Commentators and leaders in the indigenous community lined up to oppose the recent disruption of a presentation by former National Chief Phil Fontaine at the University of Winnipeg. The talk was intended to provide insight into some of the shifts and changes witnessed during his time in positions of leadership.
Opposed to the methods and consequences of resource extraction currently being undertaken across Canada, protesters began drumming and singing, prohibiting Fontaine – who was recently hired by TransCanada Corp. to win the support of affected First Nations for their Energy East pipeline – from speaking uninterrupted. While he stepped aside, attempts by University officials to regain control of the event were not successful and they decided to reschedule.
Left unrepresented in the aftermath was an account of the voices who felt the talk was not an opportunity for dialogue, but for an individual in a position of power to propagandize those listening.
Despite all the attention given to resource extraction, no reasonable observer would argue that an unbiased and neutral attempt has been made on the part of either media and government to consider different positions on the topic in a reasonable way. Instead, those who hold an increasingly large body of evidence detailing our national economy’s disastrous reliance upon fossil fuels are ignored and silenced in favour of continued support for industry.
In short, this is not a debate between actors with equal power.
The UW exists as an agent of information with an opportunity to bring forth perspectives that are ignored in the mainstream. It should be a place where the silenced are given an opportunity to speak on equal footing as those who they oppose. We have an opportunity to redress, not reinforce, power dynamics between opposing groups.
These conflicts are not diminishing. Institutions like the UW must seek an understanding of why people are upset about the perceived relationship between extractive industries and bodies that are intended to operate in the public interest. It must engage with the fact that individuals advocating views reinforced by science and law felt the only way they could make themselves heard was through protest.
Public dialogue is an imprecise affair prone to creating heroes and villains in a way that detracts from the core issue at hand. It is disappointing that Fontaine was not given an opportunity to speak, as his experience holds key lessons for all communities moving forward. Ultimately, he remains an actor within a system which would function without him, and critics would do best to focus their attention on the nature of his role, not their opinion of his character.
It is also disappointing that the media attention sparked by this event focused predominantly on the methods of protesters, and not on the human, environmental and spiritual costs of our daily lifestyles. While protesters may have used less controversial methods, the media coverage following the event has done more to reinforce the “Angry Indian” stereotype than the event itself.
In order to find common ground and equitable solutions, we should start with common access and equal footing for all perspectives. When this event is rescheduled, perhaps we can take a step in that direction, allowing honest and authentic dialogue on difficult questions such as these.
Rorie Mcleod Arnould is a politics student and the UWSA Vice-President Advocate.