Wednesday, 3 April 2019

My Conversations with Canadians by Lee Maracle

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

“The question of why settler Canadians get a better life off my continent does not pop into white men’s heads, nor into the heads of other nice white women either.”

Like Why I Am Not Talking to White People About Race, and Between the World and Me, My Conversations with Canadians is a challenge to the dominant social group – most especially those who consider themselves to be liberal and enlightened – to wake up and realise the harm they are unwittingly doing.

Maracle is a member of the Stó:lō Nation, part of the Coastal Salish Confederacy, from the Fraser Valley region of British Colombia; the daughter of a Métis mother and Salish father. As well as being an author and a poet, Maracle is an Instructor in Indigenous Nations Studies at the University of Toronto and a Traditional Teacher at First Nations House

To being with, she quietly demolishes the illusions of Canadians like me of being the ‘nice’ settlers.

“In line with having no clue about their world, Canadians continue to insist that they are ‘better then America.”

Yet American reservations are on average 300 times the size of Canadian reserves. Canada’s residential school programme has been recognised as an act of cultural genocide. Indigenous women continue to be murdered at a rate of four times that of any other ethnic group. Indigenous children are still taken into care at a disproportionate rate.

The chapter that spoke particularly strongly to me was the one about Cultural Appropriation. This is a term that has been treated with undisguised contempt by some in the literary and art worlds. Maracle explains how, among her people, land and physical objects were not considered that property of individuals but something over which they shared stewardship. Knowledge, on the other hand, was personal. You passed it on the members of your family – but you traded for it with those outside your family. And knowledge was not written down but passed on orally, often in the form of story. People were trained in the art of remembering to ensure accuracy.

“Colonial white society assigned itself some crazy Knower’s Chair and handed white people the authority to sit in it They alone get to sit in this chair and decide what is true knowledge and what is false.”

When the white settlers came along, they took what knowledge it suited them and wrote it down. They packaged it up in books and university courses that had to be paid for. At the same time, they separated indigenous children from their parents and grandparents through the residential schools system, thus destroying the natural flow of knowledge down through families, forcing them to buy it back from the settlers who had appropriated it.

Small wonder then, that now First Nations people have the opportunity to revive their traditional skills, knowledge and languages, they are wary of settlers who once again want to repackage these things for commercial gain.

Since 2008, Canada has been going through a process of Truth and Reconciliation. When asked what reconciliation means to her, Maracle answers acerbically – “Well, stop killing us would be a good place to begin. Then maybe stop plundering our resources, stop robbing us of our children, end colonial domination – return our lands, and then maybe we can talk about being friends.”

And yet, it is clear that, despite everything, Maracle does want to find a route to that friendship.

“Some of our people wish Canadians would move back to their original homelands. Not me – I hope they fall in love with the land the way I have – fully, responsibly and committed for life.”

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Why I Am Not Talking To White People About Race by Renni Eddo Lodge, Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Avoid If You Dislike: Checking Your Privilege

Perfect Accompaniment: A willingness to give up the Knower’s Chair.

Genre: Non-fiction, Essays, Indigenous Writings

Available on Amazon

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