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The Everlasting People: G.K. Chesterton and the First Nations (or: “Misjudging Milliner”)

I wasn’t expecting to like “The Everlasting People.” I hadn’t heard of the book, and hadn’t asked to review it. When the review editor for the Oxford journal Literature and Theology, Alana Vincent (now an Associate Professor at Umeå University), asked me if I’d be interested, my first reaction was to go into that quick calculation academics do, of whether a free book will be worth the work.

Turns out it was. The reason I’m calling this “Misjudging Milliner” was because that’s exactly what I was guilty of. Traumatized by the previous American president’s and administration’s links to certain churches, and by the ongoing efforts of many American so-called Christians who seem to be doing everything right now NOT to love their neighbours and practice justice, it seemed from the get-go that a book aimed at evangelicals would definitely not be one I’d like. As a settler trying to do my bit for more justice and for Treaty respect in relations with Indigenous peoples, I was pretty sure the book would be more cringe- than compliment-worthy.

I was wrong.

Milliner has gone through the hard work of learning about the First Nations of Turtle Island. He has developed relations, listened more than spoke, and learned at the feet of his Indigenous mentors.

G.K. Chesterton, who features on the book’s cover, is a bit of an excuse for Milliner to grab his non-Indigenous, evangelical audience (whom he is presuming like Chesterton) and keep their attention long enough to teach them a bit about the Land where they actually live – and not early 20th-century England, where they do not. I applaud this aim.

In the places where the book presumed a U.S. audience or made references to the “insider language” or experiences of evangelicalism, I still occasionally found it grating. However, I was not the target audience, and there were fewer such moments than I’d assumed.

There was much to learn in the book. I especially appreciated the example of someone who takes the time to learn the Indigenous history and culture of where they live and work. Mid-western Americans especially, but non-Indigenous North Americans in general, will appreciate Milliner’s journey, and the illustrations he uses. All of us who are non-Indigenous and living in North America should be on the journey Matthew Milliner is taking.

Oxford Press has made it possible for me to share the book review (normally it’s behind a paywall). You can find the link here in case you’d like to read it!

Irish Unsettling

Since arriving in Dublin, I often stumble across reminders of how the Irish were also a colonized people. Sometimes it’s graffiti: “Royalists not welcome,” scrawled on brick. Sometimes it’s living culture, the fact that Irish (the traditional Gaelic) is an official language, but so few Irish students, at least in Dublin, can speak it. While walking along the Royal Canal I came across bronze shoes (below) commemorating the “National Famine Way.” This marks the 19th century families forced, starving, toward Dublin Harbour. Once there they shipped out on British “coffin ships” in hopes of a better life in Quebec and other destinations. Ireland and Quebec are bound together in many ways.

Many died en route or of sickness in quarantine (as at Grosse-Île, QC).

History is thick here. Last week on my way to the dentist I was surprised by another example. This is Croke Park behind me. Even though our apartment is a kilometre away, when 80 thousand fans are cheering a Gaelic games competition, you can hear it loud and clear from our living room.

Croke Park (Croker, to the locals) didn’t always look like a spaceship. On November 21st, 1920, the stadium was the scene of Bloody Sunday (Irish: Domhnach na Fola). In reaction that morning’s assassination of British intelligence operatives, British soldiers and auxiliaries opened fire indiscriminately on players and spectators at an afternoon Gaelic football match. Fourteen people were killed and at least 60 injured. As with settler-Indigenous history where I was born, imperialism is always violent. Bloody Sunday remains a crucial moment in Irish history.

These folks would hear the games even better

There are spots like this all over Dublin, Ireland, and Northern Ireland, places where the land is marked by tragedy, hate, and death. In 2020, a century after the horrific events, this little stone bridge beside Croke Park was renamed “Bloody Sunday Bridge.”

“dark pilgimages” (to sites of tragedy) intersect and overlap

The Royal Canal can be a bit rough here (another good reason for biking this section). But when I stopped and went up for a minute to pay my respects on the bridge, people were walking back and forth to their business at Croker. The Irish seem to be good at this kind of redemption. They don’t hide the past but build new and better on it just the same. During the pandemic Croke Park was turned into North Dublin’s vaccination site.

Where once lives were lost by hate, they are being saved by how the Irish care for themselves and their neighbours, even those from elsewhere.

Like me.

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)

IMG_9132

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.