tough act to follow

Harold Tarbell, the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) master of ceremonies probably summed it up best: “There are times,” he said, shaking his head. “It’s okay,” he added half-joking after the audience applause had died down a bit, “I’ve stopped crying now.”

He was talking about hundreds of cynical chiefs, their lawyers, staff and advisors, giving not one but two standing ovations. Then a drum group delivered an honor song. All this for a 13-year old white kid. That’s right. Some blonde-haired teenaged kid from Niagara Falls.

This was easily the most memorable moment of the entire 3-day AFN assembly in steaming hot Toronto. Sure, there was an election for national chief going on with an unprecedented number of candidates, and the first time four women had thrown their hats into the ring. But in walks this kid, brought on-stage by Cindy Blackstock of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society. Wes Pranker blows everyone away. He makes the incumbent national chief and his wannabe candidates look like rank amateurs.

Here’s the thing though. Not a single news organization made this a major story or gave it any real coverage. Instead, they delivered the usual yadda yadda about what chief so-and-so said along with a by-the-numbers commentary on the horse race. But THIS really should’ve been a major story.

I know, I know, this was an election to decide who the grand pooh-bah of the loyal order of water buffalo would be for the next three years. National import and all. But you see, here’s the thing.

I watched the speeches of the candidates like so many others thanks to the Cable Public Affairs Channel (CPAC) and the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN).  Yeah, okay, there were some good points. But I wasn’t all that impressed by any of them.

I noted the too-slick delivery of incumbent Shawn Atleo, the passion of Ellen Gabriel, Terry Nelson’s biting satire, and a tearful meltdown by an ill-prepared and out-classed Bill Erasmus. But none of them connected with me – and I believe touched the audience – like this 13-year-old kid when he peered over the lectern, practically on tippy-toes, to speak into the microphone.

“Hello everybody, my name is Wes Prankard. For the past three years I’ve been trying to bridge the gap between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal children. What I’ve been doing started three years ago when I saw pictures of the community of Attawapiskat. Just seeing these conditions the children were living in, I just knew it wasn’t fair. And so I decided to do something.

“What I’ve been doing for the past three years,” he continued, “is not charity. It’s justice. It’s making something right that should have been done.”

The audience erupts into spontaneous applause and begins to rise to their feet, slowly at first then enthusiastically. One person yells out: “You should be prime minister.” I see some members of the news media clapping their hands; a rarity where you’re supposed to be a political eunich.

Here’s the thing. Wes Prankard might have been in front of a group of Indians but he was really addressing the Federal Government and the average Canadian. Clichés abound: “speaking truth to power” and “out of the mouths of babes…” etc.  The kid cut through all the often empty rhetoric and grand-standing of the candidates, the politicians, and spoke from his heart to two national TV to thousands of people in the viewing audiences.

More people might have known about this kid and his message if the numbers of newspaper reporters and columnists wandering about had done their jobs. Except they didn’t write about it.  Neither did any of the bloggers at the broadcasters for their online audiences.  If it hadn’t been for the “live” TV coverage by CPAC and APTN, you would’ve missed the real story.

Why? Because these news organizations tried to look authoritative, fair, balanced and every other worn out cliché used by mainstream reporters. Their organizations love to use these phrases in their ads and promos but there was another phrase that really fit this time. Out to lunch.

This kid, Wes Prankard, put to shame many in that audience who wait for government to do something instead of saying to hell with you, Stephen Harper. Or to hell with you, AFN or whatever provincial organization or band council you might have,  I’m going to raise the money myself because my people are living in shacks and tents; drinking, bathing and brushing teeth with contaminated water;  shitting in slop pails. My elders live in filth and I’m going to do something about it.

I love the kid’s message: Dammit, it’s the right thing to do. I am not helpless.  I cannot stand by and do nothing when people are suffering. I control my life. You can too.

I believe that’s why those chiefs, their lawyers and advisors stood up and gave that kid a standing ovation, perhaps slowly at first and against their better judgement. I think they recognized the kind of people they should be – that we all should be.  I think – finally – someone came into that assembly and didn’t promise them things they know they’ll never be able to deliver. Someone showed them real leadership.

For more on this kid, Wes Prankard, check out Northernstarfish.org.  He intends to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for playground on northern reserves by walking a distance comparable to that between his home at Niagara Falls and Attawapiskat.

Then drop by and throw your support behind Cindy Blackstock too.

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5 Comments

Filed under Canada, Canadian politics, human rights, Indigenous peoples, Indigenous rights, journalism

5 responses to “tough act to follow

  1. Funny, I heard him speak at a demonstration for FN education on the Hill last month and I was a bit put off by him. The whole time he spoke, he only used the first person. “I shipped X thousands of pounds of food to X community in the north.” Not once did he say “we.” Clearly he is working in collaboration with others, and yet he never mentioned it. It struck me as a disturbing example of ego-centrism and the cult of the individual. He also never mentioned all the remarkable Cree / Anishnabe / Algonquin / Mohawk / etc folks he must be working with, or any of the other young people also engaged in this work…. Funny that.

  2. shmohawk

    My post was about the power of one. One person saying “enough.” One person seeing wrong and doing something about it. One person recognizing a fundamental injustice, something immoral, and acting to make it right. If more “ones” did the same thing, instead of waiting for the herd, this might be a better world.

  3. Helen Atkinson

    It was because at one time I thought that children on the reserve wanted playgrounds that I started to notice that the playgrounds that were there were hardly being used. I think the money that he is raising can be used for something else – but good for him for being an example. I wish some of our community members, especially the youth, had a bit of his initiative. Just saying.

  4. shmohawk

    You might go visit the kid’s web site (northernstarfish.org) and see what else he’s doing. You’re right. Building playgrounds in northern communities may seem a bit naive and limiting. So check out their CampOut2012 to bring kids together “to raise awareness” about the housing crisis across Indian country. I know, what does “raising awareness” translate to in terms of tangible change? My fingers are crossed. Go, comment, suggest at his web site.

  5. Helen Atkinson

    I checked out his blog but most of the comments are off-topic; some of them are downright “weird”. Also the playground in Attawapiskat has been built so I didn’t see the point of saying anything. IMO, he is trying tackle some of the hardest issues – Native housing on the rez, and children having to be placed under foster care outside of the community – and those are pretty big bites that many of us have not been able to chew.

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