Truths and Consequences

In 2015, when Justin Pierre James Trudeau was elected to serve as the twenty-third prime minister, and when the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was issued, Canadians were compelled to think about the past and the future at once.[1] The memory of the father was summoned by the dash and confidence of the son, who promoted an idea of Canada that, while different from the polity envisioned by Pierre Elliott Trudeau, would be a more perfect version of the Just Society. Only forty-three years old at the time of his election, Trudeau the younger appeared to represent a generational shift in perspective. And after years of inquiry and testimony, the Commission produced a revisionary account of a squalid aspect of Canadian history. Its recommendations moreover were tied to a new national narrative of reconciliation and progress:

Although much of the . . . report has focused on the federal government and the churches that ran the residential schools, other institutions, sectors, and organizations in Canadian society must also contribute to reconciliation. Public dialogue and action on reconciliation must extend beyond addressing the history and legacy of the residential schools. If Canada is to thrive in the twenty-first century, First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples must also thrive. This requires healthy communities and real economic and social change. (193)

Reconciliation—the restoration of amicable relations, the mending of fences—could lead, the Report suggests, to a new state of affairs, and the reassessment of the past should permit a happier and perhaps once unimaginable future.[2] Canada’s ideals would be not merely peace, order, and good government, but instead both universal prosperity and the recognition of the inalienable claims of Indigenous peoples to the country’s lands.[3] Reconciliation is not synonymous with absolution, and the acknowledgement of injustices does not wipe clean Canada’s historical slate, but the aspirational Report departs from the prevailing attitudes of officialdom.

Nearly fifty years ago, when the first Trudeau was in office and Jean Chrétien was the Minister of Indian Affairs, his own prime ministership a quarter-century away, the Statement of the Government of Canada on Indian Policy (1969) proposed repealing the Indian Act in order to achieve an unprecedented equality among Canadians. The foreword to the infamous White Paper was marked by rhetorical flourishes:

Governments can set examples, but they cannot change the hearts of men. Canadians, Indians and non-Indians alike stand at the crossroads. For Canadian society the issue is whether a growing element of its population will become full participants contributing in a positive way to the general well-being or whether, conversely, the present social and economic gap will lead to their increasing frustration and isolation, a threat to the general well-being of society. For many Indian people, one road does exist, the only road that has existed since Confederation and before, the road of different status, a road which has led to a blind alley of deprivation and frustration. This road, because it is a separate road, cannot lead to full participation, to equality in practice as well as in theory. (Department of Indian Affairs 5)

The government may indeed have been sure of its convictions, but the White Paper was met with hostility by the “Indian people” it purported to help. In The Unjust Society (1969), a damning polemic, Harold Cardinal denounced the policy as a denial of rights and a relinquishment of responsibilities that would lead to annihilation: “The new Indian policy . . . is a thinly disguised programme of extermination through assimilation” (1). The Statement represented to Cardinal only the latest manifestation of a treachery as old as the country itself—if not far older:

The history of Canada’s Indians is a shameful chronicle of the white man’s disinterest, his deliberate trampling of Indian rights and his repeated betrayal of our trust. Generations of Indians have grown up behind a buckskin curtain of indifference, ignorance and, all too often, plain bigotry. Now, at a time when our fellow Canadians consider the promise of the Just Society, once more the Indians of Canada are betrayed by a programme which offers nothing better than cultural genocide.[4] (1)

The White Paper was abandoned by Chrétien and Trudeau, but a sense of deception persisted.[5] The span of time since 1969 has witnessed shifts in policy, public opinion, and the composition of Canadian society; yet it may also appear that little has changed, for despite the recent language of reconciliation, “[t]he question of the land,” as Margery Fee writes in Literary Land Claims (2015), “has not been resolved” (38), and “[t]he powerful stories of imperialism, nationalism, and capitalist development are all alive and well” (213).

In the decades after 1969 a series of legal judgements gradually upheld the existence of Aboriginal title and eroded the legitimacy of the doctrine of terra nullius.[6] Literary Land Claims is an inquiry into the perpetually contested nature of land in Canada as it has been represented in Canadian literature before and during the present era of legal land claims and treaty settlements. Fee asks how “the formation of a Canadian literature” has “been complicit in the colonial process of occupying and claiming land” (4). In response, she ranges through the period “between Pontiac’s War (1763–1765) and 1990, when an armed struggle between the people of Kanehsatake and the town of Oka, the Sûreté du Québec, and the Canadian army made it perfectly clear that the Indian land question was unresolved” (13). Although she analyzes recent events, Fee lingers on John Richardson’s Wacousta (1832) and on other works and figures of an early phase of Canadian letters—Richardson’s The Canadian Brothers (1840), the courtroom speeches of Louis Riel, the writings and performances of E. Pauline Johnson/Tekahionwake—before moving to the later examples of Archibald Belaney/Grey Owl and Harry Robinson. She discovers in the works at issue a vital counter-narrative that disputes the overarching Canadian claim to Indigenous territory: “marked by the history of colonization,” they render visible “the outlines of the powerful but dynamic discourses that stabilize the colonial claim to land” (2). And when “contemporary Indigenous writers . . . make what look like literary land claims,” they deviate from Canadian convention because “their notions of land and the human relationship to it are grounded not in Romantic nationalism but in Indigenous epistemologies tied to specific stories, languages, communities, histories, and lands” (8). The narrative and counter-narratives that Fee identifies frequently intersect, leading to seemingly irresoluble contradictions. Of Riel’s trial for treason in 1885 Fee writes that “[o]nce again, a case regarding Indigenous land rights ended in a way that seriously damaged the honour of the Crown. All of these cases are governed by the same paradox: even if the government has broken the law, it still runs the trial” (103).[7] Yet she finds that “Riel demonstrates in [his] speeches a clear awareness of the paradoxes of his situation and heightens them for effect” (101). Paradox, a figure that frustrates and illuminates at once, may be the national literary trope.

Fee was a student during the exuberance of the Centennial moment. She notes that the very critical mode that she now resists still commands attention: “Often, because it formed me, I find myself writing both with and against Canadian literary nationalist approaches” (38). That period was marked by contradiction, however, and in a moment of personal reflection, Fee describes an encounter with Harold Cardinal that suggests that an uncomplicated nationalism was never truly tenable:

In the fall of 1968, I had the good fortune to meet and talk to many Native activists at a student-run conference held at Glendon College of York University in Toronto. . . . I even got to drive Cardinal in from the airport. Although I was impressed by his beaded buckskin jacket and his amazing way with the audience, he was too earnest for my taste. (I had just turned twenty; he was twenty-three, and had just been elected leader of the Indian Association of Alberta—I had no idea how impressed I should have been by that!) (17-18)

Fee’s PhD thesis—“English-Canadian Literary Criticism, 1890–1950: Defining and Establishing a National Literature” (1981)—examined the romantic ideology of earlier critics who sought to discern in Canadian literature an expression of the nation’s soul, the Volksgeist (Literary 49). (It was supervised by no less august a figure than Claude Bissell.) In Literary Land Claims, Fee presents alternatives to the “Romantic nationalist” view that “a national literature constitutes a land claim” (1). Her book’s provocative title originates in an essay published in 1987, bespeaking a preoccupation of long standing (ix), and Literary Land Claims is perhaps the culmination of a project started forty years ago.[8] Fee, who began teaching at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in 1993, belongs to an illustrious group of Canadianists at that university whose names—Grace, Kröller, New, Ricou—are known to everyone in the field. Although there is no paradigmatic UBC method or school of thought, the critics’ varied approaches are linked by their resistance to the pat and conventional; Literary Land Claims, which tests the assumptions of Canadian literary studies, is decidedly iconoclastic and always stimulating.[9]

Fee suggests that Canadian literary scholarship should continue “to move away from narrowly nationalist histories and perspectives to those that better articulate the multiple dilemmas of colonization” (226). Her challenge to her field, however, is also a challenge to the study of literature in its entirety:

If literary studies are to take Indigenous oratures and literatures seriously without either appropriating them or segregating them into the corners of the curriculum and the margins of research, the discipline will have to consider how its borders and its methods have been formed. . . . If we cannot rethink the Romantic nationalist critical ideas that have had such a firm grip on Canadian literary studies for so long, we support continuing colonization. If we do not accept that there are other worldviews that we need to learn about and respect, we support continuing colonization. (38-39)

Some of Fee’s observations pertain to disciplinary custom—“oral tradition is generally the province of anthropology rather than literature departments” (184)—while others concern scholarly style:

Many Indigenous intellectuals use stories—often funny stories—to convey their truths, a practice that allows them to avoid the lack of respect embedded in the conventions and genres of academic writing. For example, academic writing often constructs a small group of specialists as its audience, avoids expressions of humility or uncertainty, and conceals the author’s own position and experience while criticizing others to the last detail. And it avoids humour like the plague, tending toward the pompous and the pedantic. (223)

It follows that “[t]he decolonization of Canadian literature will require a new genre of academic writing, one that signals its acknowledgement not only of emerging from Indigenous land, but also of learning from Indigenous storied thinking” (223).

Diversity in modes of expression is to be welcomed, but perhaps the confrontation that Fee sees as inherent in academic writing is only a travesty of intellectual curiosity, albeit one that is too much with us: knowledge has always been attained through dialogue as well as discord. Literary criticism, its roots in philology, can proceed from the love of language and ideas, and although it begins with solitary imaginative encounters with works of literature, it can be pursued for the common good. Fee often professes her hope that scholarship will affect public discourse and governmental policies and that her critical labours will contribute to reconciliation. But such ambitions, unquestionably laudable, give pause. Literary criticism stands at a distance from the pragmatic and the public, and it may be that the most brilliant criticism, the commentary most like literature itself, is the farthest removed from those realms: criticism that aspires to the condition of poetry tends to be personal, passionate, and without end. “The kind of problem that literature raises,” Northrop Frye wrote, “is not the kind that you ever ‘solve’” (1). As the discipline is broadened and reshaped, the ardour and modesty at its heart could be retained. To teach literature is first to ask (and to inspire) students to see the delights and enigmas that reside in literary language. When I teach the works of Indigenous orators and writers, I strive to show where pleasures, mysteries, and sorrows reside, even as I must admit that I cannot claim such works as my cultural inheritance.[10] A stranger, an eternal beginner, I tread lightly. Yet as Fee knows, works of literature in all linguistic traditions teach of dilemmas and doubts, and common ground may be seen, if we care to look, in the unlikeliest of circumstances.

Jean Barman closes French Canadians, Furs, and Indigenous Women in the Making of the Pacific Northwest (2014) by asserting the historian’s imaginative power: “If it is impossible to alter the course of events as they unfolded, it is not beyond our capacity to view the past more inclusively than we have tended to do” (336). Her study offers an original interpretation of the Pacific Northwest in the period from 1793, the year of Alexander Mackenzie’s overland crossing from Fort Chipewyan to the Pacific, to 1858, “when the last part of the region acquired external governance” (318)—that is, when mainland British Columbia became a separate colony, the border at the forty-ninth parallel having been established by the Oregon Treaty of 1846. During this time, 1,240 French Canadians came to the Northwest under the auspices of the Hudson’s Bay Company and the North West Company; they “sustained the Pacific Northwest fur economy for a good half century” (221). They did not all remain in the region, but collectively they were a formidable presence: “Without them,” and without the political sway of the HBC, “the United States would today almost certainly extend north through Alaska, which the Americans purchased from Russia in 1867. The Canadian province of British Columbia would not have come into existence, and Canada would have no Pacific shoreline” (193-94). Barman contends that the formative role of French Canadians in settlement and social life has been ignored by regional historians. The city of Quesnel in the Cariboo owes its name to Jules Maurice Quesnel, a young Montréalais who accompanied Simon Fraser on the expedition of 1808, but the toponym and others like it only hint at the rich history that Barman surveys.

Her corrective account emphasizes the complexity of individual lives and the relations among denizens of past times. “Once we attend to the backstories of the past as opposed to limiting ourselves to the headlines,” she writes, “we uncover in the Pacific Northwest lives having major influence on the course of events” (7). Barman’s Northwest is populated by settlers and Indigenous people engaged in a variety of pursuits; family life and the labours of women are recounted in addition to the work of navigation, trade, agriculture, and administration. Her region is also utterly diverse, a multilingual world inhabited not simply by Canadians and Americans, as the modern international border implies, but by Kalapuya and Tillamook people, Chehalis and Nisqually, Saanich and Songhees, Pend d’Oreille and Spokane, and by arrivals of sundry origins who were met with the gamut of responses. A detailed portrait is drawn of a social world in flux. “Colonialism came late and gradually to the Pacific Northwest” (4), Barman observes, and although its devastation and miseries cannot be overstated, she shows that interactions between people were always varied. Marriage and other partnerships between French Canadian men and Indigenous women are treated at length despite historiographical barriers to the outlooks of the people themselves, including “the illiteracy of women and of almost all the French Canadians in their lives” (116). If French Canadians “eased relations with [I]ndigenous peoples” in the Pacific Northwest (318), the children of French Canadian men and Indigenous women faced a changing and challenging world: “Newcomer men, and virtually all women, took male superiority for granted. The self-assurance of persons perceiving their skin tones as white was morphing into a racism viral in its self-assurance, which then rebounded on all others, including [I]ndigenous peoples” (258). By the late nineteenth century, “[r]eciprocal relations between newcomers and [I]ndigenous peoples, to the extent they existed earlier, had long since soured” (291). The British colonial system restructured and polarized social arrangements in the Northwest. Nonetheless colonization before and after 1858 occurred, as Barman demonstrates, not as an abstraction but instead through particular encounters and actions that historians can describe and interpret; it was implemented, enacted, endured, and resisted by actual people.

Barman’s methods lead to novel and bracing conclusions. Her study of the Making of the Pacific Northwest supplements her many contributions to regional history, both general, as in The West beyond the West: A History of British Columbia (1991, 1996, 2007), and specialized.[11] The scholarship will be useful to historians and other commentators as a source of information. The biographical sketches of French Canadians from Joseph Allard to Louis Vivet, for example, form a tremendous resource. The greater significance however lies in Barman’s ambition “to face up to the complexities of the past” so that the present will be understood with nuance and precision (325). As Fee and Barman both suggest, historians and literary critics must attend to texts, lives, and phenomena in their specific and manifold incarnations, and to the contradictions and paradoxes that arise. The aim is not simply to revel in uncertainty but instead to recognize the paths that have led us here, and to find the right roads out of dark woods.


[1] Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future, the Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, was released in June 2015; the complete Report appeared in December. A multi-volume edition of the mammoth Report has been published, in both official languages, by McGill-Queen’s University Press. The University of Manitoba Press meanwhile has prepared A Knock on the Door: The Essential History of Residential Schools from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (2016), a volume based on two reports of the TRC—What We Have Learned: Principles of Truth and Reconciliation and Calls to Action (both 2015). Although the Report and the change of government were coincident, the Commission was created during the previous administration: the TRC was established on June 1, 2008, and the Statement of Apology to former students of Indian Residential Schools was read in Parliament on June 11, 2008.

[2] The abuses enumerated in the Report, which must test divine mercy, bring to mind an older sense of the term reconciliation: to be restored to God’s favour.

[3] The Report thus bears comparison to such reconsiderations of Canadian history and identity as A Fair Country: Telling Truths about Canada (2008), by John Ralston Saul, and The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America (2012), by Thomas King.

[4] The phrase “cultural genocide” recurs in The Unjust Society (139, 161), but despite his furious tone Cardinal expressed a liberal view of national accord not wholly unlike that of the government: “The vast majority of our people are committed to the concept of Canadian unity and to the concept of participation in that unity….More truly than it can be said of anyone else, it is upon this land that our heritage, our past and our identity originates” (12).

[5] Cardinal possessed a biting wit. His portrayal of Chrétien and Robert Andras as Hollywood cowboys was devastatingly clever: “the two novice ministers hitting the consultation trail like John Wayne and Gary Cooper to discover which path the Indians wanted to follow” (121).

[6] For example: Calder v. British Columbia (1973), R. v. Sparrow (1990), Delgamuukw v. British Columbia (1997), Haida Nation v. British Columbia (2004), Tsilhqot’in Nation v. British Columbia (2014).

[7] “It seems paradoxical,” Fee writes elsewhere, “that reconciliation will be managed as a bureaucratic and state-run process, the same process that caused the problem in the first place” (“Truth” 8).

[8] “Essay”: “a white ‘literary land claim,’ analogous to the historical territorial take-over” (Fee, “Romantic” 17). The subtitle of Literary Land Claims resembles that of Paul Tennant’s Aboriginal Peoples and Politics: The Indian Land Question in British Columbia, 1849–1989 (1990), which although much has occurred since 1989 remains a useful regional companion to Fee’s study. Tennant’s final two chapters, “Aboriginal Title in the Courts” and “The Province and Land Claims Negotiations, 1976–89,” are especially relevant.

[9] Fee was the editor of Canadian Literature from 2007 to 2015. Several articles on subjects related to those of Literary Land Claims appeared in the journal during her tenure, including essays on Duncan Campbell Scott by Sarah Krotz (204 [2010]) and a response by Niigonwedom James Sinclair (203 [2009]) to the egregious claims made by Frances Widdowson and Albert Howard in Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry: The Deception behind Indigenous Cultural Preservation (2008). Canadian Literature 215 (2012) was a special issue: “Indigenous Focus.”

[10] Fee, who has taught Indigenous literatures since 1985 (Literary 19), observes the difficulty of her position as a cultural outsider: “This book, like all books by non-Indigenous people about Indigenous issues, negotiates . . . problematic ethical ground” (37). Scepticism and even mistrust come with the territory, but such reactions are salutary reminders that humility is a prerequisite of teaching and scholarship.

[11] An emphasis on women’s lives is also seen for instance in Good Intentions Gone Awry: Emma Crosby and the Methodist Mission on the Northwest Coast (2006), by Barman and Jan Hare.

Works Cited

  • Barman, Jean. French Canadians, Furs, and Indigenous Women in the Making of the Pacific Northwest. Vancouver: U of British Columbia P, 2014. Print.
  • —. The West beyond the West: A History of British Columbia. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1991. Print.
  • —. The West beyond the West: A History of British Columbia. 2nd ed. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1996. Print.
  • —. The West beyond the West: A History of British Columbia. 3rd ed. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2007. Print.
  • Cardinal, Harold. The Unjust Society: The Tragedy of Canada’s Indians. Edmonton: Hurtig, 1969. Print.
  • Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development. Statement of the Government of Canada on Indian Policy, 1969. Ottawa: Queen’s Printer, 1969. Print.
  • Fee, Margery. “English-Canadian Literary Criticism 1890-1950: Defining and Establishing a National Literature.” PhD Thesis. U of Toronto, 1981. TSpace. Web. 4 Oct. 2016.
  • —. Literary Land Claims: The “Indian Land Question” from Pontiac’s War to Attawapiskat. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier UP, 2015. Print.
  • —. “Romantic Nationalism and the Image of Native People in Contemporary English-Canadian Literature.” The Native in Literature: Canadian and Comparative Perspectives. Ed. Thomas King, Cheryl Calver, and Helen Hoy. Toronto: ECW, 1987. 15-33. Print.
  • —. “The Truth and Reconciliation Commision of Canada.” Editorial. Canadian Literature 215 (2012): 6-10. Print.
  • Fontaine, Phil, Aimée Craft, and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. A Knock on the Door: The Essential History of Residential Schools from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Winnipeg: U of Manitoba P, 2015. Print.
  • Frye, Northrop. The Educated Imagination. Toronto: Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, 1963. Print.
  • Hare, Jan, and Jean Barman. Good Intentions Gone Awry: Emma Crosby and the Methodist Mission on the Northwest Coast. Vancouver: U of British Columbia P, 2006. Print.
  • King, Thomas. The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America. Toronto: Doubleday, 2012. Print.
  • Krotz, Sarah. “Shadows of Indian Title: The Territorial Underpinnings of ‘The Height of Land.’” Canadian Literature 204 (2010): 85-101. Print.
  • Saul, John Ralston. A Fair Country: Telling Truths about Canada. Toronto: Viking, 2008. Print.
  • Sinclair, Niigonwedom James. “Inks of Knowledge, Permanence, and Collectivity: A Response to Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry.” Canadian Literature 203 (2009): 196-200. Print.
  • Tennant, Paul. Aboriginal Peoples and Politics: The Indian Land Question in British Columbia, 1849–1989. Vancouver: U of British Columbia P, 1990. Print.
  • Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. “Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada: Calls to Action.” National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation. U of Manitoba, 2015. Web. 11 Oct. 2016.
  • —. Reconciliation. Vol. 6 of Canada’s Residential Schools: The Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. MontreaL: McGill-Queen’s UP, 2015. Print.
  • —. “What We Have Learned: Principles of Truth and Reconciliation.” National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation. U of Manitoba, 2015. Web. 11 Oct. 2016.

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