Review of Salt to the Sea

Salt to the Sea is a poignant book I devoured in two sittings. I thought the multiple viewpoints and tiny (2-3 page chapters) would bother me, but instead author Ruta Sepetys handled them masterfully and it kept the pace moving at a clip. It is a tough read emotionally because of the subject matter and the desperate situation of the civilians caught up in WW2, but that historic setting is one of the things that makes it such an important book, of course. We in North America don’t hear enough about the experiences of Eastern Europeans during this period – especially those outside of urban centres – and even as a historian I had never heard of the sinking of the Gustloff, one of the greatest maritime disasters.
I felt my breath catch in my throat a few times, either because of the beauty of the spare writing or the heartbreak the characters endured. I hope everyone will read this. It is powerful example of how everyday people – children, teenagers – get caught up in world events and can become refugees in their quest for survival. But that we can be resilient and find beauty, friendship and love along the way.

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

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”.]


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.


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.


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.


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.


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!

Reconciliation Talk at Indigenous Arts Festival @ Fort York in Toronto

2016_IAFPowWow Poster

Quill & Quire Praises In This Together Anthology!

A selection of personal essays by indigenous and non-indigenous writers, In This Together: Fifteen Stories of Truth and Reconciliation is a call for meaningful reconciliation between colonizers and indigenous people. Edited by author and historian Danielle Metcalfe-Chenail, the anthology looks beyond government lip service and into the heart of Canada’s shameful past—and present.

The theme of loss recurs throughout. The indigenous authors collected here use personal stories to show how colonization forced their people into assimilation. The resulting loss of identity is a pervasive theme in the book, but so is the power inherent in the act of reclamation. in “This Many Storied Land,” Kamala Todd illustrates the importance of understanding the realities of colonized land in Canada. Describing her work as aboriginal social planner for the CIty of Vancouver, Todd makes an exceptional point: our cities aren’t built to reflect their indigenous roots. How, she asks, can we acknowledge our country’s history if it’s rendered invisible? Reclaiming history, both physically and symbolically, forces non-indigenous folk to acknowledge what they often easily ignore.
Reconciliation, the book demonstrates, takes effort from all parties. This can often be painful and embarrassing, especially when citizens become more self-reflexive. The majority of the stories by non-indigenous authors collected here are brutally honest, and thus extremely uncomfortable to read. Many run up against the dangerous lure of exotification, sometimes characterizing indigenous people by their skin tones and eye shapes. Carol Shaben’s “Echo” kicks off with a cringe-worthy physical description of “the most exotic” person in her high school, a girl named Echo. Although this description is less than palatable, it serves as a device for highlighting prejudice. By reflecting upon their shallow interactions with indigenous people, the various authors trace a journey of personal growth and self-reflexivity. They learn that their attitudes are an indirect contribution to oppression.
Although this kind of personal recognition marks an important step forward, In This Together demonstrates that colonization is not a thing of Canada’s past, and suggest that real reconciliation is only possible through an honest appraisal of our present. —Nadya Domingo

In This Together off to a great start!

Me and Miranda Jimmy. Photo taken by Kevin Tuong.


Elder Gisele Wood blessed the event.


Collection contributors and panel members Steven Cooper, Carissa Halton and Rhonda Kronyk


Audrey’s Books was the official bookseller for the event.


Miranda and I chatting with contributors.


Sara Kormanisky with Terry Lusty, a local artist, activist and residential school Survivor.


I am truly humbled by the excitement in Edmonton around the launch of the anthology – and the willingness of people to engage with the messy reality of reconciliation. It has been an incredible week with the launch at Edmonton Public Library, media chats, conferences and learning. Here’s a roundup of some of the early news stories and reviews!

 *Thanks to Brad Crowfoot for volunteering his photographic talents at the event!

In This Together set to launch in Edmonton soon!


Wise words from Shelagh Rogers and Justice Murray Sinclair

When renowned CBC radio host Shelagh Rogers and Chief Justice Murray Sinclair offered to record a candid conversation on Gabriola Island (British Columbia) last year for the In This Together anthology, I’ll be the first to admit I had a major fangirl moment.

I have been a fan of Ms. Rogers’ since I became an avid listener of The Next Chapter, and even more so when I learned she was an ‘honoured witness’ for the TRC. Chief Justice Sinclair is someone I have come to look up to immensely through his work as chair of the TRC. Both are role models for their humanity, generosity, humility, and commitment to figuring out the history and legacy of colonialism in our country.

As any writer, journalist, anthropologist, or other professional who spends a lot of time (and finger cramps) transcribing knows, that work is often considered a chore. But when the audio of this conversation arrived in my inbox, I was thrilled to be the one who got to listen to it and to try and faithfully transcribe their words and meaning. I’ll admit that I got chills many times and had to stop at least once to find a tissue.

We included that transcribed conversation at the back of the book, but I’m excited to share the original audio with you through the magic of the Internet. I hope you enjoy listening to it as much as I did when I first plugged my earbuds in to put their voices down on the page.

Click here to listen.

An overdue post

The past couple of months have been beyond hectic with amazing, challenging projects and a slightly chaotic move south of the border. Now my Southwestern Houston, TX house and family are slightly organized and I realize it’s time to take stock and catch up on things!

A quick round-up of links and news!

  • In This Together: Fifteen Stories of Truth and Reconciliation (Brindle & Glass) is at the printers and folks are already starting to talk about it! Michael Hingston of the Edmonton Journal and the people at 49th Shelf both mentioned it as one of their most anticipated books of 2016. Launch events are on the horizon across Canada and I can’t wait to connect with contributors and readers in person! First up: evening of March 30 at the downtown Edmonton Public Library. Stay tuned for details…
  • My Charles Camsell Hospital research continues apace despite the distance between me and YEG. The internet, local assistants and several boxes of photocopies and scans help!
  • Canada’s History just published a double review of Polar Winds and Canadian Women in the Sky by Liz Muir (I wrote the foreword!). Love how books just keep living.

Hope all of y’all are doing well and if you have any hot writing or history tips about Houston or Texas, please pass them along to this new transplant!



2016 CAHF Inductees Announced

Fred.pictureWonderful news from Canada’s Aviation Hall of Fame. Fred Carmichael from Inuvik, NWT will be recognized for his incredible achievements and contributions. I am so happy I was able to help honour him by nominating this amazing aviator! After interviewing him in 2010 and writing about him in Polar Winds, I knew he deserved it. Congrats, Fred, Kathy, and all the rest!


Canada’s Aviation Hall of Fame (CAHF) will induct four new members, and recognize a Belt of Orion recipient, at its 43rd annual gala dinner and ceremony, to be held Thursday June 9, 2016, at the Canada Aviation and Space Museum, at Rockcliffe Airport in Ottawa.
The new members are:

CAHF inductees are selected for their contributions to Canada’s development through their integral roles in the nation’s aviation history. This year’s inductees will join the ranks of the 220 esteemed men and women inducted since the Hall’s formation in 1973.

Tom Appleton, CAHF chairman of the board of directors, said, “The CAHF is proud to honour these four well-deserving individuals for their significant contributions to Canadian aviation, and to Canada’s development as a nation.

“Our 2016 inductees come from backgrounds that span the width of Canada’s unique aviation industry. Aviation has brought Canadians together as a country, unlike any other form of transport. Our new inductees reflect that cohesion through their pioneering activities and spirit.”

Holiday Moving Sale!


I realized I have 12 copies of Polar Winds and 24 copies of For the Love of Flying hanging around in my basement, ready for a new home. I don’t feel like boxing them up and moving them down to Texas, so I am offering signed and personalized copies to you for $30, shipping and taxes included (in Canada. Please contact me for US and International rates)! I may throw in some extra treats as well, because I like playing Santa.

If you’d like them to arrive before Christmas, contact me by 9am MST on Friday, December 11!



© 2011 Danielle Metcalfe-Chenail. All Rights Reserved.