We Are Better than Blockades


GREETINGS, PEOPLE. This is one of my regularly scheduled posts in which I address something happening in Indian Country. I encourage all of you to stick around, but let me be clear: I’m speaking to Onkwehonwe here, and only Onkwehonwe, and only on my own behalf. More specifically, I’m talking to Kanien’keha:ka, the People of the Flint, better known by some of you as the Mohawks. I am Kanien’keha:ka, of the Haudenosaunee – the People of the Longhouse, aka Iroquois, the name given to us by our longtime Huron enemies.

As I write this, some of you Tyendinaga Kanien’keha:ka, of the Bay of Quinte near Kingston, are blocking the VIA line that runs from Montreal to Toronto. As we all know, this has happened before, and it will likely happen again. In fact, we Kanien’keha:ka are pretty fond of the blockade, and have been for a long time.

The reasons are no mystery: a road, bridge or rail blockade can cause a huge amount of inconvenience and disruption. It’s a form of economic sabotage that hurts the “white man” where it counts, in his wallet. Anyone can set up a blockade. It’s low-tech, portable, cheap and easy. You don’t need a manual or a college degree or a brain wired for engineering. It’s an add-water-and-stir sort of thing. We have water, and we’re good at stirring.

I’ve been to Tyendinaga many times. My maternal grandfather was born there in 1908. I know the Kanien’keha:ka of Tyendinaga have been involved in a number of land-related struggles, like all of us Onkwehonwe across Turtle Island. I agree with the objectives of these struggles, which go back hundreds of years. Some have erupted into violence, such as the Caledonia dispute and the Oka conflict, the latter of which has roots reaching back to the time of the Sulpicians. Nothing was resolved in 1990 for the people of Kanesatake; nor has anything changed in Caledonia, except that maybe things have gotten worse. Canada has never discarded its rotten colonial ways, and probably never will. So my sympathies are with Tyendinaga.

The issue now is this call for an inquiry into murdered and missing women, many of whom are aboriginal. The federal government has said that there will be no inquiry, and that the Harper government is already doing everything necessary to prevent further abductions and murders. I’m not going to get into the topic of just how bad this government is at the business of Canada-First Nations relations. We all know. Let me just say that on a scale of one-to-ten I’d have to take out my knife and shave the zero, because at this point the word of the feds is worth less than nothing.

Many Canadians support an inquiry. They’re beyond tired of their government, which they see as arrogant, corrupt and crass. We can all see that Stephen Harper’s time is running out. That doesn’t mean the next government will be better: it could well be the same, or worse. The point is, right now there’s a lot of public support on this particular issue, especially since the news of missing and murdered women keeps coming. The federal government is wrong on this issue, people know it, and history is going to prove it. But the government is not the people.

Far from cultivating and harnessing this public support, the blockade is pissing it away. I know you are angry and feel something powerful and bold and aggressive has to be done, because time is running out and the injustice has gone on far too long. We all grew up hearing the stories of how the Indian Act was imposed on us, and how the RCMP invaded our communities and killed our people and imposed their government on our council.

I learned about Deskaheh when I was young – how he went to the League of Nations to protest Canada’s ongoing abuses of our rights. The Canadian government decided he was a troublemaker and refused to let him return to his home at Six Nations on a visit to the Tuscarora in New York State. In 1925, he died in exile after delivering a powerful and comprehensive indictment of Canada which was broadcast on the radio.

Deskaheh’s words are as relevant today as they were almost one hundred years ago. I often ask myself, what would he be doing today? I don’t know the answer, but I don’t think he would be blockading, and here’s why.

The VIA line goes right through your proverbial backyard. It’s a no-brainer to see the trains going by and to think “I could mess with that.” Deskaheh was not a taker of the easy, no brainer route. He studied history and he made sure he understood how the machinery of Canada worked. He spoke numerous languages, including languages of Europe. He was a polished and effective orator, a diplomat and a tactical thinker. He was smart to the point of cunning.

Canadian politicians were afraid of him because they could see he was smarter than they were and that he could outmaneuver them. Canada had guns and soldiers, but Deskaheh had the ammunition of moral principle, and he knew how to use it. He could make people feel the injustices being done to Onkwehonwe by their politicians.

At the time of his early death, at age 52, Deskaheh had achieved a critical and powerful insight. He realized it was a waste of his time to appeal to governments and politicians. “They deal only in fine words” he said. “We want something more than that. We want justice from now on.” His new strategy was to speak directly to the boys and girls of Canada and the United States – the future citizens and voters, on whose mercy the careers of future politicians would depend.

Think about that. Radio was a relatively new technology in the 1920s, but Deskaheh knew not only to use it, but how to use it. He could have gone on the radio with an angry list of demands addressed to the Canadian government, and if he had I bet most Onkwehonwe would have considered that a good and even ballsy move. But that’s not what he did at all. He knew that radio’s power was its ability to enable a person to speak directly to another person, as if face-to-face. That’s a very Haudenosaunee idea, this sitting down and talking, with a good mind, to bring about unity of understanding.

Go look carefully at his speech again and you’ll see how deliberate it is, and how much thought Deskaheh put into appealing to the natural sense of justice and fairness that we know all children have. My point here is not that we should be giving radio broadcasts to children (although we probably should) – it’s that our leaders have shown us it’s important to be smart, cunning, tactical and deliberative. Deskaheh took cutting-edge technology and used it strategically to leverage his considerable, particular skills. His message was tailored to an audience which was strategically chosen, and to whom he spoke in an effective way. We’ll never know what he could have accomplished had he lived longer, but at least we can learn from his example.

Blockading by contrast is an easy and ill-considered tactic. It’s reactionary and impulsive and obstinate. It doesn’t win over hearts and minds, and in fact turns otherwise generous people against us. It’s not long-term, strategic, visionary or constructive. It’s like holding a gun to someone’s head and saying, “Give me your money.” Let’s say you get that money. Do you think that person is going to have a kind feeling towards you, and that she will understand you and be supportive of you from now on? Or is it possible that you’ll poison this relationship, just like Stephen Harper has been doing?

Yes, I am saying that you’re behaving as bad as, and worse than, the very people you consider your enemy. Anger over the real injustices of the past does not justify bad ideas, or somehow make them good ideas. Think about this: the people suffering because of your tactics are not the government, or the big rich bosses of industry (they’ll be fine) – they are ordinary people trying to get somewhere, just like you. Some of them will one day raise children and future voters. They’ll be the folks on the other side of the Kaswentha, and they’ll remember your conduct just like we remember everything that’s been done to us for five hundred years.

The bigger concern of mine is that many of the young people will decide that violence is better than peace. My friend Georges Erasmus saw this day approaching over thirty years ago, even before Oka, when he was the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations. He told the Prime Minister of Canada that his generation might be the last that was willing to deal peacefully with Canadian governments. Sken:nen (peace) is the foundation of the Haudenosauee, but it’s also a principle of ours to make three offers. Reject the offer of peace three times, and we may pursue the alternatives.

Everyone knows the Onkwehonwe of North America can never win a war of violent armed conflict against the colonial powers. But violence can nonetheless do considerable damage to the Canadian and American economies. It is therefore in everyone’s best interest to find another way, whatever that is. In my view blockades are better than murder, but they are far less productive than building the relationships with people who will be our allies, not only today but generations ahead. Blockades are not the way to go. We can be better and smarter than that. I would say we have no choice but to be.

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