"Words are medicine." -- Helen Knott
"It's time we talk and it's time we heal." -- Richard Van Camp
The Spring 2017 issue of Write has gotten a lot of attention, much of it going to the distressingly insulting editorial by Hal Niedzviecki. As members of the Writers' Union, we were horrified by the editorial, but we didn't want to expend our limited energy reacting to it because that issue holds something much more important: the stories and thoughts of so many incredible Indigenous writers. It was heartening to hear Jesse Wente re-centre these writers in his lucid and wise comments to CBC, and subsequently acknowledge the work of writer and publisher Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm, who founded Kegedonce Press.
We are deeply grateful to these and many other writers whose frank responses have generated so much necessary discussion. They have refused to allow the debate to be mischaracterized as solely one of (white) freedom of expression, but rather hold us to a higher standard -- a grounded understanding of the historical context and contemporary moment in which we write and interact. Depending on how one sees it, this is a critical moment in the decolonization and survival of Turtle Island or a re-containment of Indigenous people in the state apparatus of Canada 150, or both.
An old discussion
What recently erupted is part of a very old discussion. One could turn to Pauline Johnson (via Wayde Compton) writing in 1892 on the dreadful misconceptions written out of arrogance and ignorance, so "dwarfed, erroneous and delusive" (Toronto Sunday Globe May 22, 1892, reprinted in Canadian Literature April 2013), or to Vine Deloria's incisive overview of how Americans have preferred the echo chamber of white appropriation to actually listening to Native Americans themselves (chapter 2 of God Is Red), or to the work of Marcia Crosby, Daniel Francis, and many others who've discussed the harmful effects of misrepresentation on Indigenous peoples.
Some things have been messy, to understate it, but it's clear to us that what's at stake is what kind of relationships settlers (or unsettlers) want to have with this land and the land's Indigenous peoples. In order for that relationship to be honest and meaningful, it has to be grounded in acknowledging the violent inequities and material injustices that still need to be addressed, not smoothing over them and ignoring them because of discomfort, fear, guilt, or personal insecurity. It has to be grounded in historical facts, not in ego trips or colonial delusions.
The trauma of residential schools, the Sixties Scoop, broken treaties, land theft, murdered and missing Indigenous women and more is a shared one when we consider that it is happening in shared space -- the imperial delirium or haunted house also known as Canada. We may be differently positioned, but make no mistake that we are all impacted by this trauma in specific ways and need to find ways to stop the systemic oppression of Indigenous peoples. If we focus on achieving long overdue equity, we can build relationships that are better than the dehumanizing and alienated ones that colonization would consign us to. As Louise Bernice Halfe phrases it in the latest issue of Write, "In order to help heal the wounded present and for people to move forward, history needs to be understood and explained." We are moved by the courage and eloquence of the writers who so generously share their words, despite being ambushed by the publication's editor and an organization that needs to seriously examine how it could have allowed this to happen.
Writing takes risks and makes writers and readers vulnerable to one another. Many have been irreparably harmed by colonization; the land is full of corpses and ancestors who were prematurely killed or devastated by the colonial machine. Writing creates another chance to build, or break, trust. It's enraging and despairing when that trust is abused. But the risks are taken so that we can learn to become better relatives (or at least neighbours) to one another. For example, Helen Knott and Richard Van Camp's fiction in this issue of Write guide readers toward a path where we can learn to be each other's medicine, to collectively heal from a bullying culture made official and systematic by the Canadian state and its servants.
As Alicia Elliott so clearly states, "It's well past time for Canadians to actually consider this country's historical context, recognize how it impacts the present -- and start the hard work of making it right for the future." The Writers' Union's equity task force statement also emphasizes this when it states, "An apology is only worth its salt if it opens the door to better actions and better relations in the future."
We are hopeful that the Writers' Union will take up the calls for action made by its Equity Task Force. These are a good start. We wonder if an Elders' Council could be formed to guide the union through the coming years. And if the union could acknowledge the Indigenous etymology of the word "Canada" on its website, so that the name of this country is not merely an ahistorical appropriation of the Huron-Iroquois language, but a call to deeply grapple with its (tragi-comic?) implications. As an act of reparation, it would be good to see the union offer free memberships to Indigenous writers, if they want them, which they might not, we realize. The work to be done reverberates within but also far beyond the Writers' Union.
"It is time now for us to refocus our energies on what matters to us: first and foremost, working within our communities to strengthen, empower and build each other up. We need to envision, together, the world we want to create and work without this distraction. Many Indigenous writers are writing with a reinvigorated drive, heartened by the way so many of us came together and talking about new collaborations and new projects. It is exciting. We're dreaming about a future and how to get there."
What has come out of the Can or Can't Lit maelstrom is an urgent reminder of where to put our efforts -- towards decolonial love. As Alicia Elliott states so succinctly in this issue of Write, "You need to write with love. That is what I felt when I read Leanne Simpson's stories. That's what I feel when I read the work of Gwen Benaway, Waubgeshig Rice, Katherena Vermette, Eden Robinson, Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm and Cherie Dimaline." While she is addressing Indigenous readers specifically, we would add that non-Indigenous readers are also capable of love. But first these readers have to humbly listen with their hearts and minds open, not deny anything that doesn't centre their own privilege first and foremost.
As Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm points out in Write, "The Canadian reading public tends to embrace only a small handful of Indigenous writers, and we'd like to see that change." So the in-progress to-do list includes:
- Read more books by Indigenous writers (buy them if you can afford it, or borrow them in the public library if not)
- Support Indigenous communities through volunteering, donating, and also finding ways to systematically fund them so that it's about structural justice and restitution, not only individual charity (the latter is a start, and we don't discount it, but we believe we need to work toward systems change as well)
- Work on understanding your own family history and taking responsibility for it so that you don't go stealing others' stories like a hungry ghost who can never be satisfied because you'll never have what you truly need if you're looking for it in the wrong place
- Unlearn automatic domination, something that may have been naturalized in your upbringing if you were born into a colonially invested family -- this unlearning or reality check is also a gift that connects you with the rest of humanity and the Earth
- If you can afford it donate to the Emerging Indigenous Voices Award, which has raised more than $100,000 after setting a goal of $10,000
- A healthy culture is based on much more than individual prizes. What if we also "think for a time about literature prizes going to the communities that help support them? Can we think about literary prize money going to land and water defenders, and to the communities that help support them? Can we begin to think of literary prizes being awarded to collectivities, to community groups, organizations and presses that help bring writers and their words to light? How can we transform CanLit in these and other ways to build a revitalized and truly equitable literary culture?" (Karina Vernon)
- What else makes sense in light of your individual talents and your social contexts?
We don't want to speak for others, but we do want to speak with or near them. Like Alicia Elliott, we have been profoundly changed by Leanne Simpson's work in Islands of Decolonial Love. It's going to take decolonial love for us to work together with compassion, patience, and care. Mistakes can and do happen. Our responsibility is to learn from them and refuse to repeat them so that we can be present for one another and for the land. In this time of accelerating climate destabilization, we believe we need, more than ever, to learn to work together to become better relations. What we cannot achieve alone, we might find a way to accomplish together. It starts with listening and acting from a place of love and respect for Indigenous people and their perspectives.
RW Note: I first came across Helen Knott's work on her blog which I highly recommend, and I have been inspired by her work to protect her traditional Treaty 8 territories in the Peace River watershed from the neo-colonial violence of the Site C dam. The group Poets for the Peace has formed in response to Helen's call -- and one tangible thing you can do in solidarity with her work is to hold a poetry slam for the Peace. Richard Van Camp's books have been rocking my world ever since I read The Lesser Blessed and Angel Wing Splash Pattern many years ago, and more recently A Blanket of Butterflies and Godless But Loyal To Heaven.
Hiromi Goto is a writer and a creative writing facilitator who gratefully lives on unceded Coast Salish Lands. www.hiromigoto.com
Rita Wong is a poet-scholar who works with and for water as she lives on unceded Coast Salish lands. She is the author of four books of poetry, a graphic collection, and recently co-edited an anthology called Downstream: Reimagining Water with Dorothy Christian.