My Conversations with Canadians
By Lee Maracle, Book Thug, Toronto, 2017
Lee Maracle was the first Turtle Island writer I read after coming to Canada forty years ago. Her writing struck a chord in me. My Conversations with Canadians, her most recent book, is my latest exposure to her work. And I am still reeling under the impact. Her book is directed at Canadians, and Maracle distances herself and all Indigenous communities from Canadians, whom she considers willing participants in the usurpation, exploitation and genocide that is still taking place in a country known for its “nice” and “courteous” citizens.
She also reminds Canadians that all of us here are guests who have disrespected the rules of hospitality, as delineated in original treaties and covenants that have been either distorted or simply ignored. She blames us individually, not the Canadian government, which she dismisses as illegitimate. That is why I am still in a state of shock. Because Lee Maracle tells it like it is, and she is absolutely right.
As a Mexican-born Canadian of Indian and Belgian origin, I have ties with a country that was colonized by the British (India); a country that was a brutal colonizer in the Congo (Belgium); and a country that was first colonized by the Aztecs (Mexico), then by the Spaniards, and finally by the United States when the latter annexed almost half of Mexico’s territory. I am sure my story is similar to that of many of my fellow Canadians. The fact that my feelings and beliefs are more closely aligned with those of the Indigenous people rather than with the colonizers doesn’t make me less complicit. So, I have come to understand that we can all be colonized and colonizers at the same time, which is why I find Maracle’s book so ground-breaking. In fact, it should be mandatory reading in schools and institutions of governance.
This slim volume contains thirteen conversations and a final text in which the author commemorates the past and outlines a possible future.
In Conversation 1, “Meeting the Public,” Lee Maracle wryly notes that Canadians tend to support far-away causes, but often neglect their own backyard. She also decries the fact that “Canadians talk about us rather than to us.” She also reminds us that in the early days of confederation, First Nations people were considered immigrants to Canada, then wards of the state and later citizens. In other words, they were infantilized and commodified.
In Conversation 2, “Who are we separately and together?” Maracle contends that it is Canadian identity that should be questioned rather than Indigenous identity. She also reminds readers that Canada was once Indigenous, and mocks the colonial expectation of love for the Queen. She does not touch on Québec.
“Marginalization and Reactionary Politics” is the subject of Conversation 3. She calls for greater unity between Indigenous communities and people of colour as well as the reinstatement of Indigenous gender-complementary systems of governance, which include men and women.
Conversation 4, “What can we do to help?” analyzes the paternalism of well-meaning Canadians who often ask this question. Here Maracle explains that by ending all forms of oppression, people are not just helping others, they are also helping themselves. She also argues that a critical study of world mythologies “might disturb our obedience to capitalism, imperialism and patriarchy.”
Conversation 5, “Hamilton” points a finger at the cultural apathy of Canadians. In this chapter, Lee Maracle takes a shot at Canadian lefties who are woefully ignorant of Indigenous history. It is also shocking to learn from her that Indigenous singing and dancing were once forbidden by the government, and higher education was limited to settlers.
Conversation 6 asks the big question: “What do I call you: First Nations, Indians, Aboriginals, Indigenous?” Maracle’s answer: “call us ‘Turtle Islanders.’” However, she quickly points out that people from different nations, cultures and languages are racialized when given a collective term. In this chapter, the author also touches on the subject of forgiveness. She points out that in her culture, forgiveness is all about learning from past mistakes, undoing any harm done, and growing. She expects Canadians to do just that in order to be forgiven.
Conversation 7, “Galloping toward Ottawa:” This chapter is short and to the point. Maracle strongly rejects the notion that her people have to rely on the Canadian government for a definition of who is an Indigenous person or national citizen.
Conversation 8, “Jack Scott and the left:” This conversation examines the role played by the left in Canada. In her opinion, Jack Scott (founder of the Progressive Workers Movement) was one of the few activists who “stayed true to himself till the end.”
Conversation 9, “Divisions, constraints and bindings:” This section clears up a lot of confusion surrounding the very current debate around gender. Maracle explains that Indigenous communities are not rigidly gendered and their languages contain no pronouns or gender divisions. She also believes that “it is the transgendered who help us to see ourselves.”
Conversation 10, “Appropriation:” Maracle explains the difference between cultural appropriation and cultural sharing. In the former there is a usurpation of knowledge for the benefit of the usurper, and in the latter, there is a give and take that is mutually beneficial for both parties. She explains how Europeans appropriated Indigenous communities’ knowledge, such as on the use of herbal remedies and other items the latter purchased. This appropriation extends all the way to ancestral knowledge appropriated by universities and then sold back to Indigenous students. European law does not recognize knowledge obtained through the oral tradition, but feels entitled to patent anything that’s put in writing. White men were entitled to purchase large tracts of land that were owned by Indigenous communities, whereas the latter were deprived of their use. The list is endless. In Indigenous communities, property did not exist for the sake of acquisition, but all friendly communities had access to it, particularly agricultural land. Personal property was used to give away to friends or family members, never for profit. This is a very complex chapter that cannot be condensed into a few words, but anyone who understands the meaning of capitalism will understand what it is all about.
Conversation 11, “How does colonialism work?” Maracle finds that this conversation is one of the most complicated ones she has ever had with Canadians. She says it all when she repeats the following: “Nowhere in these treaties or court decisions does it say we grant you permission to take over management and control of our territory and our lives.” Canadians often respond: “But you don’t own the land.” Maracle thinks, but doesn’t respond, “but you don’t own the land.
Conversation 12, “Response to empathy from settlers:” Lee Maracle does not accept the idea that Indigenous populations are marginalized, because that would imply that settlers are at the centre of a “wheel of relations.”
Conversation 13, “Reconciliation and residential school as an assimilation program:” The author cites Article 2 of the United Nations Genocide Convention, signed by Canada in December 1948. This article defines genocide as acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic or religious group. Such acts include killing, hurting, inflicting detrimental conditions of life on the group, imposing measures to prevent births within the group or transferring children from one group to another. Maracle contends that since these measures benefit Canadians, it makes them complicit in the plunder.
My Conversations with Canadians ends on a positive note. In the First Nations (Adivasi) Literature Conference held in India, Lee Maracle presented a paper describing how to affirm one’s rightful heritage. In it she makes a plea for a decolonization of the mind through language, literature and art. She rejects the definition of what constitutes proper language imposed by the colonizer, and calls for greater respect to be given to the oral tradition:
“Our orality is not simply about our stories. It is about our sociology, our science, our horticulture, aqua culture, our medicine, our law, our politics, and lastly, our story.”
She also claims for herself the right to speak English as she does, a right Indigenous people earned with their very lives. And lastly, Maracle encourages people to keep questioning:
“The creative mind does not know any stupid questions and often ferrets great answers.”