Friday, 6 November 2015

Canadian Indigenous Residential Schools - Counter-Narratives

Disclaimer: my references to the writings of other people--both indigenous and non-indigenous--do not in any way imply that they share my views on this matter.  The opinions expressed here are my own, and do not necessarily represent those of my family, friends or associates.

Note: my definition of counter-narrative is a point of view that challenges what many believe to be true.  I contend that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) final report executive summary, which was released June 2, 2015, almost invariably promotes the narrative that "aboriginals are always right, and non-aboriginals are always wrong."  But even though this view is widely held by many apologists in Canadian society, I believe it is a fabrication that needs to be questioned.  This post is my counter-narrative to this fabrication.

A.        Background Information

About a third of Canadian indigenous children attended government-funded and church-run residential schools from the mid-19th century to 1996.  Since the early 1990s, the Canadian public has become increasingly aware of the negative effects these schools had on many of these children.  On June 2, 2015, public awareness was heightened yet again by the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) final report executive summary.  My September 7, 2015 post is a critique of this summary.

As I explained in my critique, I am very much aware of the harm that resulted from numerous aspects of the residential schools, due to my late parents' and my interactions with quite a few survivors.  However, I contend that TRC summary overemphasizes the negative and under-reports the positive.  There are aboriginals who graduated from these schools, who went on to lead productive and successful lives, but their stories frequently do not get the attention they deserve in the summary.  Most of the accounts mentioned in section B were not included in the summary.

In addition, the media has concentrated on relaying the damaging aspects of the schools.  This has reinforced in the minds of the general public that it was an entirely hurtful experience for all the children, even though this was not the case.  Yes, it is true that a lot of the material listed below appeared in the media, but these positive or counter-narrative accounts make up a very small percentage of what is disseminated by the press.

There are many non-aboriginal and aboriginal people who worked at the schools, who did the best they could under the circumstances, and who know they are not responsible for any abuses.  My compilation includes their stories as well.

I hope that what I have provided serves as a warning to non-aboriginal apologists who think that caving in to every indigenous demand is the way to go.  Hundreds of people devoted a great deal of their lives to doing the best they could for the aboriginal children in their care.  Despite this, a great percentage of them are being scapegoated.

Until the late 1980s, I was in many respects an apologist for the aboriginal "cause."  But then I was falsely accused of having views that I did not.  As a result of this devastating experience, I concluded it is better to be honest with indigenous people about the positive and the negative, rather than going along with whatever they want.  If one gives in too easily, then he or she could easily get scapegoated, like what happened to me.

Even though I had nothing directly to do with the schools, I understand the frustration being experienced by those who have found their positive accounts are not being given enough attention.

Someone recently told me that he thought emotions were too high to deal with the positive aspects now, and that we would have to endure the "over-heated rhetoric and anger for at least a generation."  I disagree with him.  The general public has been hearing about the negative aspects of the schools for more than 25 years, yet the rhetoric and anger have not abated very much.  I believe this is likely because, as some commentators have pointed out, there is more money to be made from complaining about the residential schools than not.

Have assembled below what I consider to be significant articles that have appeared in the news from 1996 until recently, but it is far from an exhaustive list.  Counter-narrative material that is included in my September 7, 2015 post, or in other posts on this blog, is not repeated here.

B.        Counter-Narrative Compilation

B.1      1996, December 5.  Field, J. Fraser, "The Other Side of the Residential School Question," Catholic Education:  Originally appeared in the Vancouver Sun on the same date.

- Field presents a lot of compelling arguments why people should not generalize about the residential schools era.

B.2      1997, February 24.  British Columbia Report, "So sorry for abuse, but so reluctant to see success: the Indian industry capitalizes on residential school problems while ignoring achievements," British Columbia Report, 8, 10.  Retrieved from ProQuest.

-"[S]ome British Columbians" acknowledge there were abuses at the schools, but contend that Indians are over-stating the abuse issue in order to further their land-claim demands."

B.3      1998, November 2.  McFeely, T., "The great white guilt trip: Fontaine seeks national forum and papal apology to boost residential school abuse payouts," British Columbia Report, 9, 17.  Retrieved from ProQuest.

- Roman Catholic priest recognizes there were abuses at the schools, but said the "silent majority" of aboriginals "had positive experiences."

B.4      2006, November.  Krotz, Larry, "Who's sorry now? inside the culture of apology," United Church Observer:

- [A] "substantial number of. . .people view institutionalized and national apologies with skepticism."

B.5      2007, February 19.  Krotz, Larry, "Separate and Unequal," The Walrus:

- "Money for crimes committed at residential schools may be forthcoming, but problems with the reserve system remain."

B.6      2007, December 13.  Greenberg, L., "Residential school cheques fuel envy, acrimony on Alberta reserve," CanWest News.  Retrieved from ProQuest.

- ". . .the sudden influx of cash payments to former residential school students has prompted a wave of bitterness and recrimination."

B.7      2008, May 7.  Wagamese, Richard, "The value of residential schools," Ottawa Citizen.  Retrieved from

- Wagamese recognizes the "horrendous experiences" at the residential schools "need to see the light of day," so there can be "nationwide healing."  But he wants the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada to also relate the positive stories.

B.8      2008, June 11.  de Souza, Father Raymond J., "Two sides to the story," National Post:

- "To recognize what was wrong does not require ignoring what was right."

B.9      2008, June 11.  Sandberg, Don, "Residential Schools Propaganda?" Frontier Centre for Public Policy:

- ". . .even those who did not actually attend residential schools blame all of their social ills on the aboriginal residential school era."

B.10     2009.  Sutton, Peter, The Politics of Suffering: Indigenous Australia and the end of the liberal consensus.  Victoria, Australia: Melbourne University Press.  New edition published in 2011.

- Since 1969, Sutton has worked as an anthropologist and linguist with Australian Aborigines.  I share many of the concerns he raises in this book.  In his chapter entitled, "On Feeling Reconciled," he questions the value of "formal, legal, bureaucratized Reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians."  He thinks that reconciliation is more effective when it is a "personal and interpretive journey."

B.11     2009.  Gibson, Gordon, A New Look at Canadian Indian Policy: Respect the Collective --Promote the Individual.  Fraser Institute.

- On pages 145-147 of this book, Gibson critiques many of the articles in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).  The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) final report executive summary promotes the implementation of UNDRIP, but I share many of the concerns that Gibson raises about it.

B.12     2009, March 3.  Winnipeg Free Press, "Residential school survivor hikes mission donation to $50,000,"

- William Woodford donated $50,000 of his residential school settlement money to the Siloam Mission, a Winnipeg homeless shelter.

B.13     2009, June 17.  White, Patrick, "Healing comes full circle," Globe and Mail:

- Residential school survivor, Edward Gamblin, thanked his Grade 3 residential school teacher, Florence Kaefer.  He said her class was "place of refuge" and that "[s]he was a good teacher."

- This positive account is included in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) final report executive summary.

B.14     2009, October 1.  Hill, Angela, "Remembering and healing," Prince Albert Daily Herald:

- Mental-health expert, Austin Tootoosis, feels survivors need to let go of their anger and work for the benefit of the "community at large."

B.15     2010, July 9.  Sandberg, Don, "It's Time to Focus on Healing," Frontier Centre for Public Policy:  This article also appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press on the same date.

- "Promotion of the negative through the past 20-some years has led many aboriginals to blame the residential schools for all of life's hardships and miseries. . .but we are responsible for who we ultimately become."

B.16     2010, November.  Narine, Shari, "TRC takes criticism on the chin," Windspeaker:  Retrieved from ProQuest.

- Conservative Senator Carolyn Stewart-Olsen said an "international approach" was not included in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) mandate, so the TRC should be spending less time on that and more on "this particular initiative."

B.17     2010, December 21.  Williams, Garrett, "Woman honoured for positive impact on residential school," Kenora Daily Miner and News:

- Rena Martinson and her reverend husband John were in charge of an Anglican residential school in Fort George, Quebec, for six years in the 1950s.  Martinson "left a positive and lasting impression" on the community.

B.18     2011, May 19.  Clifton, Rodney, "Some Other Truths about Indian Residential Schools," C2C Journal:

- Clifton worked at a residential school, and his Blackfoot wife attended one for 10 years.  "[N]either she nor her parents lost their language. . ."

B.19     2011, July 14.  Sison, Marites N.  "Mixed experiences at Indian residential school," Anglican Journal: anglicanjournalcom.

- Anglican Bishop Lydia Mamakwa, attended the Poplar Hill School in northwestern Ontario, where she had "more good than bad" experiences.

B.20     2012, June 21.  Sims, Jane, "Sharing a sombre legacy," London Free Press:

- Article includes statements by eight residential school students who attended Mount Elgin School, in southwestern Ontario.  Four of the eight reported having more positive than negative memories.

B.21     2013.  Wagamese, Richard, "Returning to Harmony,"

- Wagamese describes himself as "an intergenerational victim" whose immediate and extended family all attended residential schools.  In his 2008 Ottawa Citizen article, he wrote about his mother's positive experiences.  However, in this essay, he said she still "carried wounds that she could not voice."  In his 40s, Wagamese decided to stop blaming the schools for his addiction and anger.  For "many weeks," he attended a United Church service, and "found peace with churches, and, in turn, residential schools, with Canada."  He said he hoped the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada hears more stories like his.

B.22     2013, September 30.  DeLaurentiis Johnson, Julia, "In conversation with Tomson Highway," Macleans:

- Highway said he was "part of the first wave of native writers" who had political correctness forced upon them.  But he thinks the "next wave of native playwrights should be afforded the freedom to let their imaginations fly."  He contends that being politically incorrect is "essential for art."  Although Highway was not addressing the residential schools issue directly in this quote, I think any creative person would be wise to heed his advice.

B.23     2014, January 11.  Russell, Paul, "Paul Russell: Could it be that residential schools weren't all bad?" National Post:

- Russell said that most of the letters to the editor received by the National Post "argue that the schools have been unfairly portrayed in the media."

B.24     2014, February 28.  Argan, Glen, "Oblates, TRC offer radically different views of history," Western Catholic Reporter:

- In October 2013, Ronald Niezen published a book about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) entitled Truth and Indignation.  He said the TRC focussed on "emotional trauma," which tended to draw attention away from "survivors' stories which do not stir emotional responses." It also tended to exclude testimony from religious staff who worked at the schools.

B.25     2014, March 27.  Wittmeir, Brent, "Hearings to 'lay bare the soul of the nation,' truth and reconciliation chairman says," Edmonton Journal:

- Truth and Indignation author, Ron Niezen, worries that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada "will deepen the chasm between sufferer and perpetrator, accuser and accused, affirmed and excluded."

B.26     2015, June 7.  McKay, Donald, "Unworkable demands," [Letter to editor], Calgary Sun:

- McKay said the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) summary "missed a great opportunity to make meaningful recommendations. . ."  He thinks the TRC should have recommended that aboriginals separate their governance structure into two organizations: one responsible for preserving the culture, and the other for operating institutions such as health and education.

B.27     2015, July 8.  Cooper, Barry, "Cooper: Residential school report won't bring reconciliation," Calgary Herald:

- Cooper complains that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) summary is "[b]adly deficient in terms of evidence, context and logic, riddled with cliches and factual errors, the result brims with half-truths."

B.28     2015, July 10.  Meadows, Lea, "Honour the truth about schools," [Letter to editor], Calgary Herald:

- This letter was in response to Cooper's July 8, 2015 opinion piece listed above.  She said "I agree with Barry Cooper that the TRC report does not honour the truth because it does not reflect all residential school students' experiences--like my mother's and grandmother's."

 B.29     2015, November 1.  CBC Radio/Unreserved, "Tomson Highway finds inspiration in one woman's musical laugh,"

- Highway talks about his autobiography, which is coming out in 15-year instalments.  His first 15 years is scheduled to be released first, and will discuss the beneficial aspects of his nine years at a residential school.

B.30     2015, November 5.  Globe and Mail [editorial], "A pitfall or two on the road to reconciliation with First Nations,"

- This editorial raises concerns about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) final report executive summary's push to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).  I agree with this editorial that it would be problematic if the Canadian government allowed UNDRIP to become a legally binding document.

Monday, 7 September 2015

Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) Final Report Executive Summary, 2015 - Critique

Disclaimer: my references to the writings of other people--both indigenous and non-indigenous--do not in any way imply that they share my views on this matter.  The opinions expressed here are my own, and do not necessarily represent those of my family, friends of associates.

Note 1: the page numbers in square brackets refer to page numbers in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) executive summary.  If "Rec." and a number follow a page number, it refers to a specific TRC summary recommendation.

Note 2: the nature photos, which I took during walks in my neighbourhood, have nothing to do with the content of this post.  I found working on this post to be so mentally exhausting, that I sometimes recharged by playing slideshows of these images.

A.      Introduction

According to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC)'s "Frequently Asked Questions" section of their website (, the commission's mandate "is to inform Canadians about what happened at the Indian Residential Schools (IRS).  The Commission will document the truth of survivors, families, communities and anyone personally affected by the IRS experience."  The 382-page executive summary of the final report was released on June 2, 2015 (the multi-volume final report is supposed to follow around December 2015).  This post is my critique of the summary.

Metis Chelsea Vowel and other aboriginals have complained that some who have written about the TRC summary have not taken the time to examine it thoroughly.  But I can confirm that I reviewed every page, took voluminous notes, and did extensive research before I started working on this post.

My heart goes out to those who suffered abuse at the schools, who lost the connection to their culture, and whose families were torn apart by the experience.  I have witnessed natives being treated in a demeaning and exploitative manner, so I have some idea how terrible it must have been.  It is good that, through the TRC, survivors have had an opportunity to inform non-aboriginal Canadians about what happened to them, and why many aspects of the residential schools experience (1849-1996) were counterproductive.

Nevertheless, I find the TRC summary overemphasizes the negative and under-reports the positive.  It sometimes goes into detail about constructive outcomes for students in terms of the arts, music and sports, but pays very little attention to the academic and leadership accomplishments of quite a few graduates.

Branch near creek, London, Ontario, May 29, 2015

B.      My Background With Indigenous Issues

From 1975 to 1987, I worked primarily in native organizations in Southern and Northern Ontario and the Northwest Territories.  Quite a few of the people I worked with were residential school survivors, and I sometimes heard stories from them about the abuse they had suffered.

I was, however, also aware of this issue much earlier, due to the fact that my parents, Jay Peterson (1920-1976), and Charles T. Peterson (1913-2007), got involved with aboriginal issues in 1958, when I was six.  From the mid-1960s onwards, survivors sometimes told me harrowing anecdotes, such as getting the hair on their heads shaved off if they spoke in their native language.

I have a one-page university program admission questionnaire, across which an aboriginal woman wrote that she refused "to be part of an apparatus" that was damaging her people  She closed with what she thought the program really thought of her: the number she had been assigned at residential school.  Although it is undated, I believe she wrote it in the late 1960s.  Am assuming because it is in my mother's files that she gave it to my mother.

But a greater percentage of my mother's aboriginal files contain positive material, such as photos and news clippings of craftspeople either displaying their artistry, or of the crafts themselves.  This is because my mother was impressed by the creative ability of many indigenous peoples.  She frequently visited reserves, and I sometimes accompanied her.  She bought crafts, brought the items back to town, sold them, returned to the reserve, and gave the money to the creators.  A Chippewa woman, now deceased, recounted how my mother would arrive on the reserve "with the grease from the roads in her hair."

In addition, my mother arranged for artisans to come to London, Ontario, to demonstrate or sell their crafts, e.g., when she was on the board of the Western Fair Association.  As a result of her enthusiasm, I developed a deep appreciation for native people's creative abilities.  I treasure the many types of aboriginal art I have in my home, some of which originally belonged to her.

It is therefore not surprising that the parts of the TRC summary that upset me the most were the ones that chronicled how aboriginal clothing and other cultural symbols were thrown in the garbage or otherwise disparaged [e.g., p. 44, 86].  In fact, there were numerous times when I broke down and wept in horror.  Of course, I was also upset by the many other examples of mistreatment.  But I sense the actual destruction of cultural property must have dealt a particularly disastrous blow.

Horse Chestnut flowers, May 29, 2015

C.      Maria Campbell's Input Not Covered in Summary

Although there are a number of references in the report to the 2014 Traditional Keepers Forum, which was held at the University of Manitoba, there is no mention of input from Metis author Maria Campbell.  She had recently done research regarding violence against aboriginal women going back to the 1600s (Trudeau Fellow, 2010).  She contended it was the "role of the commission" to look into the way aboriginal men have contributed to the violence.  She recommended that men take action at the community level, and there be less focus on expecting government to solve the problems.

One of the TRC commissioners, Marie Wilson, told Campbell that she honoured her outrage and the challenge it presented to the men.

I was really glad to read this, and was looking forward to seeing Campbell's views covered in the summary.  Alas, there was no mention of what she said at all.  Indeed, there is no discussion of any traditional factors that might lead some aboriginal men to become violent towards women, even though it is well-documented that a few tribes historically did not always treat their women with respect.  Since one of the recommendations is for an inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women and girls [p. 224; Rec. 41 i)], I found this omission particularly disasppointing.

The TRC report gives the impression that life before colonization was idyllic, when the truth is that, yes, it was better in many ways than modern times, but there was inter-tribal warfare, even the annihilation of one tribe by another.  It think it is important for aboriginals to consider how their occasionally violent past might be contributing to some of their difficulties.  For instance, some regional conflicts stem from historical battles.  Fortunately, many tribes recognize this and are addressing the matter.

A lot of aboriginals are asking non-aboriginals to stretch their way of looking at the world, to accommodate a broader range of possibilities, and I suggest the reverse should also take place.  Although it was certainly wrong that some non-natives banned native cultural practices, perhaps there are a few that are best forgotten.

D.      TRC Recommendations Worth Implementing

I agree with Macdonald-Laurier Institute Senior Fellow, Ken Coates, that a lot of the TRC recommendations hinge too much on "a government-driven system of new programs," and that more focus should be placed on "aboriginal-led solutions."  I also concur with him that there needs to be more focus on aboriginal groups and governments looking at which recommendations are the most urgent, and then moving forward to implement them.

Some of the 94 (frequently multi-part) recommendations are reasonable, such as bringing on-reserve education funding up to the equivalent spent on non-aboriginals [p. 193-196; Rec. 8].

Incorporating "age-appropriate" information on the history of the residential schools into Kindergarten to Grade 12 curriculum is also a good idea [p. 285-290; Rec. 62 i)].  But this information needs to be balanced, presenting both the positive and negative of the schools.

Waiving the costs for those survivors who were forced to change their names [p. 205; Rec. 17], and the chief coroners releasing the records for children who died while at the schools [p. 309-310; Rec. 71] are excellent recommendations.

In addition, it is admirable that the TRC held a number of National Event Education Days and Youth Dialogues, and that some of the participants produced materials, like a documentary video, that can be used for educational purposes.  It is also encouraging that there is a recommendation for regular federal funding for "community-based youth organizations" [p. 294-296; Rec. 66].

Nevertheless, aboriginal youth leaders have complained that some indigenous organizations do not take them seriously, and that funding allocated to them is often the first to go.  So the question is, could this happen to "Youth Programs - Recommendation 66" in the TRC summary?

Horse Chestnut, London, Ontario, May 29, 2015

E.      Positive Accounts That Are Not Covered in the Summary

One aboriginal who is not mentioned in the summary, although she has written about her residential schools experiences for decades, is 93-year old, honorary lifetime Dene chief, Cece Hodgson-McCauley.  This feisty News/North columnist has described her 10 years at the Catholic convent in Fort Providence, Northwest Territories, as the best years of her life.

In her July 13, 2015 column, she said a youth group is "questioning this whole residential school thing.  You can't fool everybody."

On August 3, 2015, she added that the "silent majority" is "waking up and asking questions.  Not only the majority at large, but elders who went through residential school but were afraid to speak during the seven years the [TRC] was researching. . .You just watch.  If the government thinks the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is a done deal, it will have a rude awakening!"

Cree playwright, Tomson Highway's novel, Kiss of the Fur Queen (1998), which deals with his time at a residential school, is referred to on p. 329 of the summary.  But there is no mention of the fact, that when questioned about that time of his life during a 2013 interview, he said he believed in dwelling in the present and the future.  He also said he became trilingiual and learned to play the piano because of the school.

In addition, there is no mention of Highway's website (, on which he says he will speak about "'memoirs of a successful Native residential school survivor.'  Or how I learned to stop complaining and celebrate my life."

Gwich'in PhD candidate, Crystal Fraser and Ian Mosby, a McMaster University Postdoctoral fellow, contend that most survivors did well "in spite of," not because of, the schools.  They believe further research is required regarding this topic.  I agree that further study is required, but more focus needs to be placed on why quite a few survivors have done so well, and/or have positive memories of the schools.

Dandelion seed head, London, Ontario, May 29, 2015

F.      The Residential Schools Era Was Complex

The late Rev. James Edward (Ted) DeWolf was Principal of the St. Paul's Indian Residential School at the Kainai First Nation on the Blood Reserve in Southern Alberta, from 1953 to 1963.  His wife, two daughters and son accompanied him, and the children attended the school.  St. Paul's classes only went up to Grade 6.

Starting in Grade 7, son, Mark DeWolf, rode the bus every school day with the other Kainai students into Cardston, to attend the junior high there.  The rest of his family relocated, in 1963, to LaTuque, Quebec, where his father took over administration of another residential school.  Mark lived with a family in Cardston, in 1964, while completing his secondary education.

In 2011, Mark made a submission to the TRC [excerpt on p. 324-325] regarding the ways he interacted as a "little white boy," from the age of six to 16, with his aboriginal comrades (classes, lunchtimes, recesses, sports and recreation).  He learned from the native students how their land and life had been "taken away from them."  But he also explained some of the ways his father "worked within the system to try and make it a better one."

DeWolf is now a retired Halifax educator, who is writing a memoir about his childhood on the reserve.  Although he is very aware of the failings of the IRS system and the harm it inflicted, he thinks people have to better understand how complex it was.  He said:

"There is nothing simple about the story of Canada's Indian Residential Schools (IRS).  For one thing, the IRS system underwent considerable change during its 147-year history, with fluctuations in its size and influence.  Beginning as a collection of industrial schools and later transformed to a residential school model, it began as one solitary school in 1849, grew to a maximum of 80 schools in the 1930s, then shrank again until the last one closed in 1996.  At different times, the system operated under quite different mandates, policies and funding practices.

Different religious organizations from a number of Christian denominations provided staffing and funding, and the schools served many different native communities in quite different ways.  Individual schools saw very different teachers, counsellors, and administrators come and go, and Canadian attitudes towards aboriginal people evolved.  Over time, some schools came to resemble less the Dickensian workhouse and more the regular boarding school. . .

But. . .the general public knows little of this complexity.  Long, complicated stories, filled with details that confuse rather than inform, do not easily attract readers.  What finds its way into the public consciousness is an encapsulated version, often focusing on the more sensational aspects: helpless young people tormented physically and sexually, the sometimes brutal repression of vital native culture, and the misery of children torn from the arms of their parents by Indian agents or RCMP constables. . .The frequent repetition of such sensational stories. . .builds a belief in the minds of Canadians that they are plain and simple fact.

Simple, yes.  Fact, not so much. . .The facts show that [abuses] happened much less frequently than is commonly believed, and arguably had much less effect on First Nations communities than has been confidently stated.  The "accepted facts" routinely included in widely disseminated media reports are helping to create a convenient myth.

. . .Far more significant factors have created--and perpetuate--the many problems facing First Nations people today [such as]. . .underfunding of native education generally, the government's repeated failure to observe treaty obligations, and a variety of misguided federal policies."

One of the "convenient myths" is that aboriginal people lost their language because of the schools.  However, the 2002-2003 First Nations Regional Longitudinal Health Survey found that 69.7% pf residential school survivors spoke one or more aboriginal languages, and 74.8% could understand one or more.

The survey authors thought this might be partly due to the resilience of the students, e.g., speaking secretly to each other in their language.  This resilience factor gives weight to the Fraser/Mosby contention that survivors did well in spite of, not because of, the schools.

Tree stump, London, Ontario, August 7, 2015
However, historian J.R. Miller, has concluded from his research that "well into the twentieth century, most missionary bodies did not agree with the government's desire for a complete ban on the use of Native languages."  Church officials frequently disobeyed what the government was trying to impose.  Miller points out that "it was in the praying and working areas of the schools, rather than the classrooms, that Native languages were most likely to be heard, especially when the supervisors themselves were Native people."

In addition, Miller has found that English was frequently the "linguistic common denominator" language for schools that had "ethnically diverse" students from tribes who spoke different dialects.

Further, DeWolf has determined from his research that a "surprisingly large percentage of native people received no formal education at all" during the 1849-1996 period.  Two of the reasons for this were a shortage of schools and high rates of absenteeism.  Miller has arrived at similar conclusions.

Miller has also concluded that "the conventional role of the residential school fails to note that the system never reached more than a minority of young Indians and Inuit."  It is estimated that approximately one-third of aboriginal children attended residential schools.  Others attended day schools, provincial schools, or no schools at all.

Branch across path, London, Ontario, May 22, 2015

G.      Information About Deceased People Sometimes Presented in a Misleading Way

Sometimes information about a deceased person is presented in a misleading way.  For instance, the summary quotes what Oblate priest, Father Andre Renaud (1919-1988), said in a 1958 article, about separating aboriginal students from their culture [p. 5].  But it fails to note that Renaud's opinion changed just a few years later.  In 1961, he launched a summer course to help Indian teachers promote cultural pride in their children.  In addition, he helped the Federation of Saskatchewan Indians secure a location for the Saskatchewan Indian Cultural College.

Furthermore, the "estate and friends" of Renaud established a scholarship.  Eligibility involves aboriginal education and "applicants should have experience with indigenous languages."  Renaud is described in the online scholarship information as an individual who "dedicated his life to the education of indigenous people in Canada and throughout the world."  He is also remembered in glowing terms in the entry for him on the Encyclopedia of Saskatchewan website, which notes he was "invested as an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1973."

There is no personal reason why I am highlighting the TRC's coverage of Renaud here.  I do not believe I ever met him.  However, my mother was a member of the Indian-Eskimo Association (IEA) at the same time he was also involved (ca. 1964-1968), so she likely knew him.  In fact, I have some of my mother's IEA files, which include a 1964 presentation he made to the IEA Ontario Division, regarding curriculum development for Saskatchewan aboriginals.

Misleading information in the summary also includes not acknowledging non-aboriginal contributions to cultural practices.  On p. 85, there is a reference to a student being punished for writing in "Cree syllabics at the Fort Albany school."  But it is not mentioned that a Methodist missionary named James Evans (1801-1846) helped popularize the use of this writing method.  Some Crees believe Evans did not invent syllabics, as is widely claimed.  They contend that syllabics were around long before Evans got involved, and his contribution was to turn the symbols into a writing system.  Nevertheless, "many Cree people" believe "Evans deserves credit" for increasing Cree literacy through his translating and printing initiatives.

Selwyn Dewdney (1909-1979) "pioneered the study of Amerindian rock paintings and carvings in Canada. . .[He] came to know and respect the native peoples of Canada."  When he was a teenager, Dewdney accompanied his Anglican priest father on a portage through remote Northern Ontario communities.  Three Cree "veteran canoemen" and "devout churchmen" each carried "a dog-eared prayer book in Cree syllabics."  Every evening, the travellers held a brief prayer session, which included Selwyn's father reading the Lord's Prayer in Cree.

Sumac, London, Ontario, August 7, 2015

H.      TRC Authors Favour Parallelism Approach, But I Think Integration is Better

I contend there are three major positions on aboriginal policy: parallelist, integrationist and assimilationist.  I am in favour of the integrationist approach.  For further information on my views on this, you can refer to my August 7, 2011 post entitled "Canadian Aboriginal Integration is Better Than Assimilation or Parallelism," which can be found elsewhere on this blog.

Alan Cairns was the first to use the term parallelism, which he described as "Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities, travelling side by side coexisting but not getting in each other's way."  But Cairns is not a proponent of the term that he coined.

The TRC authors are clearly proponents of parallelism, as were the authors of the 1996 report they frequently cite: the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP).  RCAP advised that aboriginals be allowed to establish a third order of government.

I totally understand why many aboriginal reserve leaders want more control over what they do at the community level.  For more information on my views on this, see Sections D.2 and E.2 of my February 11, 2014 post on Thomas King's The Inconvenient Indian, which can be found elsewhere on this blog.  However, I think it is a gross generalization for the TRC authors to give the impression that all aboriginals agree with the parallelist viewpoint.

The TRC authors also frequently make sweeping generalizations about what aboriginal people think and feel.  For instance, they say "[d]espite being subjected to aggressive assimilation policies for nearly 200 years, Aboriginal people have maintained their identity and communities" [p. 134].  But they, as did the RCAP authors, fail to note that a third of aboriginals do not even identify themselves as such in the federal census.  Yes, it is very true that some aboriginal people assimilated because of colonial policies, but others have willingly chosen to blend into Canadian society as a whole.

I.      Conclusion: "Caring Measures" More Important Than "Stratospheric Rights"

The report's overarching agenda is to justify why aboriginal and treaty rights need to be strengthened, including in terms of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).  But I am not convinced that, even if all these rights were implemented, that the aboriginal situation would substantially improve.

Australian anthropologist and linguist, Peter Sutton, has more than 40 years experience with the Aborigines in Australia.  His book, The Politics of Suffering: Indigenous Australia and the end of the liberal consensus (2009, 2011), is filled with many insights that I share.  Marcia Langton, the Aborigine scholar who penned a foreword to the book, echoes his concerns.

Sutton complains that too many politicians, lawyers and activists insist that Aborigines will not be truly happy and fulfilled until all outstanding issues, such as social justice, treaty and reconciliation, have been met.  He responds with "[t]his unscientific mumbo-jumbo beggars belief. . .Caring measures. . .rather than documentary measures based on increasingly stratospheric rights. . .lie at the effective end of realistic processes for improvement."

In my opinion, the TRC summary spends too much time on documentary measures, and not enough on caring ones.  Yes, it was caring for the commission to hear the testimonies of thousands of survivors.  But the lessons from these frequently painful accounts need to be translated into more than a blueprint for "stratospheric rights," particularly since not all Canadian aboriginals, and not all those who were involved with the schools, are on the same page as the TRC.


Cairns, A.C. (2000).  Citizens Plus: Aboriginal Peoples and the Canadian State.  Vancouver: UBC Press.

Cairns, A.C. (2005).  First Nations and the Canadian State: In Search of Coexistence.  Kingston, ON: Queen's University.

CBC Radio/New Fire.  (2015, September 1).  Season Finale: Political Panel.  Retrieved from

Coates, K. (2015, July 31).  Five Priorities for Aboriginal Canada in Election 2015.  Retrieved from Macdonald-Laurier Institute:

Coates, K. (2015, July 17). Premiers' Embrace of Aboriginal Issues Has Been a Long Time Coming.  Retrieved from Huffington Post:

Coates, K. (2015, June 3).  Real Truth and Reconciliation Requires Aboriginal-Led Solutions - Not Governments.  Retrieved from Macdonald-Laurier Institute:

Cree Literacy Network (n.d.).  Another Version of Cree Literacy: the Cree Story of Syllabics.  Retrieved July 28, 2015 from Cree Literacy:

Dewdney, S. (1997).  Daylight in the Swamp: Memoirs of Selwyn Dewdney (A.K. Dewdney, Ed.)  Toronto: Dundurn.

DeWolf, M. (ca. 2014).  Myth Versus Evidence: Your Choice (unpublished).

DeWolf, M. (2011, October 28).  Submission to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Eigenbrod, R., Kakegamic, G. & Fiddler, J. (2003).  Aboriginal Literature in Canada: A Teachers' Resource Guide.  Retrieved from

Fayant, G. (2015, February 9).  Gabriel Fayant: Native youth claim their future through technology.  Retrieved from Globe and Mail:

First Nations Centre (2005, November).  First Nations Regional Longitudinal Health Survey (RHS).  Retrieved from National Aboriginal Health Organization:

Fraser, C, & Mosby, I. (2015, April 7).  Setting Canadian History Right? A Response to Ken Coates' 'Second Thoughts About Residential Schools'.  Retrieved from Active History:

Hodgson-McCauley, C. (2015, July 13).  Assembly of First Nations needs to listen to youth.  Retrieved from Northern News Service:

Hodgson-McCauley, C. (2015, August 3).  I liked residential school.  Retrieved from Northern News Service:

Hodgson-McCauley, C. (2012, December 3).  Positive stories from residential schools.  Retrieved from Northern News Service:

Hutchinson, G.M. (1988).  Evans, James. Retrieved July 2, 2015 from Dictionary of Canadian Biography:

Lederman, M. (2013, October 21).  Playwrights Tomson Highway and Michel Tremblay talk politics, religion and perspective.  Retrieved from Globe and Mail:

Miller, J.R. (2004).  Owen Glendower, Hotspur and Canadian Indian Policy. In J.R. Miller Reflections on Native-Newcomer Relations: Selected Essays.

Miller, J.R. (2004).  The State, the Church and Indian Residential Schools.  In J.R. Miller Reflections on Native-Newcomer Relations: Selected Essays.

Stonechild, B. (2006).  The New Buffalo: The Struggle for Aboriginal Post-Secondary Education.  Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press.

Sutton, P. (2011).  The Politics of Suffering: Indigenous Australia and the end of the liberal consensus.  Victoria, Australia: Melbourne University.

University of Manitoba (2014, July 24).  Traditional Knowledge Keepers: "Now is about restoring'. Retrieved from University of Manitoba/UM Today:

University of Manitoba (2014, July 24).  What is the good path to healing and reconciliation?  Retrieved from University of Manitoba/UM Today:

University of Regina (n.d.) Renaud, Andre (1919-88).  Retrieved July 2, 2015 from Encyclopedia of Saskatchewan:

University of Saskatchewan. College of Education (n.d.). Andre Renaud Memorial Scholarships.  Retrieved July 2, 2015 from

Vowel, C. (2015, June 9).  Read the Truth and Reconciliation Report Before You Form An Opinion.  Retrieved from Huffington Post:

Wiart, N. (2015, June 23.  Crowd-sourced video project aims to make the TRC report more accessible.  Retrieved from

Winnipeg Free Press (2015, June 2).  Truth and Reconciliation: Q&A: History of residential schools.  Retrieved from

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

My Custom Domain,, is the Way to Locate This Site

As of today, April 8, 2015, my custom domain, which is,, will be the way to locate this site.

Traffic to my blogspot url:, or

will be redirected to:

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

A Review of Calvin Helin's Dances With Spirits: Ancient Wisdom for a Modern World

Disclaimer: My references to the writings of other people--both indigenous and non-indigenous--do not in any way imply that they share my views on this matter.  The opinions expressed here are my own, and do not necessarily reflect the views of my family, friends or associates.

Note:  The photos included with this post were taken by me.  The turtle artwork is by my mother, Jay Peterson (1920-1976).  Although none of these images have any direct connection with the material being discussed, Helin stresses, in Dances With Spirits, that "we are inseparable from nature."  My regular walks through my neighbourhood remind me of this.

Calvin Helin is a "member of the Tsimshian Nation," and is originally from the community of Lax Kw'alaams, which is on the Northwest coast of the province of British Columbia, in Canada.  Now he lives in Vancouver, which is a city in the southern part of the same province.  He is "the son of a hereditary chief," and an "entrepreneur, lawyer and best-selling author."

His book, Dances With Spirits: Ancient Wisdom for a Modern World (2014), "guides readers in applying ancient wisdom for a better understanding of today's complex modern world.  Millions crave spiritual fulfillment in a time of broken social relations.  Yet most are confused as to why their deepest yearnings for meaning and a kinder, gentler way of life are becoming more distant. . ."
". . .We live in a skewed society, focused on technology and money.  Through understanding our true nature, a better existence can be created."

Before I start my Dances With Spirits review, I will briefly discuss two of Helin's other books, which I have also read.

View from bridge, London, Ontario, May 25, 2014
A.          Dances With Dependency: Indigenous Success Through Self-Reliance (2006)

In Dances With Dependency, Helin argues that "[t]he current governance system is not only antiquated, but politically disempowers a substantial portion of the indigenous population, concentrates power and financial resources in the hands of a few elites, provides for painfully poor political and financial accountability and transparency, and continues to encourage a culture of dependency" (259-260).  He concludes that "simply throwing money at the problem will never lead to a long-term solution and may actually be exacerbating existing struggles.  Aboriginal people need a new generation of ethical leadership. . .with the courage to take the real action necessary for a brighter future" (265).

When I read this book in 2007, I was happy to learn that an aboriginal person shared my (non-aboriginal) view that the current "system" sometimes does more harm than good.  I was also pleased that he stressed the importance of self-reliance.

I assumed that, because he is an indigenous person, he probably had no trouble getting the book published.  So I was surprised to learn, in 2011, that he got 32 rejection letters for his Dances With Dependency manuscript.  Publishers told him they thought the aboriginal leadership would be offended because he "touched on reserve corruption."  Consequently, he borrowed $100,000 and published it himself.  He said in a 2010 interview that the majority of people who purchased the book were "grassroots" indigenous people.  When asked what the aboriginal leaders thought of his ideas, he responded that some shared his concerns, but others "wished he was at the bottom of a lake."  Regardless, the book is a bestseller seven times over.

In some of the previous posts on this blog, I have spoken about the different ways I became disillusioned with the aboriginal situation, and the fact that, since about the mid-2000s, I have primarily been on the outside looking in.

Fortunately, there are a growing number of aboriginals, like Helin, who are striving to not only improve the situation for their people, but also to help educate the non-aboriginal population about how we can all constructively move forward.  I always enjoy reading the stories of these courageous reformers.  I know from personal experience that it is hard for anyone to question the "elites" and the "system," so I recognize how brave they are.

Naturalized area in London, Ontario, September 19, 2014
B.          The Empowerment Mindset: Success Through Self-Knowledge (2012)

The target audience for Dances With Dependency was the aboriginal population.  But The Empowerment Mindset is addressed to everyone, regardless of race.  Helin's travels through life made him realize that "negative emotions and toxic thoughts" were holding back not only aboriginal, but also non-aboriginal, people.  In this book, he provides recommendations to help people find "constructive and fulfilling ways to attain success and happiness" (15).  He lists 10 "Laws of Empowerment" such as the importance of "hard work and sustained effort," and the need to adhere to a "strategic plan."

This book helped me to counter my own "mental and emotional sabotage" and to become more focussed on fulfilling my goals.

C.          Dances With Spirits: Ancient Wisdom for a Modern World (2014)

Dances With Spirits, like The Empowerment Mindset, is written for everyone.  The book helped me understand better why historically and currently some indigenous people are reluctant to assimilate into mainstream society.  Although Helin acknowledges that many aspects of mainstream thought can be positive, he feels there needs to be more balance and perspective.

The book is divided into three parts, which I will discuss below.  However, I have only included topics from each part that are particularly interesting to me, so it is not an exhaustive compilation.  After each topic, I have included "personal observations" as to how the topic relates to me.

C.1        Part I - When Myths Make a Mess

This part of the book "examines the structure of our current economic model and its economic, social, psychological, and spiritual impacts" (xxv).

C.1.1      Vicious Cycle of Consumption

Helin argues that advertising and marketing make people think "the only route to happiness is to consume ever more stuff" (9).  He says the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) "is deeply flawed because it is based on consumption by the population, rather than a broad range of aspects that reflect national well-being" (10).

Personal observations: My father, Charles T. Peterson (1913-2007), frequently warned me and others that our possessions could kill us.  As my first cousin's partner, Jim McClocklin, said at my father's funeral: "Uncle Chuck knew that life was not about things--life is about developing relationships and making memories."

The older I get, the more I understand what my father meant.  When I see advertising that urges me to hurry up and buy something, I ask myself whether I really need whatever it is.  Often the answer is I do not.

C.1.2      When Debt Leads to Slavery

Helin cites statistics regarding the alarming level of debt in the United States.  He contends we need to "do more with less" (31-34).

Personal observations: The same is true on this side of the border.  According to an analysis by the McKinsey Global Institute, Canada, among other countries, now has a greater household debt load than what existed at the height of the "credit bubble" in the United States and the United Kingdom.  Canadian debt increased to 162.6 per cent in the third quarter of 2014.  The study found that Canada is one of the countries most at risk of foreclosures and bankruptcies.

I have a hard time understanding why so many people take the plunge into debt, just because they want to "keep up with the Joneses." 

C.2        Part II - Veils to Vision

This part "discusses aspects of a vision for a new economic model that better addresses our social and spiritual well-being as well as our economic needs" (xxv-xxvi).

Wildflower, London, Ontario, July 15, 2014
C.2.1     The Technology Trap

Helin provides compelling arguments why technology, if not used wisely, can contribute to a whole host of problems.  For example:

• A study showed that students disconnected from their digital devices, for even a period as short as 24 hours, developed withdrawal symptoms similar to those of substance abusers.

• People are losing touch with the natural world and with each other because they are so immersed in the digital world (71-76).

Personal observations: What I find particularly disturbing about the "technology trap" is it can cause people to risk their own lives and those of others.  More than five years ago, the province of Ontario, in Canada, banned the use of portable device assistants behind the wheel.  And last year, the fine for breaking the law went up to $1,000.  Yet in 2014, police in London, Ontario laid 2,187 charges in this regard--close to double the number from three years ago.

C.2.2      Funnel Vision

Helin uses the phrase "funnel vision" to describe the tendency of Western cultures to "judge technologically poor societies as inferior."  This approach blinds many Westerners from seeing the cultural and spiritual strengths that frequently exist in societies other than their own.  This lack of recognition and support has caused many ways of life, including indigenous, to be eroded and, in some cases, to die off completely (81-84).

Personal observations: My family home was known as the "United Nations" because people of many different backgrounds passed through our doors.  So I grew up learning about the diversity of world views.

My mother, Jay Peterson, initially got involved with aboriginal issues in 1958.  From about 1969 until her passing in 1976, she devoted a large percentage of her time to helping educate people about the indigenous situation.  For instance, she taught a Native Studies course at Fanshawe College in London, Ontario.  Aboriginal people were frequently guest lecturers at this course.

I have some of the materials from her Fanshawe College course, including a one-pager entitled "Ways of Wisdom."  Twenty-one aboriginals from different tribes across the country helped my mother assemble this document.  It includes 11 observations, such as native people "were more interested in BEING than BECOMING."

My mother's relationship with aboriginal people led to my getting connected to the "cause."  From 1975 to 1987, I worked primarily in native organizations in Southern and Northern Ontario and the Northwest Territories.  But, as explained earlier in this post, I have mainly been on the outside looking in for about the past 10 years.

My mother's indigenous experiences spanned an 18-year period, but mine have lasted for more than 55 years.  Although I share her view that non-aboriginal people need to be better informed about the history and heritage of indigenous people, my approach is quite different from hers in other respects.  If you want to know more about my opinion on this, you can check out my other posts on this blog.

Artwork by Jay Peterson, ca. 1964-1974
C.          Part III - Creating Harmony

This final part "explores how we can incorporate the knowledge of past societies into a vision for a new economic model that can lead to a more holistic well-being that includes our social and spiritual dimensions" (xxvi).

C.3.1       A New Definition of Wealth and Progress

Helin contends a new international standard needs to be developed.  This standard would include making adjustments to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) so it takes into account factors such as environmental sustainability and individual and government debts.  Quality of life, education levels, responsible governance and other measures can then be incorporated in (105-110).

Personal observations: Because of reading this book, I have become more aware of how much media commentary revolves around the GDP as a measurement of the country's health.  I agree with Helin that we need to adjust the measurements for this.

C.3.2        Finding Common Ground

It was refreshing to read Helin's arguments for why all people on this planet need to find "common ground."  It was even more refreshing to read his acknowledgement that we all need to move beyond the various intolerances that have emerged in our respective cultures, and try to work together for the best of all.

This is my favourite quote in the book:

As long as the views of one group are not harming another, we should tolerate others in the spirit of respect, cooperation and goodwill, recognizing that we are not diminished by differences as a species, but are ultimately strengthened by them.  Instead of promoting hate and suspicion about each other, we need to promote tolerance and understanding (123).

Personal observations:  These are what I think the implications are for aboriginal policy.  I contend there are three major positions: parallelist, integrationist and assimilationist.

Alan Cairns was the first to use the term parallelism, which he described as "Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities travelling side by side, coexisting but not getting in each other's way."  But Cairns is not a proponent of the term that he coined.  The Royal Commission on Aboriginal People (1996) advocated parallelism, that is, forming a third order of government separate from non-aboriginal society.

Integrationists, on the other hand, believe that a total separation of the cultures is not necessary or warranted.  However, there are many variations of this view.

Assimilationists prefer that aboriginals become part of mainstream society.  About a third of Canadian aboriginals have chosen this route, and do not identify themselves as such in the federal census.

I do not have any problem with aboriginals maintaining their culture and governance models, as long as they are also willing to remain part of the Canadian state.  I also contend that those aspects of aboriginal culture that may be harmful to any race should not be retained.  So I see my views in the integrationist category.

My impression, after reading three of Helin's books, is that his views also fall into the integrationist slot.  I think this approach is the best route forward for all Canadians.

Tree, London, Ontario, September 19, 2014
D.          The "Body, Mind & Spirit" interview with Calvin Helin, October 1, 2014.  Host Patricia Kennedy and co-host Leith Peterson

"Body, Mind & Spirit" is a CHRW 94.9 FM radio show at Western University in London, Ontario.  The show airs three times a month, and the host is registered nurse, Patricia Kennedy.  The show "explores holistic medicine, practitioners, research, health issues and more."  Around late August 2014, Kennedy asked me if I would be willing to appear on the show, to discuss the book I am working on, which is about my two generations of experience with aboriginal issues.  I told her I was declining interviews until my book is hopefully published.  However, I suggested that she consider speaking with Calvin Helin about his book Dances With Spirits.  This is because I thought many of the issues he discusses related well to her show's theme.

Kennedy said my suggestion was good, as long as I agreed to be co-host.  Helin agreed to be interviewed by Kennedy and me on October 1, 2014.  There is a permanent link to the show audio at  Go to "Shows & Events," then "Body, Mind & Spirit," then October 1, 2014.  Or go to "Blog," then October 2, 2014.

There are a number of technical glitches during the first 20 minutes or so, but all the people I have spoken with, who have listened to the approximately 57-minute broadcast, say they were glad they heard it.  Quite a few said they planned to read Dances With Spirits, and some also spoke of checking out some of his other books.

If you decide to listen, I apologize in advance for my poor delivery, particularly during the first part of the show.  Had extensive training at college and university regarding how to properly present myself verbally, but all that accumulated knowledge escaped me the morning the show was recorded.  Will endeavour to do better if I ever have to do anything like this again.


Cairns, Alan C.  Citizens Plus: Aboriginal People and the Canadian State.  Toronto: UBC Press, 2000.

Council of Reference - Ways.  Fanshawe College Canadian Studies Native Peoples I - Ways of Wisdom [course handout, unpublished].  Fanshawe College Native Studies, ca. 1971-1974.

Grant, Tavia.  "New alarm bells over household debt as Canada faces 'downward spiral.'"  Globe and Mail, February 5, 2015.

Helin, Calvin.  Dances With Dependency: Indigenous Success Through Self-Reliance.  Vancouver: Orca Spirit, 2006.

Helin, Calvin.  Dances With Spirits: Ancient Wisdom for a Modern World.  Los Angeles: Premier Digital, 2014.

Helin, Calvin.  The Empowerment Mindset: Success Through Self-Knowledge.  Los Angeles: Premier Digital, 2012.

Jacobs, Mindelle.  "First nations, last place: Chiefs and councils keep bands dependent, says author." Edmonton Sun, November 17, 2010.

McClocklin, Jim.  Charles T. Peterson [eulogy, unpublished].  April 4, 2007.

Peterson, Jay.  Phase Five: Experiencing Equality [seminar, unpublished].  University of Western Ontario, Department of Occupational Therapy, March 1975.

Rollason, Kevin.  "Native lawyer slams aboriginal welfare."  Winnipeg Free Press, January 21, 2011.

Van Brenk, Deborah.  "The number of distracted driving tickets handed out by London police keeps going up - as is the number of collisions in the city."  London Free Press, January 28, 2015.

Vancouver Sun.  "Enormous opportunities seen for first nations entrepreneurs."  April 6, 2011. 

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Thomas King's "The Inconvenient Indian" - A Sometimes Contradictory, But Occasionally Constructive, Rant

Disclaimer: My references to the writings of other people--both native and non-native--do not in any way imply that they share my views on this matter.   The opinions expressed here are my own, and do not necessarily reflect those of my family, friends or associates.

A.        Introduction

I read Thomas King's The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America (2012) twice.  This was not because I enjoyed it so much, I just had to read it again.  It was because the terrain that he navigates is all too familiar to me, and I was concerned my initial analysis might be laden too much with personal, rather than objective, reactions.  King and I are from roughly the same era, and I was directly or indirectly connected with quite a few of the people and events that he talks about.  But we come away with remarkably different analyses of the situation.

King chronicles his views on the interactions between native and non-native peoples in North America since contact.  The publisher (Doubleday Canada) describes it as "at once a history and the subversion of history."  However, King acknowledges that it is more an account than a history because he does not follow "the demands of scholarship" (x).  The book has no footnotes or bibliography.  In addition, the index leaves something to be desired; sometimes keywords are listed and other times they are not.

King contends there is no one word that can cover all aboriginals in North America "because there was never a collective to begin with" (xiii).  (The Metis and Inuit get comparatively little attention in the book.)  He decided to use Indian in the title because he considered it "the North American default" (xiii).  I do think The Inconvenient Indian aptly conveys the work's content.

King frequently uses the term "North American," rather than Canadian or American, because he says the border is not as important to aboriginals as it is to whites (xvi).  I cannot find the spot in the book where he provides a definition for what he means by North American, but I am assuming by the context he is referring to a mindset that operates outside of what he considers to be the aboriginal one.

I agree with those commentators who believe some of the book's popularity may be because it came out shortly before the anti-Bill C-45 protests in December 2012 and January 2013.  It remained on the Canadian bestseller lists for 20 weeks after it was released in November 2012, making it to the number one spot for a while.

(Note:  opposition to Bill C-45 has commonly been referred to as the Idle No More (INM) movement.  I prefer, nonetheless, to stay away from this term, since a number of the INM founders stated they did not condone the actions taken by some under this moniker.  In fact, there is still a lot of controversy going on within the native community about INM and what its philosophy should be.)

Although there have been some aboriginal protests since the major activism more than a year ago, they have not been as widespread.  Yet King's book is still attracting readership.  As of February 1, 2014, it was in seventh place out of 10 on the Globe's Canadian Non-Fiction Bestseller List.

I suspect one of the main reasons why the book has remained popular is because King does a very good job of making the reader understand why aboriginal discontent did not just spring up out of nowhere.  He also vividly demonstrates how stereotypes of Indians have led to a lot of misconceptions and ill feelings between the races.  But the downside of the book is that, while he lays out many of the contentious issues (such as the fact that "whites want land"), he offers little in the way of constructive solutions.  In addition, he frequently contradicts himself.  I will elaborate on all these points later in this post.

B.        King - Brief Biography

King was born in 1943 in California.  When he was about five years old, his Cherokee father abandoned his Greek/German mother, brother and him.  He never lived on a reservation, but his mother made sure he kept in touch with his aboriginal relatives.  Outside of a few years in the 1960s working in New Zealand and later Australia, he spent the rest of his early life in the United States.  In 1967, he got involved with native activism when he started attending Chico State University (BA, 1970, MA 1972).  He later taught and did administrative work at Humboldt State University and the University of Utah (PhD 1986).

He has been married twice, having one son by his (presumably non-native) first wife, and a son and daughter with his current, non-native wife, Helen Hoy.  He met Hoy after he moved to Canada in 1980, and started working in the Native Studies Department at the University of Lethbridge.  Hoy and he later taught at the School of English and Theatre Studies at the University of Guelph, where they both specialized in aboriginal-related courses (they recently retired).

King got into his writing more seriously after moving to Canada.  His works (mainly fiction) explore many facets of aboriginal life, and he often employs humour to get his point across.  Before The Inconvenient Indian's publication, he was best known for his novel Green Grass, Running Water (1993) and for his role on CBC Radio's "Dead Dog Cafe" show (1997-2000).  For further information on his background, please consult the bibliography at the end of this post.

C.        King and I - Similar Terrain But Divergent Paths

My late parents got involved with aboriginal issues in the late 1950s when I was a child, so I grew up with this matter constantly around me.  From 1975 to 1987, I worked primarily in native organizations in Southern and Northern Ontario and the Northwest Territories.  Until around the mid-2000s, I maintained a relatively close connection to the "cause," but since then have been generally keeping my distance, for reasons that I discuss in other posts on this blog.

There are many scenarios in King's book that I am familiar with because of my background.  For instance, in June 1978, I had an article published about a walk by approximately 500 native people from all over North America who were protesting "anti-Indian legislation."  The "longest walk," from Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay, to Washington, D.C., took place from February to July 1978.  King describes the 19th century Trail of Tears, which was one of the motivations behind the 1978 "longest walk" in the book (88, 123).

Another anecdote that brought back some memories for me was when King related a harrowing experience he had in 1973.  Some other protesters and he were riding in a van heading for Salt Lake City; they were going there to participate in a rally in support of Wounded Knee.  The police pulled the van over at the Wyoming border, and at one point, a gun was aimed directly at him.

My connection to this border incident is far less dramatic: an aboriginal woman from a Southern Ontario reserve and I took a car trip through the Northern United States in the summer of 1978.  When we got to the North Dakota border (en route to Saskatchewan), the border guard asked us where we were from.  I dutifully said I was from London, Ontario, but she repeatedly said she was a "North American Indian," and refused to clarify the reserve where she lived was in Canada.  The guard told us to get out of the vehicle, and then inspected every part of it, presumably looking for something illegal.  We were finally allowed to proceed after an hour.  I doubt it took him that long to search the car; I think he just wanted to delay us, to hammer the point home that my associate's response was not acceptable.

So when King talks about the unrest that has gone on in the United States, I have some idea what he is talking about.  In terms of the Canadian references, there are no personal examples that stand out for me.  However, there are two that, although I do not have direct experience with, I know a fair bit about: the Caledonia, Ontario crisis and Canadian aboriginals' views of property rights.

I discussed my concerns about King's coverage of the Caledonia crisis in my review of the blog "Six Nations (Haudenosaunee) & the Haldimand Tract: Beliefs Versus Facts," February 2, 2014, which can be found here.

King deals fairly extensively with aboriginals' views of property rights on both sides of the border.  I do not know much about what is going on in the United States, but I have read quite a bit about the Canadian situation.  He contends that "Indians, through inclination or treaty, held land in common" (129).  But C.T. (Manny) Jules, who is the First Nations Property Ownership Initiative (FNPO) chief commissioner, and former chief of the Kamloops Indian band in B.C., says historically bands such as his had "governments that financed themselves" and that allowed for "individual property rights."  He asserts that the Indian Act removed his band from the economy, and this needs to be rectified with a "secure property rights system" that protects "title and underlying jurisdiction."

King claims it is erroneous to think that aboriginal people want "individual freedom to pursue economic growth" like their non-aboriginal counterparts (118).  But Shane Gottfriedson, who is chief of the Kamloops band (same band that Jules is from), does not share this view.  He says his band is a proponent of the FNPO because it will help "to break the dependency culture. . ."

Because of my personal background, and because I have done considerable research into many of the topics he covers, I frequently realize when King's assertions are questionable.  What bothers me is about two-thirds of the online reviews are unflinching in their praise for the book; only around a third recognize the book's failings.  For instance, I could only find one reviewer other than myself who recognized that King's account of the Caledonia crisis was lacking in balance: Bob Tarantino mentioned the beating of non-aboriginal builder, Sam Gualtieri, who has been left with permanent brain damage.

D.        Strengths of The Inconvenient Indian

D.1      "North American" View of Aboriginals Has Been Problematic

King deserves praise for showing how some images have been appropriated in a way that demeans native people.  When he mentioned a butter container, which he contends has a sexually-suggestive picture of an Indian maiden on it, I was transported back to early 1970s London, Ontario.  At the time, my white boyfriend and I shared a townhouse with another couple (he was black; she was white).  We went out for the evening, accompanied by an aboriginal female associate of mine, who was attending Western University in London.

Shortly after we arrived at what was then considered to be a fairly respectable tavern, my aboriginal associate started to get propositioned by a white male stranger in the bar.  She quietly declined, but then another white male stranger did the same thing about 10 minutes later.  Our black comrade asked the men why they were doing this.  They said they assumed she was a prostitute, or words to that effect.  This is one of several examples in my life where I have seen aboriginal women viewed in an exploitative fashion.

Although it is an exaggeration for King to say that the North American view of aboriginals is frozen in time in the 17th or 18th centuries, there is definitely a tendency in that direction.  Some of it is fuelled, as he says, by Hollywood marketing.

D.2        "Whites Want Land"

King believes that asking Indians what they want is not the right question.  It should be asking whites what they want, which is land.  I completely agree that this is the main source of the tension between the races.  In fact, in 1981, I pointed this out in a letter I wrote to some of my former colleagues, after resigning from a native organization:
It has been said that land is the single most important commodity left on this planet, and the fight over land will be the last battlefield.  The government will never, never agree to separate nation status for native people unless they can--directly or indirectly--benefit from the revenue (oil, coal, etc.) under that nation.
At the time I wrote the above, I assumed that "separate nation status for native people" would mean that those nations would remain within the Canadian Constitutional framework.  Since then, the whole nation issue has become much more complex, with some aboriginal reserves wanting to separate totally from Canada.  As I have explained in previous posts on this blog here and here, I am OK with aboriginal communities in this country operating as collectives within the Canadian Constitutional framework, but I disagree with those who advocate operating outside of it.

(There were other points I made in my 1981 letter that I do not feel the same way about now, but I do think the above excerpt still has some validity.)

D.3        North Americans' "Irrational Addiction to Profit"

King believes that an "unexamined confidence in western civilization" is one of the root causes of the tension between non-aboriginals and aboriginals (265).  I believe in maintaining a unifying Canadian culture that respects the rights of the individual and upholds the rule of law.  But I do think there is some validity to his contention that North Americans need to find a way to overcome "their irrational addiction to profit" (220).

E.        Weaknesses of The Inconvenient Indian

E.1       Contradictions

King repeatedly contradicts himself throughout the book.  The most blatant example is when he flip-flops as to whether violence and vandalism are good strategies.  He says the American Indian Movement (AIM)'s 1972 destruction of the Bureau of Indian Affairs' files was "stupid," because the folders may have contained material the tribes could have used for land negotiations.  But he admits that, when the media asked for his opinion, he, along with others "mumbled supportive platitudes about Native rights and government deceit. . ." (147-148).

Later, he discusses AIM's growing frustration with the lack of progress they had made in their negotiations with the government, and says that sometimes native concerns have to involve "demonstrations, confrontations, and, on occasion, violence" (157-158).

He proceeds to the Caledonia crisis, where he implies that the "Mohawk" protest was fuelled by the "long-standing Native land claim" (165-166).  It is true that the protest did not just happen, but the validity of the claim involving the south end of Caledonia is under serious dispute.  I go into further detail about this issue in other posts on my blog here and here.

Since I have worked in native organizations involved with land claims negotiations, I have some understanding of the frustration and anger that builds when negotiations do not go as well as the aboriginal side would like.  But I think it is a huge mistake for King to be advocating violence under any circumstances.

E.2       Pre-Contact Aboriginal Society Was Not a Paradise

Although it is true that many post-contact intertribal aboriginal battles were precipitated by European encroachment, the same cannot be said for what happened before Europeans arrived.  King barely touches on this.

When I was working in the native organizations, I regularly heard about how various tribes had fought with each other historically.  So I was pleased to learn that an Inuk fillmmaker and a Cree filmmaker recently released Inuit Cree Reconciliation, a documentary about how the Inuit and Cree are coming to terms with their past and present animosities.

A re-examination of past animosities is also occurring on the other side of the country.  Archaeological research being conducted in B.C.'s Fraser Canyon is confirming what Sto:lo elders have said, that the Coast Salish and Sto:lo peoples fought regularly for thousands of years before contact.

In addition, some aboriginal spokespeople have alleged that all Indian societies traditionally treated their women well.  Yes, some tribes did treat their women with great respect and as equals, but others did not.  For example, polygamy was common in some Athabaskan (Dene) societies.  Chipewyan leader, Matonabbee, had seven wives, and believed women "were meant for labour."

In April 1986, I saw a stage play entitled "Matonabbee" in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories (still have the program).  I have a distinct recollection of the actor in the title role (played by a Chipewyan named Francois Paulette) striding across the stage while his wives followed behind, carrying heavy loads strapped to their foreheads.  There was a strong aboriginal component to the cast and crew.  In retrospect, I realize it was quite an enlightened production for the time period.

Because I have concerns about some questionable aspects of native society before contact, it follows that I also take issue with how King depicts aboriginal sovereignty.  He does not adequately convey the fact that sovereignty has various interpretations among aboriginal groups.  In 2003, the Harvard Project on Indian Economic Development released a report that contended sovereignty was the process needed for creating stable Indian government structures.  The authors concluded that letting these communities make their own decisions is a good idea as long as the institutions and policies developed are stable; dispute mechanisms are transparent; politics is separated from business; personnel are competent, and the systems developed take into account each tribe's distinct characteristics.

In the 1980s, I did a considerable amount of research into United States tribal government archival systems for my native organization employer.  It seemed to me that work in this area, at least at the time, exemplified an efficient way of looking after the records.  I have absolutely no idea what the situation is like now, but I think it is important to point out that I saw aboriginal governance in action when it came to archival records, and it made sense to me, at least back then.

As I understand it, tribal sovereignty is different in practice in the United States and Canada.  It appears from the limited research I have done that the Canadian version of sovereignty is a mixed bag of everything from ones modelled on the Harvard project, to those reserves that want to break away entirely from Canada.  As mentioned previously, I have no problem with aboriginal communities operating as collectives, as long as they still want to remain part of the Canadian Constitutional framework.

I am concerned that King's approach to sovereignty could result in the borders between Canada and the United States being eliminated, and thousands of separate "nations" operating independently of each other.  This could lead to anarchy and chaos.  Although there are many similarities between Canada and the United States, there are major differences was well, e.g., our legal systems.  Turning back the clock to satisfy some aboriginal demands for independence from federal oversight could end up backfiring on everyone involved.  Since aboriginal societies historically did not often get along with each other, and since these animosities are only starting to be addressed, I do not see how reverting to a pre-contact scenario would be advantageous.

E.3      Lack of Constructive Solutions

King's observations about how non-aboriginals have failed aboriginals do have some merit.  For instance, he says that instead of trying to assimilate natives into the white educational system, whites could have developed partnerships with the individual nations (119).  The Assembly of First Nations recently agreed to the First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act, so this could be an example of this type of partnership in action (although some native groups and individuals are opposed to the Act).

I totally agree with King's observation that non-aboriginals could have been more accommodating of aboriginals, rather than trying to change them into something they could never be.  I suspect at the core of the condescension is the "whites want land" issue.

But, considering such factors as the intertribal warfare and the disparaging treatment of women that went on pre-contact, I think it is far too simplistic for King to make it sound like returning to the traditional ways would make everything better.

F.       Conclusion

Although many of King's experiences relating to aboriginal issues have come from working on reserves in the U.S. and Canada, and teaching native-oriented material in academic settings, the fact remains that he did not really get involved with the topic until he was about 25.  In addition, he has never lived on a reserve or in a native community.  Plus non-aboriginals, such as his mother and wife, have played very important roles in his thinking and philosophy.

I feel this is important to point out because of what I consider to be the often sarcastic and almost anarchistic approach he takes towards his subject matter.  Despite the fact that his life has been spent in a multiracial, multi-faceted environment, he portrays the native situation as very much an "us and them" situation, when his own biography does not mirror this reality.

In a February 2013 CBC Radio interview with Shelagh Rogers, he revealed there were many times that he wanted to give up on the book, and return the advance to the publisher.  He said it was Hoy who said he had to finish it.  And, as anyone knows who has read it, Hoy's interjections feature prominently throughout.  This is frequently a good thing, since she helps to curtail some of his rants.

I also felt as if Shawn Atleo, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, whose endorsement appears on the book jacket, was leaning over his shoulder, along with Hoy.  King really tiptoes around any criticism of Canadian aboriginals, and I think this takes away from the book's effectiveness.  When he finds fault with natives, he either does it in a general way, or limits his barbs to U.S. Indian groups.

So I maintain the book, despite its strengths, seems more the work of a committee than an individual.  King admitted in the CBC Radio interview that he really had trouble revisiting some of the material, and it shows.  I also had trouble revisiting some of the material because of my personal connection to it.  I can understand why he said it took him six years to finish it.  It took me six months to complete this blog post.


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