A Chance to Reclaim the Gifts of Mother Earth


From the Toronto Star newspaper, May 3, 2020:

The coronavirus is sending us a message about our humanity. Here’s what we need to understand

by Douglas Cardinal

With many convocations postponed or cancelled, the Star asked some prominent people receiving honorary degrees to give the speech they would have given in the current climate.

Douglas Cardinal is being honoured by the University of Toronto with a Doctor of Laws degree for “outstanding service to the professions as a world-renowned Canadian architect and pioneer in sustainability, green buildings and ecologically designed community planning.”

I believe that each one of you is a precious gift to the world. Each of you has the opportunity of making the world a better place for the future of humanity and of your children. You have been raised on and nurtured by two realities; at one end, the maternal contribution of loving and caring by your mothers and family, and the other, the patriarchal and hierarchical reality of competitive exchange and materialism, which is the foundation of all the institutions of this society.

Remember that it was your mothers that gave you life by gifting their bodies to your very existence. Feeding and nurturing you from the gifts of their own bodies, gifting you hours of precious time and energy making sure that you grew up healthy and strong. Is that something you took for granted?

You are here today because of their continuous support. Yet these have no intrinsic economic value in the trade and exchange system which you are entering. You will now move from the maternal “gift economy” of your parents and loved ones into the patriarchal barter economy from which everything, including yourselves, are based on “value,” money and exchange.

In that reality you will be forced to compete with everyone around you to gain as much material wealth as possible for you and your family. Even collaboration will be based on advantage, benefit and profitability.

You will need to care about yourself because in this paradigm, caring freely and unconditionally about others is a practice you cannot afford. In the barter economy everything and everyone has a price, fixed by the market, and it is the market that defines the value of every person and resource.

Before the Europeans came and imposed their “market economy” on this land, the Indigenous peoples had adopted the maternal economy, the “gift economy” based on loving and caring for each other. This was the basis of communication, language and trade.

Status in the Indigenous cultures depended not on how many resources one acquired and kept; on the contrary, status depended on how much one could give to others. It reinforced the value that human beings were loving spirits clothed in flesh.

Their societies respected the contribution of women and the elders who gifted the children and the community as a whole, with the stories of the people and the wisdom of their culture. They moulded their society around gift-giving. They lived seeking constant equilibrium with nature-based environments seeking to take only what was needed to balance life with others, including all life-givers and Mother Earth herself.

They saw that the resources of the water, land and the air were gifts from our Mother Earth and the Creator of all life in this amazing blue planet where we are all connected.

Look at today’s coronavirus crisis. What is it telling us about our humanity?

Our elders, our very own mothers and fathers who are living outside our immediate family circles, are dying in “old age” homes, without the presence of their children and grandchildren because they have no productive value.

The greed and selfishness of the patriarchal system goes further; how has this society treated our Mother, the Earth? Her bountifulness is gifting us with everything we need. How do we reciprocate?

The system voraciously exploits her gift to the point that we are destroying all life on this planet. Through our waste and pollution, we are annihilating the life of the oceans, the forest, the land, the air. The system is creating destruction, with our ravenous factories and irresponsibly built environment.

This is the market’s idea of “progress.” How to heat up our planet until we kill our host Mother Earth, so that humanity extinguishes alongside.

Loving, caring, encouragement, respect, gratitude, humbleness … these are the elements humans require when facing difficulties. COVID-19 has dramatically shown we can only survive when we concentrate on loving and caring for others. When we give the supplies available to people that need these resources to survive, so that we can all lay the foundation for our future.

We must understand that we have put life on this planet in jeopardy and we can only survive the crisis we have created by returning to the maternal economy of the Indigenous gift-giving worldview, which kept the resources in balance and harmony with the natural environment.

We can see that when we stopped that market economy, the factories and cars that are so pollutant, we were “forced” to gift Mother Earth with clear skies and cleaner water, a break from the path to annihilation.

Now we can imagine cities designed with more green spaces that are connected so we can breathe undisturbed. Homes that are healthy and nurturing, that use renewable natural materials that gift humans with fulfilment and a sense of well-being and pragmatic harmony with the environment. Places where people can find happiness and gratification without the madness of ego, the rushed and desperate “me now.”

Can we build a positive legacy? A place where future generations are raised with loving and caring by the gift maternal economy? In spite of the idiocy of the patriarchy, the maternal economy is still thriving and saving humanity right now in the pandemic.

What kind of society do you want to create? In what kind of society will your gift flourish best? You have the precious gift of choice.

Douglas Cardinal’s designs include the Canadian Museum of History (formerly the Canadian Museum of Civilization) in Gatineau, Que., and the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington.

This article originally appeared in the Toronto Star, May 3, 2020

Photo of Douglas Cardinal was taken in Ottawa, in August 2016.