Review of Unsettling Spirit

It’s great to see my review of Denise Nadeau’s book Unsettling Spirit: A Journey into Decolonization in the most recent issue of Studies in Religion/Sciences Religieuses. SR is not an open-access journal, so if you’re interested in the full review, you can find it through your local university library (perhaps). If that’s not an option, DM me!

Nadeau’s book is a good example of a growing field of writing by Canadians, Americans, Australians, New Zealanders, and South Africans, which self-reflexively thinks about their histories and actions in relation to Indigenous populations. Writing by these groups, which is aimed at other folks within that group (people like me) has been called “settler colonial” literature. I also call it “aware-settler” writing. Some folks, including many Canadians who are willing to accept that there have been, and continue to be, injustices, don’t like the term settler. While it’s true that it was my grandfather – not me – who homesteaded in SW Saskatchewan, and that he was the first “settler” in my family, as a Canadian I still benefit from the ongoing appropriation of Indigenous Land. So does my government. So do resource companies granted rights to exploit those lands. Calling ourselves settler reminds us that the expropriation and injustice don’t just exist in the past.

I hope you’ll read the review. And the book! Nadeau does a wonderful job of telling her own story (situating herself), naming her relations (the Indigenous and non-Indigenous persons from whom she’s learned), and passing on some of the wisdom she’s gained (bringing good back to the community). These are actions we’ve learned from Indigenous writers, and from which we all gain. Nadeau’s book is published by McGill-Queen’s Press.

Ultimately, the point of aware-settler, or settler-colonial, writing is most often just to remind those of us who are not Indigenous of our obligations. Surely no responsible person can take issue with, well, actually taking responsibility.

Black Water

David A. Robertson, Black Water: family, legacy, and blood memory. HarperCollins, 2020.

If you only read the first line of this blogpost, here’s the message: read this book. If you can, buy it.

By purchasing and reading Black Water you’ll not only grow yourself. You will also support an honest, warm, thoughtful, skilled, and open-hearted writer. You’ll be amplifying an important story, not just the one David A. Robertson tells about his identity, his family, and his father, but the narratives within which this memoir is nestled.

Black Water starts with the word “Dad.” David’s Dad – his presence, his absence, his words and his silences – fill its pages. Since father-son stories are hardly unusual (think Star Wars, Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, TV’s Brooklyn 99) what makes this book so compelling is not just Robertson’s craft, but the particular heritage that Donald Alexander Robertson, Dulas to his friends and community at Norway House Nation, embodied. Dulas was Cree (Robertson tends not to use the word nêhiyaw). So is David. Yet as he writes, “Mom and Dad never told me that I was Indigenous when I was a kid, and because of that, I grew up disconnected…”

Coming of age stories are often about finally making the connections and finding the pieces that help us recognize ourselves. David’s takes place first in rural Manitoba and in Winnipeg. He grew up fitting in, in many ways, and markedly not fitting in, in others. As a bookish nerd raised in Saskatchewan, I could empathize with many of David’s struggles. This is Robertson’s fine writing: his story is incredibly personal and particular, but he tells it in ways that make it universal.

Whether Cree or other First Nation, many Indigenous writers emphasize the importance of both relationship and specific Land to our identity. This is where the book’s name – Black Water – comes in. Black Water is the northern trapline where Dulas grew up. Dulas tells David he wants to visit the community, and the place, one last time. Robertson writes his memoir around the journey with his father to Black Water. Into this final journey he weaves stories of his own children, his brothers, and his father, and how all of them have learned to relate to this special place. As someone who writes about, studies, and walks, pilgrimages, I could see so many elements of pilgrimage in their voyage.

There’s nothing teacherly or preacherly about this book, at all. It simply tells David Robertson’s story, a story that includes golf and vegetarianism as much as trap-lines and residential schools. Like all good family stories, it’s complicated. Parents don’t always understand kids. Kids, even when they become adults, never seem to learn the full truth about their parents. In the midst of those common narratives, and so gently we hardly realize it, we learn some of how Indigenous peoples have been forcibly disconnected from their land, and the assimilative pressures – sometimes unconscious, often more racist – brought to bear by Canadian society. We also learn of the various ways Indigenous connections between identity and Land are being reforged despite these pressures, and new identities established.

Black Water isn’t a textbook. It’s a quiet, personal, unassuming son’s story of how he grew up. The great thing about this book, and the reason those of us who are not Indigenous should read it, is that if enough of us do so, our whole society can learn something about growing up with him.

Racism, Disease, and Someone Else’s Life: Canada’s History with Indigenous Peoples

Anyone who says – or thinks – Canada is not racist should read Bob Joseph’s short book 21 Things You May Not Know About the Indian Act. Every Canadian should read it, period. By quietly recounting facts from kidnapping children to banning language, Joseph shows how horrific Canadian policies against First Nations and Inuit peoples have been. Is it only in our past? Jim Daschuk, who wrote Clearing the Plains, points out that because of institutionalized racism and its effects on health, Indigenous individuals can continue to “expect a 15-year shorter life span”

Pandemics made things worse. Deadly epidemics became a fact of Indigenous life immediately after first contact with Europeans. Indigenous resurgence happened, not because of, but despite such ongoing policies. During research with Daschuk’s files, I found some surprises in the “quarantine reports” of the Government of Canada from 1893 to 1919 (RG 18, 1893-1919).

I don’t know who Inspector McGinnis of Battleford SK was. But during one of many smallpox epidemics at the beginning of the last century McGinnis wanted to deny quarantined Nêhiyaw (Cree) families sufficient food. We know that proper nutrition aids the fight against disease. Malnutrition results in more deaths. McGinnis wrote to his superiors about the Indigenous families that The worst feature of the disease [smallpox] seems to be that when we quarantine them a demand is made for food which we have to give them as they live only from day to day when at liberty. In the case of large families [this] … is expensive (dated March 7, 1904).

Reminiscent of some Chief Medical Officers today, it took a medical person to point out the obvious to the bureaucrat. On March 19, 1904 Dr. Patterson, the Dominion Officer in Winnipeg, wrote: I note what Insp. McGinnis says about the expense of rations.  This cannot be helped.  When these people are quarantined, they cannot be allowed to starve.

For those of us Canadians who have had minor troubles securing groceries during the Covid-19 pandemic it’s worth learning from this past. Only three months previous to the above report, on January 19, 1904, McGinnis was again sent a sharp rebuke. Note that despite the reprimand McGinnis was NOT removed from his post, a protection of the guilty that sadly still goes on today:

Your quarantine report dated 11th instant received and has been forwarded to the Indian Commissioner for his perusal.  The Commissioner directs me to say that you have no shade of right to burn anyone’s shack and that you have no right to use your position to do such autocratic actions and you will be good enough in future not to burn down any more shacks.

In January, in the harsh winter of northern Saskatchewan, this unnamed family was ripped away from their shelter as McGinnis’s official “response” to “other people’s lives.” This is but one example: Tanya Talaga, Charlie Angus, and Louise Skydancer Halfe, like Daschuk and Joseph, tell the stories of how in the Residential Schools, where overcrowding was accompanied by malnutrition and often, abuse, disease outbreaks turned the institutions into death traps.

During a time when governments and health officials are seeking to decide between health and safety on one side and economic concerns on the other, Canadians should avoid continuing a racist past, and look for wisdom from Indigenous thinkers. Writers such as Margaret Kovach Sakewew p’sim iskwew, Linda Tuhiwai Smith, and Leanne Betasamosake Simpson remind us that behind the health of all communities are principles of relationality. “All my relations” is an Indigenous concept, but one from which Canadians urgently need to learn, especially in a time of plague.

Why We Need Historians (a third pandemic poem)

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It’s Hillary behind COVID. That reject.

And Bill Gates – here he swallows, the saliva

pools. And I think about how far spite,

like infected droplets, spools and projects.

 

They engineered the virus with China,

To keep Trump from re-election.

Otherwise (his finger to the camera)

You tell me! How could this happen?

 

I would, but he won’t, stop. I’d start

with the Golden Rule, maybe. Or to not bear false witness.

I’d remind him that the death that struck the Byzantines

came first from fleas, not Muslim armies.

Or maybe this so-called Christian would speak less,

knowing Martin Luther in his preaching

warned Wittenbergers against public meetings

during the days of Black Death.

 

You’re Sheeple, he interrupts, his history

flat-screen empty. You’re cows.

 

How can you talk to someone for whom there is no time but now?

No victims but us? It may be a novel virus,

but it’s not novel. The Spanish flu didn’t need Obama to do

what it did back then. Each time, it seems, we try witches, name

evil eyes, put the homes of Gypsies and Jews to flame,

afraid of one virus only to be infected by the other;

the real conspiracy, the tragic legacy of those who claim

we’re only safe when someone else is to blame.

 

May 3, 2020

 

Pandemic Pears (a second poem)

fruit arrrival during Covid-19

I poached the pears in maple syrup.

Saving their browning skins, together with

a wizzled orange and a hardening lemon

my first miracle; the carmelized marmalade,

hot and sweet from our spoons,

the second. Who could have known

 

tetris-ing perishables would be so satisfying?

Those old hotel soaps slivered

to avoid unnecessary outings,

toilet-paper rolls on door handles,

the plastic that once cossetted chocolates

cut for ice-cube trays.

 

I suppose it won’t be long before normal

is normal, again. Remind me, then,

please, some evening we’re out for dinner,

our garbage-bins full,

the song-birds muted,

just how good these pears tasted.

 

 

 

Matthew R Anderson

April 30, 2020

Chilwell (Nottingham)

 

Each Thursday at Eight

Liturgy for a Pandemic

second floor in sunlight

Each Thursday at eight, we stand at our lintels

to clap for care-workers we hope never to meet.

Behind the fence, unseen neighbours bang pots.

When the antiphon dies, I linger outside.

A blackbird trills. From the hushed street its partner answers.

In our city the pandemic spikes, aloof as the cats

who watch our prayers from behind the glass.

 

 

Matthew R Anderson April 25, 2020 Chilwell (Nottingham)

Pandemic Reading: The High Road

Terry Fallis books 2020

During this pandemic I’ve enjoyed re-reading Terry Fallis’s two comic novels, The Best Laid Plans, and The High Road. Both tell the story of the unlikely success of an unintentional candidate and crotchety member of parliament named Angus McClintock. While it seems a thousand years ago, my Bachelor’s Degree was in Political Science. I especially loved Canadian politics – remembering the drama of the elderly Trudeau struggling to keep himself and his tired, scandal-ridden party in office was riveting. Almost Shakespearean.

Flash forward to 2020. Angus’s patience with corruption is about as short as his unruly beard is long. Time after time either his honesty, or his assistant Daniel’s bumbling, land them both in trouble. It’s hard not to compare the determinedly forthright, responsible – and fictional – Angus with a very real president south of the border who seems incapable of anything but lying, blaming, and bullying. Angus is the opposite. He’s a politician who never planned to be one, who takes responsibility seriously, who never encourages hate or prejudice (the second book is called “The High Road” a phrase one certainly could not apply to American politics), and who doesn’t care if he loses his job for doing the right thing.

The Best Laid Plans, and The High Road are together a fun, quick read. My one major critique is that the character of Lindsay should have been fleshed out and given more of a role. But behind the laughs Fallis has a serious message: that a government and its opposition are only as good as the people we elect. I recommend both books.

They Know Not What They Do

reading Valtonen book

They Know Not What They Do – Jussi Valtonen (London: Oneworld, 2017)

Reading They Know Not What They Do by Jussi Valtonen, is a bit like looking in on a group of observant and smart people, who share thoughtful, even profound, observations on love, disappointment, and American and Finnish culture, but who just happen to be on a sinking ship. You – and they – can never forget that things are only going to get much worse. Set against Helsinki’s endlessly brooding winter skies, and the droning of cicadas in Baltimore’s summer heat, a feeling of inescapable doom hangs over this dystopic novel as its flawed characters meet, mate, and make mistakes. The book feels somewhat long at 470 pages, but perhaps that’s just because, while there are lots of surprising plot twists, tragedy never feels far away.

They Know Not What They Do is an apt title. Joe, the ambitious American protagonist, Samuel, his estranged Finnish son, Alina, Samuel’s mother, and others in the novel seem to lack self-awareness in a normal, bumbling, struggle-through-the-day kind of way. However, they’re not lucky in life. None is able to escape the extraordinarily tragic consequences of failings that seem, in the end, fairly ordinary. This is part of the novel’s power. We’ve all made these mistakes, and if we haven’t met such tragedies, perhaps we’ve just been fortunate. The inside back cover states that Valtonen is not just a fine author and an exceptional wordsmith, but also a psychologist. He clearly knows day-to-day human weakness. Although he’s sympathetic, he’s a realist. The often very funny black humour will keep the reader going, even while a sensitive reader sometimes wants to put the book down rather than go through yet another looming misunderstanding, disappointment, or mistake.

If anything marks the book as Finnish, perhaps it’s this close attention to failure. As a Canadian reader, I’m familiar with literature where simple survival is victory. Finnishness and Americanism are presented as opposites, and are played up in the novel. But the stereotypes are presented only to be subverted: the American protagonist ends up paralyzed by indecision and fate, while the Finn achieves a sort of resolution.

The language throughout is clear, crisp, and its observations razor-sharp: the reader would never know the book was originally published in Finnish (translator Kristian London). Valtonen won the Finlandia Prize for this book, and it’s not hard to understand why. It’s exceptionally observant, and extremely well-written. Academics will recognize their foibles in its sharp-eyed observations of university politics, but so will fatigued young parents, adolescents just entering college, and the middle-aged trying to decide if they’ve accomplished anything with their lives. They Know Not What They Do was written by someone who very definitely knew what they were doing: if you can handle the coming tragedy, it’s well worth getting to know these people as well.

Do You Mind if I Sit?

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In memory of OS

Tears in his eyes, an old man tells me he wishes I wouldn’t choose

“Now Thank We All our God”

quite so often.

It’s a nice hymn, he says. I’m sorry Pastor.

Don’t mean to be a bother.

The organist likes it too. I can tell,

because the way she plays it. She really plays it. Poom, poom! – he laughs.

I sang that when I was nineteen, Pastor.

A young man.

He looks closely then. Checking to see if I can picture him

at nineteen.

Not like now, he says.

Young.

In my navy uniform, or what was left of it after going over the Italian wire.

I was lucky to get to that bunker. Lots didn’t.

I know other people like it.

He’s wipes a rheumy eye. Liver spots on his hand. It’s a good tune, he says.

Where was I? Oh. Yes. The problem is,

when I hear that hymn

I hear everything else:

The shells, the pain.

The ones who drowned. And we who remained,

standing tall, trying to be brave.

Five hundred men in that bunker, pastor. Singing Nun Danket like our lives depended on it.

The dust in the air. The wounded. The maimed.

And after the Amen –

Silence.

No one knew what came next.

Until into that silence the senior officer said three words.

“Now we surrender.”

Oh Pastor…

That’s what he said. He smiles.

I’m an old man.

It’s a good hymn. It just makes me cry.

My war ended thanking God.

You see? He takes my hand.

You do what you want. I can’t be thankful enough.

That’s my problem. But. He leans close:

Soldiers stand, he says.

Do you mind, terribly,

if I sit?

 

(I just heard the news that my former parishioner, about whom I wrote this piece, passed away a couple days ago. The years I was his pastor he quietly refused to sing another hymn from our hymnbook, that I found out later had been used, with different words, by the Nazi regime during WW II).