3 min

Queers should build bridges with aboriginals

We must confront our government to uphold basic rights

It was a seminal moment in history on Nov 4 when Barack Obama was elected to be president of the United States; a hopeful sign that minorities will no longer experience the glass ceiling effect, and that positions of power will be open to all regardless of their sexuality, ethnicity, gender and so forth.

It is possible that in our lifetime we will see a queer prime minister in Canada demonstrate the achievements that Obama has. Frequently within the queer community I hear people comment that there is nothing left to fight for because we have won the right to marry and collect same-sex benefits and pensions. For those within the queer community that believe the struggle is over, consider, for example, the plight of two-spirited people who are doubly marginalized. In his acceptance speech, Obama honoured 106-year-old Ann Nixon Cooper who was doubly marginalized because she was a woman and because of the colour of her skin. In Canada, the rights of the First Nations are being violated and the issues are neglected by the state. We must confront our government to uphold the rights of aboriginals.

It is a common experience in the queer community to feel alienated from our homes and neighbourhoods because of our sexuality. We must strive to champion our diversity and truly stand together as queers. In order to do this we must support those that are disadvantaged. This is possible by volunteering, getting involved politically and by listening to the experiences of First Nations people. I applaud Waawaate Fobister for writing and starring in Agokwe, a story of gay life on the rez, and Toronto’s Buddies in Bad Times Theatre for providing a space that is supportive and inclusive.

The conflict between the state and indigenous people is a problem that is both international and long-standing. Since 1493 the issues of colonization and its impact on the original inhabitants of land have often been ignored by the general public. The media does not often tell their stories of struggle. When they are told, they tend to be relegated to the news on page 19 rather than page one.

Last December, I participated in a fundraiser for Shawn Brant and was appalled to discover the events that led to his clash with the police in Ontario. Shawn is a Mohawk activist that was arrested for blocking Highway 401 and the CN rail line in June 2007. He did so to raise awareness that the Tyendinaga (215 km northeast of Toronto) community has not had drinkable water in their school and in their homes for at least a decade. Although I had heard of the blockade in the media, I was unaware of the specifics of demonstration. When I checked the Tyendinaga support website recently, I discovered that the community is still without proper drinking water and yet the government has dealt with the arrests and trials of Shawn Brant in an expedient fashion. Brant is among 13 people facing charges, the specifics of which have not been released by the police. His example crystallizes the priorities of the state in dealing with First Nations.

Internationally, governments have consistently attempted to classify and control First Nations communities with labels that are precise and certain. The argument tends to be that government can’t provide any specialized rights to First Nations people if they can’t define the group using specific characteristics. But there is so much diversity among indigenous people internationally for such a definition to be agreed upon. In many cases, aboriginals feel that a universal definition denies their right to define their own membership.

The Fourth World is a term used to describe the conditions that First Nations people in Canada often live in because they are often worse than those associated within the developing world, and yet they are residing within a rich nation. The Canadian Mental Health Association states that aboriginals have the poorest health levels in the country, they are also more likely to experience inadequate nutrition, substandard housing and sanitation conditions, unemployment and poverty.

The development and implementation of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights emerged after World War II. This action instigated discussions about human rights, minority rights and indigenous rights. However, the rights of indigenous people have not been supported or accommodated in Canada, which has resulted in very slow progress in terms of territorial rights, self-determination, autonomy and international legal status.

In order to preserve the cultural integrity of aboriginals of Canada, they must be given the ability to experience and preserve their religion, language, education, natural resources and control over their land. Canada has continuously acted horridly in its treatment of First Nations. Whether through the Indian Act or residential schools, the country has frequently tried to assimilate the cultures and dissolve their unique identities.

As queers, our communal emergence was strongly politicized, our community has fought for equality rights and when that puts us in a position of power, we should acknowledge this power and use it as allies to advocate for others in disadvantaged situations.