Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Clearing the Plains: Apology doesn't Cut it.

My knowledge of Canadian-Indigenous history was limited largely to school textbooks where the settlers “conquered” the land and made treaties with the Indians. Social relationships across the racial boundary were limited. There were no Indigenous kids in my primary school. My aunt and uncle hired their neighbours, a poverty-stricken Metis family for house work and animal/field work. She said that the man was hardworking and that the woman tanned hides. Their children rode on our school bus and mostly kept to themselves.

When we entered grade eight, the residential school kids came into our schools. Mostly they seemed a lot like us; every summer we became “drug-store Indians” so our skin colour was close to theirs. There was a boy whose first name was “Doctor” who was on the track team and always won the regionals. I developed a limited friendship with Amabelle Bear in grade nine, limited because the residential school forbade contact except in school!

Grade nine was the year that our father discovered that his hired hands (who were Cree from Camperville) had to cash their cheques through the Indian agent, who claimed 20%. He told us that he didn’t know of “a good Indian agent – they were all cheats and drunks.”
(He "banked" for them after that.)

That was the 1950’s.

Colonialism became a topic of conversation in the 1960’s; we settler kids recognized the role that our ancestors had played – “claiming the land” that was not ours. The prairies were the “commons” of aboriginal people just as the highlands had been the “commons” of Scotland.  Our ancestors, having been ousted from the commons in the British Isles (UK) came to North America did not recognize that they were repeating the abuse.

The Dewar family were sheep herders in the 1700’s when the industrial age began. The lords of the land claimed the commons for their private use and shut out the peasants in a series of events referred collectively as the “closures”.  The Dewars immigrated to Eastern Ontario but discovered that the land, the soil and the climate forced them to spread out – the lower farm productivity meant that each person needed more land than in Scotland. My grandfather was drawn west to claim a quarter-section (160 acres) near Dauphin, Manitoba in 1885 and work it as a homestead. He lived in a sod house in summer and a dirt hole in the winter. The second summer he went back to Ontario and eloped with his sweetheart – she spent the first winter of her married life in a 12 x 8 hole in the ground with her husband and her bachelor brother-in-law.

The Dewars worked for their survival in those days – they really did have to raise their own food and go hungry if they were unsuccessful – but most of the skills they needed were adaptable from their European peasant traditions. Little did they know that as they struggled to adapt old world skills to the prairies the First Nations peoples were forced into an agricultural model and starved onto the worst available land with no previous survival skills for an agrarian lifestyle. They had been successful nomads, hunters and gatherers for centuries.

About the same time that he discovered the Indian Agent cheque-cashing scam, dad discovered the Peasantry Act of the 1890’s. The Peasantry Act confiscated machinery that was more progressive on the theory that the Indians (sic) needed to progress through each step of agrarian development – they needed to start as peasants with only hand tools. Somehow Dad conveyed his indignation over the Metis and Cree along the Red River in Manitoba being forced to surrender their tools.

None of these egregious incidents prepared me for “Clearing the Plains”.

“Clearing the Plains” is not for the faint-hearted person, white, Indigenous or immigrant. It describes almost two centuries of crass disregard for the very people who helped settlers survive; it describes deliberate policies of starvation promulgated by the federal government under John A. MacDonald. It describes horrendous suffering – and, at times, great empathy. This is a tale of a planned and enacted genocide over more than a century. 

I say to Prime Minister Harper in his “apology” to First Nations peoples: “Mr Harper, 'Sorry' doesn’t cut it!”

Remember D-Day: It is Russia and US this time

And learn from our past. Could the terrible loss of life and environmental destruction that was World War II been prevented? If we don‘t learn from our past, we are bound to repeat our mistakes; honouring the battle of D-Day and the men who lost their lives should include  answering the question, “how could it have been prevented?”

My aunt lost two sons in the war; she spent almost a decade in mourning. She spoke resentfully of people who got rich during the war while she lost her children. 

So as the US and Russia face off over the Ukraine, what could we learn from World War II?

When someone, a leader or a country says that it wants world domination or implies that it is somehow “above the law”, they mean it! Hitler said it. Now the US says it. 

US exceptionalism was recognized as fact in the eighteenth century; unfortunately the more recent US leadership have mistaken exceptionalism for superiority. Paul Bolt, on taking his position as US representative to the UN said (and I paraphrase) that there wasn’t really a United Nations, the world was governed by one super-power and everyone else had to go along. In fact, the failure to understand the nature of US exceptionalism has lead to universal blindness about the invasions and bombings of more than seven different countries in the last century, the building of military bases in more than 25 countries, the surrounding of China, Russia and the Korean Peninsula – and acceptance of US hegemony at the security counsel. Finally, the United States does believe that it is above the law; it does not accept the existence of the International Criminal Court.

The US wealthy need to keep having wars. They even support the use of drones so the sales of arms will continue but US citizens don’t actually have to get killed. Obama has made threats to Iran, Syria and now Russia – none of which have threatened the US. So the US is on a war path.

Why do we (the rest of the world) stand silent?

1. Denial:  We can’t believe that the world would go to war. Chamberlain so wanted to believe Hitler that he called the “Munich Agreement” of 1938 which “gave” Czechoslovakia to Hitler, a “Peace agreement”.

We can’t believe that there would be unscrupulous people in the arms industry who would lobby for war for their own profit – of course, that’s not what they say.  They say that the war is for “education for the woman”, saving “babies from being thrown out of their incubators” or “to establish democracy”.

We can’t believe that the sales of arms is ethical; we can’t conceive that people have no responsibility for arming terrorists, underground militia, or despotic governments – or for the people killed by the arms from which they profited.

2. Personal Gain: This played a role in the delay with which the US entered WWII. It plays a role among nations currently allied with the US; disagreeing with the US might mean imposition of some new sanctions, some passport hassle or trade issue. Additionally, of course, other countries may have arms industries equally eager to see a war break out. Canada could become very wealthy if a major war occurred in Eastern Europe.

3. Bad-mouthing the US: No one wants to be labeled as “anti-American” partly because the term “American” is equally applicable to Mexicans, Central and South Americans and partly because mostly we like the citizens of the United States even as their government doesn’t represent them on the world stage.

Even so, the United States is behaving like a big bully; it must accept the same rules as everyone else. Why is it in the Ukraine in the first place? Why is it leading the inflammatory remarks towards Russia? Become civilized and behaviour as civilized adults and start negotiating a peace process.

The fact that Russia and the United States both have nuclear weapons means that no one will be left unaffected if war occurs - we cannot afford to just watch the process - we need to be vocal. 

Sunday, 1 June 2014

West Coast Friends - Again

The West Coast is rich with remarkable vistas – mountain tops from below and above. Ever changing ocean views. So rich with flowers, vegetable gardens – Mary Louise was right, I didn’t really want to know that they were still picking carrots fresh from the garden at Christmas time!

Years ago friends Joyce and Herb retired to this Eden – setting down roots on Vancouver Island. She said that, after struggling with prairie gardens all her life, she was in gardening heaven! Grapes hanging over her doorway!

Friends have left the prairies for Salt Spring Island, the Sunshine Coast and even Vancouver itself! Bill’s Uncle and Aunt have a backyard verdant with blossoms – rhodendrons and clematis to knock your eyes out - and I know that his tomato plants in the slit between the house and the wall will over-produce again this year.

Gordon Lightfoot sang of his friends leaving for California - well, some do come back but there is something to be said for places where "the living is easy".

While here on the prairies, the fields are either black or still beige with the death of last years’ crops. The trees are just starting to leaf, the chokecherries and saskatoons beginning to bloom and the morel mushrooms didn’t even come this year.

The mosquitoes started – and seemed to have had a slump in population – but the ticks are out in full force! I found seven on my body yesterday and two more in the bathwater! Fortunately, the type of woodticks in the Touchwood Hills carry no weird diseases. Yet.

So, what do we have? Open skies – and lots of space. Mercury beside the waning moon out the morning window. Finches, hummingbirds and robins – and one silly song sparrow trying to feed at the finch feeder. Chickens in the pen, eggs in the nests. A dog at my side – or racing around the field, or barking his territory late at night to keep the coyotes away! Cats – four working animals in this mouse-infested place. A garden in the planting phase – crabapples and plum trees in bloom.

Machines that don’t work – need more expertise than we have. A house that needs work. The never-ending mending basket.

A room of my own. Friends and neighbours – four kids and one man on a raft in the pond. Bill. And home. Home is really where the heart is.

And then there are other issues - Fukushima pollution will reach the Coast first, rising sea levels will affect the coast while changing weather patterns will affect us too. What does the future hold?