COLUMN: Jessica Iron Joseph — Jan. 4, 2013

Jessica Iron Joseph
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How do we live peacefully in a country with so many cultures? Some want schools with God present, some want schools with French in them, some want schools with First Nations immersion programs. Some think we’re better off to ignore all our cultural differences and just accept everybody, pretending we’re all the same.

In short, everyone has ideas, but nobody’s happy. The trouble lies with having pride without imposing our beliefs upon other people.

Then perhaps the best way to survive in a multicultural society with our culture and pride intact is to become bicultural. What would biculturalism entail? It would be more than learning two different languages for sure. It would be the willing practice of your culture within the confines of your home or cultural community, while accepting, or at least acknowledging, how Canadian society is melding into a generic, pan-Canadian approach to equality.

The idea came to me when I was reading Rupert Ross’s ‘Dancing with a Ghost’. Ross writes about the disparate cultural differences between Native cultures and other Canadian cultures specifically in regards to the justice system. He points out how Cree and Ojibway worldviews shape individuals’ behaviours which are often incorrectly interpreted in the Canadian justice system.

For instance, when Cree or Ojibway people are arrested and brought before a judge, they are usually reluctant to make eye contact when questioned, out of respect for authority figures. Particularly in more isolated or remote communities people are often taught to lower their eyes in deference to Elders or dignitaries speaking to them. To do otherwise would be disrespectful and rebellious - a sign that you are challenging authority regardless of what the Elder or dignitary has to say. However, this behaviour, if not understood properly in the Canadian justice system, is often interpreted as a sign of guilt, leading to the accused being sentenced.

Ross cites many more examples and offers ideas as to how Native philosophies can be incorporated into the justice system and other parts of Canadian society. I agree that education and recognition of these differences can help those in the justice system be more fair-handed in their judgments. The Canadian justice system is responsible to ensure that it fairly represents and tries people of different cultures too. We only need to look at the disproportionate rates of Aboriginal people in the justice system to understand that huge dichotomies exist in Canadian society.

I do not believe one race is inherently more evil than another and locking people up doesn’t necessarily solve problems either – but I’ll save that topic for another column.

For this column, I think we can take things one step further. Yes, we should all strive to be more understanding and agree to changes that better represent all groups in society, eliminating biases. In the meantime, rather than waiting for others to understand us, and effectively pointing fingers at what others are not doing, we can take charge in our own homes.

Allow me to digress for a moment, to help me illustrate my point.

When my children were younger, my two sons (who have different fathers) would often return home after vacations at their fathers’ homes, and I was always confronted with what I perceived to be whiny, bratty children. They were often disciplined differently and had different hours and diets than I preferred in my home. It always took me a few weeks to set them back to our regular lifestyle.

One day I was very frustrated and vented to my favourite auntie. I wondered if I should call their fathers with my concerns, in a bid for change. My ever-wise aunt suggested that I teach my children to understand the differences of their two homes and make the required adjustments in each house.

I was baffled at this idea, but soon agreed with her. I knew my sons’ fathers were good men, who loved their children and would never put them in any harm. How they parented was different from my style of parenting, but it wasn’t necessarily wrong. By accepting that they parented differently, and encouraging my children to adapt to each household, I was able to alleviate personal stress and eliminate blame and the desire to control, which I think occurs in many split families.

It took awhile, but years later, I can attest that it works, and has helped foster harmony with my sons’ fathers. Now I also have a stepson, and it isn’t any different dealing with three other homes than it was with two. It sounds confusing, but it really isn’t. Our children have all adapted beautifully to our unique family blend. I think they also find it interesting to discuss the differences of their ‘other homes’ amongst each other, and it helps them to be more understanding and aware, to see that everybody has a different home, and therefore a completely different universe.

What I’m suggesting with biculturalism is not much different. Here is how I envision it in my household: I will teach my children their Cree culture, thoroughly saturating them with pride. I will help them to understand their identity, language, ceremonies and teachings, and I will also concurrently teach them about equality and respect in a multicultural Canadian society. I already know how easily they have adapted to their dual homes, so I know they are capable of behaving respectfully and responsibly in two distinctly different cultures. By learning this distinction and recognizing those differences, they can behave as situations require.

They won’t feel that they are compromising their beliefs, or that society is ‘chipping away’ at them, erasing their Cree identities with an alternative preference. They won’t need to assimilate into something so varied and diverse it might resemble a bizarre conglomeration of cultures, some “super culture.” They also won’t need to substitute their identities with a culture-less culture.

They will walk soundly in both worlds.

They will understand that just as they practise their culture at home, so should everyone else. Then, when we leave our homes, we can all meet in the middle somewhere, in that place where true equality and acceptance exist.

Organizations: First Nations

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Recent comments

  • Russel Iron
    January 05, 2013 - 11:52

    Interesting read, good job. I like reading your articles, keep up the good work I'm proud of you!

    • carol beck
      January 06, 2013 - 23:23

      Hi Jessica. Since meeting you in Saskatoon at the United Way workshop I have been reading your articles online.They are well written, I enjoy them . I am wondering how your book is coming--Will it be available soon?