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Clowns, Cakes, Canoes: This is Canada?

LISA BIRD-WILSON

Romantic notions that equate Indigenous peoples with nature are not going to cut it

Last fall I participated in two joint readings with the Nisga’a author Jordan Abel (Injun, Talonbooks, 216). Hearing Jordan talk about his work and present it in his unique style, via digital mixer with the theatre lights turned low, was a fresh treat. In Injun, Jordan works from found text, taking lines of old Western novels containing the word Injun and using them, via random generating software, to create his poetry. It’s a creative and unique approach.

Later in the year, I saw an article in the Walrus in which Jordan writes about rethinking his reading practices and about a friend mentioning the idea of “reading Indigenously.” Jordan admits he doesn’t know how to do it, this “reading Indigenously,” or what it even really means, but one of his actions is to focus on reading works by Indigenous authors.

Jordan’s suggestion of reading Indigenously stuck with me. Like Jordan, I haven’t come to terms with all that reading Indigenously might entail, but for me a part of the practice means dissecting what I’m reading to identify both what’s there, and—equally significant—what’s missing. It occurs to me this might be described as decolonizing reading, where decolonizing is a verb and reading is both a noun and a verb. This kind of reading is not solely an Indigenous act—it’s required of us all.

Later, I stumbled across a review of Jane Urquhart’s recent book A Number of Things (HarperCollins, 216), described as a book about fifty things that are meant to symbolize the story of Canada and “speak to our collective experience as a nation.” As an Indigenous person in Canada, I was instantly suspicious of that description. We’ll see about that, I thought. I didn’t quite know it yet, but I had just put on my “Indigenous reading” glasses. In that spirit, I picked up a copy of Urquhart’s “15th birthday gift to Canada,” undid the ribbon, tore away the pretty paper and found a book about fifty objects meant to represent Canada, including tractors, barns, lighthouses, canoes, books, a Mountie’s turban and a train’s cowcatcher, to name a few.

Around the same time, Nêhiyaw NDP Member of Parliament Romeo Saganash wrote a satiric letter to Justin Trudeau calling for a national canoe-and-paddle program. Saganash was responding to the Prime Minister’s goofy remarks in Saskatchewan about Indigenous youth wanting places to put their canoes and paddles. Glittery and Vogue as the PM seemed only a short year ago, his words landed like a clump of lake-sodden weeds.

“Canoe,” one of Urquhart’s fifty things in A Number of Things, echoes the PM’s odd hang-up with canoes and Indigenous people. Urquhart states, “The canoe was the craft…as the aboriginal [sic] peoples of Canada knew and continue to know so well—that could take you to certain remote parts of the country.” For Urquhart, the canoe, and Indigenous people by association, engender a dreamy psychological transformation, linked to nature, and juxtaposed with city “rules, timetables, and obedience.”

A Number of Things includes often sentimental vignettes, historical and personal in nature, with the things themselves acting as jumping-off points. About five items out of fifty spark particular interest as I read through my Indigenous lens. The rope that hanged Louis Riel, “the [angry] rebel” “fuelled by a kind of glorious fury.” A legging belonging to a Beothuk mother “on the cusp of extinction.” Reductive and frustrating references to First Nations “tribes.” Romantic notions equating us with nature. The problem is, in a country whose very foundation is based on extinguishing Indigenous title to the land in order to make room for European settlers, token representations of our romantic or imagined vanishing presence on this land are not going to cut it. Texts are as telling for what’s said as what is not said. Through the reading, I’m vexed by what remains un-expressed, who remains un-included, what experiences are un-reflected in this celebration of Canada.

Canada 15. It’s happening now, it’s happening all around us. There’s so much history on this land that’s not about Canada and the last 15 years, yet we find ourselves in the middle of a frenetic birthday party with balloons, streamers, fireworks, confetti, cake and clowns. Suddenly, roused from our frosting-induced stupor, we brush the cake crumbs from our lapel, turn to the clown next to us and ask: Why? Why are we in the middle of this party celebrating the tiny fraction of history that is settler history on these lands? Because time, the perception of time, is controlled and ordered by those who hold power. The context for presenting and understanding history (read: Canada 15) is a white Canadian context.

Urquhart’s book reflects the privilege to structure time and tell official history. In such a telling, it’s up to Aboriginal contexts, stories and experiences to fit into the order established by the dominant framework. As if Indigenous experience must be wedged into the story of Canada on this continent. As if it’s not really Canada that fills the small space in the story. As if stories are linear. Embedded in Canada 15 are the workings of 15 years of unexamined power and authority.

Urquhart’s “collective experience as a nation” renders Indigenous experiences, thoughts, languages and world views marginal. And yet, these are times of unprecedented attention to Indigenous issues, in great part sparked by the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and buoyed by such actions as the federal inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and other emerging awareness and interest in Indigenous issues, not to mention the sheer unwillingness of Indigenous people to accept any longer our disenfranchisement from the national conversation. What I see happening right now is a chance to change the way we think about the story of Canada. In this vein, I find Urquhart’s book an out-of-shape aerobics-class participant in bad ’9s spandex sweating to keep up but ultimately one or two Zumba steps behind the rest of us.

Reflected in Urquhart’s vignettes are versions of Indigenous experiences acceptable to, or defined by, mainstream thinking, that reflect the power of the author to choose and the power of the publisher to choose. The question, during this time of unprecedented national efforts toward reconciliation, is: How do we critically analyze those choices, and perhaps come to a new understanding of how the choices were made and upon what foundation? This, I think, is what’s involved in reading Indigenously.

In Urquhart’s 39th entry, “Cree Basket,” she writes with fondness about the Nêhiyaw poet Louise Bernice Halfe, former Poet Laureate of Saskatchewan, also known as Sky Dancer. Questioning, rethinking, re-solving are at the heart of Halfe’s latest work, Burning in this Midnight Dream (Coteau, 216). If there is a story to be attended to, it’s within the pages of her book, in the walk “backwards on footprints/ that walked forward/ for the story to be told.” Halfe’s poems belong in a story connected to hope for decolonization (all of us—you too, white Canada) and the current national conversation about truth and reconciliation. Each poem offers a gift of language, both Nêhiyaw and English, and deep resistance against the “seed of blindness.”

Hope and the desire to reclaim “what I lost/ what is needed for the red road” weave through Halfe’s collection. Following a series of gutting early poems reflecting the “truth” in truth and reconciliation—poems, I might add, that although less sanitized “go deeper but never fully plumb the depths”—Halfe writes, “I want to know how I can bring beauty/ and drink the nectar of delight.” Louise Halfe teaches, she leads the decolonizing efforts that are so painfully familiar to generations of Indigenous people: “We offer our tobacco, hang our prayer cloth/ take these small lessons/ and reclaim them as our own.”

Both Urquhart’s and Halfe’s texts rely on personal and historical perspectives, but the polarization of the story of Canada, “our collective experience as a nation,” is utterly glaring when the two texts are placed side by side. Halfe’s X, “burned ink onto [her] skin for Treaty Six,” represents the divergence that goes far beyond the two books. Urquhart’s Treaty X ought to be no less visible, no less acutely felt than Halfe’s, and yet it’s as if Urquhart’s Treaty X is written in invisible settler ink. Not burned onto her skin but more like an all-but-faded temporary tattoo. This is the settler privilege, to choose not to know, to choose not to participate mindfully and meaningfully in Treaty. The work ought not to be all ours. The tricky business of reading Indigenously, whatever that might fully mean, belongs to us all.

While I firmly believe your chances in Canadian Trivial Pursuit might be improved after reading A Number of Things, unfortunately your engagement with the most important political and cultural ideas of the moment won’t be.

Lisa Bird-Wilson, a Cree-Metis writer from Saskatchewan, is the author of three books: The Red Files, a poetry collection (Nightwood Editions, 216), Just Pretending, short stories (Coteau Books, 213) and An Institute of Our Own: A History of the Gabriel Dumont Institute (Gabriel Dumont Publishing, 211). Her shorter works have been published in periodicals including the Malahat Review, Grain, Prairie Fire, the Dalhousie Review, kimiwan and Geist, and in anthologies including Best Canadian Essays. Bird-Wilson lives in Saskatoon, SK. Read her story “Blood Memory” here.

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LISA BIRD-WILSON

Lisa Bird-Wilson, a Métis and nêhiyaw writer from Saskatchewan, is the author of three books: The Red Files, a poetry collection (Nightwood Editions, 2016), Just Pretending, short stories (Coteau Books, 2013) and An Institute of Our Own: A History of the Gabriel Dumont Institute (Gabriel Dumont Press, 2011). Just Pretending is the 2019 One Book One Province selection for Saskatchewan. Her first novel, Probably Ruby, was published in 2021 by Doubleday Canada. Her shorter works have been published in periodicals and anthologies across Canada. Bird-Wilson lives in Saskatoon, SK. Find her at lisabirdwilson.com.


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