said my Canadian classmate astonishment in her voice. We were in History 101. I was in Quebec for one year, and at High School I had been taught the whole of Canadian history in a few month. One school year. Can you believe it? I was astounded and envious in equal measures that you could learn the whole history of your country so quickly. Aged 18 I’d had to learn history every year with Kings and wars galore for as long as I could remember. And I couldn’t remember much of it. So boring.
“It’s really weird for me to hear about Indians in history lessons”
is what had sparked her comment. I loved learning these rather exotic stories. I’d always been fascinated with American Indians. No idea why. I realise now I should say First Nations, not Indians, but as a kid my history of the American continent was learnt via ’Coboys et Indiens’ films. They annoyed me no end those films. I wasn’t girlie girlie, and OK, Steve McQueen was handsome. But John Wayne annoyed the living daylight out of me with his attitude. I rather liked these handsome exotic men with amazingly shiny long dark hair like I’d never ever seen in real life, feathers here and there, clearly at one with their horses; they didn’t even need saddles. How amazing is that? Probably found them sexy. Dark and handsome and all that. And those muscles for all to see.
And yet, what was it with the good looking men on their stunning horses always losing? So unfair. Why did the cow boys always win? Boring.
So I loved Canadian history. The fact that it was so easy -being so short- probably did make me like it even more. I’ve forgotten most of it now, sadly, except that there were dozens of tribes, they traded fur, and something about the French and the English.
As fate would have it, when the English wanted to get the territories from the French in the 18th century, the King signed a contract with the First Nations. The right to the land was enshrined into the constitution, and to this day the First Nations have a right to fish and hunt to ensure they do not lose their way of life. This of course is not clear cut. Does the right to fish extend to clean water? Does the right to hunt extend outside of reservations?
As far as First Nations tribes are concerned, mother Earth does not belong to anybody. Families have a right to farm them but when they no longer want to do so, the land goes back to being common land and therefore can be farmed by somebody else.
Mother Earth relies on Father sky, its water, its sunshine, its wind. There is great respect for nature in First Nations cultures something that impressed me as a teenager discovering the huge land that is Canada. No houses for miles was quite a beautiful novelty for a young woman from the South of France where every little town near the coastline was, already then, very close to the next town or resort.
But back then, I certainly had no idea what land rights may mean in years to come. And I sure do not recall learning that the tribes had signed a treaty with the Crown. Yet this detail of history has become very important indeed. When corporations want to frack, mine or dig the earth, do they need permission from the First Nations?
It was reading ‘This changes everything’ by Naomi Klein that this historical contract came to my attention (as did many other fascinating facts on climate change). First Nations all over the world are now talking to each other, working together, even getting together with cow boys to try and stop nature being wrecked forever. Or huge pipe lines destroy their land.
Now, that is one bit of news I loved reading. What a twist of fate this is starting to be. Who knows what tomorrow brings, but whether you want to call it karma, fate or hope, it seems that the First Nations may have a bigger say about it than they have been able to in the past. I like that.