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Growing up Canadian

2012 July 12

(First in a multi-part series on Aboriginal issues in Canada. See Part II: Grow up, Canada.)

This month finds me in the Aboriginal community of Chisasibi, the most populous Iyyu settlement in Eeyou Istchee. (In English they are called the James Bay Cree; these are the Cree terms.) I want to thank my Cree hosts for having me here, and for taking care of this land for so many generations. Chisasibi is about 1500km north of Montreal; it is the northernmost community in Quebec that is accessible by road, though I took a plane.

Lots of friends and family have asked for stories, but I am hesitant to jump into detail without first saying something about the historical context of my presence here, and how I have come to understand it. I’ll start by explaining what I learned about Native people, growing up as a non-Native child in urban Canada. I will include my perspectives from that time. A warning to people who already know the history of indigenous peoples in Canada: you may be upset by this post, since I suspect it reflects a pretty typical upbringing for a non-Native Canadian child. (Conversely, people who don’t know the history will find the next post upsetting.)

Totem poles in Stanley Park

Totem poles in Stanley Park by johnny9s, on Flickr

Growing up on the west side of Vancouver, I did not know any Native people; my most salient Native-related memories relate to my exposure to Native art, which is visible in many public places (like Stanley Park, pictured at right), and which my grandmother has a particular affection for. I especially remember visiting the UBC Museum of Anthropology with my grandmother, where I saw the longhouse, the art installations like Bill Reid’s clamshell piece (pictured below), and hand-carved wooden spoons and bowls and canoes and other tools of daily life. She also had a book of Haida stories for children at her summer place, where I read most memorably about how the trickster Raven, by turning into a salal berry and being eaten by a woman and thereby impregnating her and becoming her son, stole the sun from her family’s wooden box and flew it up into the sky. I encountered some of the same imagery in elementary school, where I learned about some of the traditional material conditions of life for Native people in BC, like living in longhouses, and sustenance by hunting/gathering. But beyond a few artists and museums keeping the style and stories alive, in my mind, all of this belonged to the past.

The Raven and First Men

The Raven and First Men by levork, on Flickr

There were of course also the stereotypical images from the media, like the generic Indians in Disney’s Peter Pan movie who live in teepees, greet people with “how” and call women “squaws”, and spend their evenings smoking from pipes and dancing around a fire. Again, these were images that seemed to belong to another time; I saw them as archetypes from the popular narratives of the past, like cowboys or pirates, and didn’t really give them much thought one way or the other.

I can remember being vaguely aware of some Natives blocking roads in the early 1990’s. I didn’t know why. I remember, in grade 6, having to perform some kind of skit for class. A few friends and I came up with a comedic skit about a crazy Indian blocking roads because he was crazy. Complete with the “woo-woo-woo-woo” warble made with the fingers tapping the mouth. We were scolded and told this was offensive. I wasn’t sure why but I figured it was because we had implied that all Indians are crazy, which is not what we meant.

In high school, social studies classes taught a more explicit and linear history—almost exclusively the history of Europe, the USA, and Canada. We learned some benign historical facts about Native people: that they came to the Americas from Asia via the Bering Strait land bridge during the last Ice Age over 10,000 years ago; some were hunter-gatherers and others were permanently settled; they were organized into tribes which had their own wars and alliances; their cedar bark tea saved arriving European sailors from scurvy; they played an important role in the fur trade that fuelled the growth of the country. Unfortunately a lot of them died of smallpox early on, due to lack of immunity, which is unfortunate but presumably inevitable. Lots of Europeans died of smallpox too, just not all at once.

Lions' Gate Bridge

Lions’ Gate Bridge by ecstaticist, on Flickr

I learned at some point that the rows of identical cheap-looking houses under the far side of the Lions Gate Bridge were a Native community, as were a similar community on the far side of Southwest Marine Drive; I didn’t know anyone who lived there, so I didn’t give the place much thought. At some point I did realize that the arriving Europeans had taken over a lot of the land, and I came across the occasional reference to land claims in the news. This loss of land seemed like ancient history, though. Every border in the world is the result of someone winning a war: if land claims are about reversing that transfer of control of land, they sound pretty impractical, and anyway unfair to the winners’ descendants who, having been born here, now have just as much right to land as the descendants of yesteryear’s victims. I didn’t know much about land claims, but didn’t particularly expect them to go anywhere.

In 1999, I got to add a new border to my mental map of Canada, when we created Nunavut for the Inuit. (I had learned that “Indian” and “Eskimo” are offensive and inaccurate terms based on European misunderstandings.) Its capital is Iqaluit. That’s about all I knew about it.

In university, I studied math and computers, having decided that history amounted to uselessly memorizing the dates of irrelevant, long-past events. I didn’t learn anything more about Native people. There was that one building on campus whose name was, curiously, spelled with a ‘7’ in the middle of one word, but I never found out what it was. I had one friend from Winnipeg who told me that non-Native people in Winnipeg have very stereotyped views because, unlike in Vancouver, there are a lot of homeless and alcoholic Native people in Winnipeg. This came as news to me: I had never encountered the stereotype of the “drunken Indian”. That was sad too, but by this point I was able to at least not blame the victim, figuring that longstanding poverty was the reason for this, itself a probable consequence of that original loss of land. Maybe Native people were genetically more susceptible to alcoholism; I heard that too, and it seemed plausible.

On the other hand, I also heard that many Native people had special rights for hunting and fishing, including even whales, and that they don’t pay certain taxes, which is why there are so many casinos run by Natives in the USA. I wasn’t sure what to think about the tension between giving poor people an economic break and the opportunity to practice their culture, and policies that essentially encode racial discrimination and weaken protection for endangered species.

Sitka Alaska Tribe Seal

Sitka Alaska Tribe Seal by Native American Seals/Logos, on Flickr

So basically, coming out of the public school system in Canada, I had heard about how Native people lived traditionally, and how they then suffered losses when Europeans arrived 400 years ago. Otherwise, they were unfamiliar at best, invisible at worst. Except for their art, which is very nice, and which we sell to tourists as souvenirs of Canada; its presence in my life generally shows that Canada appreciates its Native peoples.

Mostly, I understood my country as well-meaning, mostly benign, and in some ways heroic. We made brave sacrifices in the two World Wars, and then championed the development of peacekeeping; we welcomed American defectors from the Vietnam war; we prize fairness and compassion enough to provide universal health care to our citizens; we value and preserve different cultures through our self-concept of multiculturalism (instead of the homogenizing American “melting pot”); we were early adopters of gay marriage; and we stayed out of the Iraq war in 2003. Every country has its problems, but all in all—though none of us likes to be brazenly patriotic—I could agree that we are a pretty good country.

I admit I did hear about Canada’s cruel and flagrantly racist practice of stripping Japanese people in Canada of their possessions and forcibly interning them in camps during World War II. That was recent enough to be troubling, but it was still another world; of course everyone was openly racist in the 1950’s and earlier, but we acknowledge and condemn this now, and while a few stubborn or uneducated racists still linger, things are overall much better today. Aren’t they?

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Preety permalink
    2012 July 12 18:05

    Hmmmm…very well written. Looking forward to the next post Andrew. I can say I had a very similar experience to yours growing up. I’ve definitely come across some stereotyped views here in Winnipeg.

  2. 2012 July 12 18:29

    Never mind the bigots in Winnipeg – this whole post is so unrelentingly racist and ignorant, and it’s about me! In a future post I’ll explain all the racism I see in my own past views, which goes much deeper than just my awful twelve-year-old reaction to the Oka crisis. It was quite a revelation to learn about the depths of my own racism. I think I am less racist now, but I’ve probably still got wrong ideas that I don’t recognize yet, because it’s hard to recognize racism when it doesn’t affect you.

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