[Witness spoke in Michif]
Thank you for inviting me to speak to you today in the home of your government.
My colonial name is Graham Andrews, but my traditional or true name, as I was taught, is “Stands and walks with a ceremonial pipe”.
I am a Michif by birth. My father, Garry Andrews, is the last of his generation, the seventh in a once proud, then ashamed, now pride-reclaiming Michif bloodline.
lt is with his approval that I speak to you today—in English and the language now called Michif—on behalf of the seven generations of my family who came before me and the seven generations to come.
Nipaapaa, my father, first heard our language while in my grandmother's womb. Nohkom first heard our language in her own mother's womb, as did her mother and father, and their mothers and fathers, and so on. Mine was the first generation that didn't have pre-natal exposure to our language.
As is the shared experience of the indigenous people in this land, Nohkom's Michif pride was beaten out of her in the early 1900s at one of your government's many outsourced religion-based schools. This was not long after several of my grandparents were raped, killed, arrested and dehumanized by an army that took its direction from the very hill upon which we sit right now.
Many of my aunties, uncles, and much older cousins were fluent but closeted speakers of our language until they died. ln the frequent times when Nohkom and her older sister were sufficiently numbed by rye and beer, they recounted the nuns' schoolhouse punishments when they spoke our language—the only one they really knew.
Sometimes it was “just” a beating with a leather strop. Other times, they were also forced to kneel barelegged in prayer on the piping hot metal skirt around the classroom's furnace. Their knees blistered from the heat, but they kept quiet for fear of “real trouble”.
I can't blame Nohkom for protecting us from her experience, and I can't blame her for needing liquid courage to openly speak about it in any language.
But our languages saved my own life, because this is what our languages do. At the age of 11, in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, I subscribed to the myth that I was just a dirty half-breed kid. l hated myself for my pale skin and blue eyes—my colonial appearance, if you will—and I envied my brother and many close cousins who, with their dark hair and eyes, looked what I imagined to be the part.
Like so many in my family—and many indigenous families—I descended into suicidal addictions that, it turned out, could only be defeated by the genuine love expressed through the languages of my ancestors.
[Witness spoke in Michif]
My grandmothers and grandfathers spoke many different languages: Michif, Cree, Saulteaux, Chippewa, Dakota, Nuu-chah-nulth. To me, they're all heritage languages; it just so happens that a certain dialect of Michif resonates most strongly in my heart. I was raised Michif, with uniquely indigenous values but no real idea how to express them.
ln the early 1990s, a university professor named Janice Acoose saw that I was struggling, and she gently urged me to find and reclaim my language, just as she was doing with her own. That planted a seed.
By the time I nearly succumbed to self-hatred, two Nuu-chah-nulth elders, Beulah Sayers and Jesse Hamilton, showed me a love I couldn't understand at the time. lt was auntie Jesse who first suggested that maybe I was born fair-skinned so that mamuthny, white people, might not be so quick to judge.
Janice's seed began to sprout.
Auntie Beulah and Auntie Jesse introduced me to their children, who were blood relatives, it turned out. They took me out on the lands of their traditional territory until I was ready to go back to my own. Back in Prince Albert, I spent hours with my auntie, Rita Parenteau, at her kitchen table, poring over dictionaries so that we could both connect with languages dismissed as savage in the residential schools. She took me out on the land and encouraged me to become the kind of person we are all meant to be—people who share with one another and care for one another.
I call her Tunwin, which in Dakota literally means “my father's older sister”. It's a word for “mom” as well, because our languages are based on relationships that modern society either ridicules or doesn't understand. Cousins in the European way are brothers and sisters. Aunties and uncles are the same as moms and dads. A fifth great-grandfather is no further away than a grandfather.
The earth is my mother. Who dares to poison and disrespect their own mother? Who dares to sit idly by while it happens?
By getting to know even tiny parts of these languages, I got to know my ancestors, and my ancestors introduced me to myself. All I needed to do was be quiet enough to listen and it was freely given. Many years ago, Tunwin told me to keep the fire going at a ceremony just across the river and a bit north of Batoche. “Keep the fire low,” she said. “It's probably on Crown land.”
Sitting across the river from where my grandmothers and grandfathers lived, fought and died, it hit me: We Michif have no land. In 1870, your government tricked us into the Manitoba Act with great lies of land and rights. After 1885, we were punished for standing up to you, so we squatted in fear on so-called Crown land that was stolen from all of western Canada's indigenous people.
We were, and continue to be, a nation without territory.
Your bill gives great deference to “indigenous governing bodies”, “indigenous organizations”, and the undefined collective of “indigenous peoples,” but there's no room for the individual or the knowledgeable outcast. That, frankly, terrifies me.
Who speaks for the non-status? Are they less worthy of representation because their status grandmothers married non-indigenous men? Alberta is the only place in the world where land has been set aside for Métis people, and yet I understand that the Métis settlement's general council weren't consulted. In Alberta—and I suspect in much of the rest of the country—there are thousands of unclaimed or unused acres of land. These are so-called Crown lands that have been designated for traplines, for example, yet we fight in your courts for harvesting rights.
If language revitalization is as vital as your political parties have all now publicly said, then give us a place to teach our children about their relationships with themselves, each other and their mother. Tracey Herbert of the First Peoples' Cultural Council, who appeared before you on Tuesday, suggested the creation of a body similar to the Canada Council for the Arts. It could oversee these otherwise brilliant initiatives that, as it stands, will be poisoned by political plays.
A few others around this table said last night that no legislation is perfect. It should be thought out. Given Minister Rodriguez's repeated commitment of $90 million in funding over the next three years, 5% of that budget would pay 20 indigenous employees almost $80,000 a year to work as grants managers.
Our languages have spirits and souls. I experience that with every word of them that I learn and speak. I cherish those moments when I see someone reconnect with their ancestors through a single word.
That is my truth, and without truth, reconciliation is just public relations.