"We are not the country we thought we were."
September 9, 2016 1:08 PM   Subscribe

Secret Path, a project by Gord Downie, includes a new album and a graphic novel illustrated by Jeff Lemire. It tells the story of Chanie (Charlie) Wenjack, a 12 year old Ojibwe boy who died in 1966 while trying to make his way home from the residential school he had been sent to, located 400 miles away.

Downie on the project's website: I am trying in this small way to help spread what Murray Sinclair said, “This is not an aboriginal problem. This is a Canadian problem. Because at the same time that aboriginal people were being demeaned in the schools and their culture and language were being taken away from them and they were being told that they were inferior, they were pagans, that they were heathens and savages and that they were unworthy of being respected — that very same message was being given to the non-aboriginal children in the public schools as well…They need to know that history includes them.”

The Lonely Death of Charlie Wenjack (Maclean's, 1967)

Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission "found 3,200 recorded deaths of children, like Wenjack, who died while attending residential schools in Canada. But poor record keeping means the number could be as high as 30,000, according to Senator Murray Sinclair who headed the commission."

The final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, previously.
posted by mandolin conspiracy (22 comments total) 45 users marked this as a favorite
I will read anything by Jeff Lemire. Thank you for sharing.

Also, you should read Essex County and Sweet Tooth, like yesterday....
posted by Fizz at 1:17 PM on September 9, 2016 [3 favorites]

Context for those new to the story (i.e non-Canadians): Gord Downie is the lead singer of The Tragically Hip and has been called "Canada's unofficial poet laureate" for his poetry and song lyrics. He announced at the start of the summer that he is dying of an aggressive form of brain cancer (previously) and led The Hip for one final tour (previously), culminating in a National Celebration show in their hometown of Kingston, broadcast live by the CBC - preempting their coverage of the Rio Olympics - it was the second most watched broadcast in the history of the country. During that final show, Gord spent almost as much time raising the issue of Canada's First Nations as he did thanking the crowd.

Further context: I'm misting up again. Gord Downie is such a national treasure.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 1:37 PM on September 9, 2016 [23 favorites]

That article from 1967 is heartbreaking. 50 years later and things aren't really much better for kids like Chanie.
posted by sevenyearlurk at 1:49 PM on September 9, 2016 [2 favorites]

I have no hard data set for this, but as a white Canadian I can say anecdotally that I know for a fact there's a big overlap between people who are, on the one hand, big Tragically Hip fans and who, on the other, harbour toxic, racist attitudes towards First Nations people.

What Downie is doing has the potential to change a few of those minds in a pretty profound way. Long may he run.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 2:22 PM on September 9, 2016 [30 favorites]

This is wonderful.
posted by aclevername at 2:23 PM on September 9, 2016

Thank you, mandolin conspiracy.
posted by vjpdx at 2:33 PM on September 9, 2016 [2 favorites]

Joseph Boyden is also releasing Wenjack, the Heritage Minute he refers to.
posted by saucysault at 3:11 PM on September 9, 2016 [4 favorites]

"I worked it in, to look like that"

Fuck Cancer.
posted by humboldt32 at 3:45 PM on September 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

I am so glad Gord is using some of his precious remaining time to do this.

His situation is heartbreaking but it's so honorable to see him taking this moment to do something important for people too long neglected.
posted by glaucon at 4:00 PM on September 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

I have no hard data set for this, but as a white Canadian I can say anecdotally that I know for a fact there's a big overlap between people who are, on the one hand, big Tragically Hip fans and who, on the other, harbour toxic, racist attitudes towards First Nations people.

The sad truth of it is, there is no overlap, per se. The majority culture in Canada harbours toxic, racist attitudes towards First Nations people. Period. You do. I do. We all do. It's embedded in our culture, it's systemic.

Downie's campaign isn't aimed at a small group of Canadians, and if it was aimed at that small group of Canadians it would be totally ineffective. He's trying to reach all of us.
posted by My Dad at 4:17 PM on September 9, 2016 [14 favorites]

Period. You do. I do. We all do. It's embedded in our culture, it's systemic.

I respectfully disagree, and find it disingenuous to paint 35 million people with one broad brush.
posted by seawallrunner at 4:36 PM on September 9, 2016 [3 favorites]

This looks to be an incredible project. Thanks so much for posting.
posted by thetortoise at 4:56 PM on September 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

The sad truth of it is, there is no overlap, per se.

So does that mean all Tragically Hip fans are racist, no Hip fans are racist, or all racists are Hip fans? Are you suggesting Gord Downie is a racist harbouring toxic attitudes towards First Nations people? That it's impossible to be Canadian without also being racist against First Nations people?

I mean, I understand what you were trying to go for there, but that sort of hyperbole does no favours to anyone.

Good on Gord for his efforts. I thought it was really cool that he used his last concert as a forum to highlight the plight of our First Nations people - with the Prime Minister in the audience no less. He could easily have just made that last concert about him and the band, or as a gift to the fans alone, but instead he stayed true to himself and tried to make our country better. I can only hope we don't screw it up and let the baton drop.
posted by GhostintheMachine at 5:31 PM on September 9, 2016 [5 favorites]

I don't think my comment was disingenuous. I was trying to be honest with myself. William Pickton. Missing and murdered women. Highway 16. Drinking water. Black mold. Tailings pond collapse. Suicide epidemic.

All that stuff is caused by more than just a few racist Canadians.

However, if you don't think you're part of the problem, that is for you to decide, that's true.
posted by My Dad at 6:24 PM on September 9, 2016 [14 favorites]

> it's impossible to be Canadian without also being racist against First Nations people?

Pretty much, yes. Look: our entire country is built on stealing land and pushing FN onto reservations.
posted by My Dad at 6:25 PM on September 9, 2016 [7 favorites]

"Are you suggesting... [t]hat it's impossible to be Canadian without also being racist against First Nations people?"

To grow up in Canada is to grow up soaking in racist and/or grossly ignorant cultural attitudes towards First Nations people.

When I think back on what my public school education about First Nations consisted of I cringe. We made fake "native style" masks in art class, and made up a fake "native style" dance in gym class, which we then performed wearing our masks while our teacher video taped us. We learned a bit about different styles of dress, food, and housing as they were in the 1600s-1800s, but I don't recall us learning anything about them as *still existing* peoples. They certainly didn't bring in any Native Canadians as guest speakers or anything like that. When we went to the Museum of Civilization for field trips we were always whisked past the First People's Hall and upstairs to Canada Hall - which focused on the arrival and history of the European settlers, naturally.

I'd like to think things are vastly improved, but just over a week ago teachers at a school in Quebec greeted students on the first day of class wearing Native-style headdresses and handed out paper headdresses to the children. ["But Why Can't I Wear a...Headdress?"]

The most useful thing I've learned, as an adult, about Native Canadians is how little I know, how insufficient my education was, and that I have a lot of listening and learning left to do.
posted by Secret Sparrow at 7:45 PM on September 9, 2016 [12 favorites]

From the MacLean's piece:
The girl bought a pack of cigarettes, and then on the way out held the door open for the [drunk] woman, who crawled out on her hands and knees and collapsed on the sidewalk.

One man at the counter turned and looked at the woman. “That’s what they do to themselves,” he said in a tone of amused contempt.

The kid behind the counter suddenly turned whitefaced and angry, “No, we did,” he said.

“We? No, it was the higher-ups, the government,” replied the man.

“No,” insisted the kid, “it was you, me, and everybody else. We made them that way.”

The men at the counter looked at him with closed, sullen faces. The kid wouldn’t give me his name. “I just work here part-time,” he said. “I work for the highways department . . .I guess I’ll have to learn to keep my mouth shut. Because nothing ever really changes around here.”
Having grown up in a racist hick town with several reserves: no, nothing ever changes. Neither the racism, nor people pretending that we're not all part of the problem.

But I confess I'm a bit shocked to read something in a 1967 MacLean's article that sounds so -- watch me butcher the language -- woke.
posted by klanawa at 9:31 PM on September 9, 2016 [7 favorites]

Look: our entire country is built on stealing land and pushing FN onto reservations.

It's also 25% non-white, and about the same amount is foreign-born. When you suggest all Canadians are racist, you're saying Chinese Canadians, African Canadians, Jamaican-born Canadians, Somali-born Canadians, Syrian-born Canadians, and others are all racists, and only racists move to Canada.

So let's not be clever about this. Overstating a problem doesn't help anyone. Yes, we had a residential school problem. It was terrible. Forced relocations, cultural destruction, treaty violations all happened, and continue to have serious, severe effects. But what is happening now? Truth and Reconciliation Commissions have exposed these abuses and led to changes. Treaty rights have been reasserted and upheld by the courts. Cultural celebrations and outreaches are promoted. Native flags are raised at city halls, language courses offered, museums present more accurate displays. If the majority culture were inherently racist, that would never happen.

No, of course it's not perfect. In many places it's not even good. What was done to the First Nations people was terrible, and continues to be terrible. But a serious effort is under way to fix that. We're talking about MMIW, about Idle No More, about the Dene. These subjects enter the national discourse, rather than being ignored or overlooked.

I guess my school experience was wildly different from the others mentioned here. We learned about bounties on Mi'kmaw, about the genocide of the Beothuks, about the residential schools. Our schools bring in elders and community members to show artwork and play music and tell stories. It's a significant portion of school curriculum today.

A lot of Canadians have racist attitudes towards First Nations people, either overt or hidden, but they're in the minority now. Yes, it's easy to find pockets of racist thinking (or just plain not thinking), but don't look at a peak situation and assume that's what it's like everywhere.
posted by GhostintheMachine at 6:15 AM on September 10, 2016 [4 favorites]

GhostintheMachine, I'm trying to come up with a well phrased cohesive response to your comment, but I'm fumbling a bit, something I tend to do with fraught subjects, so I'm going to fall back on bullet points and links. Sorry.
  • Of course people who aren't White can hold racist or ignorant beliefs about Native Canadians, or fail to act to prevent damage caused by systemic racism. This definitely isn't just a White Canadian issue.
  • Foreign born Canadians, once they arrive here, are immersed in the same cultural milieu that the rest of us are and so are also vulnerable to picking up ignorant or racist ideas about Native Canadians
  • Racism is not an on/off switch. Our society can engage in positive behaviours on the one hand, while at the same time perpetuating systemic racism in other ways. The same goes for individual people.
  • People can be ignorant, or hold beliefs and ideas that perpetuate racism or racist policies, without being Bad People. Most people are deeply invested in thinking of themselves as Good People and as Not Racist. If we focus on Racism as something done and perpetuated by Racists (with a capital R) we lose.
  • MMIW, Idle No More, etc are finally entering the national discourse in a somewhat positive light now, but it took an enormous amount of time, determination, and perseverance to get them there. The push back against these movements has been ugly to watch. I'm not ready to hand out cookies for simply acknowledging the existence of certain issues, when concrete action and results are still scarce.
I don't think it's at all safe to claim that the majority of Canadians harbour no ignorant or racist beliefs about Native Canadians and the issues that affect them. Regardless, our government and culture are rife with issues of systemic racism (in education, employment, healthcare, child welfare, the list goes on), and that's what we have to change.
posted by Secret Sparrow at 9:08 AM on September 10, 2016 [9 favorites]

First Nations women are murdered at an alarming rate in Canada. Here's the first google result of thousands about this: Unsolved Murders of Indigenous Women Reflect Canada's History of Silence.

Canada is a racist country. The genocide continues.
posted by stoneweaver at 10:10 AM on September 10, 2016 [6 favorites]

To add - some books by Aboriginal authors:
Where Did You Get Your Moccasins by Bernelda Wheeler
Mwakwa Talks to the Loon by Dale Auger
one good story, that one by Thomas King
Caribou Song by Tomson Highway
When I Was Eight and Fatty Legs and A Stranger At Home by Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton
Shin-chi's Canoe and Shi-shi-etko by Nicola I. Campbell

Some more books feauturing Aboriginal themes and characters:
The Country of Wolves by Neil Christopher, Louise Flaherty
Trickster: Native American Tales, a Graphic Collection by Matt Dembicki

A list of Aboriginal publishers, compiled by the University of Toronto.
posted by eisforcool at 6:29 PM on September 10, 2016 [6 favorites]

There are absolutely a huge number of racist people in Canada - and I would also say that there's a huge number who are incredibly ignorant. Until about 7 years ago, I fit very solidly into the second category - and while I'm embarrassed about it, I'm also not alone. It wasn't until, as a 30-something woman, when I returned to post-secondary education (for social work) that I learned anything real or true about the Aboriginal people of Canada.

My education prior to then consisted of stereotypes and large gaps - despite growing up near a reserve. I was essentially under the impression that the Aboriginal people were happy with how things were going - they had their own land, they made their own rules, and all was good. I seriously, believed this until I was in my 30s. Much like Secret Sparrow said, I did all the "Indian crafts!" at camp and school. I learned vague bits and pieces about long-distant history - but nothing particularly negative.

And so, in my 30s, when I learned about things the '60s scoop, and the fact that this bullshit continued during my actual childhood in the 80s...it blew my mind. I just had absolutely no idea. It was disorienting - how the hell had people in my country done such awful things, and others endured such horrors, and I had not heard about it?

But the media didn't discuss it - other than small news reports that, looking back, were incredibly racist but I had no idea! School didn't discuss it. My family never visited the reserve and (as far as I'm aware) I didn't know any aboriginal people back then. Where was I going to learn about it?

It's been a lot of catching up since then - not the least because I'm a parent to Aboriginal children. Oh yes, the children my husband and I adopted (in 2007) are Aboriginal - and the paperwork about my kids' ancestry, and the fact that their ancestry was barely mentioned to us during the process, is yet another example of racism that still exists and is perpetuated. No one suggested to my husband and I that we do anything to keep my kids in touch with their heritage - not even to apply for status for them (they're eligible) or to talk to them about it. In someone's eyes, that wasn't important at all. They have white parents now, good enough? Augh.

I have no sympathy for people who continue to be ignorant now. It requires effort to ignore the media now. And it's a challenge to learn the history of what we've done as a country - and I admit that it's hard. I still don't feel like I fully understand all of it. I'm still having to catch myself when I view something from my own place of privilege and fail to understand the systemic bullshit. But oh, man, that's not an excuse to sit back and shrug. It's not an Aboriginal problem - it's an all-of-us problem.
posted by VioletU at 12:40 PM on September 11, 2016 [2 favorites]

« Older • author totally misunderstands Internet in way...   |   Most Tricks By A Cat In One Minute Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments