No, they whisper. You own nothing.
You were a visitor, time after time
climbing the hill, planting the flag, proclaiming.
We never belonged to you.
You never found us.
It was always the other way round.
– Margaret Atwood
A man I once admired said, “Indigenous people should not have to endure the labour of educating you.” He said, “I’m here to help you understand that you were culturally insensitive.”
The man is white, with bright red hair and tattooed sleeves down his arms. He’s a mover and shaker, a semi-public figure who wants to fight on the side of the oppressed. He took something I wrote the wrong way and missed his target: the social media trolls who were delighting in a vulnerable moment. An Indigenous woman who bared her anger and disgust at white people. The trolls were so pleased when she said, “Get out, white person” at a public event. “See?” they said. “She’s racist too. We’re all the same.”
Everything I tried to say to this man in my own defense, he deflected. “That’s a white person response,” he wrote. “Again. Another white person response.”
Until then I had envied him – his alternative media company and social circle of activists, artists and politicos. I wanted that life. To be where things are happening, to be making a difference.
But I spend most days working in a cubicle, and use writing as a means to explore and confront difficult questions. He had read much of it. “That’s why I’m surprised,” he said, as he shoved in the knife and twisted it. “So I’m here to help.”
Right here and now, I say to myself, who does have the answers and say the right thing? Do I? Does he? It was a tempest in a teapot, that little exchange; it was an almost physically painful moment (for me). To the red-haired man, I say I am sorry and I hope you’re doing some good in this world, that we both are doing some good.
Because while we argued, the world went on, as it does: tens of thousands of people on reserves across the country are still without clean water to drink. Indigenous women and girls are going missing—where are they? Why are we not doing more to find them and protect the others?
The two of us, with all our good intentions, are still succeeding in a society that keeps the land and wealth in the hands of those who stole it. Every year more is taken away from first nations and where is the restitution?
I want to lay my hand on his heart, on that angry man’s heart, to calm its pain and slow its rhythm. So often we say the wrong thing and don’t know it, but at least we try to make offerings, to open ourselves to being on the wrong side of an argument.
To be still and gentle sometimes, quiet enough so that a bird, light and hesitant, might land on our shoulders for a moment and take the seeds from our hands. Just for a moment before flying away.