truth

Between a Good Story & Hard Facts

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from R.B. Nevitt’s A Winter at Fort Macleod

While I’m writing my book about our long western walks, sometimes I find myself caught between a good story and a set of hard facts. I’m writing about our treks through ranches on the edge of Cypress Hills in 2015. Remembering the cattle, the horses, and the land there, I’d like to tell the story I found in Peter Erasmus’s Buffalo Days and Nights. Erasmus was a Métis interpreter, guide (for the Palliser expedition, among others), hunter, trader, and diplomat (his account of the Treaty Six signing is invaluable, since he was actually hired by the Indigenous parties to the Treaty). He could speak four or five prairie languages, as well as English and French, and could read ancient Greek. Discussing the extinction of the bison/buffalo, and the problem of poaching, Erasmus notes: “True, I ate buffalo meat at Big Bear’s camp in the Cypress Hills…but it tasted a great deal like beef – so much so that I didn’t consider it polite to inquire too closely as to its source.”[i] The problem is, the story makes it sound as if the Cree were habitually enjoying food at the expense of white settlers – but the opposite was the case. 1881-82 was the time of the “hunger winter” (see Candace Savage’s A Geography of Blood). Cree, Saulteaux and Assiniboine, facing a brutal Saskatchewan cold in tents made only of thin cotton (the hides being sold or converted to food), dressed in rags, were dying, by the hundreds, of starvation and starvation-linked diseases. Meanwhile, the government in Ottawa kept cutting its relief budget. Dewdney, closer, used the famine as a tactic to try to empty the Hills of its Indigenous population. The first ranchers in the area offered their animals at cost to relieve the famine. Dewdney refused. No one knows why, but it remains a fact that he had financial links to the American company that provided meat to the Canadian government, and accepting the offer would have undercut their – and his – profits. [ii] Plus ça change…the more things change…  There’s no simple story in remembering Settlement.

[i] Peter Erasmus, Buffalo Days and Nights. Ed. Henry Thompson. Calgary: Fifth House Ltd, reprint 1999, 301.

[ii] James Daschuk, Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation, and the Loss of Aboriginal Life. Regina: University of Regina Press, 2013, 115.

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Scarf and Medicine Bundle

Matthew squares off with Scarf Women

On my leaving, the Finns of Montreal gave me a gift. It wasn’t a gift card, or a gold watch (do people do that anymore?) or a bottle of fancy wine. They thought about who I was to them, and who they were to me. Then nine households – nine different women, to be more precise – knitted a scarf. Together. They each, in turn, added wool from Finland, and colours from their homes that would mean something.

I’ve rarely been so touched. I wear the scarf often. I keep it in a place where I can look at it, as I’m doing now. Its colours tell me about the people who knitted it and the services and events we enjoyed together. Its heft in my hands reminds me how warmly I was embraced by the Finnish community. Although it wasn’t intended as such, the scarf turned out to be the perfect length for a stole (that priests and pastors wear over their robe as a sign of their ordination). When I got it, I told the women it would be a ritual object for me – it couldn’t help but be, because of how it was made.

In 1884 Canada’s Federal Government passed the potlach law, part of the Indian Act. It “legally” abolished all “Indian cultural practices,” the Sun Dance, the potlach, and other religious ceremonies. It also forbade Indigenous people and groups from keeping their ritual items. That provision was only repealed in the 1950s. Bob Joseph, in 21 Things You May Not Know About the Indian Act, writes that “for 71 years…almost three generations grew up deprived of the cultural fabric of their ancestors….thousands of irreplaceable ceremonial masks, robes, blankets, and other….items were lost forever to their people” (49).

When I walked into the Castle Museum here in Nottingham UK, the first thing to catch my eye was the medicine pouch you see below. The little sign says it comes from Alberta, Canada. When ceremonies – the life of a culture – were outlawed, many of the stolen objects were given to museums. That bundle belonged – STILL belongs – to someone…Blackfoot? Cree? It’s hard to imagine someone coming into my house to take my Finnish scarf, or a Bible, or a communion chalice. But that’s exactly what my government did to the Indigenous peoples. Learning this, and remembering it, is part of being ready for reconciliation.

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Truth in a time of Disinformation

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Truth. You will know it. That’s what Jesus says. You’ll be able to sniff it out. Somewhere between the meandering, hateful, mysogynistic, racist late-night tweets and the tap-tap-tapping of thousands of trolls putting out fake social media posts from St. Petersburg and Tehran, and robocalls whispering to us here in Quebec that elections have been cancelled under mysterious circumstances, and Saudi Arabia murdering a journalist and then saying he died in a fistfight and a Trump supporter sending pipe bombs by courier but many Republicans listening to talk-shows that tell them the Democrats set up the whole thing, because, after all, no one got killed, and, well: God knows what else.  If you continue in my word, says Jesus – THE word, not all these dissimulations – then you are truly my disciples, and you will know, NOT the lies. Not the innuendo. Not the most reasonable inferences, based on the latest poll results. The TRUTH.  And that will set you free. So often we focus on that one noun, “truth.” Too often we overlook the very important verb before that, the verb “to know”. It might be a truth that a grizzly bear and her cubs are on the path ahead of me. But if I don’t KNOW it, it won’t help. Indigenous writers tell us that knowing always depends on one thing: relationship. What twitter has taught us is that what people call truth is relative. But the relationships under real truth – love and forgiveness, and grace that reaches through our brokenness and heals us – those things never change. When we face the disinformation and the hurtful lies, the way through is asking: of all the so-called options, what keeps us in right relationship with our Creator and each other? THAT is the truth we must cling to. Then, even in times of trouble, even should the world fall apart and the mountains crumble into the centre of the sea, that truth is our safety and stronghold. Our mighty fortress. Truly.