this new group, because the hospital was still dealing with the other eleven, and so about half of these thirteen Youth had to be housed in the jail, under supervision, while waiting for room at the hospital.
Native Communities from across Turtle Island, aka so-called Canada and United States of America, have been suffering under the oppression of what became the dominant societies, living in squalor after the War of 1812, as bit by bit, we found ourselves rounded up and removed from our lands, and put onto patches of land deemed unfit for the never-ending hordes of New Comers from the Britain, the United Kingdom, and Europe. No longer needed by these New Comers to assist in surviving in this new territory, no longer needed to assist in military operation, our ancestors were relegated to be out of sight, out of mind, awaiting their expected demise. The Death of the Noble Savage.
Lands were stolen, held by greedy Land Barons, and sold off to fatten their bank coffers, cut up and sold again and again. Treaties were made with some of our people, to take the land, but our people were under the impression that lands were to be shared. Shared and looked after, as had been done since time immemorial. The new people did not know how to live on the land respectfully. They did not know how to learn the language of the land. They did not know how to take the time to learn the language of the land.
Over time, our people being restricted to these plots of land called Indian Reserve Lands, fell into different states of despair, and squalor. Impoverished for the first time ever, they were forced to take handouts from the Indian Agents who oversaw the goings-on on these Reserves, aka Prisoner of War Camps. Food and clothing rations would be handed out to the community members, as hunting and fishing became more and more restricted. There was a long period of time in which movement off these reserve lands was controlled by the Indian Agent, the Prison Warden, using a policy known as the Pass System, in which the Agent had the authority to either allow, or disallow movement on and off the Reserve with permission slips. If you were found off- Reserve without one of these permission slips, you’d be jailed and fined.
This system was set up to allow for the eventual ruin of our People, so that once we were fully assimilated or dead, ALL the lands across the territories would no longer be held by Indian Title or Treaty, and would all belong outright to the Crown for full exploitation and extraction of Resources, aka Gifts of the Land: the Tree-Beings, the Food and Medicine Beings, the 4-Leggeds, the Flyers, the Swimmers, the Crawlers, the Waters, aka our Relations.
Much of the Reserve Lands that our People were forced onto, were lands that were barren, and ill-fit for the European-style farming that was to be forced upon us all. Often times, as in the case of Attawapiskat, we were put onto flood plains. Flood plains were normally places that one would visit at certain times of the year, but never to live on permanently. Very few of our communities lived on specific lands permanently. We moved about with the seasons, and with our 4-Legged Relations; however, we would always come back to specific places each season. Those of us with winters had our Wintering Grounds, and our Summering Grounds. Over time, we had come to agreements with our neighbours for sharing of these Lands. In particular, here in what is now Southern Ontario, the Haudenosaunee and the Anishinaabek had made a Treaty with the Dish and One Spoon Wampum Belt, which determined the sharing of the lands and it’s food sources, by allowing us to:
1) use (or ‘eat’) only what was needed from the Dish; 2) leave enough for others in the Dish; and 3) keep the Dish (area) clean.
Without the ability to move about, coastal communities like Attawapiskat must endure almost yearly evacuations in the Spring due to the flooding that takes place. Attawapiskat has also declared several States of Emergency since 2006, five in fact, for water contamination, for flooding, for sewage contamination, for housing shortages and unfit homes due to black mold and lack of (clean) running water, and most recently for the Youth suicides. Since September of 2015, there have been about one hundred attempted suicides by the Youth of Attawapiskat. ONE HUNDRED: out of a population of about 2,000 residents. Their hospital has only fifteen beds; no full- time doctors, (there is not enough housing for the community, let alone the doctors!) who fly in four days per week, three weeks out of a month; two nurses on weekend duty; and no regular mental health workers over the past nine months, again, due to the housing shortage.
The desperation of the Youth of Attawapiskat really hit them hard during a nearly thirty-five year period of neglect by the Federal Government of Canada, while their pleas for help for their ill health, due to what was found to be diesel oil contamination under their elementary school, seemed to go unheard, but was really just government stalling and bungling. For many years the Youth and the teachers and other staff endured headaches and nosebleeds due to the vapours of the diesel fuel. Finally, a temporary band aid solution was set up, in which portables were brought up to take the place of the school, but they eventually became the permanent solution to the problem, as the Minister of Indian Affairs decided that they at least HAD a school, stating that some Reserves had NO schools.
So, all of this brought our group of like-minded people together on that morning of Wednesday, April 13th, to meet with the Director of Indigenous Affairs, and demand that they do their job of opening up their purse strings of the trillions of dollars held in trust which belong to all First Nations, and put pressure on the Federal Government to do their job and look after these issues of mental health, housing, water and flooding, and STOP with the quick fix band aid solutions.
Our arrival was a bit alarming for the receptionist at the desk in the office, as we came in with banners and signs, and some of us laid out on the floor of the office, spattering ourselves with red paint, to symbolize the deaths and attempted suicides of the Youth, as we held a ‘die-in’. We also lit a sage smudge to purify and calm the area, and the receptionist actually backed away from the smudge shell, seemingly unaware of its purpose and significance. This alarmed US! Why was this staff member NOT aware of the most basic symbol of our spirituality? This place was definitely in need of Cultural Training 101!
So, it took over three hours for Regional Director Mauricette Howlett to actually come out from her office to meet with us, after which she only gave us typical platitudes … such as, “we’re doing the best we can”, “we feel the same way you do”, “we’re looking after things”. When she finished with these pathetic words, we spoke up with questions … and she turned and left the reception area, going back to her office, refusing to take our questions, never to come out again that day. That’s when we spoke up with our chant of “You walk away? We stay!”
And stay we did. For almost nine days. We had no extra clothing, no food, no extra diapers for the 3 year-old child with us, no blankets, and no medications that some of us needed. Some of us had to call into our work places to let them know that we wouldn’t be in to work the next day, and more days as the occupation kept going. Some of us would leave as the days went on, choosing to take up space on the outside of the building to educate the passing public as to what was going on inside, and to act as support for food and clothing for those of us inside.
We had called for media to attend the initial entrance of our group to the office, but as time went on, more media arrived for the (non) meeting with the Director, and our surprising situation with what would become the occupation of the office.
Our first few days were chaotic with media interviews, getting media releases out, setting up a Facebook page, organizing food and clothing and medications, setting up the space for living in, child-minding, securing privacy spaces away from the prying eyes of police and security (initially, we were watched over by police for the first few days, but that job eventually fell to the building security team, many of whom became supportive of our cause), making sleeping arrangements (finding space on the floor, first with just the clothes on our backs, then as supplies arrived, we were able to use blankets under us and over us), calling home to families to let them know what we were doing and that we were ok, and having to deal with the ever-changing security conditions / human rights infractions that were being imposed upon us, such as washroom facility use: initially we were allowed to use the washrooms that were on other floors with police escort, but then that was curtailed, and a couple of slop buckets were brought up for us to use, along with toilet paper (ridiculously, we were allowed to empty the buckets in the very toilets that we were not allowed to use, along with police escort to make sure we didn’t take the opportunity to use the toilets!); the ever-changing electrical light and air circulation conditions, which we later realized was their energy use conservation system, (however, the lack of air circulation lead many of us to develop respiratory problems, such as dry throats, and for at least one of us, sore and bleeding mouths and swollen tongue); the ability to move about and get fresh air; the ability to practice our cultural and spiritual ceremonies, such as smudging, without setting off the fire alarms, and having our Pipecarriers and Elders (Grandmothers and Grandfathers) attend to our ceremonial needs.
Eventually things began to settle down, the media left us as we had suggested they pay attention to the Youth, and we set about trying to figure out how this would end. We needed to connect with the Youth of Attawapiskat, and even the Chief, Bruce Shisheesh. We had attempted to connect with Chief Shisheesh several times before even going to the office without success. The night before we went to the building, we were able to find an article from the Youth of Attawapiskat which gave a list of their demands, which we could use as our demands for our eventual departure. These included things that we here in the south take for granted, like a youth centre, a library, a parenting centre, a recycling system, a movie theatre, an arcade, a skate park, a (new?) church, Traditional Teachings, and dry land, among other things. Pretty basic stuff, eh? Oh, and one of the items on the list was also a visit between the Youth and the Prime Minister, who is also the self-appointed Minister of Youth!
We found assistance in our dilemma with lack of contact with the Youth in a person who eventually arrived on the scene, and who had been born in Attawapiskat, but who had moved away to the city for most of her upbringing. She was able to connect us with the youth from the Youth Council, who advised us that the list was not quite a list of demands, it was more of a brainstorming exercise. The Youth Centre was still a priority, but they also wanted the mercury contamination to be cleaned up (effluent from the nearby DeBeers diamond mine), a breakup of the monopoly that the only store in town, the Northern Store, had on the community, where prices of the most basic items would be out of reach of any southern community ( twenty dollars for a case of pop, thirteen dollars for a carton of juice, forty dollars for thirty rolls of toilet paper, one thousand dollars for a mattress, forty dollars for diapers), and Traditional Elders to help get back to the Teachings of the Land.
Since we chose as our main focus initially as the meeting with the Prime Minister, and the promise of the building of the Youth Centre, we kept to that, along with the promise of the other items to be addressed as quickly as possible. However, we all know that these issues are not new, nor are they isolated to this Reserve. There are about one hundred Reserves with boil water advisories, some of which have been in states of emergency for this issue for over ten years, and issues of deplorable housing conditions.
On Monday, April 18th, a delegation of politicians, including NDP MP for the region, Charlie Angus, Minister of Indigenous Affairs Carolyn Bennett, and even Regional Director Mauricette Howlett flew up to Attawapiskat to meet with the Youth and the community (Howlett initially refused to go up because, as she stated to us, she couldn’t leave her staff alone without her! After we held a lengthy and transformative Sharing Circle with her, we convinced her that surely her staff has worked without her before, and that she MUST attend the meeting on the Monday). After the meeting, the Youth let it be known that they were satisfied with the promises made, and wanted us to stand down, and take the spotlight off of them. They let us know that they didn’t mind if we stayed if we were to support the other occupations that had developed across the country: Winnipeg was first, then Vancouver, after all offices across the country shut down, and then in Regina and Edmonton encampments took place outside. There were also Sacred Fires lit, such as in Halifax, and demonstrations in Ottawa, and a couple of band offices were taken over as well.
Once we were satisfied that the Youth were satisfied with the meeting, and after contacting the other Occupations in Winnipeg and Vancouver, we set to working out our exit strategy and timing. By Wednesday, our discussions with our fellow Occupiers were done, and we had had an agreement with Mauricette Howlett to keep in touch, we let it be known that we’d be leaving the following day. We set to work on organizing our belongings and the incredible bounty of food that had been donated to our cause which sustained our eight and a half day occupation for the coming exit. The next afternoon, Thursday, April 21th, we departed the office and met with our supporters on the outside who had organized another rally to greet us, and said our goodbyes to the Security Staff who had befriended us.
Carrie Lester (Teyon-nanit-skwah-kwá:nyu’), Mohawk (Kanien’keha:ka) through her mother and grandmother from Six Nations Grand River Territory; grew up and resides in Toronto (Tkarónto); mother of two grownchildren; by day, works with school children with Learning Difficulties and Autism; Land Defender / Water Protector.