I didn’t know what was going on . . .

When I was a little kid in the sixties, my aunt worked for the government.  Now, that aunt is lost to Altzheimer’s, but I’d love to ask her some questions.

When I was a little kid I went to see my aunt on Parliament Hill.  As I remember it, on that same day I had the mythical experience of seeing Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau skip down the stairs outside the Peace Tower.

When I was a little kid in Sudbury, Ontario, I watched Chez Helen and Adventures in Rainbow Country on television.  I ran through the bush pretending to be Pete and in grade four I started learning French.

One summer I rode north with my parents on the Polar Bear Express to Moosonee and Moose Factory on the coast of James Bay.  Pretty much all I remember is crossing the water with the Cree boatmen. The colour of my memory is National Geographic Magazine Kodachrome.  I can hear the sound of the outboard motors in my mind.

Not terribly many years later I learned about the history of World War Two. I watched Jacob Bronowski on television, walking into a pool of water at Auschwitz and reaching down to pull up a handful of mud containing the ashes of his relatives. And I learned that the people living near the Camps claimed they never knew what was going on behind the barbed wire. Like so many around me, I didn’t believe that claim. How could they not have at least a clue?

Still later I learned about the horrors of Canada’s Indian Residential Schools. I realized that Buckley Petawabano, who played Pete on Adventures in Rainbow Country, had not enjoyed the childhood I’d had, running through the bush feeling at one with the earth, paddling a canoe on Lake Ramsey and diving down to the cold depths to find archaeological treasures of childhood. I came to realize that when I visited the reconstructed St. Marie Among the Hurons, that lady in the film acting the part of a small pox victim was likely the actual survivor of something as terrible.

My reaction to the horrors I’d learned of Brebeuf’s death by torture were  somehow softened by the horrors inflicted on children by the government of my country.

Still later, I learned that my aunt who worked for the government had preceded me to the shores of James Bay. My mother thinks her sister had something to do with Indian Affairs and the Residential Schools, but it’s unclear what that something was.

In abject humility, I swear, I didn’t know what was going on behind those walls.

But I also swear, by all that is holy and sacred on this green Earth that I will never forget the victims and the horror. And I’ll do everything I can to make sure every other Canadian knows, remembers, and never forgets that our country, so wonderful in so many ways, attempted genocide, and the effort continued well into my lifetime — and we didn’t notice!

Please go to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission webpage and learn the Truth, and read the reports available there for download, and do whatever you can to further Reconciliation with the survivors and remembrance of the children.

A Brief Appreciation of “Tobacco Wars” by Paul Seesequasis

While Tobacco Wars is labelled a novella, a literary work this dense with symbol and allusion truly belongs in the poetry section. In the one hundred thirteen pages of Tobacco Wars, Paul Seesequasis takes us on a truly Rabelaisian journey through history and myth, reforming the biographies of Pocahontas, Ben Jonson and, indeed, the history of relations between Old World and New.  Tobacco Wars strongly echoes and remakes, Gargantua and Pantagruel, Candide and even  The Tempest by means of the forces of Cree mythic storytelling.  In the end, the centuries of conflict and misunderstanding between aboriginal nations and colonizers are massaged and reshaped and, to my mind, a new start is offered.

When I contemplate Tobacco Wars, I think of the simile at the beginning of Chapter 42 of Book III of Gargantua and Pantagruel:

Un procès, a sa naissance première, me semble, comme à vous aultres, Messieurs, informe & imperfaict. Comme un Ours naissant n’a pieds, ne mains, peau, poil, ne teste: ce n’est qu’une pièce de chair, rude & informe. L’ourse, à force de leicher, la mect en perfection des membres. . . (I use Louis Moland’s edition from the first volume of Œuvres de Rabelais, p. 439, in the Classiques Garnier series, Paris, 1950.)

“A suit in law at its production, birth, and first beginning, seemeth to me, as unto your other worships, shapeless, without form or fashion, incomplete, ugly and imperfect, even as a bear at his first coming into the world hath neither hands, skin, hair, nor head, but is merely an inform, rude, and ill-favoured piece and lump of flesh, and would remain still so, if his dam, out of the abundance of her affection to her hopeful cub, did not with much licking put his members into that figure and shape which nature had provided for those of an arctic and ursinal kind . . .” (I quote here Sir Thomas Urquhart of Cromarty’s 1693 translation because it is Burns Night, 2013 as I write this, because Robbie Burns’ favourite whisky, the lamented Ferintosh, was from the Black Isle, and because I have genealogical connection to and fond youthful memories of the Black Isle. Sir Thomas was a young contemporary of Pocahontas and Ben Jonson.)

“A lawsuit, when newly born, seems to me, as it does to you other gentlemen, shapeless and imperfect, even as a bear at birth has neither feet, paws, skin, fur, nor head, but is merely a lump of raw and formless flesh.  The she-bear, by dint of licking, perfects its limbs . . .” (J.M. Cohen’s translation in the Penguin Classics volume I used in my freshman year for an introductory Comparative Literature class in 1979/80.)

Like the Medieval/Renaissance conception of post-partum bear gestation, Bear Woman, in a vividly and moistly Rabelaisian way, licks the meeting of America and Europe into a creature that has limbs and head and hope for survival beyond the 21st Century, beyond the Eighth Fire of the Anishinaabe.

Tobacco, sacred herb of the New World and addictive carcinogen of the Old, is introduced to the story as seeds brought from South America to Jamestown, Virginia in the pocket of Englishman John Rolfe.  Rolfe has great plans for his “Orinoco” tobacco, plans of a mercantile empire based on his monopoly on the sweet tasting southern leaf.

But Bear Woman, and Seesequasis’ fiction, have other plans for the tobacco, the empire, and Rolfe himself.  Unlike the history we know Rolfe dies on a voyage home to England (he actually lived to a ripe, for the time, old age in Virginia).  His native wife, Pocahontas, has a wonderful time in London Society before returning home to run the business her husband didn’t have the chance to build (in face, she died at Gravesend, cutting short her voyage home to Virginia). Meanwhile, Bear Woman convinces Wolverine, an addictive fellow, to try out Rolfe’s Orinoco. The mythical little predator goes into business for himself with a chain of smoke-shops, finding an uncomfortable, and uncomfortably funny use for the skin of Jesuits.

Through much of the poem/novella Ben Jonson, murderer exculpated by a bit of Latin, playwright successor to Shakespeare, scrambles to find his way through the New World.  This New World is represented first by the unconquerable widow of Rolfe, Pocahontas, and later by the Candidesque upsets of pirates, wilderness and capture by “savages”. But Jonson overcomes all (including Pocahontas’ resistance) and brings off a great triumph: the staging of a great syncretic Masque for the Royal Court, which James I, by Royal Decree (I can’t help but think of another Royal Proclamation) has had removed to America.

At the end of the Masque, Bear addresses him/her self saying:

“Learn to move in time, an all measures meet . . . ”

And, indeed, Bear Woman throughout the story is unstuck in time, being at one moment in the forest near Jamestown, at another in a modern city, and always somehow in a mythic non-time. At the end, just before approving the wolf cub, she burrows down, down, below the city and the forest to a primeval and primal stream, and has a snooze.

In his time (in our history) Jonson was known for his masques, many produced with designer Inigo Jones, who also appears in Tobacco Wars.  The masque is a form of drama very foreign to a modern audience.  Modern producers of Shakespeare’s The Tempest are often troubled with what to do with the extended masque in that magical work.  I find Seesequasis’ decision to make the masque so central to Tobacco Wars to be a brilliant stroke:  masque and Cree storytelling are, at best, on the fringes of modern mainstream readers’ consciousness. The reader of Tobacco Wars, like Pocahontas in London or Jonson in the Virginia forest, is thrust into an unfamiliar, extremely challenging and yet potentially extremely rewarding environment.

But Seesequasis does not leave us completely at sea. Very few even mildly literate Canadians would, I hope, have no familiarity with Aboriginal Canadians mythological motifs such as the Trickster, who permeates Tobacco Wars — principally as the fellow who would be better named Trickster Seesequasis. And few non-aboriginal Canadians will be unfamiliar with the European tradition of anthropomorphized animals, from Aesop to The Chronicles of Narnia. What many readers may not remember is that Ben Jonson’s most famous and lauded play, Volpone, is to some degree a tale of animals acting like humans or, if the distinction need be made, humans acting like animals.

One very important point Seesequasis makes in the dense, comic poem that is Tobacco Wars is that the tobacco wars are not necessary. It is native Pocahontas (and Wolverine) who builds the tobacco empire, not the mercantile-minded colonial Englishman. It is Jonson, the formal, mannered composer of masques who tells the just-so animal stories. The trickster Seesequasis shows us that whatever side of the Atlantic our ancestral land lies, “if you tickle us, do we not laugh?”

The meeting of Pocahontas and European men — first John Rolfe and later Ben Jonson begins as a shapeless potential and, over the course of the experiences of time-travelling Bear Woman, of the unnamed woman who mates with the wolf, of the unnamed boy at the Residential School and of all the other mythical and historical characters, the matter is given shape and becomes the hope of a new, shared future, finally represented by the “girl born with the blood of two worlds in her.” This girl is specifically the (fictional) daughter of Pocahontas and Jonson, but there is also the ungendered, mythic human/wolf hybrid baby who closes the poem/novella with the snorting approval of Bear woman.

The hope of sharing is not just the melding of Old and New Worlds, it is the positive unity of natural and human worlds, and very clearly the interwoven coexistence of myth and reality.

Tobacco Wars is published by Quattro Books.

It’s Easy to Argue the Treaties Aren’t Nation to Nation Agreements

I’m sure some will argue that the Treaties are not “Nation to Nation agreements”, that the aboriginal peoples do not constitute “Nations” (I’m looking at you, Christie Blatchford).

It’s easy to argue that if you ignore the Royal Proclamation of 1763, wherein the Crown writes “that the several Nations . . . of Indians with whom We are connected, and who live under our Protection, should not be molested or disturbed in the Possession of such Parts of Our Dominions and Territories as, not having been ceded to or purchased by Us. . . .”

And, it’s easy to ignore the Royal Proclamation, even if the Constitution Act (1982) in Section 25 says :

The guarantee in this Charter of certain rights and freedoms shall not be construed so as to abrogate or derogate from any aboriginal, treaty or other rights or freedoms that pertain to the aboriginal peoples of Canada including (a) any rights or freedoms that have been recognized by the Royal Proclamation of October 7, 1763; and (b) any rights or freedoms that may be acquired by the aboriginal peoples of Canada by way of land claims settlement.

thereby entrenching the Royal Proclamation’s statements concerning the aboriginal peoples as a part of the Constitution of our country.

But, surely it’s easy to dismiss Section 25, isn’t it?

Certainly, if you want to get together a Constitutional Amendment and get it passed any Charter challenges and then get it through Section 35:

(a) a constitutional conference that includes in its agenda an item relating to the proposed amendment, composed of the Prime Minister of Canada and the first ministers of the provinces, will be convened by the Prime Minister of Canada; and
(b) the Prime Minister of Canada will invite representatives of the aboriginal peoples of Canada to participate in the discussions on that item

and then get (from Section 38)

(a) resolutions of the Senate and the House of Commons; and

(b) resolutions of the legislative assemblies of at least two-thirds of the provinces that have, in the aggregate, according to the then latest general census, at least fifty per cent of the population of the provinces.

So, yes, it’s as easy as that to argue that aboriginal peoples don’t constitute “Nations” and so the Treaties aren’t “Nation to Nation” agreements.

As easy as that.

To some (loud) critics of #IdleNoMore: Some More Constitutional Dots

Ignoring for the moment all the “I’m sick of my hard-earned tax dollars going to lazy/drunken/corrupt/entitled/non-taxpaying/freeloading Indians!” criticisms of the cross-cultural popular movement known by its twitter hashtag, I’d like to confront one of the criticisms that might seem a little more difficult to argue against: “There shouldn’t be different types of Canadians: we should all be equal.”

Part One: the Constitutional Historical stuff

Now, in fact, that superficially appealing suggestion is not a criticism of Idle No More.  It is a criticism of decisions taken by politicians beginning in the 18th Century and continuing to today.  An Act passed in 1774 by the Parliament of the United Kingdom means that a lawyer educated today in Alberta must retrain if she relocates to Quebec and wishes to practice law while the same lawyer relocating to Newfoundland will not need the same new training.  And, because of that same Act, a lawyer trained in Quebec will have a steep learning curve if he relocates to English Canada. The Quebec Act of 1774, building on the “Distinct and Separate Government” clause of the Royal Proclamation of 1763, make Canada a Constitutionally unequal state: the people of Quebec are not governed by the same set of Federal laws that govern the rest of Canadians, and, as the Quebec Civil Code is Constitutionally guaranteed — and so, Federal law — those living in the other provinces are not governed by the same Federal laws as are the Quebecois.  That’s right: We’ve got different laws for different people, and those laws have been upheld and sustained by centuries of parliamentary debate, First Ministers’ Meetings, Royal Commissions and Judicial decisions.  If you don’t like the fact, you’re welcome to try to get a Constitutional amendment passed.

What does this have to do with Idle No More

Well, that Royal Proclamation of 1763 clearly acknowledges that the aboriginal people of British North America are “Nations” under the protection of the British Crown, just as Prime Minister Stephen Harper recognized in Parliament that Quebec is a “Nation” within Canada.  Furthermore, the Treaties reinforce this recognition of the indigenous societies as having distinct and separate governments, just as the Quebec Act of 1774 did for Quebec.  And centuries of parliamentary debate, First Ministers’ Meetings, Royal Commissions, Judicial decisions and the Constitution itself  have upheld the fact that the First Nations, Metis and Inuit are distinct, different Nations within Canada, despite the legislative attempts for a century and a half to solve the Indian Problem through assimilation or elimination. If you don’t like it, you’re welcome to try to get a Constitutional amendment passed.

To top it all off, the Government of Stephen Harper has endorsed the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Aboriginal Peoples, which is basically a summary of everything Idle No More has been round dancing about.  If you’ve got a problem with Idle No More’s demands, take it up with Prime Minister Harper.  His government has already endorsed them.

Part Two: Mutterings about what “Equality” is long after I should be in bed

A fact is that Canada has institutionalized inequalities. But the more important fact is that the inequalities have been institutionalized for pragmatic reasons.  The human world is not an equal place, and leaders of Canada since long before Confederation have recognized that fact. They recognized that without recognizing the fact of Quebec’s distinctness, there would be far more discord in the body politic than there has been for the last two centuries. They recognized (but quickly forgot) that the aboriginal peoples constituted a great resource of wisdom, knowledge and (they didn’t forget this bit) land rights for the new provinces.

And, more recently, they’ve realized that there are a multitude of inevitable inequalities in human society and that it is the role of Government to try to even things out a bit. That’s why my daughter gets a check from the government every month even though she’ll likely never pay any taxes or even manage to be gainfully employed. If you don’t like that you’re welcome to imagine the brutal, medieval world we’d live in if society didn’t provide help to its most vulnerable.

Now, I don’t mean to draw a link between my daughter’s disability and the indigenous people of Canada, to suggest that somehow the First Peoples are “handicapped” and we “ought to” help them out of some sort of White Morality. No. Certainly Canada has an obligation to restitution for past wrongs to individuals, such as the Chinese head tax, the Japanese internment and the Residential Schools horror.  Certainly Canada has an obligation to redress past wrongs, such as the destruction of Africville,  the forced sterilization of the intellectually disabled, and the systematic discrimination of the Indian Act.

“Equality” can not realistically mean “We all start at the same point, so we should all be able to get ahead if we simply apply ourselves,”   which is what I fear some critics of Idle No More believe. We manifestly do not all start at the same point. Indeed, no two of us in the entire world start at the same point. I would think that societal equality truly means that every member is enabled to achieve her full potential considering her personal and wider historical and Constitutional starting point.

Idle No More, as I understand the movement,  is about upholding the real Constitutional status and the true historical place of aboriginal Nations, and it is about recognizing all Canadian’s common starting point: The Treaties. In short, Idle No More is precisely about Equality.

And, more importantly, Idle No More is about the water and the air, and about every generation’s equal right to clean water and clean air.

To conclude, if you really want this “equality” you talk about, you’re going to have to ignore history, get a bunch of Constitutional amendments passed, and be prepared to live in a country scattered with physically and intellectually disabled beggars starving in the streets of polluted cities, with rivers and lakes destroyed.

Or maybe you’d really prefer the happier equality Idle No More is demanding for all of us.

Part Three: Links

You want some links to the documents? They’re all right there online. If you’re reading this, you’ve got that google right there, probably up in the right hand corner of your screen. Or you might even be able to highlight and right click or something.  Make an effort, if you really are interested in learning.  Google these documents. Be Idle No More.

I’m going to bed.

Royal Proclamation 1763

Quebec Act 1774

Constitution Act 1982

UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People

Canadian Government endorses UN declaration on rights of indigenous peoples

A little waste-saving trick

Do you use a lot of glue sticks in your art or design work? Are you a scrap-booker? Or maybe you just have a kid who’s an obsessive-compulsive gluer.  Well, here’s a little trick that saves a bit of waste and a tiny bit of money.

I use the generic 20 gram sticks from Staples, but this will probably work with any size or brand.  When the stick gets down to the little plastic ring, I used to just throw it out, but for a while now I’ve been hanging onto them until I have four or five that look like this:


When I’ve got a few “empty” sticks, I sit down with an ordinary kitchen knife, stick it into the bit of glue that’s left and unscrew it from the plastic cup it’s in. The cup is reverse threaded, so you turn it clock-wise to remove the plug of glue. The first time I did it I was pleasantly surprised, and more than a little annoyed at the waste,  to find more than a centimetre of perfectly good glue that was designed to be discarded.


Now I choose one of the sticks to be the re-manufactured one.  I turn the cup down a bit, tuck the plug of glue in, and press it down with the knife, massaging it a bit to fill the voids of the screw thread.  Then I repeat until the re-manufactured stick is full.


I find that four or five “empty” sticks can become a full stick with about three minutes of simple effort.

If your activities involve a lot of gluing and you’re concerned about waste, this little trick can give you a nice little feeling of satisfaction and maybe save a tiny bit of money.  I mean, why buy a half dozen glue sticks and just throw one away unused?

More Idle (no more) thoughts

As I have been a lot lately, I was thinking about Aboriginal issues in Canada today and . . .

I don’t think that it can seriously be denied that at least since the “Gradual Civilization Act” was passed by the Parliament of of the Province of Canada in 1857, Government policy toward First Nations, Metis and Inuit has had the ultimate goal of assimilation, of making surviving aboriginal people into just another Canadian ethnicity.  This was the goal of the Indian Act which took over from the Gradual Civilization act. As Duncan Campbell Scott, Superintendent of Indian Affairs from 1913-1934, articulated the policy:

I want to get rid of the Indian problem. I do not think as a matter of fact, that the country ought to continuously protect a class of people who are able to stand alone… Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic and there is no Indian question, and no Indian Department

Assimilation was also, as is well known today, the purpose of what became the genocidal tragedy of the Residential Schools.

And the White Paper of 1969 was explicitly a plan for the rapid assimilation of aboriginal people into “Canadian Society” and for the extinguishment of aboriginal and treaty rights for all time.

But what I was thinking about today is the simple question, “Why?”

Why did successive governments for a century and a half go to all this trouble and expense to set up programs of assimilation?  Surely they could have just sent surveyors into the areas now covered by the numbered treaties. They could have announced that clearing, cultivating and occupying x number of acres would earn a person a title deed to that patch of ground.  They could have simply declared as vagrant anyone who didn’t get to work on farming or migrate to find industrial or commercial employment.

Why did they go through all the mess of treaty negotiation, translation, ceremony, Indian Act, Indian Agents, Residential Schools, Reserves, Royal Commissions, Truth and Reconcilliation . . . ?

I think I know exactly why.

Underlying all the mess is an assumption and an acknowledgement that Aboriginal Title is legitimate and must be dealt with by some means.  The real “Indian Problem” Duncan Campbell Scott was so determined to solve is the “Aboriginal Title Problem”, and it is a “problem” which continues to bedevil governments today.  Both sides have always acknowledged aboriginal title.  Successive governments have proceeded on the assumption that the best way to extinguish aboriginal title is to eliminate the title-holders, preferably by means more quiet than warfare.

Especially since Aboriginal and Treaty Rights were entrenched in the Canadian Constitution in 1982, I believe governments will continue to be bedevilled by assumed and acknowledged aboriginal title until such a time as there is a just agreement on sharing the use and the protection of the land and its resources. This sharing is exactly what the First Nations understood the numbered Treaties to be about.  This sharing is also what the Idle No More movement is all about.

Surely it is clear by now that assimilation of the aboriginal people is a policy doomed to failure.

Canada will more likely be assimilated by the First Nations.

Some might argue Canada has been gradually being assimilated for a few centuries now.

I would argue that the assimilation of Canada should be a long-term goal of Idle No More.


If ever more non-natives become Idle No More by coming out to witness and to take part in the joyous celebrations of Aboriginal culture, it won’t take five more centuries to find a peaceful, happy,  final solution to the colonization problem.