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Kahnawake Morning

Idle No More trailer shot

The long boom of a lake freighter’s horn woke me up this morning, and within a minute, even from my bed I could feel its massive bulk sliding past just a few metres away on the Seaway. There is something in the air, a vibration that shakes you, when something that big is in motion, so close.

Apart from the freighter, however, it’s quiet here this morning in Kahnawake Mohawk Territory. Sparrows and red-winged blackbirds flit back and forth in the grass along the seaway, calling out to each other. Garter snakes and frogs fight their battle for survival under the cover of leaf and deadfall. After 35 kilometres of walking in the heat and seeing new sights the last two days, my sunburned students are just waking up.

Our group of pilgrims exemplify urban Montreal, and especially Concordia: the students speak Arabic and Spanish, Ukrainian and Armenian in addition to English and French. Some have complicated family backgrounds spanning several continents. One carries a First Nations identity card. A few have shared family histories of oppression and displacement. As ‘hyphenated Canadians’, the questions they ask of the Mohawk are particularly insightful: how is it possible to share land and not lose identity? How will a Mohawk policy of not allowing mixed marriages to remain in Kahnawake work? Do you have your own passports? Why don’t you call yourselves Canadian?

This is a pilgrimage in so many ways. A journey of discovery of ourselves and of others, born on the feet, felt in the heart and mind.

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May 23 a red-serge letter day

NWMP trek

May 23, 1873, the Dominion of Canada created the North West Mounted Police. Many were misfits. Quite a number of the first recruits were sent home, some went home when they saw the conditions. But they proved themselves, acting bravely, often honourably and occasionally even nobly, despite bureaucratic bungling and sometimes terrible direction from a far-away government.

The NWMP were poorly equipped, fitted out with red coats (Macdonald didn’t want the Americans to think they were a military unit, but rather a police force), and had to go through the States to get to their Canadian posts, because there was no railroad. Their first task was to trek to the North West Territories so recently acquired from the Hudson’s Bay Company, and to take advantage of the temporary power vacuum in the west created by the American Civil War’s effects, to seal the border against the United States (a number of the American “wolfers” were themselves Civil War vets and perhaps sufferers from what we would now call PTSD). They were to gain the trust of the First Nations, which they for the most part did, a trust that their political masters later occasionally asked them to betray, a turnaround that deeply disappointed and forever marked some of the first recruits.

Canada would not be the country it is without the red coats. But we could do a lot of learning from their first years, still. Or again.

govt sign three

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Scouting the Trail

Today we scouted the beginning of the North-West Mounted Police Trail. It meant piling five of us into a big Dodge Ram and pounding over the Wood Mountain hills. Thelma, a renowned poet and historian from the area, called it the “Boundary Commission Trail” several times, since the original NWMP trek was further north. Or it might be the “Metis Trail”, or the “Major Walsh” trail (although she doesn’t have kind words for him).

Anyway, we scouted it. Today we pulled out maps. Come summer we will walk.

Between then and now dreams and visions.

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My Corner of Gloryland

 John Golling (Grandpa) as young man 1          farm-2-new-homeland

This week I’ve been seeing some of the old photos of my grandparents and their parents before them, and hearing stories of the first European settlers on this prairie. My grandparents, like most of their neighbors, were hard-scrabble, tough immigrants. Before electricity, before water lines, before roads even, they came. They came for the promise of land. Most of them were not as romantic about the countries they had left as we, their grandchildren, are. After all, they’d made the decision to go. In the words sung by Archie and the Boys (see below), the old time band that played today at my father’s care home in Herbert SK, they wanted, not the old, but the new: their own ‘piece of gloryland’. And the Government of Canada was happy to promise it to them.

The posters advertising the new homeland, however, neglected to mention that there were already people living here. The nomadic First Nations and mobile Metis were not used to, nor invited into, this new world of fences and property title and cattle rather than bison. A combination of starvation and forced removal cleared the land of Aboriginal peoples so that my grandparents – more fortunate pawns, but pawns nonetheless – in a continental political-economic development scheme, could take their place.

Did it turn out to be Gloryland? Saskatchewan is a great place. But we are all – First Nations and settlers alike, but particularly First Nations, still feeling the aftershocks of that great removal. To me, the posters advertising a new homeland in the Canadian West for European immigrants aren’t just art. They’re chilling propoganda.

(Photo is of John Samuel Golling, my grandfather. Thanks to Archie and the Boys for their music and their permission to post!)

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Sir John A’s birthday and the ‘Indians’

John_A_Macdonald_(ca._1875)

So.

Sir John A. Macdonald – he of the vest, the big nose, the whiskey bottle, and the reins of government – is 200 today. This afternoon in Kingston Ontario’s city hall, Prime Minister Stephen Harper gave a speech to kick off the year-long 200th anniversary celebrations of the birth of Canada’s first prime minister.

Such anniversaries are always political, especially in an election year. But with luck, this anniversary will also be a learning opportunity. Especially for those, like me, who are “settler”, or “newcomer” Canadians, there’s a chance this year to find out just how wrong is our founding myth of the kinder, gentler, Canada. In retrospect, Sir John A. fits right in with some who are pushing to remember Canada as a military, conquering nation. Because, against the First Nations, under Macdonald and others, we were all that, and worse.

To mark the 200th anniversary, you might want to get a copy of “Clearing the Plains”, by James Daschuk. It’s a riveting and disorienting re-telling of Canadian history. From Chapter Six onward, Macdonald figures prominently. For example: “On 24 March 1882, the prime minister announced to Parliament that all Indians in the territory of Assiniboia would be removed, by force if necessary, from the land south of the proposed railway.” Growing up in southern Saskatchewan, I came to wonder why there were no aboriginal people around. Now I know. Reading Daschuk’s book, you realize that they were systematically lied to, starved, beaten, cheated, and forcefully relocated. The treaties, once signed, were ignored, since the true goal was to clear the land for European settlement, for the railway, and for the (often Montreal) investors who were looking for a profit.

Macdonald was the architect behind much of this terrible attack. But he was not the only one. The Liberals, when they were in power during that period, were even harsher in their treatment of First Nations. Some have even argued that, judged in the light of the time, Macdonald was better than most. Disturbingly, both Liberals and Conservatives hid their power and money-grabbing behind ideals of so-called “Christian statesmanship”.

Daschuk concludes his book with this telling statement: “The effects of the state-sponsored attack on indigenous communities that began in the 1880s haunt us as a nation still.” This summer, I’m hoping, with a group of others, to walk the North West Mounted Police Trail, a 275 km half-forgotten path that was crucial to that 1875-85 clearing of the plains. That will be our small way to mark this ambiguous anniversary.