Idle No More, and All The Things We Don’t Know We Don’t Know

If anything out of Idle No More is crystal-clear, it is this: when it comes to First Nations and how they work, a daunting number of Canadians have no freakin’ clue what they’re talking about.

No clue, not one, not even the slightest flicker of a lighthouse of a clue to warn them off the rocks. Instead, they cram into comment sections to dutifully repeat myths they’ve picked up; myths about First Nations and about chiefs, myths that have no basis in reality but make for good outrage. (“Don’t read the comments.”)

There is no excuse for willful ignorance, no excuse for retreating to racist dog-whistles or lazy shorthand about “taxpayers” or welfare or issues even further off the board of Idle No More’s core discussions. There’s no excuse for confusing a government’s own legal obligations with “handouts.” And there is certainly no excuse for taking a movement that tackles complex questions of governance and self-determination, and boiling it down only to a nasty game of “gotcha” on Attawapiskat.

At the same time, I have to ask: how can the majority of the public hope to be informed, when a lot of media coverage of First Nations issues — on governance, on law, on financing — has always been so incredibly bad?

This isn’t to point a finger at reporters, either. Let me be clear: until I started having to do a little bit of reporting on First Nations, the sum total of my knowledge of the Indian Act, of the current legal and governance framework of First Nations in Canada, and of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada  (now AANDC) is best described as “fuck all.”

I doubt I was the only one — and hell, I was always even interested in that stuff.

In fact, I’d be willing to bet that amongst those doing the lion’s share of general assignment reporting, this holds true more often than not. After all, here is a comprehensive list of where I learned about the Indian Act, the current legal and governance framework of First Nations in Canada, and Indian and Northern Affairs Canada in my youth: nowhere. Here is a non-comprehensive list of where I never learned about those things: high school, journalism programs, mainstream media.

My general sense: most Canadians enter adulthood, and begin crystallizing opinions on the country, without having the foggiest clue about how First Nations are run, how they’re funded, why they’re funded, how they are controlled and how the federal government — and one of its most dense and frustrating bureaucracies — plays such an overarching role in the everyday operations of a First Nation.

Look, I’m still far from expert on how it all works. I’m learning where I can, I’ve been learning for years, and the more I learn the more it makes my head hurt. Still, I now have a far better grasp than I did when I actually started having to report on these issues. And it’s enough to know this: the system isn’t just broken, it was never once whole. It’s been a garbage nightmare of colonial bureaucracy from the get-go.

This is all to say this: something has to change, going forward.

With the system, yes, but I mean in our education and ongoing dialogues, too. Looking back on my youth, it’s infuriating to realize how little we were ever taught; for this, there is no excuse. Every Canadian has a responsibility to educate themselves, yes. But it’s no surprise this often doesn’t happen when we are so rarely given the framework to begin to understand, which allows ignorance to trickle out through the media and further widen the gap.

On the bright side: on this end, I think Idle No More is proving to be an incredible success.

It’s gotten people of all stripes talking about treaties, about governance, about the history of it all. It’s gotten non-Native people learning about relationships they mostly never thought about before, and incremental progress is being made. We’re getting smarterer, and a little more educated, and hopefully that will only encourage the knee-jerk responses to slowly fade away.

Time to talk about this stuff like grown-ups, yeah?


On a related note, I can’t express enough my admiration for Chelsea Vowel, who has devoted staggering amounts of time to writing and educating people about a lot of the very complex issues around First Nations, the federal government, law, financing, Aboriginal people’s experiences. She was doing phenomenal work before Idle No More began, and has been a remarkable voice in the movement. Her Aboriginal Issues Primer topics are must-reads.

It takes a lot of energy to educate people, especially to try and educate in a sphere where you’re writing about your own life and identity and community, while ignorance reigns supreme. A huge tip of the hat to Vowel and all of the many other women and men who have invested so much time on that end.

Hockey at the heart of it all

When The Globe and Mail first told us that the Jets were coming back, he was in Winnipeg. Not for the first time, but for the last, and just to see if we could salvage a friendship from the wreckage of all of that.

So we were on the couch together, but sitting far apart, when Stephen Brunt’s article broke and the pictures all came: on Twitter, on TV, flooding images of fans hanging over the concrete at Portage and Main.

There were strings pulling at my chest, tugging me across the river down the street and to the place where Winnipeggers instinctually meet; I was so curious. “Maybe we should go down,” I said, “do you want to go down?”

But it was cold, and he shrugged, and so we stayed in.

The next day, he climbed on a train back to America, back to the green megaliths of the Pacific coast. I sat in my condo, rubbed the whiter-than-white skin on the fourth finger of my hand, and readjusted to the quiet of living alone.


“Were you always a hockey fan?”

I get this a lot ever since the Jets came back, ever since I opened my wallet for Jets gear and Jets tickets and turned my Twitter into a running love affair with the team. The answer, for posterity: yes, I was always a hockey fan. Just not of the NHL.

Oh, I tried for a bit in high school, and hopped some bandwagons beyond that. There was a brief affair with the Red Wings, a dalliance with the Canucks; but for lack of a professional team to really love, I turned periodic attention to national campaigns. The Olympics, the World Championship, and World Junior teams. Once the teenagers went pro, I always lost track.

Then the Jets came back, and there was only one option: total commitment.

The day of the first pre-season game, word went out on Twitter that there were tickets up for sale. I clicked to Ticketmaster and got a hit on a seat in the very first row. And I hemmed and hawed until I finally thought: I’ll remember the game more than whatever I would have done with two hundred bucks.

Because really, how could I ever forget?

Oh, the buzz in the air and the roar of the crowd, so loud it crushed the music and the goal horn under a wrecking ball of sound, it was beautiful. I was right behind the net when Mark Scheifele potted his first goal on an NHL stage; it was pre-season, fine. It counts in my memory just the same.

God, I was so proud.


In all the time that relationship lasted, we only watched – really watched – one hockey game.

See, I was a Manitoba girl, born into cycles of prairies and harvests and ice; he grew up in the rainforests of the Oregon coast. If hockey permeates the Canadian psyche, there it is but a sporty footnote; try to find a bar in Portland that carries the NHL channels. You won’t.

Sometimes, this tiny clash of cultures led to moments of perfect glee.

This was the game: we were packed into an Osborne Village bar, eyes fixed on Iggy and on Sidney Crosby. Then the golden goal was recorded, and all the world exploded, and I leaped out of my seat before I felt him tugging at my hand. “Don’t get too excited,” he said, hazel eyes wide with worry. “There’s still 10 minutes left.”

I laughed so loud it came out like screaming. I yanked him to his feet and we stood there, singing. Outside, kids in tank-tops ran flags up the street, and I hoped it would stir in him the same joy for my country. “This is the Canada I always wanted you to see,” I said.

Point being, hockey wasn’t really his thing.

Which meant it was ready to become that, for me.


In the aftermath of every relationship, there are stains: the restaurant you avoid, the towels you toss, the album you can never listen to again.

For me, the stain spread across the city that he could never love, and I could never really leave.

The city wasn’t what broke us, but it was a wedge that kept us from ever being whole. So after we were over, it didn’t look like Winnipeg anymore: in its place, all I saw was a Tyndall-stone mausoleum to a promise that smashed over its streets. And all the what-ifs, and the what-woulda-beens; for the first time in my life, I thought about getting out.

Then the Jets came back, and Winnipeg came alive.

Before the Jets, prairie winters were clouded white and grey; in the excitement of those first post-NHL days, we painted our city polar night blue. We bundled up in Jets shirts and sweaters and gloves and tuques, and turned our faces to the team like the warmth of a fire. It was a story Winnipeggers were writing together, and as for me? I was damn ready to open a blank page.

In short, the Jets washed the stain from my Winnipeg, and gave it back to me like new.

Every game, every goal, every broken play belonged to the city, and to me, and they were ours alone. Only those of us who lived here could really understand — well, only us, or die-hard hockey fans. In those first months, the NHL’s return to Winnipeg felt both fresh and perfect-old, it felt like childhood. Before anything hurt, or got confused, or cold.

Before the Jets, I never wore logos. After their return, the roundel blossomed in my closet. Every interview read like literature, every statistic a treasure map to be translated and debated; the bonds we forged in the debating are something to be cherished. Even the losing games were a source of perverse giggles, and communal warmth.

“That was hilariously bad,” we’d all Tweet. “Just bring the boys back home.”

Why I will always love them: because they brought me back here, too.

That year, I actually went back to Portland. The plan was to mark a milestone birthday tangled up in its quirky beauty, but instead I spent hours searching for a sports bar that carried Jets games. In the end, I settled for hotel wireless, my iPhone and an illegal stream. It was choppy, but just clear enough to watch the Bruins win in overtime.

In that moment, nestled between emerald hills and glistening cobblestones, I suddenly wished that I was back at home: back in Winnipeg, back in the cold, back where hockey is at the heart of it all.


It’s nineteen months later, now. Life moves on and I did too; we’re all a little farther than where we were back then.

Still, as the lockout ennui evaporates, a surge of gratitude: this is more than a game owned by millionaires and played in front of masses. It’s also a canvas on which we draw out our stories, discover the best things about each other, and let the good times roll.

Which is all to say: go Jets go.