Stories from the 8th Fire production team.
I'll give it to you straight. I've been a working journalist for forty-some years. I've been a researcher, a reporter, a foreign bureau chief. I was executive producer of CBC television's The National and the fifth estate, but, without a doubt, 8TH Fire is the most challenging project of my career. It's also the most humbling and the most exhilarating.
It's challenging because after 500 years of colonialism, conflict and denial, it takes you right to the heart of what each of us, and what Canada, is all about. We're a nation of white settlers (yes, I know, now we're multi-hued, but those first arrivals were all "whities") who gradually populated a vast land that, oops, actually belonged to someone else. Most of us don't want to deal with that.
"Oh my, that's a tough one, I guess you're not doing this for the ratings" was a familiar remark from colleagues when we started the project more than a year ago. "That's tv suicide!" said a relative of one of our team members.
It didn't take long, once the team started thinking about how to approach the series, to realize that denial is the hardest part for most of us non-Aboriginals. Oh, how we wish they would "Just GET OVER it!" It didn't take long, for the tough-minded Aboriginal staff working with us, to help us understand that "getting over it" wasn't going to happen anytime soon.
As Canadians, we take a certain - dare I say - smug pride in the fact that we are not and have never been, an imperial power; that we have never subjugated a far-away nation, having ourselves thrown off our own European colonial masters.
It just doesn't jibe with our inner-Canadian to realize that we were, and indeed, in many ways, still are, a colonial power.
Our ancestors did occupy lands that belonged to someone else. They did rationalize that "the someone else" wasn't civilized and therefore would be better off under our benign hand. All of us who came to live on lands before or after those treaties were signed - or land taken up without treaties - have benefitted. Their loss was our gain.
But trust me - we knew from the beginning that 8TH Fire could not be about beating you up for past or present grievances. It had to be about getting past stereotypes, myths and misunderstandings, and finding a way forward to a respectful new relationship.
That's where the humbling part comes in. Working on this project makes you mightily aware of how little we know about each other, thanks to some gaping holes in our education system. Like most Canadians, I didn't grow up knowing any Aboriginal people. The school learning I've retained revolved around Father Jean de Brebeuf; his heroic vocation civilizing the Hurons and his glorious martyrdom at the hands of the brutal Iroquois.
It's painful now as I write this, to watch the very public agony of Attawapiskat, a community our directors and producers visited last May. We went to document young Shannen Kootachin's struggle to get Aboriginal Affairs to fund the construction of a decent school in a community beset by wretched living conditions despite the close proximity of a huge diamond mine on the band's traditional lands.
It's painful because amidst all the discussions there seems little understanding on the part of otherwise well-informed commentators, that housing, education and health were all promises made to First Nations people when we moved them onto these tiny patches of land and saddled them with an all-controlling Indian Act.
But maybe the reality of Attawapiskat has touched a nerve. Maybe it's going to change the national dialogue. Now people are saying to us "It's good you're doing this." "I really want to see this series."
So cue the exhilarating! In the 8TH Fire's television series and its digital dispatches, you're going to meet an intriguing, inspiring and diverse crowd of First Nations, Inuit and Métis. Many belong to the first generation who were not subjected to residential school system, with its devastating determination to "kill the Indian in the child". They are seven generations removed from the Declaration of the Indian Act in 1876, and they are determined to get out from under it, to reclaim their culture. They're bursting with ideas about how to meet us on new and equal terms. We're hoping 8TH FIRE will make a modest contribution to offering you the way forward to a second chance to get the relationship right.
But may I close with a little anecdote that keeps going through my head as I work on the series. Forty years ago, I lived in Yellowknife during the time of the Berger Inquiry into the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline. I met a wide range of First Nation and Inuit people. There, I first got a glimpse into the enduring nature of their cultures; for what is culture, but the way people live and what they know. I was at a dinner one evening where the host, a white man, served a fish that he had caught and frozen earlier that year. I sat beside a Dene woman. She tasted the fish and then said, "Oh, that's a Lac La Martre trout." She was right, and I was stunned. The fact that she could tell which of the many lakes this fish came from impressed me every bit as much as my Parisian brother-in-law's ability to identify his glass of wine, not just naming the vintner, but the very slope the grapes grew on. These are cultures. They will endure.
Kelly Crichton is Senior Series Producer, 8TH Fire: Aboriginal Peoples,Canada & The Way Forward.