I am talking with two of attendees at an event. They are both Indigenous Peoples. Both well-versed in sensitivities around Indigenous issues. Both have been discriminated against. Branded as ‘other’. Felt the disdain of those who call themselves ‘white’.
I tell them about my awakening at an Indigenous training course I took a couple of weeks ago.
“I have never stopped to think about the richness and depth of Canadian culture as being grounded in Indigenous Peoples,” I tell them. “I have fallen for the discourse that our history as a nation began when white man arrived.”
It didn’t. It began thousands of years ago with a culture that is deeply connected to the land, the elements, nature and a desire to walk softly upon the earth.
“Discrimination and ‘other’ thinking is pervasive,” I say. “I participate in it without even recognizing I am participating in it.”
One of the men mentions the statement we make as a Foundation at the beginning of all our events acknowledging that we are standing on traditional Treaty 7 land.
“You know that calling it ‘Treaty 7’ land is a reference to colonization,” one of the individuals mentions. “For many of us, it is a reminder of all that has harmed us, not strengthened us.”
I am taken aback.
It is subtle this discrimination, this ‘other’ thinking.
Later, I am at a roundtable discussion on the National Housing Strategy the Federal Government is currently in the process of drafting.
Our host is a public figure. An elected official. Well-respected. Well liked. He has always been conscious and considerate in his approach to homelessness.
I am listening to the conversation. To my peers around the table talking about the content in the documents before us.
On a page referring to the themes to be covered by the Strategy is a list identifying those who need extra consideration due to the specialized needs of their demographic/human condition. ‘Homeless, seniors, youth, families, people with disabilities’. There is no mention of Indigenous Peoples.
Someone mentions the omission. The elected representative is surprised there is no mention. He comments that he doesn’t see how it could have gotten so far into development with such a glaring omission.
“Perhaps it’s like the language we use without thinking,” I say. And I ask him about a comment he had made earlier in the session. “You said, ‘We are not going to make silly statements like, we’re going to end homelessness. We know we’re not.”
How is that a silly statement, I ask. It is aspirational. Forward-thinking. But silly?
There is a pause and then they talk about how they were referring to the timeline. He tries to justify the statement until someone else around the table also speaks up in support of my question. “If the government plans on ensuring everyone has access to housing, won’t that mean we end homelessness?”
I stand corrected, the elected official says.
We get hung up in our words. Use them to divide and conquer. To separate and clarify.
We make words the ground upon which we stand, the positions we will not cede, the space we will not move from.
And in the process, our language becomes the battlefield upon which we stake our claim to be right. It becomes our battery of defenses against another so that we don’t have to give up our right to stand our ground.
It was a short week and a tough one. A week where words spoken awakened my consciousness to injustices caused by the language of Treaties that continue to define and marginalize an entire Nation. A week where language failed to inspire by its use of silly statements about what we can, or cannot do, amongst a group of people passionately committed to ending the very thing they called silly.
I believe passionately in our human capacity to create possibility from the seemingly impossible.
I believe we are all one humanity. One human race.
But the words I heard this week, and the ones omitted when they needed to be spoken, are cause for concern.
How can we stop discrimination? How can we end homelessness when the very words we use continue to mire people in the limited thinking of the past? How can we inspire one another to do better when the words we use build walls and tear down confidence in our ability to contribute our best?