Ways to move forward from two solitudes

In September, 2018, my lovely wife Nancy and I attended the Oneida Fair with two of our granddaughters who would have been nine and seven at the time. We may have been a tad conspicuous. Nancy and my granddaughters tend toward black Irish paleness, and I present as a ruddier Irish/Scotch type, but there could have been little doubt that four palefaces had entered the fairgrounds. However, people tended to ignore us or be kind. Nobody asked what we were doing there.

It was recognizably a fair, like, say, Wallacetown Fair but with noticeable differences. On the circular track, Indigenous people danced in traditional garb or competed in foot races. There was an All-Nation Archery competition elsewhere on the grounds. Not everything announced to the grandstand was in English, and there were no big midway rides. In the food area, one booth sold a stuffed baked potato that was a meal in itself.

It wasn’t our first time visiting Oneida. Nancy and I had attended a mixed martial arts competition in Oneida about six years before the fair. And in 2009 and 2010, I regularly drove copies of The Weekly News to the Oneida post office until the postmaster recommended I stop because nobody on the reserve was interested in it.

My purpose in attending the Oneida Fair in 2018 was mildly work-related. I’m employed by the Elgin – St. Thomas Community Foundation. At the national level, Community Foundations of Canada has begun to address Indigenous issues. At communityfoundations.ca, you can find a webinar on the impact of COVID-10 on Indigenous communities, and a guide and an application form for the Indigenous Peoples Resilience Fund.

While something is happening nationally, not much is changing locally. Oneida is about half an hour from St. Thomas, but it’s as if the twain shall meet only for cheap smokes or untaxed gasoline. Hugh MacLennan popularized the term Two Solitudes in his 1945 novel describing the dissonance between the French and the English in Canada. The book title could accurately be applied to much Indigenous/Caucasian interaction, or lack of it in Canada.

What might alter that?

From a Community Foundation perspective, we can’t just show up on the reserve with a bucket of money and a smile and say, “Hi, I’m from St. Thomas, and I’m here to help you.” Versions of that have been tried since before Confederation, with mixed results at best.

The year before the trip to the Oneida Fair, at the Community Foundations of Canada national conference, I heard Indigenous-themed plenary session after plenary session presented by mostly white academics to a largely white audience. I was underwhelmed and disappointed that almost nobody took a shot at a way forward, a better future.

Fortunately, one Indigenous leader from the far north had the mic one session. He ended his talk by suggesting that governments, charities, non-governmental organization and white people generally should do one thing before they act: “Ask us what we want.”

With 634 First Nations communities in Canada, and more than 50 languages, the answers will be many and various. Maybe that’s okay. According to the 2016 Census geographic boundaries, Canada has 5,162 municipalities. If you ask the many races in those communities what they want, you’d get a lot of different answers, too.

A multiplicity of answers could show us ways forward, rather than one-size-fits-all.

Different fare at different fairs, so to speak.