Child of Empire

Who were my ancestors? From earliest childhood I wanted to know. My grandparents, I knew, were children of “The Pioneers”. Homesteading days, in the 1970s still within living memory, had a status both legendary and sacred. Just three generations removed from the homesteaders who came from “down East” (Ontario) or “over there” (Britain, Europe), I knew the hardships they had faced (the back-breaking work, the sod houses, the brutal cold, the deep isolation) made our prairie way of life possible. It was all a little bleak. And, frankly, a bit of a bore. I longed to have forebears just a wee bit more fun. Bequeathing us more culture and less work. Most of all, I wanted roots that went deeper.

At school, we pushed colored pins into a map of Europe to mark from where in the “Old” World our ancestors had come to the “New”: England; Scotland; Ireland; Germany; Ukraine; Scandinavia; Poland; China. From all over they came to start fresh, to build a better life on land free but for the asking. The places on the map — “over there” — were shrouded in mystery and I had only the foggiest of notions about them. Kings, Queens, beheadings, burnings at the stake, wars, religious persecutions, outrageous accents, fancy clothes, and lots and lots of old stuff. All as real to me as fairy land.

Perhaps even more whimsical than Europe was the idea of great-grandparents. It turned out, however, that one of my grandmothers remembered her grandparents — great-great-grandparents, what?! — and she told me stories of her father’s people who had come north to Ontario from Pennsylvania.  Later still, when I was able to document Grandma’s version of her family history, I learned that my roots on this continent — in Canada and in pre-Revolutionary America — go much deeper than I had thought possible.

My curiosity about the past, though, initially took me in another direction. If, for example, the Canadian northwest had once been called “Rupert’s Land” then I needed to know who Prince Rupert was. I don’t regret studying British and European history, but as fascinating and worthy as those subjects are, I was oblivious to the story on the ground beneath my feet and in the air I breathed. The true story of our Canadian West that lives on and that we haven’t untangled yet.

The Canadian history we were taught (several times over) in school never seemed to have anything to do with the prairies. Even the fur trade, so vital to the opening of the West, became linked in my mind to London, Montréal and possibly the forests of northwestern Ontario. Sure we learned about Jerry Potts, Gabriel Dumont and Louis Riel. Of course we knew about the North West Mounted Police. But that history also felt remote. Saskatchewan seemed to me a place without history. A place without people. Except those bloody pioneers.

Growing up on a farm on the Canadian prairies, Indians were as real to me as castles on the Rhine or the Plantagenet kings. My level of ignorance about indigenous peoples is embarrassing to admit now. When I was really small, I had a vague conception that there were Indians in Canada, but believed I had only seen “real” Indians on TV. And they lived in the American West. The Old West. Not here. Not now. We drove by or straight through Indian reserves on summer camping trips to Waskesiu or Jackfish Lake, but we certainly never visited a reserve. Our school had one Métis student (nicknamed “Chief”, of course) but he didn’t seem like a real Indian. I do recall learning about the importance of bison for the Plains Peoples, but there hadn’t been buffalo herds on the prairies for nearly a century, and they seemed to me no more than fantastical beasts.

The Pioneers were the heroes of our prairie mythology. What we didn’t see — or were discouraged from seeing — was that the beginning of our history was, in fact, the end of history for those who came before us in this land.

“Nothing happened after that. We just lived. There were no more war parties, no capturing of horses from the Peigan and Sioux. There is nothing more to tell.” ~Two Leggings, a Crow Warrior, Montana, after 1888

Can you read those lines without feeling the pain in them? Peoples, their cultures, their ways of life destroyed, violently cut at the root. Yet I am descended from people who willingly cut themselves off from their roots. Or at least believed it possible to transplant them. They likely felt a close connection to where they were from, but for those of us born in the West, we were truly Wallace Stegner’s question marks in the wide circle of the horizon.

Saskatchewan’s story did not begin with the pioneers. It did not begin with Louis Riel, the N.W.M.P. or even with the fur trade. Saskatchewan’s past is Indian. Indigenous. Cree, Assiniboine, Blackfoot, Gros Ventres. Nēhiyawēwin, Nakota, Niitsitapi, A’aninin. This past does not only have to do with First Nations or Métis peoples. It also has to do with me. Me and you. You and me. And “them”. Yes, them too. The past cannot be changed but it lives on. We, the descendants of settlers, have to confront our past and how it continues to benefit us and not others. They’re not “over it”. And neither are we. We need to take seriously the promises made by our ancestors (or their proxies or representatives) to First Peoples. We need to be strong enough to listen. Open enough to change.

We needn’t demonize our ancestors or hold them to today’s standards. But how can we truly honour our ancestors if we put them on a pedestal and mythologize them? As Ta-Nehisi Coates writes in a recent issue of The Atlantic concerning the need for white Americans to come to terms with the history of slavery,

“One cannot escape the question by hand-waving at the past, disavowing the acts of one’s ancestors, nor by citing a recent date of ancestral immigration. The last slaveholder has been dead for a very long time. The last soldier to endure Valley Forge has been dead much longer. To proudly claim the veteran and disown the slaveholder is patriotism à la carte. A nation outlives its generations. We were not there when Washington crossed the Delaware, but Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze’s rendering has meaning to us. We were not there when Woodrow Wilson took us into World War I, but we are still paying out the pensions. If Thomas Jefferson’s genius matters, then so does his taking of Sally Hemings’s body. If George Washington crossing the Delaware matters, so must his ruthless pursuit of the runagate Oney Judge.” ~Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Atlantic, May 21, 2014.

Whether we are settler or indigenous, we are all children of Empire. That Empire disintegrated some generations ago. But we, its children, live among its monuments —and its ruins — still.

“You might feel you have roots somewhere else, but in reality you are right here with us.” ~Grand Chief John Kelly of the Onegaming First Nation, 1970

To be continued…


Note: the inspiration for this blog post’s title came from Zoe S.C. Todd’s essay On Scottish Independence: A Métis Perspective.

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