A new generation of younger natives is coming into its ownߞ and flexing its powerful muscles
It took the father and son four months to paint their masterpiece. A kaleidoscope of colours shoots from the white-hot light at the centre of Alex Janvier’s glorious mural Morning Star. Featured on the domed ceiling of the Museum of Civilization’s River Gallery in Hull, Que., the abstract swirls tell the history and hopes of native peoples. Janvier is one of Canada’s greatest modern artists, a Chipewyan from Alberta, and he painted Morning Star during the summer of 1993, on specially rigged scaffolding 27 metres off the ground. His son, Dean, then 23, was his self-described “paint-by-numbers assistant” and all-purpose helper who lugged paints and brushes up to his dad. There, screened from visitors by a tarpaulin hung to catch paint drips, the two men worked, and fought and created. “It was will against will,” the elder Janvier says of those months. “We just about killed each other some days.”
Father and son both say Morning Star produced a personal reconciliation of sorts by the time it was finished. But their politics remain as different as their ages. Alex Janvier was one of the country’s early Indian radicals who went on to channel his politics into his art. For many years, he signed his paintings with a bitter “287”—his government assigned treaty number. Dean sees himself less an activist than a political philosopher, a forceful advocate for unshackling his generation of natives from the culture of vic-
timization they have inherited. “I don’t want to let Canadians off the hook for our shitty history, but we can’t always be talking about what’s wrong—that just creates despair,” he says over coffee in an Ottawa mall near his job as an aide at the Assembly of First Nations. “I used to be angry and blame government for failing us. But we’ve got to start showing some progress so young people don’t feel so helpless about the future.”
The stories of generations cannot, of course, be written across the brows of two men. Relationships between fathers and sons are bound in their own mysteries. But the Janviers speak, in part at least, to the seismic shift occurring within Canada’s native communities. Power is beginning to pass to younger natives, much of their strength coming from the sheer weight of their numbers. They are comfortable with and proud of their native roots. But there is a battle being waged within that generation: a fight between those who believe they can succeed in the sea of white values without surrendering their native identity, and those who insist cultural survival depends on staying resolutely separate.
It is a big and brawny generation. Unlike Canada’s slowly aging white population, 62 per cent of the country’s 799,000 aboriginals are under 29, with fertility rates much higher than the Canadian average. “We are becoming more and more powerful through the power of many,” says Leela Gilday, 24,
a Dene musician who splits her time between Toronto and Yellowknife. On the whole, they are also healthier and better educated than their parents. Many recoil from the nastiness of native politics, and blame their parents’ generation of leaders for fiddling while so many natives remain helplessly dependent on a cycle of handouts. “I know a lot of chiefs in Manitoba who don’t care about anybody else and just live comfortably for themselves,” says Adam Beach, 26, the handsome, Winnipegraised Saulteaux actor whose credits include the successful feature film Smoke Signals.
“They are destroying communities. And their time is up.”
Beach has survived his own personal trauma —both his parents died when he was a child— as well as Winnipeg’s sometimes violent street life, to become a successful actor, husband to Ottawa lawyer Meredith Porter and father of two sons, Noah, 3, and Luke, 1. But it is a common lament that too many of his generation grew up without proper parenting, something often blamed on the emotional wounds elders suffered as children in residential schools. “Our parents were taken away when they were four or five or six years old and put into institutionalized settings,” says Carla Robinson, 28, a mixed Haisla and Heiltsuk from British Columbia who is now a television anchor with CBC Newsworld. “They are like prisoners of war. They were not surrounded by love or family. They came out and had no concept of mom and dad.”
Native street gangs prey on that emotional void, the allure of money, power and the false advertisement of security beckoning the vulnerable. “Gangs are a big attraction to kids growing up in poverty or dysfunctional homes,” says Troy Rupert, 37, a former Winnipeg gang member who now works with the Winnipeg Native Alliance trying to break the grip of gangs on native teens. “The gangs say they offer love, family, protection, money. They get the perception of cool because so many of these kids don’t have good male role models.”
The plea for better native role models is heard everywhere, from Cree villages on Hudson Bay to forums on aboriginal Web sites, and there are noble attempts to broadcast aboriginal success stories in hope of inspiring others. Musical conductor-turned-philanthropist John Kim Bell, a Mohawk, has made a personal crusade of trying to create a critical mass of positive role models through his National Aboriginal Achievement Awards. “I never knew anyone who had succeeded in sciences or health,” says Alika LaFontaine, an articulate 17-year-old aboriginal who is in pre-medical studies at the Saskatchewan Indian Federated College—and who has been cited for his success by Bell’s foundation. “We still discriminate against people because they want to better themselves. What we need are mentors.”
But selling mainstream success in native culture is an up-
hill task. “There’s still not enough pride in our communities,” says Gilbert (Gitchie) Cheechoo, who styles himself as the Howard Stern of his Moose Factory, Ont., show on Wawatay (Northern Lights) radio. “No one knows much about what other natives are doing. People say: Who’s Adam Beach? Who’s Carla Robinson?’ ” And success, sadly, remains synonymous with “sellout” for too many natives. “I have seen youth feel pressure to stay on the reserve and not go away for education because they get ridiculed,” says Doreen Cachagee, 60, whose son, Wade, defied the taunts to become a successful high-tech businessman on Ontario’s Chapleau Cree Fox Lake reserve.
Rupert has felt its lash, whipped with the slur of “traitor” for trying to pull teens away from gangs selling “native pride.” Rupert finds comfort and protection in his 290 lb. of “mostly muscle” and an unshakable belief that “we need to clean up our house.” But, he adds, “there is big turmoil in our communities over this. People are taking sides.” Old suspicions of the outside world die hard. In British Columbia, the Seventh Generation Club tries to encourage kids to stay in school and make wise lifestyle choices: no smoking, no drinking, no drugs. The reward for good school attendance is a trip to Vancouver and a ticket to a Canucks or Grizzlies game. “We have to reassure people we are not trying to steal their kids away,” says Audrey Moore, 30, a club administrator. “Most parents want the best for their children, but there is a carry-over fear of school, a fear of education.”
It has always been hard to leave the reserve and come back. Those who left communities in the 1970s and 1980s tell achingly similar tales of being ostracized on their return, accused in those days of being an “apple”—red on the surface but white inside. Former NHL player and coach Ted Nolan, an Ojibwa from Ontario, remembers the cold shoulder he’d get from his friends when he would return each summer from playing hockey down south. “They’d thought you left them,” he says. The term is less prevalent today (in fact, some natives now use “apple” to describe those who use their red skin as a
Some younger aboriginals believe they can succeed in the white world without surrendering native identity
crutch to get ahead). But leaving is still too often regarded as a hostile act, a rejection of one’s roots. “There’s a lot of: ‘I’m a true Indian and you are not,’ ” says LaFontaine. “If you move off reserves you can’t come back, you are in the white man’s world.” Not all the antipathy is fuelled by jealousy or a sense of abandonment. Many young aboriginals find it impossible to live their lives torn between western and native values. “You can’t expect to find tradition in an urban setting and I was going to get in trouble in the city,” says Lucie Idlout, 26, a rock singer who returned to Iqaluit to live permanently five years = ago after growing up mostly in Ottawa. “My children will be raised in the North, their first language will be Inuktitut, they will understand that way of life. I went through a lot to be accepted by my community because I was raised in the South.” But the world intrudes ever more on native communities, wooing many. “My kids’ assumptions are based on a global culture—I have a house full of modern nomads,” says Leela Gilday’s mother, Cindy, a 51year-old environmental activist in Yellowknife. “I have an expectation they will contribute to the North, but I know they have to go elsewhere to feed their souls.”
Many of those who leave insist they can operate in the western world without losing their native identity. “I’m using high-end technology to gather historical information from elders so when they pass away it’s not gone, so no, I don’t think western innovations are at odds with native culture,” says Wade Cachagee, 25, who runs a computer mapping company from Chapleau Cree Fox Lake. Carmen Daniels, 24, of Edmonton just laughs at some of the sniping she gets for running the Aboriginal Youth Network Web site, a hang-out centre for native teens on the Internet. “We get feedback from people who say: ‘My grandmother and grandfather weep when they see a site like yours—our ancestors are not liking this,’ ” she says. Funnily enough, Daniels continues, her critics complain to her by e-mail because “they’re on the Internet.”
Yet the issue of who is a true native is not easily shrugged off. Is accumulating wealth, for example, at odds with native values? “I have spent most of my life struggling with the idea of having wealth,” says Roland Bellerose, the 38-year-old publisher of the Calgary-based national magazine aboriginaltimes. “I have come to terms that it is OK to have money, it’s OK to be in a position of authority,” he says. “We need to teach our children the coping skills to exist in a larger society. You can aspire to a good quality of life, and still have the values of an Indian.”
Even those who are comfortable with their own choices realize the magnitude of the challenge. Beach sees himself as someone who can help heal wounds but has no illusions
about a quick fix, no matter how positive the role model. Personable and acutely aware of his public image (he no longer drinks beer because when seen with one in public “people would assume I was an alcoholic”), Beach recalls a chilling encounter three years ago at a conference for young natives. “It’s hard to bring me down; when I’m on a positive edge, the sky’s the limit,” he says, his energy obvious as he pops in and out of a chair in his Ottawa home. “I was in there with all these kids—I’m this actor guy who has it all—and I was giving them my you just gotta go for it, go for your dreams’ talk. And I saw this one kid, about 9, who just had his head down.
Wouldn’t look up. So I said: ‘C’mon. What’s your dream? Tell me.’ And he just said, in this weird voice I’ll never forget: All I have is nightmares.’ ”
Ted Nolan, who also speaks frequently to gatherings of native youths, knows the mountain is high but still has hope.
“When I was growing up, we were shy, we took what people told us and accepted it,” he says. “These kids are more open and can sense when they’re being lied to. Some of these kids have good heads.
They know what they want.” And expectations are higher. “Now there is pressure for what you are going to do with your life,” says Torontobased actor Tamara Podemski, 21, currently performing in the Broadway production of Rent. “It wasn’t a big deal what my mother was going to do with hers.”
If that creates a generation gap, it should also warn older leaders they have only just begun to feel the push from below. “Someday, they will realize that what we did was mammoth,” says Alex Janvier about the contributions of his generation. “But maybe it’s time to get the hell out, sit back in a rocking chair, light up a cigar, and let them go to work.” Adam Beach likes the challenge. He dreams of a native version of the African-American Million Man March. “Not to say ‘Give us this,’ ” he says, smiling and leaning forward. “To say ‘Here we are. And here we go.’ ”
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.