CM . . .
. Volume XXIII Number 30. . . .April 14, 2017
Impact: Colonialism in Canada is edited by three individuals who bring impressive literary, academic, and creative credentials to this work: Warren Cariou, Dr. Nigaan James Sinclair, and Katherena Vermette. The stories in this collection take many forms: fiction, poetry, essays, personal memoirs, and other writings which defy easy categorization within any genre. The 27 contributors to this collection claim descent from a diversity of Indigenous and European backgrounds: Cree, Salish, Saulteaux, Dene, Mohawk, Métis, French, Irish, Ukrainian, to name but a few. ana Whiskey Jack asserts “ayisîyiniw ôta asiskiy I am a human being from this earth”, a statement that transcends all tribal, ethnic, and/or national boundaries. The tellers of these stories are emerging and established writers, academics, teachers, journalists, and community workers. Some live in major urban centres while others dwell in smaller or remote communities. Their life experiences are varied, and their perspectives may differ, but all of them have a common focus: exploring the impact of colonialism in Canada as it affected their communities, their families, and them, as individuals.
What is colonialism? The Canadian Oxford Dictionary defines it as “the exploitation or subjugation of a people by a larger or wealthier power”. Legislation such as the Indian Act, the establishment of the residential school system, and events such as the Sixties Scoop removed Indigenous peoples from their ancestral lands, their homes, and most importantly, from their families. The stories offered during the hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) are described by Herman J. Michell as being like spring, a time of re-birth, the first steps in “embarking on a journey of discovery, . . . on a path to reconciliation. When we share these with ourselves and each other we are able to express, let go of negativity and move on with our lives. We are able to heal.” (25)
Impact contains many stories of the denial of Indigenous culture and language. In “The Great Undoing”, upon being told that she and her brothers are “Indian”, Helen Knott writes that she “wanted to disown the word as it rolled, foreign, off my tongue. . . my only comparable definition was other, different, not the same, a part from the rest, and somehow ‘not equal to.’ ” She felt shamed. (p. 39) Lance Guilbault’s story, “Knowledge is Power”, tells of his defiant exit from a Grade 10 English class in which his teacher, Mr. E., tells him quite bluntly of his lack of any expectation for Lance: “I’ve seen your kind before and you’re all the same. It’s just a matter of time until you walk out of my class, just like every other one.” (p. 78) However, his Grade 11 English teacher, Mrs. True, is different: she cares that Lance doesn’t seem to care much about his schoolwork, and she gives him an assignment in which he must interview his grandmother. When Lance hears his Kokum’s story of forcible removal of children from their homes, their truly wretched living conditions in the residential schools, their punishment for speaking their own language, their attempts to run away, and the humiliation and pain dealt to those who fail to escape, he is changed forever. His grandmother reminds him that carrying hate in his heart is destructive, and that he has the potential to achieve, if he continues his education, because “knowledge is power.” (p. 85)
Sometimes, feelings of marginalization result, not only from Indigenous identity but also from other sources: being female, or from being lesbian, or from being two-spirited. In “Rose”, the story of Lisa Bird-Wilson’s grandmother’s hospitalization for a brain aneurysm, Bird-Wilson is infuriated by a “doctor’s obvious dismissal of us ‘women’ ” (p. 119), during the ER meeting in which her grandmother’s treatment options are discussed. Although knowledge can be powerful, Sharon Proulx-Turner struggles with her personal awareness that she is a lesbian; in the university library, “reading anthropological and missionary accounts of women’s two-spirit stories . . . [she] felt like a criminal sitting on that dusty floor reading about [her]self in books that were published at the turn of the 20th century.” (p. 137) But, in 1990, along with other participants in a conference of indigenous lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people, Proulx-Turner embraces the term “two-spirited”, and in remembering her grandmother’s injunction to “be careful what you call yourself”, she finds that “this one finally fit.” (p. 138). And marginalization continues in the case of the many missing and murdered Aboriginal women who are the subject of Gwen Benaway’s powerful poem “Embers”. She writes that
While colonialism has resulted in many negative outcomes for Indigenous peoples, this book contains stories of those who survive, who move ahead and beyond. A family history of alcoholism, poverty, and abuse leads to Gina Peters’ placement in foster care. A permanent ward of the CFS (Child and Family Services) by the age of 14, Gina is a drinker, a runaway, and a street kid. A brief respite at a Winnipeg support centre for young women offers a chance to turn her life around, but Gina meets Darryl. Beaten by him daily and continually drunk so that she can endure the abuse, she’s addicted to crack and working as a prostitute. Gina states that she had “lost the will to live” (p. 160). But, when she realizes that she is pregnant, she resolves to leave Darryl, re-connects with her mom, becomes sober, goes back to school, and has a son. Ten years later, she works at a treatment centre for women, helping women, as she was once helped. She states proudly, “I am glad I broke that Cycle. For my son. For a good life.” (p. 165)
And, as the pull quote promises, some of the stories can make you smile, even if they don’t exactly make you laugh. Danielle Marie Bitz’s “How to Flag a Cab and Other Things I Know” is a witty exploration of white privilege and ethnic/racial stereotyping, neither of which are typically very amusing subjects. As she and her partner (“6 feet 4 inches of working-class-white-male-feminist”) (p. 66) stand outside a well-known watering hole in downtown Winnipeg, a man comes up to the two of them and asks if they would please call him a taxi. Having grown up in Calgary, Bitz asks, “Why don’t you just flag one?” and is dumbfounded at the man’s claim that he’s been trying, unsuccessfully, to do so for 20 minutes. Her description of Winnipeg taxi etiquette is humorous (well, at least to this reviewer, a life-long resident of the city), but the smiles evaporate when she explains to hapless man that “when a cab driver looks at you, he sees a large Aboriginal man on the street outside a bar in downtown Winnipeg. When he looks at me he sees a medium sized white woman at a pub in the Exchange on Friday after work.” (p. 64) Unfortunately, perception can be a reality, and although Bitz (of mixed Métis and German-Ukrainian descent) apologizes to the man (who does get a cab, thanks to her partner’s phone call), she feels a bit humiliated by the experience.
Impact: Colonialism in Canada presents writings that are often challenging, thought-provoking, and at times, gut-wrenching. The collection is a testament to strength and resiliency and the potential for healing, both within the Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities. But, it is not easy reading; it demands considerable insight, open-mindedness, and an understanding of an historical concept (i.e. colonialism), all of which point to the book’s being read and/or studied by students in the upper grades of high school. It’s certainly a work that would be a fine reference in a high school library collection, and teachers would find it to be an excellent supplemental text for the study of Aboriginal writers, as well as Canadian history, particularly as a reflection of the impact of colonialism upon Canada’s Indigenous peoples.
Joanne Peters, a retired teacher-librarian, lives in Winnipeg, MB
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.