COLUMN: Ed Olfert — Jan. 10, 2013

Ed Olfert
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I am in awe of fellow Daily Herald columnist Jessica Iron Joseph, for the gentle and passionate wisdom in her “Idle No More a peaceful request for change” column, Dec.28.  Jessica brings a valuable perspective. Here’s another take, from a slightly different cultural vantage point.

Recently, I was (mostly) a bystander as two friends held a passionate debate. The topic was the implications of the “Idle No More” movement sweeping the country, which, unsurprisingly, moved on to the Indian “problem” in general.

Both friends are articulate, well read and passionate. “Alan” comes from a particular perspective, and insisted that the “Idle No More” movement was simply about some First Nations folks protesting the Harper bill to reduce environmental requirements on projects within First Nations territories. Alan then pointed out that reserves in general had little to teach about environmental concerns.

“Bob” has a decidedly different political perspective, and focused on the lies that have been lived out and promised to First Nations population since the arrival of European settlers in North America. Bob was particularly incensed about our (Caucasian) handling of treaties, suggesting deliberate and dishonest policies of destabilization.

Alan’s response was anyone could see that First Nations folks would need to assimilate into the predominate culture in order to get up to speed and build successful lives.

It went on at some length. The conversation, as a whole, seemed to move, as these things do, from listening and exploring to simply waiting impatiently to butt in and make counterpoints, loudly.

Olferts have a pretty limited history of sitting by and letting argument rage around them, without diving in. They hold strong opinions, and aren’t shy about sharing. As I felt passion rising, I tried to throw in a few interjections.

While space was made for my comments, they didn’t seem to fit well. The dialogue didn’t need me, didn’t seem relevant to my observations. Shortly thereafter, I left. In case you’re wondering, Alan and Bob remain as friends, to each other, to me.

Today I offer my rebuttal, without risk of being challenged. Surely I can win if I’m the only one playing.

The irrelevancy that I felt as I tried to formulate thoughts during that exchange has been the focus of some introspection. There was also a sense of hopelessness. As long as we keep having these debates, no matter where your passions and politics lie, the status quo will prevail.

Such debates are mostly meaningless exercises in testosterone. Nothing will change, except more of what is already the reality in how we share the goodness of this land. You might agree that is not acceptable.

I cannot imagine approaching this topic from any perspective other than a spiritual one. Spirituality suggests that relationship exploration with or about anyone, be it at a personal, group, ethnic, or global level, can only be approached as holy ground. It will be rooted in respect, humility, and curiosity.

We approach those relationships by thinking well about the other, after all, they too carry the identical Godly heritage as we do. They have things to offer, things that we do not have, wisdom and stories and hope still foreign to us. We do well to be quiet, to listen, to withhold assumptions that we “already know all that we need to know.”

If we can buy into that premise, that those who live differently, including those who live in pain, poverty, dysfunction, that they have measures of richness to share with us, that their hopes and dreams matter and are connected to our own, we will live more quietly.

Quietly is always a good thing. It allows us to learn.

The concept of insisting assimilation is frightening. It is at best meaningless, at worst, incredibly destructive. Neither do I need to reargue history, to point out the villains anew, to name the racists and bigots other than myself.

“Idle No More” is exciting in that it appears to be a voice begun by and energized by the “common folks.” Disagreeing or even agreeing is not the best first response, I’m thinking. Listening, learning predominates. Not shutting the voice out if it challenges, confronts or causes discomfort.

Energy given to defensiveness blocks out learning. Defensiveness always causes the voice to be heard incorrectly, always causes hasty and erroneous assumptions to be claimed.

 “Idle No More” is exciting in that it has, so far, not been taken over and skewed by various political agendas, both within and without First Nations structure. That offers a sense of honesty, clarity. Again, let’s sit quietly and hear. Clarity and honesty will quite possibly soon be obfuscated by political agendas.

“Idle No More” is exciting and incredibly hopeful in that it has chosen creative ways to make its voice heard, creative and non-violent forms of protest. This is a fragile balancing act, making spaces for those of all passions. Ground is quickly lost if the tipping point is surpassed.

In many years of exploration of restorative justice, what it means, how it can be best discovered and lived, I have experienced a number of versions of “talking circles” based on First Nations cultural ways. One of those was encountered in a National Parole Board hearing, another in a Sentencing Circle model. It cannot be overemphasized how differently conversations are when the biggest amount of time for each person involved is spent simply listening, as opposed to feverishly trying to formulate arguments to statements made, responses that might aid in “winning.” That priority of winning dominates much of the culture that we live in.

Think of how we do politics, or justice, or often even church. Think of how those lessons touch every aspect of our lives, such as discussions about “Idle No More” by my friends, Alan and Bob. Think about what is lost.

I have two hearing aids. May they serve me well to hear.


Organizations: First Nations, Daily Herald, National Parole Board

Geographic location: First Nations territories, North America

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Recent comments

  • Jessica Iron Joseph
    January 10, 2013 - 15:14

    Brilliant, Ed. :) I usually don't post comments, but this was too good to pass up. I wholeheartedly agree that there is so much talking going on, and not enough listening. I've been steadily working at being a better listener for the past few years, and what has become astonishingly apparent is how few people actually listen in conversations! Even eye contact is hard to come by when someone is thinking hard of the next point they must make. And you're absolutely right. Most people want only to exert their opinion, and to change the other person's point of view. They don't care to learn or to consider the flaws in their own opinion. It just becomes a senseless battle of egos. So long as we compete in conversations we prevent ourselves from strengthening relationships and encouraging peace and harmony - which sometimes arrives in the form of another person's voice. The world would be a better place with more Ed Olferts. :) Have a wonderful night, and keep up the good work! ~Jess