So now we get to the part in the meeting between where Grand Chief Al Onanole and PM Jack Hemp cease to exist.  They go from being poorly defined, two dimensional cardboard cutouts to becoming full-on straw men.

A literary straw man is basically a character who is essentially little more than a political or philosophical opinion, all dressed up to resemble a human being.  This is different from a character that has strong political or philosophical beliefs. I have plenty of strong political and philosophical beliefs, but they’re created and informed by the events of my life and the circumstances I’m dealing with day by day.  They change as I grow and learn, and if you could map out either my life history or my philosophical beliefs in isolation from each other, there’s a pretty good chance you could infer the shape of one from the other.

As this section develops, Jack and Al essentially spew talking points at each other that are allegedly based on each man’s deeply held beliefs.  And they just keep spewing it.  On and on.  Neither man gets angry.  Neither man loses their temper.[1]  We don’t see them arguing past each other, betraying ways in which they might legitimately fail to understand each other.  They don’t recount a story from their past as a way of emphasizing to the other just how very important this is.

These are straw men.  They are here to recite their way through the author’s preferred argument.  And it’s an argument that Al Onanole is predestined to lose.

“Yeah, right.” Hemp paced in a quick circle around Onanole and returned to his desk. “Let me tell you something, Al. ‘The oppressed’: that’s just a handy label for an assumed collective you guys trot out when you’re at the table with us. But the really oppressed natives aren’t in that room and you know it. They’ve got lawyers, politicians, zealots, your band leaders bartering for them, in their place, in their name, but we both know who gets most of the gravy. Those who don’t like what’s left after their ‘brokers’ take their cut, well, they’re free agents, kinda like hockey players. They’re stuck out on the fringes and if they’re too pissed off to play by the rules, now I think you’re at least as responsible for it as I am.”

Hooookay….

So before I get deeper into this, I am going to say that there’s the germ of a real issue here in the middle of this crap.  Bland is actually touching on some truth here, although it’s something that’s discussed at length in activist circles and he’s presenting it like he’s the first one to think of it.  It’s kind of the paradox of activism…or maybe the paradox of successful activism.

Let’s say you’re advocating for say…drug addicts.  Let’s say you’re a person who works at a needle exchange program and you’re mad about how the cops hassle your clients as they enter and leave the building.  Let’s say you managed to lead a few protests and you’ve gotten the attention of City council, and now you’re in the room with the Mayor and the Chief of Police.

As much as you might think of yourself as the street fighting revolutionary…you’re actually holding a position of considerable privilege.  You might not have the Mayor’s power and six-figure income, but you’re still doing a hell of a lot better than your clients at the safe injection site.  You may be the common man standing in front of the well-paid representatives of the moneyed class, but the fact that the moneyed class is actually giving you the time of day puts you closer to their world than that of your clients.

The homeless addicts who are sleeping in a cardboard box after they leave you injection centre don’t have half an hour of the Mayor’s time.  And the addict who can’t even get out to your safe injection site?  They’re not even on the radar.

It might surprise you to know that this is actually a big deal for activists.  They actually talk about these things.

Okay back to the deconstruction!

So it kind of seems like Jack Hemp is calling out Al Onanole’s claim that he can actually be the intermediary that Canada needs.  He’s suggesting that FNF (Bland’s fictional version of the AFN) has become too distant from the majority of Canada’s indigenous peoples.  That they are essentially a bunch of ivory tower elites, without a clue as to what is going on or how they should proceed.

This is a premise that depends on two things: One, that native people are actually subject to injustice, and therefore have a reason to be angry.  And two, that the current First Nations leadership isn’t doing a good job representing this population.  These are dangerous ideas for the world building of Uprising, since it implies a solution to the Crown-Indigenous relations is better aboriginal representation.

From what I can tell, the intent behind this scene is for Bland to lay out the key, irreconcilable issues that are making the Uprising inevitable.  He’s already off to a bad start, and things are going to get uglier from here.

 Hemp warmed to his arguments. “I agree with you, Al. Oppression is more obvious to the victim. It’s all the fault of ‘the system’ or the free market or what’s it…the ‘generational effects’ from those, I admit, dreadful residential schools-it’s always something other than self. We apologized, Al, and what do we get: the fatalistic notion that nothing can change the evil effects of the past in the future.

Just for the record, Uprising was published in 2009.  The Canadian Government (then under PM Stephen Harper) had only just apologized for the Residential Schools the year before.  Canadian Governments knew that the Schools were killing kids as far back as the 1920s, and they only just apologized for this fact.

So point number one here seems to be that ‘the Residential Schools were bad, but you guys are always blaming someone else, never yourself.’  That’s…colossally fucked up.  To be clear, I’m not an expert on the generational trauma inflicted by the Residential Schools[2], but I have seen trauma up close.

Between 2005 to my deployment in 2008 I spent close to two years in CFB Petawawa and Gagetown attached to multiple Reg Force units that were deep into the deployment cycle of the Afghan War.  More importantly, I was an outsider looking in.  I hadn’t yet been to war and my career until that point had been almost entirely in the Reserve world with one foot in civilian life.[3]  Those were environments filled with trauma.  Guys were coming back from tour with brains full of anger and pain and it was stunning to see.

Some of those guys got help and got better.  Some of them didn’t.  Trauma has helped kill 259 Canadian Soldiers since 2004.

And there’s probably a lot of soldiers who passed it on to their kids.

I’m not saying this as a condemnation, but as a statement of fact.  It’s not a personal failing, but if you’re messed up, it’s going to impact how you raise your kids.[4]

So take this fairly isolated world of a professional military in wartime, and expand it to encompass a Canada-wide population.  Generations raised by a system that, even if it was not directly abusive, was explicitly designed to assimilate and destroy their culture. Trauma is generational.  And while we (as individual victims) might have the final responsibility for our actions, it’s the nature of trauma that it degrades our capacity to take responsibility at all.

Now couple generational trauma with systems of poverty and neglect and well…yeah.  To a pretty major extent, a lot of Indigenous people can blame ‘the system.’

Now here Al should be firing back with everything he’s got.  Jack is trying to hand-wave a lot of real, tangible things that have had real, tangible effects.  As a professional leader and organizer, Al should be coming back with hard examples, real stories of people he’s known and lost to ‘the system.’

Of course that’s not how it works here.

We apologized, Al, and what do we get: the fatalistic notion that nothing can change the evil effects of the past in the future. You know something that I find strange: the residential school effect, I mean the negative ones, seem only to show up in the reserve population. All those native families who moved off the reserves and into cities seem to have prospered while those on the reserves continue to suffer from the past. Someone should do a study on those effects too.

This is another area in which Bland would be well-served by reading more left-wing activist writers, because he’s just walked into a very common pitfall that someone of his education should not be making.

An apology is an admission of wrong-doing or failure which has resulted in harm being done to another.  It typically expresses sadness and regret at the harm done, and typically commits the person apologizing to making amends or (at the very least) to halting the behaviour which caused the harm.

It is not an action taken with the expectation of a specific return, and if you don’t get that return you have the right to withdraw your apology.  If you’re expecting a return on your apology, you’re not apologizing.  You’re engaging in an empty performance as part of an agreement.

“We apologized…and what do we get[?]” 

You’re not supposed to “get” something for your apology you low-expectation having mother-fucker![5]  You apologize because you did wrong and it’s the only way to make it right!

As for the rest of this paragraph, I could go and quote a bunch of statistics about rates of native homelessness, substance abuse, discrimination, and gang-membership in Canadian cities, but Bland has already mentioned this several times in his novel Uprising already.

“Anyway, Al, the rascals who represent the downtrodden prosper and the rabble continues to suffer. Had a whisky and local tap water at Kashechewan up on James Bay lately, Al? No? Well, ever since the Conservatives signed that deal in 2007, governments have spent enough money on that reserve to make tap water flow in a desert, and you guys are still complaining and the saps who don’t have titles and cellphones and expense accounts also don’t have water their kids can drink.

There’s only so much that I’m qualified to say about Kashechewan, given that I’m not an engineer or city planner, and the question of who’s right or wrong lies in the details of these fields.  But here’s the short layman version:

InsideKashechewan
Children playing in the road at Kashechewan.  Source.

Kashechewan was a small reserve (1,900 members of the Nishnabe-Aski Nation) on the shores of James Bay that was first established in the 1950s.  In 2005, the community was hit by a crisis when E.coli was found in the water supply, prompting a partial evacuation and a rush to figure out what had happened.  As it turned out, the water processing plant hadn’t been properly maintained (the operators weren’t properly trained) and water was flown in to the community as a stop-gap solution.

This was happening against the backdrop of a community that was regularly experiencing flooding (with resulting property damage and threats to the water supply), overcrowding, chronic unemployment, and disease.  One of the proposals for a (hopefully) permanent solution was to physically re-locate the Reserve to higher ground, thereby solving both its flooding and water issues.  The cost was estimated at $500 million.  The Conservative government of Stephen Harper went through their own set of studies and opted for a more modest $200 million plan to re-build berms, sewers and drainage, and to repair the existing water system.[6]

Now, as Jack is saying in this passage, the situation did not improve by much.  By the time that Uprising was written there was a continuation of problems with water quality and flooding.  Arguments and recriminations were flying.  This is where I’m not in the best position to judge the situation myself.  If the 2007 plan was viable, then there could be a lot reasons why $200 million didn’t do the job, up to and including someone skimming funds for themselves rather than helping their community.

On the other hand, in 2017 after numerous floods, another tainted water scandal, and a suicide crisis, the community finally got another agreement with the Federal Government to finally relocate the community to higher ground.  So just as it’s possible that the 2007 plan was foiled by lazy natives who didn’t know how to employ the ‘white’ man’s generosity, it’s equally possible that the Harper government flushed $200 million down the toilet just to slap a ten-year band-aid on a problem that only now might finally be fixed.[7]

Given the time Bland was writing in, Kashechewan was (if nothing else) a major sticking point for Crown-Indigenous relations.  Al Onanole should be on his feet shouting at this point but instead he just sits there and listens as Jack Hemp continues:

I know who frightens you, Al-the radicals, that’s who. They’ve got your number. To tell the truth, I can’t separate out the motives behind the radical native movement in Canada. You tell me. Did they come from the oppression of the whole community, or from the way a few individuals lined their own pockets at the expense of that community? Sure, there are grievances, and abuses in the community and of the community. There always are, in every community.”

Again, Bland is-just barely-touching on a real problem here: The paradox that a civil-rights movement, in order to be successful, has to build an organization for itself.  This ultimately means building a hierarchy, a bureaucracy, in short, a power structure.  No matter how careful an organization might be, if they’re successful there is going to be some degree of alienation from the people they’re representing.[8]

What Jack is doing here, though, appears to be a version of playing the purity card himself.  Instead of acknowledging real grievances that could be laid at the feet of the government, he’s saying that Molly Grace and the Movement exist because Al Onanole has an expense account.

Cute move, if you can pull it off…

Onanole shot back, voice rising. “So what? You think the symptoms of oppression-listlessness, irresponsibility, depression, drunkenness, suicide-that stalk native reserves are just things I make up?”

That’s a pretty sketchy list there, putting listlessness and irresponsibility (generally seen as personal failings) in with depression, drunkenness and suicide (which are definitely not).

Like I said, trauma is generational.  A healthy life, a healthy family – just like a healthy community – is not something that just happens.  It takes work.  Dis-function, on the other hand?  That’s easy.  Abuse and neglect, and you will create negligent abusers.

“No, of course not.” Hemp took a deep breath and, calmer, sat in his chair. “But real, head-busting oppression is about cruel treatment, fear of authority, prohibition of choice, murder and mayhem.

So…Joe Armstron, a 71-year old Mohawk Veteran murdered by an angry mob at Whisky Trench during the Oka Crisis while police looked on.  That wasn’t head busting oppression?  Darrell Night, left to die on a Starlight Tour outside of Saskatoon just like three other native men, that’s not cruel treatment?  Anthony ‘Dudley’ George, shot dead while his cousin Nicholas Cottrelle was shot and wounded and his other cousin Cecil ‘Slippery’ George was beaten to within an inch of his life, all by Ontario Provincial Police at Ipperwash…that wasn’t murder and mayhem?

Was the Railway Massacre an act of oppression?

Where are they in your people’s case? As likely as not, I’d say its oppression arises from your traditions or from the culture on the reserves. Al, you can’t convince me that unsatisfied want is oppression. Are there unequal outcomes? Sure, but is there oppression if it comes from failing to better oneself? If someone doesn’t take choices when they could, where’s the oppression? Can a person or a community be self-oppressed? Probably. The hawkers of grievances may be damaged adults, or rabble rousers, or crazy, like Molly Graces perhaps. But if people buy what they’re selling, it’s not always somebody else’s fault.” Hemp stopped abruptly. He usually knew better than to express such thoughts, even to colleagues. But now that he had made his point in private it was time to offer compromise.

Offer compromise? Is Jack Hemp suddenly in a position of power because of this clueless rant?

It seriously looks like Douglas Bland got so deep into his argument here, that he forgot where he started from.  Molly Grace and the NPA are about to start a war in Canada, and they may very well have the upper hand.  That upper hand includes the James Bay hydro-electric project, and a bunch of anti-aircraft missiles.  Grand Chief Al Onanole is here because Prime Minister Jack Hemp needs his help to head off a disaster.

And he thinks the way to do this is to play the “Maybe you’re the real opporessor!” card here?

_______________________

[1] As should his assistant, the strikingly beautiful Martha Kokohopenace, but she seems to have vanished temporarily.

[2] In case you need a reminder (because it’s not obvious from how Bland’s talking here), the Residential Schools were a system that went on for over a century (if you’re using the Indian Act of 1876 as a starting point) and were in overdrive from the late-1950s until 1996.  There are hundreds of thousands of people effected by this across multiple generations.

[3] I mean no disrespect to career Reg Force people whatsoever here.  The thing is, when you’re living in that world, you often don’t notice when things start taking a turn because the change is too gradual and you don’t have anything to compare it against. It’s a often lot easier for an outsider to come in and see how fucked up things have become, then for a person on the inside to realize it themselves.

[4] Which is why PTSD counselling must be available not only for returning Veterans but for their families as well.

[5] I’m paraphrasing from Chris Rock‘s famous mid-nineties rant: “I take care of my kids!”  “You supposed to you dumb motherfucker!”  [Warning, video at link NSFW.]

[6] The story’s more complicated than that (because of course it is), and if you clicked on the link for the photo credit, it would have taken you to a 2016 story in The Walrus magazine.  Long story short, the water crisis was real, but fairly common in the north.  The Kashechewan leaders used it as a kind of alarm bell to try and bring attention to the numerous other problems endemic to the Reserve.  On one hand, this is somewhat dishonest since E.coli in the water didn’t qualify as an emergency in Northern Reserves.  On the other hand…E.coli was common enough in Northern Reserves that it didn’t qualify as an emergency.

[7] Like I said, I don’t know how viable the 2007 plan was, so it’s possible that this was well-intentioned plan that just failed.  But there’s no getting past the fact that, ten years later (eight years after Uprising was published)…after illnesses and suicides…a whole other government bit the bullet and went with plan A after all.

[8] And even under the best conditions: If they keep their overhead to a minimum, if they recruit, cultivate and promote new talent, if they do everything in their power to maintain their roots and their connections to their communities, it still might not be enough.  Playing the purity card and denouncing a successful organization as establishment fat cats is a cheap shot, but it’s very easy to do.  Especially for someone as ruthless as Molly Grace.

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