Would Canada be better off if we paid more attention to our aboriginal past? If instead of thinking of ourselves as a European nation, we thought of ourselves as an aboriginal nation?
The answer is yes, says Canadian writer John Ralston Saul, who gave a provocative talk at the Revelstoke Performing Arts Centre on Friday, Sept. 27.
Saul was in Revelstoke to speak about ideas from his 2008 book, A Fair Country: Telling Truths About Canada. He was on his way to Invermere, where he was scheduled to give the keynote address at the Columbia Basin’s Watershed Symposium.
The evening began with introductions by Lynne Barisoff, the aboriginal education teacher in Revelstoke, and Cathy English, the curator of the Revelstoke Museum & Archives. They both spoke of the aboriginal history of the Revelstoke area and how it was used by the Okanagan, Shuswap, Ktunaxa, and Sinixt people.
They both cast away the myth that there was no aboriginal presence in the Revelstoke area. “When we look at our history, we know that’s not true,” said Barisoff.
First Nations would come here in the summer to take advantage of the abundant natural resources in the region. The Sinixt, who lived up and down the Arrow Lakes and are currently embroiled in a legal battle to prove their continued legal status in Canada, even spent the winter in the Tum Tum area, said English.
However, said English, by the time the first European settlers arrived here, the number of Sinixt had dwindled due to the spread of diseases like small pox. Most of the survivors had been moved onto the Colville Indian Reservation in northwest Washington state and when they came to Canada, they were regarded as American Indian intruders.
Saul’s talk focused on Canada as an aboriginal nation. When the first Europeans arrived, it was the aboriginals who welcomed them and taught them how to survive here. White people adopted the local mode of transportation (the canoe). Poor European men who came to Canada were encouraged to marry into powerful aboriginal families. The emergence of the Metis was a result of Europeans trying to move up in standing, not vice versa.
He credited Canada’s multiculturalism to the acceptance of Europeans by First Nations. They welcomed us here when we arrived, and that attitude has permeated our country. Multiculturalism is an aboriginal construct, as opposed to the Imperial melting pot in the United States.
All this changed as the aboriginal population died off, a result of disease and destruction. Since confederation, Canada had an Imperialist ideology imposed on it that has shaped our country, for better and for worse. We pretended the native people died off, a victim of our “Darwinian superiority.”
“The attitude is that if they were here, they were inferior and didn’t deserve to be here,” Saul said. “We have not fundamentally cleaned our minds of the garbage of the Imperial period.”
He said Revelstoke should be thought of as a continuation of thousands of years of history, and not simply a city born by the railway. “It’s the extension of a long indigenous history,” he said.
Referencing the Columbia River Treaty, Saul called the solution it provided for flood control, power and irrigation an old-fashioned, Imperial method.
“Our basic understanding of how to handle environmental problems still comes from Europe, which is inappropriate to the situation,” he said. “We still believe we’re dominant over nature. As long as we believe that, we’re not going to make progress.
“Our concept of progress coming out of the 18th century and the Industrial Revolution is not working for us anymore. It threatens the existence of the planet.
In Saul’s view, the Supreme Court rulings asserting the land rights are the most significant in our country’s history. They should return Canada to a place where the “people are part of the place, not above the place.”
Canada started with a conversation between aboriginals and Europeans, and for a long time, that conversation was ignored. Now, the tides are turning, and that is a good thing. For a long time, Canadians have been taught everything from a European perspective. If we apply an aboriginal perspective to our country, it will be for the best.
I’m not well-versed enough in Canadian history to provide a critique of Saul’s view of Canada. No doubt, it is original and provocative and it is not something I had thought of before. I do wonder what Canada would look like if it had stayed, as Saul put it, an aboriginal construct.
What do you think? Add your thoughts to the discussion below.