Jesse Wente says it’s time to tell the truth about Indigenous sovereignty

·4 min read

Jesse Wente says that there is power in truth-telling moments. And the truth he spoke about on Nov. 25, was the truth of Indigenous sovereignty.

“Canada wants to assert and maintain its own sovereignty, while Indigenous Peoples never lost theirs, and want that fact recognized by Canada,” says Wente. “That impasse is at the core of all the issues we are seeing between our communities.”

Wente spoke during an online event, as a part of Vancouver Island University (VIU)’s sixth annual Indigenous Speakers Series —a partnership between the university and CBC Radio.

During the talk, Wente asked listeners to recognize the motivation behind government policies, such as residential schools, as a “tool of Canadian sovereignty.”

“This view is ultimately how we must all see all of Canada’s policies towards Indigenous People, where the state grants itself authority,” says Wente. “As an exercise in asserting Canadian sovereignty over people of other nations.”

Wente acknowledges that he is not the first person to speak this truth.

There are carefully documented Indigenous-led documents which provide context, oral history, answers, and ‘truth’ in the Final Report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls in 2019, he says. And before that, in the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada in 2015, and before that, in the Report on the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples in 1996.

Yet, Wente says that there’s often a refusal to own these truths and that this denial is precisely why Canada is “stuck” in its place in the reconciliation process.

“I see this failure to accept the truth in the denials that we now hear around things like systemic racism,” says Wente. “For adults to not recognize these truths is willful and ultimately harmful. As long as some in power refuse to name systemic racism, they are refusing to combat it, and by refusing to combat it they allow it to continue and they do so on your behalf.”

Wente is a member of the Serpent River First Nation, centrally located on the eastern edge of the so-called “Great Lakes” in Ontario. He’s a journalist, cultural critic and chairperson of the Canadian Council for the Arts.

According to his event bio, he has “committed himself to supporting Indigenous storytellers and advocating for Indigenous narrative sovereignty.”

During his talk he shared his own story, which he says, is fundamentally one of joy.

“Too often when First Nations Métis or Inuit are asked to tell stories, we’re asked to tell sad stories, stories of pain and trauma,” says Wente. “ I guess on some level I understand. Our pain is part of the Canadian story. Our trauma in service of the goal that is Canada.”

He spoke about his experience returning to his home territory with his children near the shores of Lake Huron, and a pivotal moment on the drive back to the city.

“There was a clairity in that moment that has stuck with me,” Wente remembers. “I thought about how much effort was put into separating my family from this place, not just the harm done to us… to gain what in the end?”

As Wente spoke his truth, he spoke of his own children and his hopes for their futures, asking the audience to “do the work” in this era of so-called reconciliation.

“Right now decisions are being made that will mean our children will face inequality, racism, sexism and the outcomes related to those issues,” says Wente. “It’s our job to try and alleviate those issues to avoid the generational harm.”

Proof that this work is beneficial exists, he says, including stories of Indigenous youth reconnecting with their cultures. He spoke about the increase in conversation around #LandBack, defunding the police, and his experience of increased support when Indigenous peoples march or protest.

“This sort of solidarity is healing,” says Wente. “It allows us to heal each other, as well as ourselves.”

Wente ended his talk by sharing his thoughts on the power of Indigenous art and storytelling. He says he has seen an “eruption” of Indigenous talent in the last few years, and this excites him.

“They’re already changing the country and its stories,” says Wente. “All of this brings me tremendous joy…. More importantly to the change we have already seen, is the change that is yet to come.”

Wente’s talk was moderated by Nahlah Ayed of CBC’s Ideas and will be available this winter for national broadcast.

Bayleigh Marelj, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Discourse