The Dark Side of Progress

Reviewed by Renate Eigenbrod

Houses were moved around the map like toys. How does one live in a remade world . . . Helen was irritable every time she saw it. There could be no authenticity in the new town. It would be Disney. A fake, because it was designed by foreigners with no interest or understanding of who they were, how they got to be where they were. (Smith)

The novel Progress by Michael Smith takes a strong stand against a corporation that imposes the building of a dam on a community through the character of “irritable” Helen, who “didn’t welcome the change” that requires removal or demolition of houses (including her own) and cemeteries and the displacement of people. She had grown up in her house close to the river and had nursed both her parents there when they were terminally ill. One might argue that she is reluctant to accept the fact that life unavoidably changes, but she is also the character with a special view—quite literally—on this dam that strengthens her resistance. Through her deceased father’s binoculars, she watches the workers on the “astounding” construction site and witnesses the death (or murder) of a worker. She sees him falling, presumably to his death, and the concrete poured on top of him a short while after. Her strong physical reaction to this scene pulls readers into her viewpoint of resisting the potential destructiveness of “progress.” It seems that the company represented by the “Power Authority,” which demands that people give up their homes, does indeed not care about human lives. Significantly, Helen watches this horrific scene through the binoculars of her deceased father, with whom she had a troubled relationship, and near the gravesite of her fiancé, who died in an accident. The holding of the binoculars makes up the cover image of the novel as the viewing provides the lens, literally and metaphorically, for the story to unfold and to be interpreted. Helen understands the shocking scene in front of her through a family history of secrets and lies, which unfolds as the plot develops. The story of Helen’s brother, who returns home after fifteen years and whose reason for leaving and whose relationship with her fiancé was unknown to her, adds another layer to the notion of progress. Different from his sister, he welcomes change in the town as “a great relief, that things had moved on.” At the same time, he feels “cheated, nostalgic for the progress he’d missed.” As it was only after leaving his home that he could live his gay identity openly, for him, change of an oppressive environment carries the promise of progress.

Smith combines the different strands of the plot in an ending that brings closure. By taking the (re)burial of her parents into her own hands, Helen performs a small act of resistance against the Power Authority— all she can do, as neither the construction company nor the media want to publish her story about the death she witnessed. The dead worker is a missing body, something that she also creates by leaving an empty grave after reburying her mother: “A missing body. It’s a slap in his face.” As the reburial is done with her brother’s help, one might argue that the ending of the novel shows progress on a personal level, but the siblings’ reconciliation is set against the backdrop of the questionable progress of “the new dam, lit up bright as day. He marvelled that he hadn’t noticed it.” Also, in this novel about change, both progressive and destructive, the concluding image of sameness (of the sky), seen as a good sign, renders a thought-provoking ending.

“Easier ain’t better. It’s just easier.” This utterance is taken from Indian Horse, the sixth novel by Ojibway author Richard Wagamese of the Wabaseemoong First Nation in northwestern Ontario. It refers to easier conditions for playing hockey, i.e., on arena ice in white towns versus outside skating rinks on reserves where the Ojibway boys used to play. Hockey is a central activity and theme in this novel, which traces the story of the Ojibway character Saul Indian Horse of the Fish Clan of the northern Ojibway from his life in the bush—where his family had chosen to live in order to protect the children from being taken to a residential school—to his eventual attendance at the school and his life afterwards dealing with the legacy of the abuse he experienced. His extraordinary hockey skills lead to his adoption by an Ojibway family on a reserve where he makes the hockey team so much better that they are asked to play against a white team in a town nearby. Although his team is excited about this opportunity, Saul expresses his concerns about their apparent progress and the changes that come with it:

“We’re not the same team,” . . .
“What’s the problem with that? We’re better.”
“It doesn’t feel better.”

“We’ve never had a chance to be great before.”
“We were great.”
“Against teams that couldn’t push us.”
“Great’s great.”

In the overall context of the novel, the hesitation to “become better” is not only  specific to this situation but indirectly criticizes the colonial agenda of progress that underlies and generates the plot of the novel: residential schools were disguised as a “civilizing” mission taking a boy like Saul Indian Horse away from the “primitive” life of his people to something better. On different plot levels, Wagamese reveals that greatness happens in different ways and contexts: the strength and survival skills of his grandmother are a sign of greatness as is a hockey team’s passion for a game on rough ice and with second-hand equipment. On the other hand, Saul’s path to stardom as a hockey player comes with a heavy price, and his progression toward being accepted by a major league team is ended by his defeat by racism. The novel clearly reveals that the creation of residential schools was not an exceptional event in Canada’s history but embedded in a racist ideology in society at large. Attending the school with its supposedly civilizing education did not make Saul a better person but made him feel inferior and worthless.

In this novel, Richard Wagamese, an intergenerational residential school survivor, tells a story about Canada: it highlights Canada’s national sport of hockey as well as the silenced story about the residential schools, “the scar on Canada,” as he said at a book launch in Winnipeg. It reflects our society’s desire for reconciliation that three reviews of this novel all emphasize progress as the main narrative thrust. Hockey is Saul’s path to “redemption” (Globe and Mail), “the sport that helps save him” (Windspeaker) and that “helps [an] aboriginal boy escape racism” (Winnipeg Free Press). Hockey saves Saul for a while—as does his grandmother; it becomes an escape but one tainted by abuse and racism that deeply traumatize him. Since there is no easy closure to Canada’s history of colonialism, there is no easy closure in this character’s life. He will “get on with life”— but first, he will have “to write things down.”

This review “The Dark Side of Progress” originally appeared in Indigenous Focus. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 215 (Winter 2012): 195-96.

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