Tuesday, December 28, 2010

True Grit?

Last night I watched the film "True Grit", a modern re-make of an old John Wayne film. While I did appreciate a lot of the humour and interplay between the three main characters — played by Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon and up-and-comer Hailee Steinfeld — there were a couple of scenes that disturbed me. And what disturbed me the most was not so much the scenes, but the audiences reaction to them. The fact that I was watching the film in The Woodlands, Texas — a wealthy suburb of Houston — made me wonder if the audience would have reacted different in my home of Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada.

In one of the first scenes of the film three men are hanged — two white men and a Native American. Both white men are allowed an opportunity to say their last words while the Native American is not even allowed one sentence before the floor gives way and the noose tightens around his neck.

At the moment the Indian was silenced most people in the audience started laughing. I thought it was a bit strange but shrugged it off. After all, this was probably an accurate depiction of how Indians were treated at the time.

The next time Native Americans were in the film was a scene in which Bridges, who plays a crusty U.S. Marshall named Rueben "Rooster" Cogburn, comes upon an old log shack in Indian country. There are two Native American children whom Cogburn proceeds to kick and push around without apparent reason. While this was likely historically accurate and in keeping with the brash character of Cogburn, I wondered whether it was really necessary in the movie. What shocked me the most and the person I was watching the film with, also a Canadian, was the laughter that erupted from the audience watching the movie. We wondered if we had missed something?

Neither of us found it funny that a grown man was bullying and kicking around children. Was the audience laughing because these were Indian children. What if I was a Native American watching that movie and hearing everyone laugh? Just because it is historically accurate doesn't mean it's okay to laugh. In fact it should be the opposite. Dominant society should be ashamed.

But then I wondered how Canadian audiences reacted to this scene? One person I knew watched the movie in Canada and said she didn't remember the audience laughing at this scene.

In Regina, where I live there is quite a high proportion of Aboriginal people (Aboriginal is a term which includes First Nations, Metis and Innuit). Aboriginal is a pc term that most Canadians use rather than Native Canadian or Indian, although some people still use the terms to identify themselves. Many Aboriginals have moved off of reserves and into cities like Regina.

Down here in The Woodlands, I have yet to see a Native American. I don't know how many actually live in the state of Texas. According to one website there are three federally recognized tribes in Texas. Whether they live on reserves or in main cities I am not sure. From my limited perspective they seem to be pretty much invisible both in reality, in media and any form of advertising. It makes me wonder where these people have gone? Are they invisible?

Almost a year ago, Guardian reporter Chris McGreal covered a story on U.S. President Obama's pledge to improve the lives of Native Americans. It is an excellent piece of journalism that I would encourage anyone to take a look at. It can be found at http://www.guardian.co.uk/global/2010/jan/11/native-americans-reservations-poverty-obama. McGreal visits a reserve in South Dakota and talks to people about their lives and frustrations.

As a Canadian, I don't want to make it sound like our hands are clean of any injustice against indigenous peoples. Far from it. The effects of residential schools and systemic racism against indigenous people are still very evident in Canadian society.

I just wonder where the Canadian dialogue about indigenous issues sits in relationship to the United States?

The first time I really realized how badly indigenous people of North America were treated was strangely in Rwanda, Africa. I recall visiting the genocide museum in Kigali, Rwanda and reading about the history of world genocides. Movies like "Hotel Rwanda" brought the killing of 800,000 Rwandans into the public eye. Likewise, many movies have been made about the killing of six million Jews and other minorities in Germany. What shocked me was the killing of 14 million indigenous people in North America and 15 million in South America. This was not talked about in my schooling nor have I seen it depicted in many Hollywood movies.

What do you think?

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

PotashCorp tentacles reach Africa

Have you ever known something that you think the whole world doesn't know about?

In my case it happened this past month when the news of a possible Potash Corp takeover by BHP Billiton covered every headline. It seemed as though every day we were bombarded with government announcements of whether or not PCS doors would be open. When the emphatic "NO" came from Mr. Clement's mouth, many Saskatchewanians breathed sighs of relief. But not I.

Only weeks before I learned that PCS had globalization tentacles which reached to a largely unheard of region in northwestern Africa. The region is called Western Sahara and it is an occupied territory of Morocco. How it got this way is a tribute to its dark colonial past.

In 1975 — after almost 100 years of rocky colonial rule — Spain withdrew its forces from a hotly disputed territory they called Spanish Sahara. Located southwest of Morocco and northeast of Mauritania, the area now called Western Sahara is home to Moroccan settlers and the indigenous Sahrawi people.

Following Spain’s exit in 1975 the Sahrawi claimed that the territory belonged to them. This resulted in conflict and bloodshed between a Sahrawi guerilla army known as the Polisario Front and neighbouring countries. Though Polisario was able to defeat Mauritania forces they were overpowered by Morocco to the north. As a result Morocco rules the territory in theory, even though the African Union and over 80 governments consider the territory a sovereign state.

In addition to territorial issues, the Western Sahara is rich in many minerals and resource including oil, fish, and of special interest to the PotashCorp, phosphate. An official with Western Sahara Rights Watch (WSRW) — a Western Sahara advocacy group — said that the region boasts one of the highest deposits of phosphate in the world. The fact that it is high quality, easily mined (only three feet underground), and in great abundance has attracted multi-national companies.

Enter the US-Canadian fertilizer producer Potash Corp, considered by WSRW the largest importer of phosphate from Western Sahara in the world. If i understand it all correctly Potash Corp ships the phosphate from the Western Saharan coast to Louisiana and onto Los Angeles where it is processed with ammonia and Saskatchewan potassium to make inorganic fertilizer.

Now this wouldn't be a problem if the Sahrawi people were benifiting from this phosphate extraction, but the reality is that Morocco is reaping all of the economic rewards. It is actually more likely that Morocco would give Western Sahara self-governing status if there were no resources to be had.

In 2002, a United Nations contract lawyer concluded that while the existing exploration contracts for the area were not illegal, "if further exploration and exploitation activities were to proceed in disregard of the interests and wishes of the people of Western Sahara, they would be in violation of the principles of international law."

This caused some multi-national companies such as Total S.A. and Norwegian fertilizer company Yara to leave, but has not deterred the continued extraction of phosphate by the Potash Corp.

WSRW says that companies like Potash Corp will receive no penalty for this because the UN Security Council will not place an embargo on Morocco because one of its members, veto-wielding France — which has strong ties with Morocco — will not do so.

Having understood a lot of this back-story it became very difficult for me to watch the news everyday and see that nobody seemed to pick up on this. Thus, while we are happy that our sixth largest company is staying home thousands of Sahrawi suffer under a government given money by the very corporation we love.

Needless to say, I found myself perplexed and disturbed by the ignorance and am in the process to try to do something about it. I am realizing that it takes work to get people to talk about stuff like this.

Canadian journalist Cecil Rosner once said that when you do any kind of investigative work like this you have to keep an open mind. I'm trying to do that. Maybe PCS is not aware of all of this? Or maybe there is another side to the story? Hard to say right now, but I'll try to keep you posted. Because if one of our biggest companies is contributing towards an international injustice then Canadians deserve to know about it.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Are we empty shells?

Céad míle fáilte (Scots-Irish) and dzien dobry (Polish). In the language of my heritage this means hello and welcome. My name is Josh Campbell and up to this point my blog has been for personal use. For the next few months I will be using it as a commentary for one of my journalism classes. My areas of interest within this class are the environment and aboriginal affairs.

I have written two stories for our school newspaper called Ink. One was about a recent election for a local tribal council and the other about Cenovus Energy, an oil company working in northern Alberta oil sands and was recently recruiting aboriginal students at the University of Regina. Rather than commenting more on these stories I wanted to talk about an aboriginal speaker that came to speak to one of my classes (small intimate class of 10).

His name is Rick Favel. But he refers to it as the name society has given him. His true name is Mista-Tim-Kaka-ki-wopatat Kapinokosit. He explained the meaning of his name, but all that I could recall was the horse who comes over the horizon and finds his way home.

Mista-Tim-Kaka-ki-wopatat Kapinokosit is a Cree man, invited to our class to share about the way of the Nēhilawē (those who speak our language). The Nēhilawē is the name that the people used to refer to themselves. Cree was the name they used for themselves when speaking the language of the European colonists.

Many things in Mista-Tim-Kaka-ki-wopatat Kapinokosit's talk struck me, but above all else was an observation he made about people in today's society:

"When I look around today I see a lot of people walking around like empty peanut shells." Many people have the appearance of having things together but on the inside are hollow and empty.

I talked with another classmate who felt the weight of that very observation.

Spirituality and connection to the Creator formed the bedrock of this man. And you could tell that it wasn't an act, but the experience of someone who was intimate with the spirit world.

In addition, Kapinokosit spoke repeatedly about the "learning institutes of my people." He said they were places where his people learn many important things that help them live fulfilling lives. These places aren't the traditional type classrooms , but rather places where experiential learning takes place in community.

"Our psychology classes take place in the sweat lodge."

Not sure if any of you ever had the opportunity to attend a sweat? Last year was my first opportunity. I was invited out by an elder at the U of R. What happened that evening would take up a whole future blog post which I may get to in the next couple weeks.

What I can say here is that things were expressed and burdens lifted that would have never taken place otherwise. What hit me the most was how open and transparent men were throughout the whole experience. In general, men have a hard time sharing things that may be holding them back from living more healthy and wholesome lives (another whole blog session). The sweat provided a place where in the darkness and steam, mean could open up to each other and receive healing.

I recalled this experience as Kapinokosit spoke and couldn't help but think how beneficial these type of educational institutes could be to all people. Think about how frustrating it can be to always learn in Western ways, sitting and being told stuff you need to know like a money into a bank. Experiential learning is kind of a chic word now, but Indigenous peoples have been practicing this type of pedagogy for millennia.

Kapinokosit made a point of how sweats are open to all people.

Perhaps it could be a step forward in racial reconciliation if Euro-Canadians could not only tolerate First Nations cultural practices, but also see how much they could learn and benefit from them as well?

I really think that it is this type of cultural sharing that will help put us Canadians on level ground rather.

What do you think?