As a child I had a small poster on the wall of my bedroom. It featured an Indian (as we called Indigenous people back then) in full eagle-feather headdress. He was standing on a mountain bluff, staring across a vast landscape. This poster remains distinct in my memory. The man looked sad but proudly defiant. He was staring outward, confronting the viewer, not angrily but forthrightly. The words beneath the figure said, “Do not judge a man until you have walked a mile in his moccasins.”
I have no idea how this poster came to hang on my bedroom wall. Nor do I have any recollection of ever pointedly considering it, though it was positioned so that to enter my room it would have been impossible not to see it — meaning
I looked at it tens of thousands of times in the years I spent in that house. At an obvious level, I absorbed the surface meaning of the saying: that you shouldn’t criticize what someone does until you know what they have gone through. But in scouring my brain, I find no memories as a child of serious contemplation as to what the saying might mean from an Indigenous perspective. I do remember wondering what it actually would be like to walk a mile in someone else’s moccasins. Hey, when you’re 12 sometimes you take things literally.
What does stick in my mind is that, during my entire childhood, this poster was close to the sum of my exposure to Indigenous culture. I don’t ever remember talking about Indigenous culture at school or at church or with friends or at camp or anywhere. (Though knowing my alert and insightful parents, it wouldn’t surprise me if they had placed the poster there so as to play the long game in trying to create decent human beings.)
Growing up on the Canadian Prairies in the ’60s and ’70s, it was as if Indigenous people were historical and cultural artifacts. Sure, we saw a few troubled souls on the streets downtown. I sometimes played golf at a course outside Calgary called Redwood Meadows, owned by the Tsuu T’ina Nation. I played hockey every now and then out at the Morley arena, part of the Stoney First Nation. My aunt briefly dated a guy named Marvin, who we kids labelled Marvellous Marv. There was some dinner table chatter that he was Métis. That ended when he and my embarrassingly unreconstructed grandfather got in an argument and we never saw Marvin at family gatherings again. But, by and large, Indigenous people did not feature in my upbringing, which is odd given that I was raised in a liberal, open and caring household.
The point being that it was simply part of the unspoken social compact that Indigenous people did not exist in any kind of unique or embraced cultural space. What my Albertan childhood taught me was that Canada was a white man’s country.
Which was something that I learned to unlearn this past winter.
I was asked last year by New Trail to write about how we can somehow start to find a way to act on the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada — to consider what we might actually do, instead of what we might continue to say. [“Truth First,” Spring 2017 issue] It was a daunting and life-changing project. But my article contained only one small strand of what I learned through months of researching and writing. So much of what I learned had to do with the people who helped me. It had to do with their authenticity. It had to do with taking what I thought I knew and struggling to unlearn it. It was hard for a middle-aged white guy to do it, and it’s going to be hard for a middle-aged white country to do it.
The generosity of the people who nurtured me through this process was so uplifting that I remain in awe of their openness and ability to give. The trust they placed in me to tell their stories was not dissimilar to the trust they have been putting in Canada for 150 years to do the right thing.
Among the many things I unlearned was to assume that what I saw with my own eyes was the sum of the story. If we rely on sight alone, we make assumptions. And when we make assumptions about people, and peoples, it demeans them. Not only that, it demeans all of us because it lessens what we’re capable of as human beings. It lessens our powers of empathy and insight. They say a rising tide floats all boats. But a low tide leaves every boat in the mud.
I also learned about the power of persistence. Not the “I’m going to push for a personal best in my 10-kilometre run” kind of persistence. Persistence as in: “We are going to survive, minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day, decade by decade, this ongoing attempt to erase our people and our thousands of years of living on this land. We are going to persist through peaceful reminders. We are going to persist through cultural preservation. We are going to persist through the sheer power of the historical arc of justice that we must either believe in or give up.”
Perhaps more than anything else, I learned something that probably should not have come as a surprise — but on the other hand, it’s always a shock when you think you’re something and it turns out you’re not. I learned I wasn’t as informed as I thought I was. I learned how little I knew, and that is deeply humbling. What might be the greatest impediment to making things right in our country is the assumption that we know the score.
As Canadians, we have to unlearn the arrogant certitude that we know what happened between the colonizers and those they encountered, and that we can properly interpret the experience of today’s Indigenous people. (If any non-Indigenous person reading this column presumes to understand what an Indigenous person in Canada has gone through, you are engaging in self-delusion.) We must also, once and for all, unlearn the belief that we are innocent. The English author and philosopher Edmund Burke once said: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” One sentiment I heard repeatedly while working on this story was that non-Indigenous people felt sympathy and concern for the plight of Indigenous peoples but not a personal responsibility, either for its cause or remedy. In other words: that’s horrible and it should be fixed, but it’s not my problem and I didn’t cause it.
That won’t wash. Not anymore.
Eldridge Cleaver of the 1960s Black Panther activist group has been widely associated with the aphorism, “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.” What he really said was, “There is no more neutrality in the world. You either have to be part of the solution, or you’re going to be part of the problem.”
The key word is neutrality. I unlearned my neutrality over the last year. There can no longer be neutrality on this issue because every one of us who is or aspires to be Canadian must incorporate a central fact into understanding our citizenship: Canada tried to erase the Indigenous peoples who were here before the rest of us. Full stop. Let’s just think about that for a second. Do not modify the statement. Do not soften it with historical relativism. Do not accept it in light of moral equivalence. Let’s simply do this — accept the statement as a plain sentence and accept that we all are responsible.
Dedicated readers of this column will know that there is usually room for a joke or a laugh somewhere in my writing. I believe in humour and cannot live without it. There were so many times while I was researching and writing the article for “Truth First” when I broke into laughter with the Indigenous and non-Indigenous people I was working with. We’d shake our heads at something funny, share a joke, poke fun at one another. For such a desperately awful subject it was surprisingly convivial to work on and I ascribe that to the diplomacy and equanimity of my Indigenous colleagues. In any case, I promise my next column will have some laughs, but somehow this doesn’t seem like the right place or time to make a joke. Some things just aren’t funny.
It’s time for us to unlearn what we thought Canada was and is. We have long thought of Canada as a benevolent and humane country with a proud and honourable history. This is partly true. But it’s time to discard everything about that myth that is untrue so that reality can step into the newly freed-up space in our hearts and minds.
It’s time for the days of good people doing nothing to end.