Waging Aboriginal War
- Bernard Assiniwi (Author) and Wayne Grady (Translator)
The Beothuk Saga. McClelland & Stewart Ltd. (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Kate Roth (Translator) and Denis Vaugeois (Author)
The Last French and Indian War: An Inquiry into a Safe-Conduct Issued in 1760 that Acquired the Value of a Treaty in 1990. McGill-Queen's University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Constance Cartmill
The title of the English translation of Vaugeois’s La fin des alliances franco-indiennes, first published in French in 1995, seems misleading, until we are told that the Conquest or the Seven Years War (1756-1763) was actually dubbed the last "French and Indian War" by American historians. The English title is nonetheless an eloquent reminder of the extent to which relations have deteriorated in recent years between the Québécois and Aboriginal peoples. In fact, one may view this book as a response to what Vaugeois considers a prolonged attack against Quebecers by Canada’s First Nations (who have received more than a little help from the Federal authorities). Vaugeois concentrates on two specific years 1760 and 1990 which he ties together by juxtaposing past and present. In the late summer of 1760, as British forces were about to invade Montreal, a British officer named James Murray signed a safe-conduct certifying that members of the Huron tribe of Lorette located near Quebec City were not to be molested by British soldiers while returning to their settlement. The significance and status of this "scrap of paper" would be vehemently contested over two hundred years later in a court case argued before the Supreme Court. The case was triggered by the arrest in 1982 of four brothers belonging to the Wendat (Huron) Nation by forest conservation agents who discovered them "mutilating" trees. The implications of the Supreme Court decision to treat the document as a treaty have been far reaching: "Among the customs that Murray and the Hurons considered, could they have dreamed of a trade in contraband cigarettes, giant bingo games, and fishing without a permit?"
According to Vaugeois, this and other court rulings in favour of Aboriginals amount to "judicial guerrilla warfare" because they are wreaking havoc on Quebec’s laws. Vaugeois makes a causal link between Quebec’s recent territorial difficulties and the province’s more "humane" treatment of Aboriginals, going back to the French Regime, at which time a concerted attempt was made to assimilate Native peoples through cohabitation. The English, on the other hand, simply confiscated Aboriginal lands: "As a consequence, Ontario has no problems, while Quebec has nothing but problems." At times Vaugeois’s exhaustive analysis of the Murray document and his obsessive attention to detail seem little more than a pretext for venting a number of grievances, which may explain why he keeps coming back to 1990. The year was marked by several major setbacks for Quebec, including the Supreme Court rulings "in favour of the Indians," the derailment of the Meech Lake Accord "thanks mainly to an Indian, Elijah Harper," and last but not least, the Oka crisis which created "a hellish situation" for Quebecers. Vaugeois tries to end his book on a more uplifting note by pointing to the creation of the Aboriginal and Quebec Peoples’ Equality Forum, apparently giving expression to the hope that these two solitudes will one day learn to coexist within a strong and unified Quebec.
This is an engaging and noteworthy book, in spite of the author’s obvious partiality and occasional lapses into simplistic generalization. In order to discount the work of recent historians considered sympathetic to Aboriginals, Vaugeois claims that they have abandoned traditional research methods in favour of the "trends or themes of the day, such as modernity and identity." At one point he makes this rather astonishing proposal: "Perhaps we should stop thinking of the encounter between Europeans and Amerindians as one between civilization and savagery" indeed!
La Saga des Béothuks tackles a subject of epic proportions the history of the Beothuk, who were the first people to inhabit Newfoundland and whose tragic fate has lent them a mythical aura. The novel begins around A.D. 1000 at the time the Vikings were believed to have visited the island; here Assiniwi offers a plausible scenario for an early encounter between Europeans and Aboriginals. The first two sections of the novel highlight the ability of the Beothuk to assimilate foreigners in order to strengthen their race. One of Anin’s wives, a Scottish slave brought to Newfoundland by the Vikings, introduces same sex relationships among the women, a practice which proves beneficial to the cohesiveness of this polygamous society in which the women usually outnumber the men. The second section moves forward several centuries, when a Frenchman accompanying Jacques Cartier’s expedition decides to leave his compatriots to become a member of the Beothuk Nation.
Things begin to go awry in the second section, however, as Beothuk society becomes a paradise lost and the British gradually take control of Newfoundland. The tone of impending doom is set in place by the downfall of Iwish, "the devourer of guardians" and the first woman to become chief. The third and last section of the novel, aptly titled "Genocide," is a grim and rather plodding account of the merciless slaughter by the British of an entire race of people whose only crime was a failure to embrace servitude and obsequiousness as a means of survival. Near the end of the novel, the last remaining Beothuk people, a mother and her two daughters, are paraded through the streets of St. John’s in the early nineteenth century.
The novel employs a sequence of narrators known as "Living Memories," that is, individuals specially chosen to act as human repositories of Beothuk history. These narrators are omniscient and almost completely devoid of identity until the last section when they become the central characters, which is only fitting, since by this point time is running out for the Beothuk. Both the future and the present are quickly evaporating, leaving nothing but Living Memory, and soon, even that will be gone. There is a definite narrative shift between the first two sections of the novel, intended for the Beothuk people, and the third section, which constitutes a bitter incrimination of the white man: here the reader blends in with the accused. After reading The Beothuk Saga, one may never think of Newfoundland in quite the same way.
- L'Artiste et la réception by Grazia Merler
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- Boas and Darth Vader by David Brundage
Books reviewed: Transmission Difficulties: Franz Boas and Tsimshan Mythology by Ralph Maud
- Haunted Histories, Storied Selves by Erin Wunker
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MLA: Cartmill, Constance. Waging Aboriginal War. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 7 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #181 (Summer 2004), (Wiseman, Livesay, Sime, Connelly, Robinson). (pg. 181 - 182)
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