Most of us have heard that wonderful saying about stepping back and taking a look a the big picture, however when we’re so deeply involved in something, we often don’t get the insight, much less the opportunity to do so. Since moving abroad I haven’t been as actively involved in Indigenous issues as I have been in the past. While not my ideal situation, it has given me the opportunity to be more of an ‘observer’ and examine not just what other people are doing, but also reflect on what I have done, from a more objective perspective. When I look at the efforts I and so many others have put into pursuing issues relevant to their peoples, I see the same issues, the same arguments, the same discussions happening over and over again.
Why? Why is it that we keep saying the same things, but little to nothing changes?
Lately, I’ve been thinking: maybe it’s because we’re taking our message to the wrong people.
In my experience, when it comes to advocating for Indigenous issues there are three main groups we take our message to: Indigenous peoples, the Government, and representative bodies (which includes professional associations, educational institutions, and other, usually not-for-profit organisations, that are themselves representative of, or advocates for, subsets of broader society). The rationale for this is simple. We talk to our own people to identify issues, educate on what we’re planning to do about them, and seek support for our cause. We talk to Government because they are the law- and policy makers of the land, and have the ability to affect change. We talk to other representative bodies because they too have the ability to facilitate change, both directly (through their policies and programs) and indirectly (through their advocacy efforts).
It seems that we have the key players identified and have been working with them for far greater than the twenty years I’ve been involved. It would seem reasonable to expect that the situation for Indigenous peoples should be far better than what it is, right?
Here’s the problem.
Talking with Indigenous peoples about Indigenous issues is a classic case of, “preaching to the converted”. Indigenous peoples know what the issues are, they know what needs to be done to change the situation, and in many cases they’ve been consulted about it to the point where they are tired of repeating themselves. We must keep Indigenous peoples the main part of the conversation, however we need to change the topic of conversation from, “what is the problem?” to “what are we doing to make things better?”
Talking to Government is always going to be crucial because they are the ones who can make laws, and develop policies and programs, that have the ability to create real change. The issue with Government is that it tends to support the views of those that keep them in power. There are two basic groups that Government draws it support from: its constituents, or those who vote for them, and its endorsers, or those who provide the most tangible (mostly financial) support to them. Indigenous peoples are often a severely under-represented segment of both of these groups, and so have a relatively low-level of influence. This could be indicative of why many Governments outwardly appear to support the cause of Indigenous peoples, and yet only actively engage at a minimal level to affect change.
It’s a similar situation when talking with other groups and organisations who have the ability to affect change for Indigenous peoples, however are not solely dedicated to Indigenous issues. The people who direct and manage these organisations are usually serving two masters. On one side, the Government, who provides the underlying laws and, in many cases, funding, on which these organisations are based. On the other are their own constituents: their members and/or the population they either represent or provide services too. Again, Indigenous peoples, through sheer lack of numbers, or often under-represented in these groups, and so their voice is relatively small. Ironically, many of these organisations are very ‘pro-Indigenous’, and could be doing a lot to help Indigenous peoples change their situation. Many boards and managers even “want to do more” to help Indigenous peoples, but claim their hands are tied because their views are not supported by their members, their constituents, and/or the Government of the day.
Obviously we don’t want to exclude any of these groups from dealing with Indigenous issues because they all have critical roles to play. yet we cannot go on rehashing the same rhetoric with the same people only to get the same results. We need to start engaging people who have the power to influence Governments and organisations who can affect change.
We need to start targeting the non-Indigenous population in order to address Indigenous issues.
In most countries where there is inequity between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples, non-Indigenous peoples represent the overwhelming majority of the population. While we like to think that the basis of our societies are morals, ethics, and social justice, the fact is that our lives are directed by one simple, time-tested rule: majority rules. It is also a fact that Indigenous peoples are unlikely to ever regain majority status in countries where the population is made up of Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. If we’re going to see change, real change, we need to be the majority, and our only hope of achieving that is if we have non-Indigenous peoples on our side.
This is not just a matter of bringing Indigenous issues to the attention of non-Indigenous peoples. In fact, in the age of digital and social media, we could argue that today’s society is the most informed of any previous. Many non-Indigenous people are supportive of Indigenous peoples and addressing Indigenous issues, but this support is passive. If we’re going to garner support of non-Indigenous people to address Indigenous issues, we have to make those issues important to them. It has to become not just something they feel, but something they believe. Something they want. When it becomes important to them, it will become important to those that represent them, namely Governments and other key stakeholders. Remember: the majority have to ability to keep those people in power. Or take that power away.
Changing the lives of Indigenous peoples is not just a numbers game; there are many things that need to change in order for us to see real equity between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. Many Indigenous – and to be fair many non-Indigenous – peoples have been trying to create change for many years. However, they still represent only a minority of society, and society favours the majority. If we’re going to see real change, we need non-Indigenous peoples to want to improve the lives of Indigenous peoples. As we move into 2017, maybe those of us involved in advocating for Indigenous issues need to rethink our target audience?