How Contrarians Read a Book on Reconciliation: Jonathan Kay and In This Together

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12322475_895983110470947_683162362249974662_oDisclaimer: What follows are my own ideas and do not necessarily reflect those of the publisher (Brindle & Glass) and contributors. Also, I recognize the weirdness of two settlers discussing some of these ideas back and forth. But as some of my colleagues have told me, “we’re sick and tired of explaining this crap. You settlers need to teach each other some of this.’ Or, as Lee Maracle said on a panel recently to the largely non-Indigenous audience: “You do the work.”

 

Last week, a sharp-eyed contributor to the anthology, In This Together: Fifteen Stories of Truth & Reconciliation, forwarded me a link. Apparently, Jonathan Kay, editor-in-chief at The Walrus had published a quasi-review of In This Together called “How First Nations Became a Prop for White Activists.”

The headline was the first clue the ‘review’ might be a little controversial. Then, once I opened the link I saw Kay’s piece was actually in the Argument section of the magazine, not in the Book section. He’d used it as a launching pad for an opinion piece. “Walrusgate” had begun.

The Internet seems to agree that Kay was brought in to lead The Walrus in 2014 to stir things up. I’ve never been a fan of pundits and even Calgary’s Tom Flanagan said on CBC last year that he regretted his inflammatory style of debate – not only around the misconstrued child pornography comments that triggered his downfall, but around issues concerning Indigenous people and colonialism in Canada. But to each his own, I guess. I know lots of “natural contrarians”, and while they tend to be a little exhausting, they do force me to analyze my positions and communicate them in new ways.

Kay and I would probably butt heads a lot, but I think we’d share some common ground based on what I’ve read of his book, Among the Truthers, and our general skeptical approach to life. In many ways he sounds like a more extreme version of my engineer-atheist-rationalist husband. And we manage to have good discussions and stay married.

In fact, there are quite a few parts of Kay’s opinion piece I agreed with:

  1. In This Together is a poignant and well-intentioned book, and one that deserves to be bought and read.”
  2. “The path toward reconciliation doesn’t always run through Ottawa or Rome. Reconciliation also can take place at the level of friends, family members and neighbours.”
  3. “The need for reconciliation is very real. No humane or reasonable person would deny this.”

 

And I believe that Kay is in favour of reconciliation and already on his way down that path since he capitalized ‘Indigenous’ throughout his piece, which advocates of indigenizing writing and publishing like Greg Younging have pushed for. [this seems a major shift from his 2007 piece “Off the reservation”.]

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I’m happy Kay engaged with the book. That in itself shows it was successful. After all, one of our main missions was to get people reading and thinking about reconciliation outside the ivory tower, especially among non-Indigenous people who don’t consider themselves ‘allies’.

He also apparently read quite a lot of it, despite the obvious time pressures of the 21st century – although I think he skipped over a few parts. While Kay has highlighted some areas I think are important for the dialogue around reconciliation, I have to disagree with him that he’s looked at the collection as a whole. In the pundit tradition, it seems he dipped into the collection and selected only those bits that fit his argument.

He’s right that “well meaning” or “nice Canadians” who have just become aware of the Indian Residential School system and the country’s colonial past and present, tend to start with settler fragility and then move on to “settler guilt” (sometimes known as white liberal guilt) quite quickly. As scholars of colonialism and reconciliation show, both are pretty self-serving. Both are also very human initial reactions to news that disrupts the narratives you’ve been carrying around your entire life.

Writers and people in Canada’s dominant ‘cultural class’ (as we might call them), generally pride themselves on empathy. I’m not suggesting that reconciliation is a linear journey, but like that old Stages of Grief model, for many there is a predictable chugging from fragility to guilt and then toward (hopefully) a constructive decolonization of our lives.

Unlike Kay, I don’t think there’s a monolithic intellectual class in our country. It’s true that some settler activists (don’t even get me started on the white-Indigenous binary that Kay perpetuates) are recovering Marxists with a case of ‘romantic primitivism’ and they should be schooled in decolonization right alongside the rest of us. But I don’t think readers will find many within the pages of In This Together.

The Indigenous intellectual, political and business classes I’ve become familiar with over the past few years, for example, don’t necessarily follow in the communist footsteps Kay describes. Those that spoke at the Walrus Talks Aboriginal City event in Edmonton last year such as Jessica Bolduc, Douglas Cardinal, Roberta Jamieson and Patti LaBoucane Benson are, from what I can tell, coming out of activism firmly rooted in Indigenous cultures and traditions. Overlaying Marxism is a colonial act in and of itself. And, besides, I don’t know anyone in the History and other departments I frequented engaging with Marxism much anymore anyway. A decade ago (and it may be changing in the academy now, but it’s hard to know because so little of that work trickles out into the mainstream) it’s all Michel Foucault and Edward Said and combining anti-racist, intersectional feminist theories. In the activism I’ve seen, I hear more about social media strategies than Marx.

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Another place where Kay and I agree is that any stereotypes created by non-Indigenous people are dangerous. As Daniel Francis showed in his book The Imaginary Indian back in 1992, settlers have often used their images of Indigenous folks for their own political and entertainment ends. Some well-meaning environmentalists, as Kay notes, have jumped on the ‘Ecological Indian’ bandwagon, totally ignoring (or dismissing) those who advocate for development of resources (even if it’s within a self-governing and sustainable framework) or hunting of certain species (say, whales or seals). It is just as colonial and paternalistic to do this, of course. And that’s exactly what I said to a group of youth at a Greenpeace conference earlier this year after my Cree co-panelist Miranda Jimmy (co-founder of Reconciliation in Solidarity Edmonton), told them to beware cultural appropriation and “sticking a feather” in things.

You also won’t hear me propping up one religion over another, although as a confirmed agnostic I do see the appeal of Indigenous spiritualities for disaffected Christians, just as I see how Buddhism and Jainism have attracted adherents from Western societies. Nevertheless, a close reading of all the pieces in the collection shows a remarkable balance. In fact, one of the examples Kay draws on for his argument around animism, Antoine Mountain’s essay, talks about the latter’s involvement in the Indian Ecumenical Conferences. My reading of this piece – where he refers to ‘God’ (not the Creator) – is of religious syncretism. Justice (now Senator) Murray Sinclair, also speaks of his appreciation for Christianity in his frank conversation with CBC’s Shelagh Rogers where he reveals he actually planned on becoming a Catholic priest up until he went to university, and that he still draws on different spiritual traditions to find the direction and uplift he needs.

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Perhaps this point just illustrates how different people read differently. I see Indigenous writer Carleigh Baker talking about the Vittrekwas on the Peel River in the Yukon not as “preternaturally wise and selfless environmentalists” but as a family with deep roots in the area who put up with the “under-prepared dumbasses” (her words) of Baker’s crew.

I read Steven Cooper as saying in his essay that Indigenous peoples had whole, functional families and communities – who yes, had “harsh times”, as he says, and feuds and wars and all that fun stuff. But there was a wholeness and sense of order that was hugely, and intentionally disrupted by colonization, especially the Residential School System.

And, if the pendulum has swung toward appreciation after decades of government-legislated denigration of Indigenous life ways (see: banning of potlatch, Thirst Dance, Pass System), that might be a needed correction in the short term. Think of it as affirmative action for Indigeneity. For many Canadians within the dominant culture, they are awakening to all the fantastic learning and relationships that can happen by being open to Indigenous cultures, so understandably they’re excited. Even so, no one in this anthology is saying that whitewashing the past is a good thing. Zacharias Kunuk, the Igloolik-based filmmaker talks in his essay, “The Perfect Tool,” about a documentary project he worked on called Inuit Cree Reconciliation about the 1770 coming together of the traditional enemies in this “old-time Indian war story.” [Interestingly enough, Kay quotes another part of this page for a different argument. Did he just miss this?]

Kay also argues that settler Canadians don’t know about the violence pre-contact because Indigenous folks have “oral cultures, so there are few written sources to document the true fabric of ancient life.” First off, oral histories together with cultural artifacts such as buffalo hides, actually detail warfare, epidemics and community stories – the good, the bad and the ugly. If you talk to a Cree person in Treaty 6 territory, they might have some stories for you about the Blackfoot in Treaty 8 – and vice versa. And the edgy banter between the Inuvialuit and the Gwich’in comes from many generations of rivalries or outright warfare.

While I’m sure this wasn’t Kay’s intention, he’s really insulting oral histories here, and showed that widespread ignorance – even among some of Canada’s smartest folks – persists despite the decades since Delgamuukw and Victor Buffalo and all those other major court decisions. I’d really hoped it wasn’t just Indigenous peoples, Traditional Knowledge experts, historians and anthropologists who now agreed that oral histories have durable content and weight. Guess we all still have some work to do.

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Finally, on to the “Magical-seeming Aboriginals.” This can also be a damaging stereotype out there in the wide world, but I haven’t met too many of these mythical beings in the pages of In This Together. What I have met are foul-mouthed realists; determined activists; vulnerable folks stripped of half their identity before they were born; former addicts who are making amends; Survivors and intergenerational survivors; and yes, a few truly inspirational people. I’ve never met Carol at The Painted Pony in Kamloops, BC, for example, but Katherin Edwards assures me she actually is “an angel”.

I’ve had the distinct honour of spending time with Elders in various territories the past few years and, like Elders in many traditions who are steeped in culture, tradition and spirituality, they do exude the kind of wisdom and peace – and winking dry humour – you find in someone like the Dalai Lama. I think of the way my grandmother used to speak of Pope Jean Paul II, or my secular parents’ generation talks of John Lennon and John F. Kennedy. Those people exist in the world, and sometimes they get talked about in books.

And sometimes those Elders I’ve met do seem magical because of their capacity for love, forgiveness and reconciliation in the face of all they and their peoples have faced through the Indian Residential School System and other colonial laws and policies. But then again, like the authors of this collection, I am looking for some magic in this life. We may think critically about the world around us but as writers and storytellers we use imagery and metaphor to delve into meaning and wrestle with our personal demons on the page.

I think any Canadian trying to parse their place in reconciliation – whether Indigenous or non-Indigenous – is probably going through something similar. We wanted to put this anthology out there to make that process transparent. To show people it was okay to be unsure, awkward, and stumbling.  Essays on any topic – but especially reconciliation – often take place in the middle of someone’s thought process. As one of the contributors noted, the collection is perhaps imperfect, but it’s like a snapshot of the conversations happening today.

Like Kay, I am wearing the editor hat as I write this. We both bring together a variety of perspectives in order to stimulate readers to, hopefully, think more deeply. He has his own perspective, which he expressed in his opinion piece. I hope readers will look at the entire collection from cover to cover and come to their own conclusions. And I hope they will, like Kay – keep the conversation going.

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Oh, and one last thing. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission issued 94 Calls to Action, not recommendations. And I think there’s a big difference.

 

Happy National Aboriginal Day!

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