Our Home on Native Land

  • Stephen McGregor
    Two Trails Narrow: A Novel. Theytus Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Richard Van Camp
    Godless but Loyal to Heaven: Stories. Great Plains Publications (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Margot Francis
    Creative Subversions: Whiteness, Indigeneity, and the National Imaginary. University of British Columbia Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Mareike Neuhaus

In Creative Subversions, Margot Francis analyses the paradox of Canadian national belonging-its national imaginary is grounded on romantic constructions of “Indianness,” yet Canada has deprived Indigenous people of their own lands-by framing Canada’s national legacy as a “public secret”: Canadians “know not to know” their nation’s history of genocide and colonization. Through a discussion of four central national symbols-the beaver, the railway, Banff National Park, and “Indians”-Francis shows how banal emblems of Canadianness both “reveal and conceal” Canada’s public secret. These symbols allow Canadians to distance themselves from what is closest to them; yet, the ghosts of history continue to haunt the nation, reminding its citizens of their own complicity in Canada’s not so benign history. However, the banality of Canada’s nationalism also allows for creative ways to reimagine, subvert, and challenge the Canadian national imaginary. Through creative subversions, Francis argues, Indigenous artists “have [thus] reappropriated the legacies of Indianness and created new hybrids in places we would least expect.”

It is not just through the genres discussed by Francis in her study-performance (Grand River First Nation Hiawatha pageant, Anishnaabe), photography (Jeffrey Thomas, Onondaga), and painting (Kent Monkman, Cree)-that contemporary Indigenous artists engage with the Canadian national imaginary; some contemporary Indigenous writers also explore pivotal moments or discourses of Canadian nation-building, although their approaches differ considerably at times. The paradox of Canadian national belonging that Francis exposes is also at the very centre of Two Trails Narrow, Algonquin writer Stephen McGregor’s debut novel which traces the story of two Algonquin soldiers who serve in special Canadian commando units during D-Day and the liberation of Normandy. Abraham Scott and Ryman McGregor fight against Nazi Germany to ensure the future well-being of a nation that has denied them access to the processes of nation-building, whether Canadian or Algonquin. By prefacing the war story with a prologue telling of Abraham and Ryman’s escape from St. Xavier’s Residential School where they are physically and emotionally abused by Jesuit priests, McGregor also exposes-though less eloquently than Joseph Boyden in his Giller Prize-winning Three Day Road-the hypocrisy of a nation that is all too happy to publically acknowledge the contributions of Indigenous soldiers but is still struggling to admit its own complicity in a history of colonialism still unfolding.

McGregor’s novel overtly challenges Canada’s self-construction as a benign nation dedicated to peace and order but leaves little room for Indigenous constructions of belonging: readers eventually meet Ryman’s mother and siblings but other than that McGregor has constructed Abraham and Ryman as very solitary characters (much unlike Boyden’s depiction of Niska, Xavier, and Elijah). Van Camp’s story collection, on the other hand, engages with the Canadian national imaginary only marginally and goes beyond a critique of the Canadian nation-building project. The stories in Godless but Loyal to Heaven are a powerful testament to the resilience of Indigenous traditional knowledges that only happens to challenge common Canadian conceptions of the North. True, as any of Van Camp’s story collections, Godless but Loyal to Heaven can be read as depicting the North not as “strong and free” but as exploited for its resources (the tar sands) and abused as a dumping ground (uranium) by a ruthless capitalist and colonist regime. In its honesty, brutality, and magic, Van Camp’s storytelling serves another bigger purpose, however: what stands out despite all the illnesses exposed in his narratives is the perseverance of Indigenous traditional ways of knowing. Of all of Van Camp’s collections, Godless but Loyal to Heaven includes the most overt references to traditional Dogrib medicine, good or bad. Further, Van Camp shows how old Dogrib narrative knowledge may be used to make sense of pressing contemporary issues, such as the destruction caused by the tar sands in Alberta.

Thus, while McGregor’s Two Trails Narrow paints a bleak picture that offers no alternative to Indigenous people other than to constantly react and adapt to decisions made for them by a colonial regime, Van Camp’s Godless but Loyal to Heaven offers strategies for self-empowerment as medicine. Here, then, also lies the one weakness of Francis’ otherwise astute study: her reluctance to consider Indigenous intellectual traditions, particularly Indigenous models of nationhood, and to read Indigenous artistic productions from within their own traditions. People and nations never exist in a vacuum; to make sense of their nation Canadians will need to learn to listen to Indigenous peoples and dialogue with Indigenous nationalisms.

This review “Our Home on Native Land” originally appeared in Tracking CanLit. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 220 (Spring 2014): 158-59.

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