For the past few days, our local news and some of my social media streams have been filled with images and stories and conversations about Canada’s First Nations peoples. The weather was nicer on the weekend for big outdoor events across the Province of Prince Edward Island. Today, though, the shivering hopeful and thankful will gather down by the water in downtown Charlottetown for music, dance, games, and other cultural events. Amidst pride flags and merchandise stands, my local coffee shop has created a kind of Mi’kmaq educational display. There are stories and histories, some Miꞌkmaq greetings to learn, profiles of local elders, and a bit of symbolic artwork.
Today is National Indigenous Peoples Day, an opportunity on the longest day of the year for Canadians to recognize and celebrate the unique heritage, diverse cultures, and outstanding contributions of First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples. It is a day of celebration, culture, and remembrance, but also one of mourning. Amidst the hundreds of years of colonial pressure, trade, and community development is a history so terrifyingly violent that it breaks my heart to recount. However, this is part of the story of Canada, the country I love, my home.
My Scottish family heritage is one that includes people of creativity and vision writhing under colonial oppression, generations trying to escape from poverty, and a fight for the right to live and farm, to practice our faith and raise our children in peace. Thus, even though I only know a fraction of my community’s story–and even less about the history elsewhere–my sympathies are with the indigenous peoples of the Americas.
This day is for me also one of continued learning. Not far from where I grew up–in the village where I went to school, in fact–there were stories of Mi’kmaq people of the past. All that remained in my childhood, however, was that local belief and a few archaeological remnants they shared with us on class trips. Our Prince Edward Island history textbook was called Abegweit: Land of the Red Soil. The name “Abegweit” thrilled me, like a world of faërie that I always longed to see but was always out of my reach.
However, as a rural Prince Edward Islander in what we know as Epekwitk, I never met a person growing up who told me they were Native, let alone Mi’kmaq. We said “Micmac” then, like “Tik Tak,” but Mi’kmaq sounds something like “mig-maw”–though when I listen to locals speak, there seems to me something happening in the back of the throat at the end of each syllable that I lack the expertise to describe. I remember stories growing up about Mi’kmaq history, particularly about a relationship with the land and sea that better matched the rhythms needed for our little garden province.
I also remember being given childhood worksheets of questionable quality about Native peoples, and laughing with scorn at my poor French teacher when she wrote Amérindiens on the board–American Indian–and tried to tell us that this was a good technical title. I had been taught since I was young about the stupidity and cruelty of the name “Indian,” and must confess to having some feeling of superiority over this particular teacher, whose world was very small. Arrogance is not one of my better qualities, and I suppose French students today must learn a word like “Autochtones,” Autochthonous or Indigenous.
Really, besides that textbook and some local educational events. the Mi’kmaq people lived as a kind of story in my mind, like the Western plains settlement and goldrush tales that bored me to tears in childhood. The first Métis friend I had, a teen street wanderer like me, on the edge of trouble, spoke of his Mi’kmaq family on the reserve and had an Acadian name. As I was curious, and as we were wandering about aimlessly, he took me into some kind of community centre. Almost without a transition, I found myself seated on the floor next to a drum. Someone spoke what sounded like a prayer, and then sprinkled loose tobacco on the drumskin. Then someone handed me a paddle with fabric bundled on one end.
“You are welcome,” the old man said. “Go ahead. Drum.”
When I looked terrified, he chuckled and the other men smiled, and the first man spoke again:
“Good then, watch, listen. When you hear it, you can walk with me.”
He beat the drum, and I felt the bass of it rumble through my awkward teenage body. I found the beat, and joined in, and others did as well. Then as the boom, boom, boom of the drum drew those gathered into a circle, they sang, or chanted, or called out–I do not know the word for it, Or the words they used–if they were words. But it was song like story, with age and legend, call and response. There was bittersweetness there, and something that I have felt was a touch of defiance, though I might be wrong. It was a walking song, I discerned–and that was my first moment in learning to listen to those who both walked before me and remain alongside me.
Since that day, I have lived in places with a large Indigenous community, and other places where their presence was subdued or invisible–or gone altogether. I have tried to learn the histories and stories. As a religious studies scholar, I have taken the time to understand some Indigenous spiritualities and worldviews, including those like Mi’kmaq Roman Catholics or Inuit Anglicans for whom their faith is meaningful.
And as a University teacher, for some years now I have included a unit in our foundation-year program about the Residential School program in Canada’s history. This is when Church and Government conspired to remove children from their homes, scrub them of their language and culture and spirituality, and train them in British and French patterns of colonial Canadian culture. That there are so many living stories of sex abuse survivors in the Church- and State-run schools, and that so many thousands of unmarked graves of children have been discovered on Residential School properties show the cruelty and corruption of the system and the real value the community placed on these dear lives. But the project was corrupt to the core: “Kill the Indian to save the Child” was the public policy of Canada’s Victorian visionaries.
Ask yourself what the death rate is at your local elementary school, and you see how deeply disturbing it is that there is such a statistic at all. Ask yourself what you would do if the government came to take your children away because of what you believed or your family’s heritage, and you see the core problem. The last Residential School closed in 1996.
It may be that at some point I must do something significant, something substantial, something other than impatient patients and intentional curiosity. Meanwhile, without being lost in the violent parts of the story, or the deep betrayal of the Church, or the ongoing patterns of exclusion, I keep trying to learn and teach and raise my son, to watch and listen, and when I can, to walk with my neighbours.
As I tried to help my family get out of the house for last days of school and first days of work this morning, I felt a song growing in me. It had this line, “these paths I tread have been walked before”–really more an image and a feeling than a lyric as of yet. But I thought of the line in French. And then I wondered how it would sound in our local Mi’kmaq language, and my family’s lost Scottish Gaelic, and the tongues of those to come. As part of the L.M. Montgomery Conference, tomorrow I am attending a creative session, “Revisioning Land as Teacher and Healer: Mi’kmaq Stories and Theories.” It will be led by Julie Pellissier-Lush, a Mi’kmaq artist and past Poet Laureate of Prince Edward Island. I have Julie’s collection of poetry and visual art, Epekwitk, and I look forward to watching, listening, and learning from her. Perhaps more words to that walking song will come.
And thus, on this day and others, I offer my thanks to the Mi’kmaq people, for whom the ancestral and ongoing land of Prince Edward Island is Epekwitk, a community cradled in the waves of Mi’kma’ki. And with the Inuit, Métis, and other Indigenous peoples who call the land of the red soil home, I appreciate your hospitality and hope you will take my curiosity in the spirit in which it is intended as we all hope for better things ahead.
Note: the three icons in the are meant to capture in visual simplicity what is a fairly complex Indigenous Peoples community:
- The eagle to represent First Nations
- The narwhal to represent Inuit
- The beaded flower to represent Métis
The government website does not say who the artist is.