How First Nations Became a Prop for White Activists

The modern myth of the “Magical Aboriginal” is distorting our national conversation

University of Algoma/Wikimedia Commons

Last year, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission published ninety-four recommendations to help redress the shameful legacy of residential schools. One recommendation called upon the government “to eliminate educational and employment gaps between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians.” Another demanded “data on the criminal victimization of Aboriginal people.” The authors even called upon the Pope “to issue an apology to Survivors, their families, and communities for the Roman Catholic Church’s role in … spiritual, cultural, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse.” These are ambitious goals. To my knowledge, none have been fully realized.

But the path toward reconciliation doesn’t always run through Ottawa or Rome. Reconciliation also can take place at the level of friends, family members and neighbours. In a newly published collection of essays, In This Together, editor Danielle Metcalfe-Chenail brings together fifteen writers—some Indigenous, some not—who describe how this process has played out in their own lives. “[The authors] investigate their ancestors’ roles in creating the country we live in today,” Metcalfe-Chenail writes in her introduction. “They look at their own assumptions and experiences under a microscope in hopes that you will do the same.”

In This Together is a poignant and well-intentioned book, and one that deserves to be bought and read. It is also informative and unsettling—though not always in the way the authors intend. Taken as a whole, the stories betray the extent to which guilt, sentimentality and ideological dogma have compromised the debate about Indigenous issues in this country.

Perhaps the clearest example is “Dropped, Not Thrown,” an essay by non-Indigenous artist Joanna Streetly, who moved to Tofino, BC, at age nineteen, and fell in love with a Tla-o-qui-aht canoe carver. “Night after night I lay awake, examining the slant of my partner’s cheekbones and the heaviness of his long black hair,” she writes. “I wondered who I was and how we had come to be together. I dreamed vividly about whales and water and other worlds. I became untethered from my own self, immersed in a new universe.”

Later in the essay, Streetly describes reading a book about Australian aborigines, “for whom the world is not alive until they have walked through time—along dream tracks dating back to creation … I identified with the aborigines. I, too, was awakening to a new world, its features coming alive for me as I did so.” At other points, she represents her experience among the Indigenous people of Tofino as a process of salvation and “baptism.” In other words, a full-bore spiritual awakening.

Otherworldly imagery is scattered throughout much of this collection, suggesting the idea of traditional Indigenous lands as places of magic and wonder. In a piece entitled “From Aha to Aho!,” Dene writer Antoine Mountain describes an all-night ceremony, where “I had this sense of being taken quietly away, far and up—up a clear mountain stream to a serene secluded spot where everything sparkled in bliss.” When the author finds a perfectly round stone in his pouch, he views it as a heavenly gift from a departed sister. Elsewhere in the book, Indigenous supernatural beliefs are treated with this same attitude of respect, and even outright credence, by Indigenous and non-Indigenous authors alike.

Metcalfe-Chenail (who recently served as Edmonton’s Historian Laureate) wants readers to “move forward together in respectful partnership”—which suggests a symmetrical approach. Yet the Christian faith, unlike First Nations animism, is treated with disdain. A pair of slaughtered missionaries are dismissed en passant as “ignorant priests who never learned [the local] language.” Steven Cooper, who grew up in Coral Harbour, Nunavut, speculates that his community priest might have been a pedophile—on no evidence. Many modern First Nations reserves in Canada rank among the most religiously observant Christian communities in Canada. Yet to the extent Christianity is mentioned at all in these stories, it is usually as a dangerous contaminant.

Of course, many Indigenous people come by their anti-Christian sentiment honestly—since churches helped establish and run Canada’s residential school system. But the implicit moral distinction on display here, between enlightened Indigenous animism and sinister Christendom, goes well beyond the historical record: Modern-day Indigenous characters almost invariably are depicted as more caring and Godly than their white equivalents—even if colonialism has driven them to self-destructive behaviours.

In her story of paddling a canoe through Yukon’s Peel River Watershed, for instance, Carleigh Baker describes the Indigenous people she encounters as preternaturally wise and selfless environmentalists, especially the elders. In “Two-Step,” non-Indigenous author Katherin Edwards appreciatively profiles Carol, an angelic First Nations restaurant owner in Kamloops who serves up food with “love, affection, and good will”—even if white people are too callous to appreciate her labours.

“I can always tell when [a food] order comes back,” Carol says. “If it’s First Nations [customers], then they take what they are given knowing we give our best. A Caucasian tends to say, ‘I want it done this way, with that….’”

Edwards, the author, completely assents to Carol’s surprisingly crude racial categorization. Indeed, she presents it as a microcosm of a broader, race-based moral hierarchy: “‘Then we’re still demanding,’ I say…. We have claimed the land and her resources. Foisted our culture on others. Bulldozed with our ideas to create our ideal and even here, even in this restaurant owned by First Nations, the insistence on having it our way hasn’t stopped. As Carol and her mother-in-law have held out their hands in an offer of sharing, I feel grateful but inadequate to give back.” By the end of the story, Edwards surrenders to the idea that no effort to expunge her race’s shame and guilt could ever feel sufficient.

In describing the stock “Magical Negro” who often appears in popular books and movies, Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu once noted that this type of character typically is shown to be “wise, patient, and spiritually in touch, [c]loser to the earth.” (Think of Morgan Freeman’s portrayal of Ellis Boyd “Red” Redding in The Shawshank Redemption.) In This Together contains a menagerie of similarly magical-seeming Aboriginals who are “soft-spoken” and “insightful.” A typical supporting character is the hard-luck Aboriginal child whose “entire face seemed to radiate a quiet knowing.” Older characters speak in Yoda-like snippets such as “There is much loss—but all is not lost.”

White characters in this book mostly are presented in the opposite way. They tend to be cruel, obese (“bulging,” “fat, red-faced,” “plump”), and soulless. Streetly goes even further, describing outsiders who come to Tofino as “faceless, meaningless”—as if they were robots. In a story about a First Nations woman with the dermatological condition vitiligo, Carol Shaben casts whiteness as an imperial disease—“an ever-expanding territory of white colonized the brown landscape of her skin.” In matters of economics, whites often are depicted as amoral capitalist marauders (“quick to brand and claim ownership”), while Indigenous peoples are presented as inveterate communitarians—gentle birds who “soar above the land, take stock, perch without harming, settle without ownership, and be grateful without exploitation.”

There are definitely a few highly sympathetic non-Indigenous characters in this book—such as a white nurse who helps heal an Indigenous man at a critical point in his battle against addiction. But for the most part, non-Indigenous Canadians are encouraged to imagine their skin colour as a species of Original Sin, and to make a show of penitence on this basis. Author Donna Kane reminded me of Lady Macbeth, pleading “Out, damn’d spot!” as she promises readers to “work on my reconciliation for the rest of my life.”

The Europeans who arrived on this continent treated the Indigenous population with brutality and contempt. It wasn’t until the last third of the twentieth century that anything resembling an enlightened attitude began to prevail. And it wasn’t until 1996 that the last residential school finally closed its doors. There can never be any excuse for the practice of forcibly removing children from their parents. The psychic wounds have reverberated through the generations, and the need for reconciliation is very real. No humane or reasonable person would deny this. As Steven Cooper aptly puts it: “Most of the residential school attendees has their internal ‘Indian’ or ‘Inuk’ killed. The problem is that … the policy ended there. No one asked what would replace the parts killed, or who those children were to become as adults…. They grew up as hollow shells that turned to alcoholism, drug abuse and criminal activity. They repeated the abuses they endured.”

But to read In This Together is to understand that Canada’s intellectual class has gone too far in correcting the historical record about Indigenous life. It is entirely true that the Indigenous societies of North America were rooted in economic and cultural traditions vastly different from those of the European explorers and settlers who invaded this continent. But it is absurd, and even regressive, to present whole swathes of humanity as inherently benign and well-intentioned, or to turn pre-contact North America into a secular Eden. People are people. They come in good and bad flavours, no matter where in the world you go.

One of the authors in Metcalfe-Chenail’s book, Steven Cooper, actually claims that Indigenous people “until they were colonized, led happy, productive, loving, lives.” Really? Would any credible author casually argue that, say, the indigenous Jewish peasants of Jerusalem—my own forebears—were “happy” and “loving” until Titus’s Roman legions bathed their streets in blood?

In large part, our historical double-standard arises from the fact that the Indigenous societies of what is now called Canada were oral cultures, so there are few written sources to document the true fabric of ancient life. The history of European and Middle-Eastern peoples, on the other hand, is recorded in written histories that clearly show our past to be a long series of wars, slaughters, famines, and epidemics. All societies have the same miserable pedigree. No one is special. No one is magical.

There is another factor at play here, too. Modern identity politics came of age in the last decades of the twentieth century, when the Left was losing faith in communism. Over the last two generations, Marxism has reinvented itself through offshoots of environmentalism, anti-racism, anti-colonialism, anti-globalization, and generic anti-capitalism. In furtherance of these causes, our intellectual class has seized, somewhat desperately, on the idea of Indigenous peoples as possessing special, even mystical, powers that permit them to resist the free market and industrialization. They have become a prop for white activists who seek to summon up a world that is more pure, more green, more altruistic than the soulless humdrum of post-industrial global capitalism.

All Western nations are vulnerable to romantic primitivism. But Canada is a special case, because much of our artistic and literary firmament is built on the unspoken conceit that an authentic Canadian soul can exist only in a state of nature. Most of us live in cities these days. But we are soothed by the idea that there exists some heart-pure children of the forest who remain firmly—even genetically—rooted to field and stream.

For decades, it has been a point of principle that Indigenous peoples in Canada must chart their own future without interference from outsiders. Our First Nations will have to make difficult decisions about what mix of traditional and modern elements they want in their society; and address wrenching questions about integration, relocation, language use, and education. Addressing these hard questions will be all the more difficult if Canada’s leading thinkers—even those with the best of intentions, such as the authors of In This Together—build the project of reconciliation on a foundation of attractive myths.

It is our moral duty as a Canadians to acknowledge the full horror of what was done to Indigenous peoples. But we must not respond to this horror by seeking to conjure an Indigenous Eden of postcolonial imagination—a society that never truly existed in the first place.

Jonathan Kay
Jonathan Kay (@jonkay) is a journalist, book author and editor, and public speaker.