15. Lee Maracle, My Conversations with Canadians

by breavman99

my conversations with canadians

I’m taking a short break from trying to find a language to talk about embodied knowledge. Sto:lo Lee writer Maracle is speaking here on Saturday night, and so I decided to read her book My Conversations with Canadians, even though, for some strange reason, it got cut from my reading list during one of my attempts at getting down to 130 books, and even though I might not be able to go to her talk, because I’m committed to be at a dinner party. So here I am, reading outside my list again. That’s not helping me reach my goal, is it? I need to start being ruthless about restricting myself to the list, or I’m going to find myself in serious trouble.

At least My Conversations with Canadians isn’t off topic, like some of the books I’ve been reading. It’s a collection of 13 essays: 12 are labelled as conversations (with Canadians, that is), and the final one is an address to the first conference on First Nations literature in India. Maracle—a fiction writer, poet, and self-described word artist (140)—knows a lot about First Nations literature, and she knows a lot about non-Indigenous Canadians (settlers and newcomers), from interacting with them at book launches, panels, and conferences. “Not a single Canadian has ever approached me to say: ‘Why are there so many injustices committed against Indigenous people?’ or ‘Why is there not a strong movement of support for justice and sovereignty for Indigenous people’s sovereignty movement in Canada?’” she writes at the beginning of the book (8). Instead, they ask other questions—ones Maracle finds puzzling or insulting or simply beside the point—and much of the book tracks her responses to them. Canadians, she writes, “are here at our goodwill and by our host laws and by way of honouring our treaties—should that happen. Most Canadians don’t see it that way, however. Nothing that happens to Indigenous people, no matter how unlawful, is of much consequence to many of the people occupying Indigenous territories” (8). In other words, Canadians don’t ask those questions because they don’t care about the answers. We prefer to believe that we are innocent—a myth Maracle describes as “inviolable” (10). Canadians believe, for instance, that Canada gave reserves to First Nations. Maracle’s response to this belief is characteristically blunt: “You cannot give someone something that already belongs to them” (11). “This is our country,” Maracle writes. “You were granted permission to live here and the conditions of that permission are embedded in treaties and recent court decisions. Nowhere in these treaties or court decisions does it say we grant you permission to take over management and control of our territories and lives” (124). But that’s exactly what Canada has done, and Canadians cannot see that taking over as the violation that it is. Our silence, Maracle writes, and our innocence, constitute “Canadian colonial strategy” (10).

That myth of innocence is powerful, according to Maracle: Canadians who protest their innocence in relation to colonialism continue to live more comfortably than Indigenous people. “The question of why settler Canadians get a better life off of my continent than Indigenous people does not pop into white men’s heads,” she writes, “or into the heads of other nice white women either” (75). Innocence, ignorance, and a deliberate lack of curiosity go together:

In Canadian people’s defense, they claim not to know what was going on. Well, everyone knew that Indigenous people came from here and non-Indigenous people came from somewhere else. No one became curious about how the shift from Indigenous authority over the land to Canadian authority over the land occurred, nor did they become curious about how our access to the land and its wealth became restricted. No one became curious about how Canadian law became the law that dominated the entire landscape. No one got curious about what was here before. (34)

When Canadians begin to get curious about any of this, when they begin to educate themselves, they still don’t ask the right questions. They ask Maracle, “What can we do to help?” (49)—a question she finds laughable, because it implies that Indigenous people “are responsible for achieving some monumental task we are not up to and so the offer of help is generous” (49). Maracle turns the question around: “Racism and colonialism and patriarchy are Canadian social formations, not Indigenous ones. We are not the only ones responsible for their undoing. If you participate in dismantling the master’s house and ending all forms of oppression, you are helping yourself. The sooner Canadians realize that, the better. . . . It is their responsibility to change their society, which is racist, colonial, and patriarchal to the core” (49-50). 

“What can we do to help?” is related to the question “What is reconciliation to you?” (137), which someone asked after Maracle gave a talk on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. Maracle’s response to that question is scathing: 

“Well, stop killing us would be a good place to begin,” I answered. The audience laughed. “Then maybe stop plundering our resources, stop robbing us of our children, end colonial domination—return our lands, and then we can talk about being friends. I can’t believe we are having this conversation after you listened to my presentation about the murder of Indigenous women and children. It is embarrassing—not for me, but for you.” (137)

A reading in Hamilton, Ontario, turned out differently. The conversation turned to a discussion of the social responsibility of the arts and, Maracle recalls, “For the first time in my life I was sitting with Canadians I did not know and was having a great time” (64). A Canadian woman asked how to increase her level of curiosity about Indigenous people, and Maracle replied, “Do something about us, with us, and for us” (64). For example, she continued, churches in Owen Sound, Ontario, rang their bells every Friday in honour of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. People in the town got curious and invited her to speak with them, along with John Ralston Saul, and when she was there, she found the town to be warm and friendly (64-65). “Something will happen and curiosity will be sparked up and culture will be exchanged,” she continued. Maracle’s conclusion from these experiences is that Canadians don’t know much about Indigenous peoples (66-67). But Maracle doesn’t seem to dislike Canadians, despite their ignorance and claims to innocence; she even suggests that although it’s hard getting to know us, the journey is worthwhile (66). “Some of our people with Canadians would move back to their original homelands,” she writes. “Not me—I hope they fall in love with the land the way I have: fully, responsibly, and committed for life” (85). 

It’s hard for me to write about this book—to risk putting myself in what Maracle terms “the Knower’s Chair”: the position of being the one who gets to teach others, a position that, Maracle argues, Canadians refuse to give up in relation to Indigenous peoples (76). “[N]o white men I know have ever given up the Knower’s Chair willingly—they are always trying to educate me. They never seem to notice how annoying that is,” she writes. “I have met a few white women who have given up their Knower’s Chair. That gives me some hope for the future” (77). The person who occupies the Knower’s Chair refuses to reflect on what he (or possibly she, although Maracle’s pronouns suggest otherwise) knows:

You can mention any contentious subject about racism, sexism, or any other form of oppression, and your white male listener will avoid applying it to himself. Those who do that never get to experience the powerful and transformational aha moment of when you see what you are doing to up the stakes in a conflict. They will only go so far as to say yes to what you said. After that, the conversation is over. This agreement is the end of the road, and I suspect they are wanting forgiveness. There will be no discussion of the origin of the admission, no discussion of its history and the effect on the individual. The thing that moves them is forgiveness. For what? To be forgiven, the transgressor has to confess, but that did not happen, so does this mean the tearful white man is shedding tears of relief? After all, his place is intact, the Knower’s Chair is still his, and he does not have to change anything. (77)

Can I write about this book without occupying the Knower’s Chair? Or by writing about it, am I allowing Maracle to occupy that position? In other words, by writing about this book, am I learning from her? I would like to think so, but I could be wrong.

The question of forgiveness is important for Maracle, and her remarks make me wonder about the purpose of the apologies our governments have offered for this country’s colonialist past—especially since those apologies are never accompanied by any change in present or future behaviour. “We do not have forgiveness as a recurring theme in our culture,” Maracle writes:

If you hurt someone, own it, look at yourself, track where it came from, learn from it and make it right, continue to learn from it, continue to deepen your understanding, and grow from it. If you are transgressed, look at how it made you feel, inventory how you behave, and transform yourself—do not let the transgressions of others damage your authentic self. If you were hurt, look at the impact and effect of the hurt on you and make it right inside so that later you will not pass on the hurt to those who are innocent. Continue to learn from the behaviour. (76)

When I asked my Cree teacher how to say “I’m sorry,” he was genuinely stumped. “We don’t have a word for that,” he finally said. I know that, as Maracle says, every Indigenous nation is unique—“a Sto:lo is as much like an Ojibway as a Frenchman is like a Russian,” she writes (67)—but still, the emphasis on action, rather than apology, seems to operate across national and linguistic boundaries. And her remarks make me wonder what value there is in government apologies—especially when they are not accompanied by action. (I’m talking to you, Premier Moe.)

There is a lot more to say about this book: I haven’t discussed the essays about the colonial imposition of gender binaries, or Canada’s fixation with its multicultural identity, or the need to recognize oral literature along with written literature, or cultural appropriation. That last chapter is important, and I think it’s the only one that’s not actually addressed to settler Canadians—at least, not entirely. According to Maracle, all Sto:lo people owned were their stories, songs, and names—“this is our private, clan, family wealth,” she writes; “[t]hat was our private property” (100)—and so for someone to take those stories is a disinheritance (100). Appropriation is stealing, she continues, “so in order for appropriation to occur, theft must travel with it and receive either resale or profit or personal royalties as a benefit from its use,” while “the original owner must lose the use, benefit, authority, and ownership (as control) over the appropriated item; otherwise it is simply sharing” (101). “Appropriation can occur only if the person doing the appropriating has no prior authority or birthright or permission to access the item and no permission from its original owner to use and benefit from the item” (101). Both land and knowledge were appropriated during colonization, and much of that knowledge ended up in universities, from which Indigenous people must buy it back in the form of courses (101-02). Because of the loss of land and knowledge—and it’s clear that these are inextricably linked—Indigenous people began to think they had no knowledge (105). “Today we struggle to reclaim our knowledge, to articulate and create literary and scholarly works from it, and to end the theft through writing that characterized 120 years of prohibition, theft, and abrogation of our ancestors’ authority and ownership of knowledge,” Maracle writes. “For us to reclaim knowledge, we must re-aggregate it and we must build institutions to accomplish this” (106). Those institutions, however, must be open to Indigenous children and young people; the transmission of Indigenous knowledge to them is of paramount importance, even though ensuring transmission of that knowledge while protecting it from those who would appropriate it is difficult and complicated (107). “No one but our children are entitled to our knowledge, stories, law, teachings, science, or medicine,” Maracle argues, and therefore cultural protocols—giving gifts of tobacco to Elders, for example—are only intended for outsiders or foreigners, for non-Indigenous people, and not for Indigenous children. Much of this argument, I think, is directed at other Indigenous people who ask their children and young people for something in exchange for knowledge, or at universities, where that knowledge is commodified. I’m not sure about that, but for much of the chapter on cultural appropriation, I felt like I was overhearing a conversation, rather than being spoken to directly. That’s not a complaint, just an observation.

My Conversations with Canadians is an important book, particularly now, with militarized RCMP officers occupying Wet’suwet’en territory and arresting people who are defending the land and the water. “I have laws, I have politics, I have beliefs, I have story,” Maracle writes:

What I don’t have is access to my land—someone else is preventing me to access my land by dint of the bayonet and maintains it by a host of laws that are enforced by your hired guns (police and army). Do not mistake my kindness in not responding to your hired guns for a deluded belief in your centrality. Do not mistake my kindness for acceptance of the right of access to my land or for the absence of my love for it. Further, do not mistake my kindness for a relinquishment of who I am and who I will always want to be. (132)

“Settlers ought to look at their history, then look in the mirror,” Maracle continues. “After annihilating our populations, and much of the animal life on this continent and on the oceans, and after spoiling the air, the lands, and the waters, who would want to be you?” (132). Put that way, who would? I wouldn’t. How sad that is. I am glad, though, that I read this book, even though it’s not on my reading list. That omission was a mistake and it’s good that I’ve been able to correct it.

Works Cited

Maracle, Lee. My Conversations with Canadians. Book*hug, 2017.