When I was a little girl, I loved hearing family stories and my grandparents loved telling them to me.
I heard all about how my great-great grandfather, who had itchy feet, travelled along the coast of Africa, trying to decide whether to stay there and mine before he settled on the coal mines in Nanaimo, British Columbia. And how his wife had to pack everything on her own and travel with two small girls, including taking a three week ocean trip where she needed to bring all their food and water as none was provided. They were simply given a space on the deck. Damn, I hope it didn’t rain!
And I heard about my great-grandmother who, by all accounts was a dour and serious woman, and how one morning everyone left to go fishing for the day and she got the notion to see if she was as flexible as she’d been as a teen. So she grabbed her ankles and hoisted them behind her head. She managed but wasn’t flexible enough to get them back down again. The family came home expecting to smell dinner and found her contorted, in the dark, on the kitchen floor.
Or the family favourite, which got trotted out every time the old song Grandfather Clock was sung around the campfire. A grandfather clock was bought when my grandfather was born, one he still had while I was growing up, and it worked beautifully right until he left to fight in WW2. Then it stopped completely. When the news came that the war was over and he was well and coming home his grandmother marched over to it, yelled, “Harold’s coming home you daft thing! Start working!” and gave it a good whack. It immediately began to work.
But my favourite story was when my great-great grandfather ploughed over an Indian.
My great-great grandparents came through the United States and what was then known as Indian Territory or Unclaimed Territory (even though it was patently obvious it had been claimed) to finally settle in Creston Valley in the foothills of British Columbia’s mountains. They were the first white settlers in that valley and they soon built their house and got to readying the ground for potatoes. And that was when the aforementioned event occured. My great-great grandfather was out ploughing the field when a young Native man crept up and tried to attack. All my great-great grandfather had to defend himself with was a plough. He was horrified as soon as he saw the young man bleeding on the ground and carried him into the house to nurse him back to health. The young man declared him to be his blood brother and my great-great grandparents began spending time in the Native village and learned their language. When it came time for my great-great grandmother to go to the hospital to deliver her astonishingly huge baby, she was taken, by canoe, to the ferry. My Mom remembers her grandmother speaking the Native language and her attempts at being taught. But she was only taught a few words before her grandmother passed away. Still, she remembered going to the Native reserve with her Dad to play with the kids while her Dad talked to the adults.
I knew the words reserve and reservation but I had no idea what they meant. To me they were just a different kind of housing, like some people live in subdivisions, some live in townhouse complexes, and some live in apartment buildings.
We learned about Native people in school. The different tribes throughout Canada, the homes they built, the food they ate, and whether they travelled by the seasons or stayed put. Nothing later than pre-colonial days, which left me feeling like Natives were pretty much extinct.
Then we went on a trip across Canada (one of several). My parents stopped off to visit one of my Dad’s friends and he had daughters around the same age as my next oldest sister and I. So we were given movie and popcorn money and sent off to enjoy the show. I went off with plenty of excitement, new people to talk to, and a movie to watch. This was going to be fun. Then the oldest girl opened her mouth and started ranting about Natives, or Indians as she called them. They were all drunks and lazy and stupid and worthless. They just hung around town causing trouble and hoping to get enough change for another drink. She ranted on and on while my sisters and I stared at each other in surprise. Nothing had set her off… nothing we’d said… nothing around us. It was bewildering and more than a bit creepy. Later on we told our parents what happened and my Mom looked sad. She explained that Native people didn’t have a history with alcohol so hadn’t built up any sort of tolerance and were more likely to be addicted. Later I realized that was only a small portion of the truth.
There is a picture tucked away in one of my Mom’s albums of my uncles dressed up for Hallowe’en. I can’t remember if they were both Indians or if one was an Indian and the other a cowboy. But my Nana was able to go to a store and buy a pattern to make that “costume”. Meanwhile actual Native children couldn’t wear their own clothes or speak their own language. I was taught Native history and Native youths weren’t learning it.
Technically it all started with Christopher Columbus getting lost and smacking into South America then going back and telling Europe about all the “free lands full of riches” he’d found but I’m going to start with our first prime minister. John A. MacDonald was a quick witted man. He also was a binge drinker who would drink himself senseless, with understandable reasons, namely the deaths of his wife and infant son and daughter. He also set up the framework for the biggest horror in Canadian history, residential schools. To quote:
“When the school is on the reserve, the child lives with its parents, who are savages, and though he may learn to read and write, his habits and training mode of thought are Indian. He is simply a savage who can read and write. It has been strongly impressed upon myself, as head of the Department, that Indian children should be withdrawn as much as possible from the parental influence, and the only way to do that would be to put them in central training industrial schools where they will acquire the habits and modes of thought of white men.” 1879
To give you an idea of how callous the government was, they knew that around 50% of the Native children would die of disease and flat out didn’t care. As long as the remaining students were taught to be as white as possible, they would consider the schools to be a success.
At the best, the schools were boarding schools which taught English and other lessons. At worst the schools took physical, emotional, and sexual abuse to nightmarish levels, starting with being torn from family and carted to school in handcuffs at the age of three. In both scenarios the children were deposited back at home in their late teens with no memory of their language or culture and as strangers to their families. Many were suffering from severe trauma; if the abuse was nightmarish to read about then imagine how it would be for the child. And this went on for several generations. Genetics plays its part in alcoholism but several generations of systematic child abuse also plays a huge role.
Then there’s broken promises. Treaties for made for land (aka reservations) and those reservations were created. But, for the most part, they weren’t in good locations. They were in areas with soil too thin to grow crops, poor hunting, and more north than the natives had been. Those areas are remote with limited access to urban areas. The homes are in ill repair and often too small (and it’s not like there’s a Beaver Lumber around the corner to fix them up), the plumbing is out of date, the water is frequently unuseable, plus there’s little to do and the teens commit suicide at a horrific rate. But, you know, promises… some day in the future things will get better.
Right now there’s trouble in the Maritimes. Many years ago, back in the 1760’s, a treaty was drawn which allowed the Mi’kmaq to fish out of season (May to November). This was to permit them to fish for themselves and make a “moderate livelihood”. Now there’s a huge disagreement over what that means with Native fishermen saying it means they have the right to fish enough to earn a small amount, enough to support their families and have a bit left over, and the non-Native fishermen arguing that it means to fish for only what you need to survive. I, of course, went immediately to the dictionary which states:
Moderate (adjective): average in amount, intensity, quality, or degree.
I’m going to have to go with the Natives here, average in amount does not sound like hand to mouth sustenance.
Meanwhile utter chaos and violence has broken loose with fishermen destroying Native lobster pounds (huts which contain circulating fresh water to hold live lobsters) and setting fire to buildings. Non-Natives claim the Natives are going to fish the lobster to extinction even though the experts say that isn’t the case. Meanwhile the RCMP are, for the most part, standing back and watching the violence. Probably not a huge surprise considering they were created specifically to clear Natives out of the prairies but disappointing nonetheless. And government at all levels is lamenting that something needs to be done… all the while hoping it’s someone else’s responsibility.
And I just keep hoping that someone in power will shape up, accept some responsibility, and try to sort these issues out because we really screwed up and it’s time to make amends.