Monday, May 7, 2012

8th Fire - Can't miss CBC Documentaries

CBC has recently aired a truly great series called "8th Fire". Many of the comments and tweets surrounding it have shared the same sentiment: A series that every Canadian should watch. 8th Fire has finished airing on TV but you can watch the full episodes online at

It is about the Aboriginal population of Canada and their relationship with the Non-aboriginal community. Creator and host of the series Wab Kinew gives a few facts, a few perspectives that many of us will not be familiar with, and a few ideas about how we can all improve the way we get along.

I know what you are going to say. You don't need to be preached at and blamed for something you had no hand in. But the 8th Fire isn't like that. It is a gentle, entertaining exploration of these ideas that is quite humorous. And you might learn something you didn't know before you're done that changes the way you think about Aboriginal and Non-aboriginal relations. I did.

If that thought scares you, ask yourself what you are afraid of? Surely you are not so insecure about your opinion being changed by exposure to a new idea that you have to run around with your hands covering your ears, calling out "LA LA LA, I'M NOT LISTENING!" If the ideas in 8th Fire are wrong, the only way to tell people how they are wrong is to listen to them first.

As for my own revelation, my high school years were spent growing up close to the Musqueam Reserve in Vancouver. Two or three times this white boy heard other teenagers telling me, "Go back where you came from!"

It was certainly an understandable sentiment and I never took it personally. Some of my ancestors stole the land from some of their ancestors. Obviously what those people in the past did wasn't right but I didn't see what anyone could do about it now.

The demand did make me wonder, though. Where was I supposed to go? Obviously not back to where I was born since that was Vancouver. So it could only be back to the land of my ancestors. But which one? I am one half Scottish, one quarter Icelandic, and the rest English and Irish.

The largest part is Scottish. Trouble is Scotland isn't an option because my ancestors had been kicked off their land by the people who stole it from them during the Highland Clearances. Where England had taken hundreds of years to convert its common land into estates owned by the lords and gentry, a ten year period saw as many as 2,000 families shown off their land a day. It is one of the reasons for the diaspora of the Scottish today. They ended up across the colonies, including Canada and beyond.

The drastic change was due to the massive loss Scotland suffered at the Battle of Culloden to the English. Many of the Highland Lords lost their lands to English ones. Others were "encouraged" to send their sons to be educated in English schools so that they would understand the "correct" way to treat their tenants. This was a form of cultural absorption. Before, a clan chieftain would act in the interests of his tenants who were also his clan and shared in common ownership of the land. A process called enclosure changed all that and took away common ownership. Tenants who stayed worked the land for little pay and lived off the scraps left behind after the harvest, but there wasn't enough work or food for everyone so most left rather than starve.

Scotland is out. How else to pick where I should go? Close my eyes, and... Ireland. Hmm. Another case of conquest from England resulting in mass migration of a native population.

You are familiar with the story, of course. The potato being the major food source for Irish peasants, a potato blight causes the potato to rot resulting in mass starvation. Everyone with the means to do so heads out to one of the colonies in the hopes they can live to eat another day.

So what has that to do with the English? The English landlords used the conquered Irish land to grow cash crops. The native workers were expected to grow enough food of their own on a small patch of ground around their houses. The discovery that potatoes produced far more protein per plot of land meant it wasn't long before all the tenants relied on potatoes to survive. Unfortunately for everyone involved only one of the 4,000 types of potato was used. We know about the dangers of monoculture now but back then the idea that a single variety of plant could be wiped out by a disease was an unknown concept.

As the potatoes rotted over winter the tenants asked the landlord for some of the fruits of their labour to keep the wolf of starvation from the door. The landlord looked at the "cash" in cash crops and decided that there was something more important to him than his tenants surviving.

It is all even more complicated, actually, because the Scoti indigenous people identified with Scotland originally came from Ireland, just as there is evidence that some Scottish tribes invaded Ireland among many others. Not all the tribe would go, of course, just the ones that listened to their elders advice to "Go south-west young man". Or north-east depending where you lived. The rest stayed home where I'm sure many mixed marriages caused strife among families.

England seems to be conquering everyone. Hail the conquering heroes, right? Only they've been conquered too. Heck, they've been conquered all over the place.

The most recent is William the Conqueror and the Normans. That means I have to add France to the list of places I need to go back to. Only the Normans weren't really French. They were Norse men, Vikings who had been given land in France so they wouldn't keep raping and pillaging everything.

Add Norway to the list. Actually, Norse means Norway or Sweden or Denmark. Or Iceland. Oh good, I already have that one. I really should have included the Vikings earlier because they conquered parts of Scotland, Ireland and England. Part of my Scottish roots are in Stornaway, the town that Stornaway House is named after. It is in the Outer Hebrides which were often and frequently raided and conquered by Vikings. They even still have a slight Norse accent in that part of Scotland. Ireland saw its share of Vikings, too. Dublin was founded by Vikings which is why a Viking Ship monument is a favored meeting spot in town. As for England, Vikings controlled all of East Anglia and traces of their Danelaw can still be found in both UK and Canadian law.

East Anglia brings to mind Saxony and the Anglo-Saxon-ness of England. It isn't just a name for those good visceral words, but reflects another conquest. The Germanic tribes the Angles and the Saxons had a mass migration to England in the 5th century which adds Germany and the Netherlands to my list.

The reason they could conquer the land so easily leads me to my last example of conquest and theft of land, the Roman invasion of England by the Emperor Claudius. Yes that Claudius, the Derek Jacobi stutterer and twitcher. The Romans not only conquered Britain but culturally absorbed it by having three classes of citizens. Top rung were the actual Romans from Rome, second class were those Britons who were romanized, and bottom of the barrel were the Celtic tribes who clung to their indigenous roots. After the collapse of the Roman Empire there was no one organized enough to fight off the arrival of the Angles and the Saxons.

My conclusion from considering all of this was that if someone wanted to ship me back where I came from, in order to get enough pieces they would need a hand grenade. Which is, after all, basically how people have been moving other people off land they wanted since someone picked up a stick and thought maybe it could be something more.

People have been conquering other people and stealing their land for a long time and the world is as it is because of it. We can't turn back the clock. We just have to make the best of the world as we have inherited it. Our forefathers conquered the forefathers of the Aboriginal Nations and stole their land, and those guys just needed to get over it. Or so I thought.

Only it turns out I was wrong. I'm sure it was on their ToDo List but as the 8th Fire made me understand, the Non-aboriginal Canadian Forefathers never actually got around to conquering the Aboriginal Canadian Forefathers.

OK, that's not strictly true. They conquered some of them. The Beothuk, for example. Hmm. "Conquered" isn't the right word, but I'd have to use the word "successful" next to the word "genocide" and something in my hindbrain prevents me from doing that.

Then there are the Huron aka Wyandot, they of the Christmas Carol. They had the unfortunate luck to have land that other Iroquois nations wanted. Those other nations eventually became the Six Nations of the Mohawk. The Mohawk allied with some of the white folk that were showing up and the Hurons allied with another group. The two groups of white people wanted to steal the land held by the other, and since the aboriginal groups wanted to do exactly the same thing it seemed a match made in heaven. Smallpox and measles tipped the scales against the Huron and the rest is history.

Getting back to what the 8th Fire had to say, all the other Aboriginal nations that were not conquered were dealt with in essentially two ways: either treaties were made or they were told that everything would be worked out once we all got moved in and things settled down.

Treaties are easy to understand. It is essentially a contract between governing bodies that affect all the people covered by them. One government is bound by the terms of the contract to treat the people in the other group according to the terms. In this case, the Aboriginal Nations were required to give control of the land over to either the British or Canadian government in return for which they would be guaranteed things like health care, education, and some of those things that set Non-aboriginal Canadian's teeth on edge like having a small amount of tax burden lifted in some circumstances or crossing the border without waiting in line.

The cry of "treat all Canadians the same" is hard to understand given the existence of treaties. Don't you have the right to make sure the other side lives up to its side of a contract? If you sold your house by offering a mortgage and the other guy moved in and started defaulting on the payments, wouldn't you be annoyed? Maybe take him to court? And the treaties signed by the British and Canadian governments didn't include a date when the payments would be finished. Payments last in perpetuity. Were they idiots? No. As we shall see, they had a cunning plan.

If you really think the treaties were such a bad deal there is a simple solution. Dissolve the contract. Give the land back. I'm sure nobody would sue for breech of contract.

Anyway, the other Aboriginal Nations were waiting to get treaties signed but the federal government dragged its heels to buy time. The reason is that the real plan was to do an equivalent of romanization of the Aboriginal population. Culturally absorb them, what the government called "aggressive assimilation" but that we now call "cultural genocide".

That's why the government created Residential Schools, of course. "Within a generation or two there will be no native population." Expanding on what had worked so well with the children of the clan chieftains in Scotland, all native children would be educated to act and behave as white people. Native populations would disappear, existing treaties would no longer apply and could be eliminated, and the outstanding land claims would evaporate. Poof.

Only it didn't work out that way even though the program was applied with such vigor that the government had to apologize for the abuses and deaths of children (mortality was as high as 30 to 60%) and for the human rights violations that remain some of the worst in our history. Turns out that aboriginal people are as stubborn as Jewish people in keeping their culture alive against all odds. So now the government actually has to deal with those outstanding land claims.

And that is what the 8th Fire taught me. This is not some conflict that has been settled long ago. There is some unfinished business to deal with here. And for the good of Canada and all Canadians, it would be helpful if we could all know a little bit more about what these issues are.

I recommend watching the entire series of 8th Fire, but if you are only willing to give it a chance by watching one I suggest the second episode "It's Time", which is the one that taught me I didn't know as much as I thought I did.

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