May 28, 2017
Okay so we shut up and listen.
Except that over the past couple of weeks I’ve been hearing indigenous authors like Alicia Elliott explaining why the recent shit-storm is a problem. In an article on CBC arts, she has some important things to say about context: “… forgetting context is a privilege far too readily indulged in by many white politicians, writers, editors and people. They don’t have to live with the knowledge that this country was built through the systemic genocide of their ancestors — because it wasn’t.”
It’s a great article. But an author who’s that good shouldn’t have to spend her energy on people who have treated her with such profound disrespect.
In a Toronto Star article titled “The Emotional Exhaustion of Debating Indigenous Views” Lenny Carpenter pointed out: “Indigenous people are in fact playing the role of educators to counter the failure of Canada to educate its citizens on accurate Indigenous history, cultures and perspectives.”
Kateri Aikwenzie-Damm wrote in The Globe and Mail, “I am a writer, poet and publisher. I have put my own writing career on hold many times to fight for respect and space for Indigenous writers and our books.” And later ” The world is shifting. Here’s a hard truth that may move us closer to reconciliation: We do not need them. We do not need to debate them because they demand it and we do not need them to tell our stories.”
These writers have other stories to tell.
And now there’s an Emerging Indigenous Author prize. As much as there was a groundswell of hatred over the so-called free speech issue, there’s a groundswell of support. That’s great! Except that one crowdfunding campaign is not going to address the undercurrent of aggression that was just exposed through this so-called “debate” on appropriation — a debate which, as Keteri Aikwenzie-Damm notes, has been going on for decades.
This means settlers do have to take a stand – not just about cultural appropriation – but about our relationship with Indigenous people. We need to talk — at least to each other. But how?
Maybe we need some writing prompts:
How did this happen?
Hal Niedzviecki had a lot of opportunities to answer that question in the press.
But how did the people around him let it happen?
Nikki Reimer, tendering her resignation from the board of directors at TWUC, wrote a soul-searching entry on her blog.
It shows the welter of deadlines that most people involved in all aspects of publishing juggle daily, the strata and substrata of tasks that bury those of us who work in the arts these days. I thought of Walkerton and SARS. When resources are gutted, people may rise to the occasion and produce an illusion of normalcy. Until something goes wrong.
How did this happen?
There was an Indigenous Writers’ Panel at the 2016 Canadian Writers’ Summit at Harbourfront, where Tracey Lindberg, Lee Maracle and Kenneth Williams provided the audience with copious suggestions for Indigenous authors to read and explore. Someone stood up immediately afterwards and asked which authors she should be reading. Lee Maracle didn’t miss a beat in calling this member out about doing homework. She did it with alacrity and wit; still, was it really her job?
I was among those who mumbled to our neighbours, but didn’t raise our voices. I went home feeling like there was something wrong beyond that one member’s putting her foot in it. There is so much more to do than just be careful with our words.
How did this happen?
After the resignation of Niedzviecki, the Equity Task Force of the Writers Union a group of respected and hardworking writers: consisting of Farzana Doctor, Jane Eaton Hamilton, Ava Homa, Larissa Lai, Carrianne Leung, Judy Rebick, Heather Wood and Waubgeshig Rice put together a set of recommendations. These included Anti-racist education for all staff, National Council and editorial committee members, and a paid equity officer position housed in the main TWUC offices. Their considerable efforts were mocked by Jonathan Kaye as “something out of an undergraduate protest group …”
To me, such measures seem perfectly appropriate, given what has just happened. And it makes sense to take a hard look at my own role in obscuring context.
How did this happen?
It’s 2012. For the first time, I visit Prince Albert Saskatchewan, on whatever semblance of a book tour I’m able to construct with Canada Council funding administered by the Writers’ Union. My grandmother, Mona Gould, was born there, in 1908, and she’s the subject of my first book. We have been to the town of Melfort, seen the map on the wall of the historical society showing the homestead which the family “proved” in the early part of the twentieth century. McTavish: it was a thrill to see my family name on such an old document. My grandmother’s stories of her rugged childhood echoed in my mind. “When I was born they put me in the oven to keep me warm.” We took photographs in front of the canola field that is on the present site of the homestead.
At a gathering at the Historical Society, my eyes filled with tears as I read the poem Mona wrote commemorating the death of her brother at Dieppe. I imagined, as she had so often said, that Howard, the great-uncle I never met, walked into the back of the room and stood listening to the words: “He gave his life like a gift, withholding nothing …”
Prince Albert was the last stop on my little book tour and it was also my grandmother’s birthplace. The family had paused its migration so that my grandmother could be born in safety. Walking around the town the day before the reading I saw the dates over the doorways of many of the buildings. They were built during the settler boom, just when the McTavish clan arrived. Looking at those red brick facades felt like visiting old relatives. I imagined the surge of joy my ancestors felt as they walked around these streets, a new baby just born, a new adventure ahead of them. I, too, was marking the start of a new phase of life, as an author.
The buildings reflected my family history, but the faces I saw didn’t look like any McTavish I knew. Prince Albert is home to a campus of First Nations University and a thriving Indigenous arts community. A sick feeling took up residence in my stomach alongside the pride.
It grew even stronger as I read the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report, and Half Breed by Maria Campbell.
I had written about the family’s journey to the land, the half-built house they came upon, the rigours and joys of life in the outdoors that gave my grandmother the hardiness, zest for life and unbowed will that were so uncommon for a woman of her time.
One person’s safe place was another’s …
One person’s beginning was another’s …
One person’s frontier was another’s …
“Gradually the homesteads were reclaimed by the authorities and offered to the immigrants. The Half-breeds then became squatters on their own land … So began a miserable life of poverty which held no hope for the future. That generation of my people was completely beaten. Their fathers had failed during the Rebellion to make a dream come true; they failed as farmers; now there was nothing left. Their way of life was part of Canada’s past and they saw no place in the world around them, for they believed they had nothing to offer. They felt shame, and with shame the loss of pride and the strength to live each day. I hurt inside when I think of those people … I hurt because in my childhood I saw glimpses of a proud and happy people. I heard their laughter, saw them dance, and felt their love.” (8)
There was a story fitting snugly around my story, outside its margins. It wasn’t my job to tell it, but leaving it unmentioned should not have been an option, either.
I don’t need to co-opt anyone’s else’s tradition to know it’s important to be responsible in speech and writing. There’s a Hasidic story about a man who spreads gossip in his town. He realizes he is doing harm and wants to make amends. He visits the Rabbi, who tells him to split open a pillow and scatter the feathers to the wind. When he’s collected all the feathers, he’ll be forgiven. It’s an impossible task.
How did this happen?
I was raised in an era when Indigenous people were footnotes to history. We read, not Half-Breed, but Animal Farm. The story pre-settlement came before the real history, the main history, our history. Indigenous people were plaster figures in the ROM. They were the savages who attacked the Jesuit fathers in Ste. Marie Among the Hurons. They were the people who lived in Pikangikum, where my father took a tiny plane during my childhood, returning with drawings as he did from Peru and Mexico and Japan.
I didn’t know, in other words. How could I write what I didn’t know?
I knew something. I knew that real history, our history, the only history that mattered was inside.
Okay, so things have changed. I’m learning. I’ve taken a course on Indigenous Dramaturgies with Jill Carter at the University of Toronto. She presented us with a worldview-shaking collection of plays and stories and theory and discussion. I was blessed to have her curate my first in-depth experience of Indigenous culture. All this has been supplemented by Indigenous Canada, an online course University of Alberta and walking organized by First Story Toronto.
All this would make it easy to talk about before and after, about the bad old days when I didn’t know and the good, new days of being an ally. But knowing facts is just part of the story. There’s knowing that and there’s knowing how.
I knew how to see my own people and people like me at the centre of history. Knew how not to question, question, and question again the first layers of information when it came to “who got here first.”
Knowing how takes a whole lot longer to change. Sometimes I think about the metric system. We were told, when we switched to it, that some of us would always think in pounds and inches. Not that we can’t use the metric system; its just that a certain framework is always there underneath. And it comes out in times of stress and fatigue, when we don’t have the chance to think.
Or when we don’t think we have to.
Here’s another prompt:
I feel …
Goodness is all mixed up with a sense of self worth and confidence. I’m so attached to the illusion of Canada the Good that I get to movies early so I can watch the Canada 150 Chevrolet and Roots commercials. (The Roots commercial is all about how polite we Canadians are.)
I’m so attached to that illusion that I sometimes can’t tell whether my mission to become a good ally is really about restoring it, rather than any attempt to create a healthy relationship.
Leanne Betasamosake Simpson on Canada:
If Canadians do not fully understand and embody the idea of reconciliation, is this a step forward? It reminds me of an abusive relationship where one person is being abused physically, emotionally, spiritually and mentally. She wants out of the relationship, but instead of supporting her we are all gathered around the abuser, because he wants to “reconcile.” But he doesn’t want to take responsibility. He doesn’t want to change. In fact, all through the process he continues to physically, emotionally, spiritually and mentally abuse his partner. He just wants to say sorry so he can feel less guilty about his behaviour. He just wants to adjust the ways he is abusing. He doesn’t want to stop the abuse.” Dancing on Our Turtle’s Back (21)
Bernard Schlink, on the Holocaust:
There is no entitlement to having the victims and their descendants lay aside the past once the Germans have shown exemplary efforts in coming to terms with it. How and what they remember and forget, to what lengths they go in attempting to free themselves from the traumatic past through mourning the victims or accusing the perpetrators or claiming restitution from the perpetrators’ descendants is their business. Whatever course of action they follow – it is not for us Germans to raise objections or feel indignation. Instead we owe respect to the other side’s difficult struggle with a past that we made traumatic for them.” Guilt About the Past (37)
I feel …
There was an outburst of horrendous aggression in the media in the past couple of weeks, a clumsy misuse of the term “free speech,” the repercussions of which will be felt for a long time to come. But more than any of the words, it was the way a group of people muscled their way into an important, relationship-building conversation and somehow took centre stage. Made it all about them.
What if …
What if the late-night tweeters had used some of their 140 characters on the words: I feel …
If you feel that you have to censor your speech and lie about your feelings based on some top-down dictate it makes sense to be resentful. If you feel like you only have a tiny bit and someone’s going to take it, it makes sense to close ranks.
But what if you felt a gratitude so profound that you were moved to respect, to reciprocate, to do what it took to deepen this relationship and keep it healthy?
We need to view the tougher aspects of the process in that light.
If we get another chance at it, that is.
What if …
Shifting frames is hard. It can seem — to quote the redoubtable Thomas King – inconvenient to contemplate.
The big surprise for me, in making time and space for forgotten and repressed histories and voices is that my strongest emotion has been gratitude.
I know empathy is important, but I don’t get where it belongs in this conversation. I’d rather talk about gratitude. This whole process has felt like being showered with gifts. The Indigenous culture that I’ve been exposed to has enriched my own life and my art, not in the sense of providing me with material to plunder, but in the sense that it dispels the feeling of scarcity that has corseted my artistic life for as long as I can remember. Really great art opens pathways; it doesn’t draw attention to itself at the expense of someone else, and this is really great art. In the Indigenous work I have read, feeling is at one with cogent thought, poetry and science inform each other, stark reality mingles with imagination. Most of all, it means something. It’s not just about verbally jerking off. This holism is nourishing. It provides for its readers.
One of our assignments in Jill Carter’s class was to go and sit “on the land” whatever that meant to us, four times a week for the whole term. Who has time for that? But Jill taught every class with heart and mind and kindness. And respect. I wanted to show respect for that respect. I chose a spot at Riverdale park, a bench in front of a linden tree. I didn’t go as often as I should, but I did visit in cold winds and unseasonable thaws, watched the squirrels leap through branches and flatten themselves against the ground, (marveling at their ability to change their shape), watched people playing with their dogs and sliding down the hill on the meager snow, listened long enough for the highway’s roar to subside and the birdsong and sounds of blowing grasses to emerge. I examined the bark of the tree and the traces of leaves and pods left on the branches.
I started feeling better, thinking better, sleeping better, dreaming more clearly. Teaching better. And yes, writing better. My own stories. I felt grateful to the tree and to the place.
I also started to feel an immense sense of vulnerability. What if I really, really let myself care about this tree?