Micro-Review: 8th Fire - CBC Doc Zone

“A 500 year old relationship … coming out of conflict, colonialism and denial.”

In case you missed it, you can now watch all four episodes of CBC’s recent series 8th Fire, which explores many aspects of contemporary Indigenous life in Canada.

There’s never been a show like this on television before.

So, if you’re a little scant on your knowledge of Canada’s colonial history—and its continuance into the neocolonial present (which, sadly, is a lived reality for all of our people)—it’s time to watch and learn. 

The series is equal parts micro-history lesson and semi-critical assessment of the challenges and opportunities that Indigenous Peoples face, but 8th Fire at least attempts to tackle, in broad strokes, what is an admittedly complex cultural, social and political reality—and a highly interwoven set of complex relationships between Indigenous Peoples and the rest of Canada.

Sadly, the series frequently reproduces dominant, statist perspectives advocating economic and resource development as the sole prescription for creating social change in Indigenous communities and, too often, the series retreats into reiterating rhetorical platitudes of “reconciliation” translated ineffectively as “we all just want to move on and get along with each other by getting to know our neighbours better”. This TRC-inspired kumbaya sing-a-long serves to invisibilize the real violence that is continuously enacted on our peoples through ongoing forms of colonial racism, domination, abjection and subjugation.

And yet, as 8th Fire is ultimately a product of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, the state’s publicly funded national media outlet, it isn’t surprising that the show’s aim is to ‘reconcile’ 500+ years of genocide, by trying to convince Canadians that Indian Country is open for business—and that Indians are ready and willing to get down to the business of signing deals with corporations and government to erode, ever further, what little reserve lands and postage stamp pieces of our traditional territories are left.

This narrow vision of reconciliation—in which the eighth fire of friendship and harmony is 'lit’ through the collaborative exploitation of Indigenous lands by co-opted Indians and their capitalist Canadian counterparts—is a frustratingly ineffectual vision for change and certainly not a model for revitalizing the spirit, strength and vitality of our peoples.

Financial partnerships won’t heal the past or provide retroactive compensatory payback for the wholesale theft of Turtle Island and the annihilation of millions of Indigenous lives.

Learning from each other, if we’re being sincere about it, will require more than having our people continue to dress up and play the part of suit-wearing 'seat-at-the-adults-table’ Indians; it will require that Indigenous leaders and communities reclaim our own visions of living and being that refuse the terms of recognition and validation offered by Settler society as the only basis from which to assert our strength.

In this way, 8th Fire succeeds most effectively when it offers realistic portrayals of the radically new—and rapidly growing—demographic of young Indigenous peoples that has emerged from the wreckage of more than five centuries of colonial rule. The hybrid, modern, courageous and resilient character of our peoples is truly something to be celebrated; and 8th Fire is at its strongest when it focuses on personal portraits that reveal this vitality, creativity and determination.

What was missing throughout the series, however, were stories that affirmed both the validity and necessity of our resistance to the totalizing corporatization of all aspects of Indigenous life. Resistance stories are as much a part of our histories as are those of development deals reached, treaties signed, and complicity agreed to.

We need our warriors’ stories to be heard as well.

While I hope that CBC will continue to make space for Indigenous-centred programming on the network, I still think it’s remarkable that it’s taken until 2012 to finally see the beginnings of a media representation of native people that is getting close to being…accurate.

It’s a first step. And a welcome one. But let’s be clear that it’s just a first step.

In his closing monologue, host Wab Kinew says that “[Native people] want closer links…we want reconciliation.” But we should ask ourselves: do we know what this would mean for our people? Do we know what it looks like? And is it what we really need and want? 

The road ahead will indeed by a rough one for all of us but, if we don’t address the ongoing impacts of colonization in a real and meaningful way, we will be kidding ourselves to think that we can somehow buy our way out of generations of dependency by building 'new relationships’ based on signing treaties with corporations instead of governments. We need to defend our homelands and lifeways, to protect what we have left, and to rebuild our nations—beginning with ourselves.  

Maybe the next series should be about decolonization and resurgence, rather than resources and reconciliation.

Please feel free to reblog and comment. I’d be interested to know your thoughts on the show.