Crossing the Line

clouds and direction sign over SC SK

“Well, you know, it’s just across the Line,” my aunt said to me, about a town in North Dakota that my cousins were visiting. I haven’t heard that word for a while. In Montreal they don’t use it. But I grew up in Saskatchewan hearing it. “The Line”. Do you know where that word for the US border comes from, I asked my aunt? “No idea,” she answered.

Today is national aboriginal day. The 20th such day, and the first since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission issued its recommendations. Though it’s a small thing, one of the things we who are Settlers can do to mark this day is to remember where some of our words come from. They’re signs of a history willfully forgotten.

I grew up in Treaty Four land – except there were no “Indians”. The First Nations were, for me, like the ancient Egyptians: important people no longer around. What I DIDN’T know, because it wasn’t in my schoolbooks or taught in my classes, or talked about by my parents or grandparents, was that the original inhabitants had only been gone 85 years or so when I was born. The big secret I learned only years later was that they had been pushed off the land they had just signed title to, to make way for people like my grandparents and me.

Using the word “The Line” for the border is a relic of the days not so long ago when the 49th parallel was called “The Medicine Line” by the First Nations, especially the Lakota. They could cross it and the American Army, who were fighting a vicious battle with them south of the border, would not follow. This was good medicine, and at the time, the Canadian government was generally respected for such protection. Soon enough, our government starved the Lakota back south, and pushed the so-called ‘Canadian Indians’ north by starvation, an intentional policy to make an “Indian-free” land-belt for the railroad and its Settlers.

When we say “the Line” for the border, we echo those days. Even better, then: let us actually remember them – with honesty, apology, and intent to make good what was wrongly done.

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.