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?











Writing Prompts for Settlers

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 …

Maria Campbell:

“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 …

Not good.

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?



Let’s show some respect to the authors in Write

May 17, 2017

I have been trying to compose a blog entry that addresses the most recent issue of Write magazine and the editorial that led to so much … I can’t call it discussion. I am trying to weigh my words, not just contribute to the ill-considered posturing.

The best way I can find is to quote from the authors who contributed to the magazine. They’ve got everything to say about freedom of speech and responsibility to community. About constraints accepted and silence imposed. About tradition and innovation. About the impacts of colonialism, the dubious activity of “space-making.” About pain. About how very, very far we still have to go. About resurgence and making space for themselves and each other. About what that space-making does and can mean. They’re saying it with intelligence, grace and above all, respect.

But these pieces were written in a context of trust, for members of The Writers’ Union, who receive Write magazine. And that trust was betrayed. I don’t feel I have have any right to quote from these pieces. Would any of these writers have written so candidly and openly if they’d seen the editorial? Would they have agreed to participate at all?

The intimacy of this writing could have been a way of creating new relationships and enriching old ones. Every one of the stories is an act of profound generosity. The worst thing about the latest issue of Write is that it failed to respect these gifts.

What these writers have to say is important, and not just in the context of the ignorant and facile talk that has been swirling around since the issue came out.

I’ll take my cue from Jesse Wente and name the writers and publishers whose work went into the issue. We settler-folks need to shut up and listen to these people. If they choose to talk to us again.

Fortunately, Alicia Elliott has. Here’s her fine article. Also, this is piece that she should never have had to write.

Here are the other authors and publishers.

Kateri Akiwensie-Damm and Kegedonce Press
Alicia Elliott
Gord Grisenthwaite
Louise Bernice Halfe
Helen Knott
Gloria Mehlmann
Tanya Roach
Richard Van Camp
Elaine J. Wagner
Shannon Webb-Campbell and Theytus Books
Joshua Whitehead












If things were so perfect in the writing world and in our society, would we need a writers’ Union?

Leanne Simpson:

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.