"As I mused, the fire burned"

Reflection on life as a person of faith.

Archive for March 2013

2013 Alberta Aboriginal Youth Achievement Awards

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Friday night we gathered as a family with some dear friends to watch our daughter receive an award for academic achievement, in the 2013 AAYAA. It was also the first time she and I walked out in public “sashed”, or wearing our Metis sashes.

It’s hard to describe as a parent the thrill at watching your daughter, who you know has worked so hard, be recognized for that work. Even more special (and intimidating) was to be called an aboriginal ‘role model’ by so many of the speakers and presenters.

As one person (reported below) stated, for many Metis who were unaware of their heritage, those moments were often described as ‘coming out of the closet’. That was certainly my experience. low size 3

As my daughter mentioned in her acceptance speech, we have felt an acute loss of heritage. Our family didn’t suppress our heritage, but it apparently was never mentioned. When my father mentioned it in passing in about 1989, I was shocked. My memories (as frail as human memory can be) was that when I asked about family heritage I heard stories about Scots, English, German…and even lots about our family involvement with ‘The Company’, the Hudson’s Bay Company. There is not a single glimmer of a memory about being told of our aboriginal heritage. Even discussions about the big Red River Cart in my hometown had nary a mention about that symbol in our history.

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Now, I’m not angered by this. I think I understand exactly the survival instinct that led, in about 1890, to that part of our history being set aside – not by intention, but by neglect. That era in Canada’s history is a dark one for the overt racism and persecution that was taking place in Western Canada. There were periods of time when it was not safe to declare oneself of mixed blood in the Red River Settlement, as it could lead to a beating or worse.

What strikes me particularly about the teaching I received in grade school on that topic, was how all of my memories of the Metis and Riel were all negative. These were upstart revolutionaries who had no idea just how good they had it at the benevolent hand of Mother Canada. The reality, as the history shows, is that the taking up of arms was a last resort in order to protect a people.

The other shocker for me is how, even if I had been raised knowing that I was Metis, I wouldn’t have told anyone about it for fear of being ridiculed.  Even today it’s not always safe to acknowledge, as people sometimes respond ‘how quaint’ or worse.  A person of similar descent once told me that he would use a mention of his heritage as a test of attitude, and he was dismayed how many times people’s attitudes would shift after they knew he was aboriginal.  For those Metis (like me) that look totally European (except for our teeth, perhaps), and have avoided the racism, it leaves me feeling an even larger obligation to stand and declare that heritage now.

So how is that history squared today? Riel has been pardoned (but an execution can never be undone), Metis have been acknowledged at law as an aboriginal people. Yet, in many ways we remain a people in name alone…much like any other ethnic group in the Canadian context.  As David Chartrand, president of the Manitoba Metis Federation noted in the interview, the Mennonites were given land and a chance to prosper, and look at how they turned out.  What would have happened had the Metis been given the same opportunity?

Yet, the federal government, in arguing against the Manitoba Metis Federation’s case at the Supreme Court in December 2011, were using the same arguments that had been used for 140 years: the right to the land had been extinguished through a grant of land. There was no further obligation on behalf of the crown, it had done its due duty.

In a startling decision (I literally swore out loud when I read the summary) the Supreme Court found partly in favour of the Metis, making a declaration that the Crown had failed in its duty of honour with respect to the section 31 (of the Manitoba Act) grant of some 1.4 million acres of land. In a 6 to 2 decision, the dissenting justices rightly pointed out that this is making brand new law, effectively eliminating the concept of limitation periods in cases where the honour of the crown is engaged.  The decision runs to 144 pages, so not a short read.  The court specifically mentioned the federal government’s use of the same arguments in their reasoning as to why the usual limitations period did not apply.

My first thought, on hearing the news, was not ‘where’s my land?’ but rather that it finally felt that we had a real existence in this nation. The Metis, as a people, have been recognized by the court to a degree that surpasses the window-dressing of a pardon for Riel. It is a form of home coming, and an undoing of many grave injustices.  While Riel has been formally acknowledged as the founder of Manitoba, now Riel’s people have received similar acknowledgement.

So Friday night was even more poignant for us, watching our dear daughter be recognized for hard work and leadership. Rather than a mere historical footnote in the big book of Canadian history, it now felt like we could claim a real part of that nation-building in a tangible and real way.

To all the other youth who were honoured, congratulations.  I was left completely in awe of the things you have accomplished – from an equestrian champion, to an addict now changing lives, a gifted photographer, pianist, dancers, and those who have achieved great things in their career…it left a completely different perspective on Canada’s aboriginals (First Nations, Metis and Inuit) than I recall from any of my early schooling.


Written by sameo416

March 10, 2013 at 2:00 pm

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6 Degrees of Separation?

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As I continue in my search for family history, one of the questions I was seeking to answer is what side of the North West Rebellion my ancestors happened to support. I’ve been reading about the quite nuanced character known as Louis “David” Riel. It is a rare event in Canadian history to see a historic figure, tried and executed for treason, to later end up as a national hero – but that’s Riel.

In his book, A Fair Country, John Ralston Saul talks about Riel – and points out that it is Riel’s statue that stands outside the Manitoba legislature. Riel is considered the founder of Manitoba. Saul makes some startling comments I’m still processing – one is that we are more a nation of metis, than a nation of European colonials. He asserts that the Canadian values of the middle way, fairness and equity are in no way derived from European values, but rather from First Nations values, hence the nation of metis comment.

While reading my latest Riel book, I came across the point where Riel, in exile in Montana (because every time he tried to take his seat in parliment, the police tried to arrest him) is approached by four leaders from the communities in the north. One of those men was James Isbister. I recalled that there is a line of Isbisters in my family tree, so off I went to look.

So, my great-great-grandfather’s niece, married George Isbister. George Isbister, I discovered today, was the brother of that James Isbister who went to see Riel in Montana. According to Ancestry.ca’s relationship algorithm, he was the brother-in-law of my 1st cousin 3x removed. That was a bit of a surprise.

This is continuing the theme of ‘coming out of the closet’ as a Metis, and discovering a lost heritage (as I wrote before). What strikes me now is all of my school learning about the great hero Sir John A, and the generals that suppressed the rebellion led by the evil Riel…or at least that was how I recall it all presented in social studies all those decades ago. I also recall there was an anti-french air about the whole thing.

It’s funny how lost heritage has a way of challenging long-held ideas.

Written by sameo416

March 6, 2013 at 8:43 pm

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The Burden of Command

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I don’t think I ever understood that concept – the burden of command, until the day one of my soldiers died.  After we took care of the notification of next of kin (his children, as both he and his wife had been killed in a car accident), I had to tell my section what had happened.  Everyone knew something big was afoot, but there hadn’t been an aircraft crash, so all were wondering.  At that moment, standing in front of the group, I realized what that phrase meant.

That was one of the moments I grew up, and went from being a recent grad from military college to understanding the awesome responsibility I had been given by the Queen.  Up until that point it had only been about achieving the next milestone.  Get through basic (not too hard), get through recruit term (really hard), get through academics (almost failed that one), get through military training, get through language standards, get through physical fitness testing (3 times per year, and I still can’t long jump to save my life).  Then it was a brief walk onto the stage to get my commissioning scroll, my degree…to notice that the Gov General was sound asleep (Jean Suave), and then a feeling of contentment.  All that goal stuff was behind me.

When my soldier was killed, I realized that all that achievement was really not about me – but about preparation so that I could get out of the way personally, and to act as a leader.

This death was not in combat, or even in operations, and so I feel even more for those who have lost soldiers to enemy fire, or in the midst of ‘safe’ training.  There’s always those questions about what I could have done differently.

The other thing it highlighted for me was the infinite responsibility that goes along with calling yourself a leader.  It really doesn’t matter who made the mistake, who caused the aircraft to plummet from the sky, who caused the explosives accident, or who was caught stealing from the unit fund – it ultimately all comes to rest on you as the leader.  If the organization charged to your care has failed in its mission, the call of the leader is to avoid the all-too-human first instinct which is to find someone to shift the blame off to, and to accept responsibility yourself.  Leadership means the buck always stops with you.  Leadership means never starting a sentence with the words, “Yeah, it happened on my watch, but…”

Most of the failures of leadership we see in our modern culture – Bill Clinton, Enron, or organizations that are in morale free-fall because of constant punishment and abuse – all come back to a failure in the fundamentals.  Service before self.  Accept responsibility for the things that happen on your watch.  Set your moral code higher than you expect anyone else to achieve.  Care for those under your command.  It sounds like a series of anachronisms in this modern, rapid-paced aged where we all live only in the presentness of the instant.

The other thing I learned as that experience grew, was that the fundamental foundation of all leadership is love.  That sounds even stranger in a military context, but it is only when motivated through love for those you command that a leader truly comes into full responsibility and authority.  This was the approach of Jesus, and it is the call that rests upon anyone who presumes to lead others.

I had a co-worker, who had spent most of her career in staff jobs, and was on her first tour on a flying unit.  There were three of us, junior officers, on the unit working for one senior officer.  There’s an unwritten rule about watching out for each other, and particularly for those more junior than you.  These are the people you expect to risk their lives to save yours, and the trust that permits that confidence begins in the daily life in the unit lines.  This officer, by contrast, was always quick to offload responsibility for things onto the most junior – so when our boss asked if she had finished a task (that she had not) she was quick to point out that the most junior of we three had not provided her the information she requested.  We used to call that, ‘blading your bud’ in milcolspeak.  It meant I didn’t turn my back to her for the rest of the time we worked together.

By sharp contrast, the most impressive boss I ever had, was a highly decorated fighter pilot.  At his retirement mess dinner he passed on some wisdom from his career – the most striking was his comment that the day you started thinking in terms of what you deserved because of your hard work, was the day you needed to leave the military.  That was the point at which he had seen his co-workers fall into ethical and moral disgrace, because they had developed a sense of entitlement.  I wonder how many people in positions of authority would remain if they honestly applied that rule to themselves?

That truth comes to us clearly in the foundations of the Christian faith – what we deserve because of our hard work, our righteousness, is death and destruction.  That is the natural consequence.  But because of the action of one man, Jesus, instead of death we find life.  It is striking how that Christian teaching lines up so clearly with the practical lessons of leadership.

It is truly unfortunate that we live in an era where we constantly ask – where have all the leaders gone?  My Godfather, a bishop, used to meet with each of his clergy for a significant discussion at least twice per year.  When he found out one rural priest had been having regular car break-downs in his multi-point parish he directed the executive officer to make a loan so he could purchase a newer, more reliable car.  What was funny is that same executive officer had lectured the same priest a few weeks earlier, about how the diocese was not in the business of making loans to clergy so they could buy cars.  Which one of those appointed leaders acted as a true leader to the priest?

Finally, the other lesson I learned had to do with power.  In the beginning it was all about the authority, about being saluted when I walked down the street.  I quickly realized, when working with real people, that authority would only get you so far.  People would do things because you compelled them to, but this had nothing to do with leadership.  Anyone can wield the blunt weapon of power to force others to do their will…and it leaves the same kind of wounds that any blunt weapon leaves.

The true task of a leader is to inspire people to achieve more than they ever thought they could, not because you ordered them to, but because you created the space in which they could only succeed spectacularly.  A leader brings people to the place where they achieve greatness, and afterwards say, ‘we did this ourselves’.  The success of a leader comes not through the salutes, or the deference, or the best seats at functions, but from seeing the people in your charge become more than they ever thought they could.  A true leader, after having created that place of success, fades into the background so that the followers can claim their victory.

What impact has your leadership had on those in your care?  Is the road to your present littered with people who have surpassed their wildest dreams?  Or the broken bodies of those who were left behind as not suiting your vision of the future?

Written by sameo416

March 5, 2013 at 9:26 pm

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"As I mused, the fire burned"

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