The Myth of an Empty Land

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sketch by R.B. Nevitt, surgeon with the NWMP in the 1870s

Despite recent attempts to sensitize Settler-Canadians to the brutal non-mythologised realities of our arrival and eventual colonial dominance in Canada, many stories of settlement still contain some version of the words “into a wild and uninhabited land came our brave ancestors.” Narratives based on an understanding of pre-Settlement Canada as “empty” or “wild” consciously or unconsciously serve an unjust political agenda. They ignore the ways in which First Nations were relied upon and then cast aside by the early Settlers. They conveniently excuse the economic and political machinations that were used to isolate and disempower Indigenous peoples in Canada, to metaphorically and literally starve them, and to seek their eventual destruction by death or assimilation.

In part because of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Canadian myths of origin are changing. But it is not yet clear how they will evolve, and it is much less clear that their evolution will lead to a greater willingness on the part of non-Indigenous Canadians to see land in new ways – ways that might foster the Treaty relationships. In  November 2018 the government of Saskatchewan, responding in part to pressure from its Association of Rural Municipalities, significantly tightened rural trespassing laws.[1] This is a significant setback to public access, a backlash many think will only further damage relations with Indigenous peoples.[2] This summer I plan to walk – and camp – in Scotland and Finland, using the jokamiehenoikeus, or “right of responsible access.” These are countries in which a robust “right of responsible access” exists, and also countries from which Eastern and Western Canada derived some of their Settler populations. By studying how national myths are related to positive experiences of public use of land in Scotland and Finland, I am hoping to find resources in our own cultural histories that will help Settler-Canadians rethink their relationship to land, and thus to First Peoples.[3]

[1] https://sarm.ca/about-sarm/news/item/?n=194

[2] https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/saskatchewan/saskatchewan-trespassing-plan-racial-tensions-1.4891278

[3] Anderson, 2018. “Pilgrimage and the Challenging of a Canadian Foundational Myth,” in Pilgrimage in Practice: Narration, Reclamation, and Healing, edited by Ian S. McIntosh, E Moore Quinn, and Vivian Keely, 148-163. Wallingford, UK: CABI Press.

Reconnecting with Land article

buffalo wallow rock

Clink on the link below for the article that will appear tomorrow (Aug 28 2015) in the Prairie Post. Thanks to Matthew Liebenberg for his questions and writing!

Prairie Post Aug 28 2015

Hugh magnified by valley

Alive and Well

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There’s something exciting and exhilarating about taking shelter in the back of a van, the back gate up providing a temporary roof, watching the driving rain come down so hard you don’t dare step out into it. It feels just a bit precarious when the lightning is so loud and close you take your feet off the ground just in case there’s a nearby strike. Wondering if the tent you’ve set up under the caraganas will hold up and stay dry (especially since your sleeping bag is already in the tent. You can see the fabric of the fly bouncing from the weight of the downpour, the heavy rain spraying from the roof). But it’s also, somehow, comforting. You are – mostly – dry, the threatened wetness in your boots and the moisture seeping down your back balanced by the carrot and coriander soup mixed with long grain rice (British Army rations) that you’ve saved from the fire and are now eating, steaming hot, straight from the pot.

I’m alive and well. Both. I’m learning once again that the two are not always the same thing.

After the rain, a rainbow comes out over the Frenchman River valley, also known as Whitemud. The valley is so wide you can see both sides of the arc touching down. Golden light floods the river plain from the west. There are horses – perhaps a dozen – charging around the field beside us, kicking up their back legs, perhaps in relief at the temporary respite from the storm. It’s one of the most beautiful sights I’ve ever seen, their manes and tails flying against the dark sky.

The clouds close again and the rain settles in – 7/10ths by morning. I’m awakened several times by flashes of light and loud booms, and sometimes by the horses in the Green’s trailer, whose movements also sound like thunder. At 6:45 am Hugh and I meet in our rain ponchos in the drizzle, trying to decide what to do. Bishop Don’s tent has flooded. The horse folks are calling it a day before starting and starting to pack up. It will be impossible to get through the riverbank grass and lower bogs in any case, so we decide to postpone the half-day river section of the walk. We confer with the rancher, Terry Jensen, a cowboy so stoic he looks as though he would be unperturbed if a spaceship landed on his property. He owns as it might be good to wait. We drive up and out of the valley before the road becomes impassable. It’s the first day we’ve had to change plans. Flexibility, I tell myself, is one of the marks of a pilgrim.

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Smudgings and Graveyards

country church

This is day two without electricity so I will keep it short. We’re camped right now beside a graveyard, at a small Greek Orthodox church on the NWMP trail. When he could see us far off, struggling through the heat on the final stretch of our 15 miles or so today, a man at the church rang the bell to call us home. Now it’s dark. The graveyard beside our tents overlooks the vast open prairie. There are little solar lights beside the graves, which is perhaps nice, but a touch freaky for us in the tents.

Today was also the day that we were sent off by two RCMP officers, one in serge, and then smudged at the Lakota First Nation as we walked through. Not only that, but we happened to arrive at lunch and were given a wonderful hot meal by them.

So much to say, but not now. After all those miles, many of them through thigh-high grasses and rough pasture (fell into a badger hole once), it’s time for sleep.

field walking

Making Medicine Pouches

I love my aunt. She’s always been like a second mother to me. Especially these last years, when my own mother failed, my aunt, as so often, was forced to be the safe harbour in which our family finds shelter.

My aunt is surprising. She stays up late and at 88 years old, still likes to travel. If there are potatoes to dig, she just might go dig them. She’s tough – and still, in the ways that count, old fashioned.

But not old fashioned in many other ways. We did something together tonight that I never thought we would do. We made and tied medicine pouches, with elk leather and sweetgrass from Kahnawake Mohawk Territory. The pouches are destined to be used as gifts here in Saskatchewan.

A big part of pilgrimage is learning how to receive the kindness of others. We haven’t even really begun our local Camino – this North West Mounted Police Patrol Trail pilgrimage – and so far there have already been meals, a donated vehicle, and beds to keep us sheltered until we put up our tents.

But part of pilgrimage is also recognizing what gifts we strangers bring with us to these lands we cross, and bringing physical evidence of such gifts with us. That is why I have the sweetgrass and the red string from the Mohawk, for some of the First Nations and Metis people we will meet here. I read recently that even though the Mohawk almost never came this far west, there was a group of them that overwintered, in the 19th century, in the Cypress Hills, where so many other First Nations gathered in the final, collapsing days of the bison hunting economy.

I wonder what those Mohawk saw, and thought. My aunt and I cut the leather and together wrapped up the sweetgrass. It felt like something blessed to be doing this with her, my aunt with whom so often I’ve gone to church and sung hymns as well. Someone with whom I hold this land, this prairie, in common. I held the pouch up to her nose: that smells so good, I said. Doesn’t it. That smell of leather.

She smiled. Or maybe what smells so good, she answered, is the sweetgrass.

Isabelle and the pouches

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.

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.

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