Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Assimilate, Already

Re: Thinking
Aboriginal Identity in Canada
by Andrew Kurjata

Here’s a thought experiment for you: think back to your high school social studies class when you were learning about pre-Confederation Canada. A new continent is ripe for the taking and two great European powers, the French and the English, are duking it out on the Plains of Abraham to decide who gets it. When you were learning about this, who did you most identify with? French? English? Before you answer, I’m going to make a quick guess: if you were educated in English, you identify with the British. If, however, you were educated in French (either in Quebec or an immersion program) you identify with the French. This is because of the role language and culture has in shaping your identity and making it fit into a broader national identity. Americans learn about the Civil War, Canadians learn about the War of 1812. French speakers identify with French speakers, Mandarin speakers with Mandarin speakers, Portugese with Portugese. Albertans are Canadian and Quebecois are Canadien. As a result of the way our language and education systems work, I’m guessing it didn’t even occur to you that there’s a third group (or rather, hundreds of third groups) you might have chosen-- unless, of course, you’re one of the million individuals who, as the latest census tells us, identifies themself as Aboriginal.

One million being the exciting number that it is, and it having been such a long time since there were a million Aboriginals in Canada (something to do with cultural genocide?), the media has latched on to this story with numerous accounts of the “challenges and opportunities” a growing Aboriginal population presents to Canada. That term-- “challenges and opportunities”-- is actually a code way of saying that we still really don’t know what to do about this group of people who don’t just go on and assimilate like they were supposed to years ago.

Now, I don’t want to turn this into a big debate about who should apologize to whom, and what was where when. What I want to examine is the role that language and myth-making have in the Aboriginal-Canadian divide (this is, after all, the creative writing issue). So let’s go back to the last sentence of the previous paragraph, the part that says “we still really don’t know what to do about this group of people”. Think about that word, “we.” What does it mean? It signals a divide in groups-- there is “us,” and then there is “them.” Right now, if I’m talking about Canada’s relationship with the United States, I could say “We play hockey, they play baseball.” If I talk about Western culture vs. Asian culture, I might say “We favour individualism, they favour community.” And every time I do this, I am subtly drawing invisible lines around identities, segregating larger groups into smaller ones, North Americans into Canadians into British Columbians into Prince Georgers, and so on and so forth. And while you may not think much about saying a sentence such as “What are we going to do about Aboriginal land claims,” every time you do so you are drawing a subtle line between “we”-- the Canadians-- and them-- the Aboriginals.

And it is not always this subtle. Putting aside things like the Indian Act or the fact that someone who identified themselves as “Indian” was not allowed to vote until the last thirty years, think about some of the underlying ideas about what it is to be Canadian that are antitheitical to Aboriginal identity. First, the idea of two founding nations, French and English. This ignores the literally hundreds of nations that had existed prior to the arrival of Cabot or Cartier. Or the multicultural idea that this is a “nation of immigrants.” Yes, you might argue that scientifically speaking First Nations came to Canada by sea, too, but you don’t really hear people claiming that ethnic Germans or Turks or Chinese aren’t really the original inhabitants of their countires because original man was in Africa. As a rule of thumb, if a group of people were living in a place during the time of Ancient Egypt (as the Aboriginals of Canada were), then that group is the original inhabitants. Then there’s the protection of French and English as official languages that need to preserved because they are integral parts of Canadian idenity, while the seventy-odd Aboriginal languages that have managed to hang on this long are on the verge of extinction with very little being done about it. Or pretty much every history book on Canada, where the first five to twenty pages provide an overview of “pre-contact” life, lumping together thousands of years of history and hundreds of independent nations, with the other five hundred talking about pioneers and John A. and the War Measures Act. Which story do you think is seen as being more important? Which one do you think plays a greater role in making students in Canadian schools identify themselves and others who have learned the same things as “Canadian”?

For the most part, the broad strokes of Canadian identity deny any part played by Aboriginal nations. Lip service is paid, but how much of your self-identity as a Canadian has Aboriginal roots? Do Aboriginal mythologies, histories, and perspectives shape your idea of “Canada” in as deep of a way as things like hockey, peacekeeping, having better beer than Americans, or the usage of the word ‘eh’? Do they even enter into the equation?

This is why it’s so frustrating to me to see, once again, ideas being thrown out there about how to make Aboriginals better Canadians. They don’t say this, of course, they just talk about the need to get them into schools, into politics, and into the work force. But, by and large, school, politics, and the work force are still run in a system where the Canadian identity is European-based, and those who don’t adhere to these ideas are not going to go very far.

Canada is a welcoming society. We don’t ask newcomers to give up their religious beliefs, or their languages, or their histories. We simply ask that they learn a little bit of our history, gain a cursory knowledge of our languages, and adhere to our laws and values. Maybe it’s time we extended some of that attitude towards Aboriginal nations. And I’m not talking about letting them keep their language and history and values so long as they learn ours. I’m talking about letting us  keep our  language and history and values so long as we learn some of theirs. Let’s start by rewriting the Canadian story to include more than a superficial glance at the rich heritage that existed prior to Cabot and Cartier. There’s been a lot of talk over the years about assimilating. Maybe it’s time we did.

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