I grew up in a place that did not exist

February 19, 2018

“What will be enough?” Jesse Wente asked on Tuesday’s edition of Metro Morning. He was talking about the not-guilty verdict in the death of Colten Boushie.

It was a blessedly ordinary morning in our house. I was preoccupied with the blessedly ordinary problem of rushing to get out the door when I stopped to listen to the words he should never have had to say.

I thought back to a morning last spring where he spoke about the media backlash on the issue of cultural appropriation. Back then, he concluded, “I hope to never have to do this again.

But here we are.

On Tuesday, Wente went on to say that Canada “has taken so much from Indigenous people.”

He echoed the portrayal of settlers in Cherie Dimaline’s multi-award winning novel, The Marrow Thieves. We are seen as ravenous, insatiable. Every single settler-character is out to prey on Indigenous people, submitting them to the most horrible of deaths in order to steal their very dreams. In response to the verdict on Boushie’s killing, Dimaline tweeted:

I wrote a book about Indigenous people being considered not human, being considered “things” at the hands of a colonial Canada. I though I was writing about a potential future.

But here we are.

What will be enough to make us face reality?

The reality that Canada is a country that condones human rights abuses. It’s a country that pretends — to itself and to the world — to be better than it is.

The year I learned to read, Canada got its flag. Two years later, I went on an exciting trip to Montreal to attend Expo 67, that celebration of budding national identity. Back then, I too young to articulate it, but I was already sure of what Canada was … and what it was not.

Canada was not greedy, heartless America. We had free medical care and no slums. We were not racists. Everyone could have a seat on the bus and drink from the same fountain. Everyone could go to a good school. Canada didn’t draft its young men off to a senseless foreign war. Rather, young men came here to escape being forced to kill. Protesters were not shot on our streets. There was no need, here, for the kind of protest that might cause people to risk their lives that way. Nor did we live in class-bound England where accents and accidents of birth determined destiny. Canada was a place where everyone had a chance.

My downtown Toronto school prided itself on being a United Nations and I understood this was a Canadian value, welcoming everyone. The parents of my Hungarian friends had crawled on their bellies through the night to get here — imagine that! Not being safe in your own home? The storekeeper down the street had a tattoo on the inside of his forearm, an indelible memento of an attempt to exterminate his people. That was long ago and far away. Here in Canada, he presided over a candy-counter where neighbourhood children banged in and out of the screen door to ponder what the coins in their hands might buy among the treasures he offered. My Portuguese friends had parents who worked day and night to send money to their struggling families back home. Here, they owned a big, brick house and rented out rooms to young men wanting to start a better life here. In Canada.

I grew up in a place that never existed.

I still miss it.

I miss feeling good about my country. I can’t, any more.

In My Conversations with Canadians, Lee Maracle writes: “Canadians have a myth about themselves, and it seems this myth is inviolable. They are innocent.”

I don’t need to have a conversation with Indigenous people about the death of our national narrative but it’s a necessary conversation. It’s hard to lose such a narrative; parting with it feels like an earthquake. The very ground under my feet is in question.

I’m not trying to make excuses, or have anyone feel sorry for me but I do think admitting we are losing something is part of the long, hard work of dismantling that myth. Our devotion to it is an addiction of sorts. Like any addiction, it makes us insatiable. It doesn’t respond reason, historical argument, or evidence, such as we see provided in this marvelous article by Alicia Elliott. And it is the work of a lifetime to keep an addiction at bay.

I don’t pretend to understand the relationship between individual consciousness and a country’s actions, but I do wonder if we took the time and did the work as individuals, whether our country might be less likely to strike out against Indigenous people. Maybe we would take quick and effective action to honour their human rights.

We seem to be impatient with the process of self-examination. Why — I wonder — with that process, rather than with the real and pressing emergencies of people not having clean drinking water or medical care or proper schools or housing? With people being murdered and going missing?

When I first read A Model Childhood, Christa Woolf’s novel about growing up in the Third Reich, I was surprised at its slow pace.

It begins: “What is past is not dead; it is not even past. We cut ourselves off from it; we pretend to be strangers.”

And it goes on to sift through the character’s earliest memories, interweaving and juxtaposing them with her life as an adult. It’s about the formation of consciousness, the formation of self, and about how the politics of the time wrapped around that growing and developing self. No experience was free from those politics.

What will it take for us to take our own national crimes seriously enough to reflect in that kind of depth?











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