Today’s Kinder Trespass

Kinder Trespass 1932

This morning I’m nursing an incision from my recent hernia surgery. But as I drink tea in Nottingham, walkers in England’s Peaks District, just a short distance away – including our friend Meredith Warren – are right now adjusting backpacks, filling water bottles, and scanning the Kinder Scout headlands. They’ll stop at the quarry where, on Sunday April 24, 1932, Benny Rothman (who arrived by bicycle to avoid police at the train) gave a rousing speech and led about 500 young people in the “Kinder Scout Mass Trespass.” That original protest might have been forgotten, except for the arrest of five of the Ramblers; Rothman got four months in prison just for his speech. The resulting public outcry led, eventually, and after much more protest, to the beautiful, wide-open British Parks that so many now enjoy, and the “Right to Roam” allowing limited public access to private land.

I climbed the 2000-foot Kinder Scout rise on a hot day last year. Oddly, the two people with me were both Canadians I had just met (we had that awkward moment in the bakery when we just had to ask, since our accents sounded so much “like home”). Between breaths we talked about whether a “Right of Responsible Access” would work in Canada. I’m convinced it would, and should: not only was much of North America an Indigenous “commons” before European contact, Settlement, and expulsion of First Nations, but for those of us who are European-background, our own histories and cultures often have clear antecedents for “everyperson’s right”. It’s ironic that the very descendants of the Irish, Scots and English who had been violently “cleared” from their commons lands by landowners so often went on to do exactly the same thing to Indigenous peoples.

We Canadians can do better. The examples are before us. National Trust’s website for Kinder Scout states “walk in the steps of the trespassers and enjoy what others fought so hard for.” We have important, historic trails on private lands on Turtle Island, too. They need limited, responsible, public access –  in my upcoming book with University of Regina Press I describe our experiences walking some of these incredibly important paths. Teaching ourselves and our children that land is a common good, requiring care, will make us all healthier and happier. Reconnecting with land – our own form of Kinder Trespass – helps those of us who are Settler be better prepared as Treaty partners with those whom our ancestors also “cleared” from the lands we call home.

See my article on “Why Canadians Need the Right to Roam” at: https://theconversation.com/why-canadians-need-the-right-to-roam-100497

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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.