Sometimes you see a book and you just know that it’s the book you’ve been waiting for. That was my reaction when Chelsea Vowel, who blogs and tweets as âpihtawikosisân, announced Indigenous Writes: A Guide to First Nations, Métis, and Inuit Issues in Canada. You really should read her blog and follow her, because she her writing is clear and informative, and she is excellent at providing further resources. This continues in her book. I was extremely excited to get my hands on a copy, because it seemed like exactly what I wanted: a series of connected but self-contained essays that explain and highlight some of the diverse issues that Indigenous peoples face in Canada. I wanted a way to continue educating myself as well as a potential classroom resource, and lndigenous Writes lives up in every respect.
Funny story: I pre-ordered a hard copy of this when it was announced, and then last month when I joined NetGalley, I saw that it was available. I requested and received an electronic copy from NetGalley, but by the time I was going to read it, my hard copy had shown up a little early in the mail. So I thank Portage & Main Press and NetGalley for the review copy, but there is nothing like a physical book. It’s beautifully designed and laid out, and I’ve already taken it around and shown it off to friends and colleagues. (Nerrrrrrd.)
Indigenous Writes is an attempt to start these conversations in an honest, heartfelt way that is rigorous in its resources and research yet also accessible rather than academic. Vowel doesn’t assume any prior knowledge; she starts right off with a few chapters on terminology, like the differences between Indigenous, Aboriginal, Indian, First Nations, etc. From there, each essay addresses one of the numerous questions, concerns, or myths that tend to crop up over and over about Indigenous peoples, including: what “status” is and who gets it; what defines whether someone belongs to an Indigenous people, as well as more specifically what makes someone Métis; the fact that we tend to be uncomfortable, as a society, with Indigenous practices spilling over into what we perceive as “non-Indigenous” spaces, and how that becomes a transgression; as well as myths about taxes, progress, alcoholism, authenticity, etc. I wish I could just list all 31 chapter titles here! I cracked the book open to the table of contents when I first received it, and I just smiled at how much stuff Vowel manages to talk about. This is not a thick book, and the chapters themselves are seldom very long, but it is still so broadly informative.
Why do we need this book? Vowel herself eloquently provides the reason. Speaking about how settlers often deride Indigenous people from rural areas for not being familiar with urban life, she says:
On the other side, there is no expectation within Canadian (non-Indigenous) culture that Indigenous cultures must be accounted for, learned about, or even really accommodated. Knowing nothing about the Inuit, for example, is not considered a fault. Yet when Nunavummiut (Inuit of Nunavut) or Nunavimmiut (Inuit of Nunavik) go south, their lack of knowledge about city culture/living is considered to stem from small-mindedness, a lack of education, or ignorance.
Part of having (in my case) white privilege is being able to ignore not just the problems that Indigenous peoples face but, you know, their actual existence and culture entirely. Yet we expect—no, demand—that Indigenous people are familiar with settler culture, customs, and laws. That’s a little thing called colonialism, son, and it isn’t over just because we broke away from Britain.
I see this expectation manifest almost every day. I teach adults who come from remote communities in Northern Ontario to Thunder Bay on the invitation of Matawa First Nations in order to take the classes they need to finish their high school diploma and then get training for the workforce. Very often my students come from reserves with poor access to clean drinking water, poor housing conditions, little or no Internet and cell phone access, etc. Yet we expect them to somehow adjust to relocating to a city, often with young children in tow, and get used to attending classes all day for months at a time. And this is a group of students who have the support of each other, as well as Indigenous social workers, elders, etc. If they find it tough, imagine how daunting it can be for someone who does this on their own.
When the most recent (I hate having to write that, hate that there has been more than one) news cycle about the suicide crisis in Attawapiskat erupted, letters to the editor in The Chronicle Journal suggested “closing” these northern communities and relocating their inhabitants closer to urban centres like Thunder Bay. (Insert Picard facepalm here.) Aside from the incredible tone-deafness and irony of the idea that settlers should be relocating Indigenous peoples because we’ve decided what’s best for them, I was just so amazed by the lack of empathy coming from the people who had written those letters. They acted as if the people and the culture are the problem, rather than the fact we still tacitly expect assimilation even if we claim otherwise. I’m a mellow person, and I was getting angry about it—and again, I’m a settler and have all the privileges that entails, so I can’t even begin to imagine how people more connected and involved with these issues are feeling. It’s unconscionable, the state of things, yet we let it go on.
Clearly, education is an important and pressing matter, both in terms of educating wider Canadian society about Indigenous peoples and making sure that Indigenous people receive the education they need to succeed. The big buzzword these days is reconciliation. That’s a big word for me to define comprehensively, but I think part of reconciliation must entail better knowledge of Indigenous cultures and history. Yet Vowel points out in her chapter on residential schools that most provinces’ curricula do not live up to promises to teach more thoroughly about these things. When these subjects come up, they tend to be discussed in the past tense, locating the problems and the people in history.
The wider problem that Vowel also touches on in the final chapter of Indigenous Writes is that schooling in Canada is still very Westernized and therefore assimilationist. I get what she means. Although I am proud that my job involves helping Indigenous adults get their high school diplomas, I also often reflect on the extent to which I am complicit in perpetuating colonial curriculum and approaches to education. I do what I can to bring Indigenous content into the classroom: we talk about the treaties, about systemic discrimination, about residential schools. I try to listen to my students and get help from my Indigenous colleagues. At the end of the day, though, I am still evaluating these students against expectations grounded more in Western ideas of industrialized, rationalist education than anything else. That bothers me, a lot.
Indigenous Writes is going to make an excellent resource for classroom teachers like myself. It will help us educate ourselves so we can understand these issues better, and we can even use some of these essays, or the resources that Vowel references, in our classes. But I don’t think that goes far enough. We really need to change the entire system of education. Or, as Vowel puts it at the end of this chapter:
Indigenous communities as a whole simply do not have the internal resources to create an entire system of private schooling to rectify the horrendous gap that has always existed between Indigenous and non-Indigenous student outcomes. If you can judge a society by its system of education, then Canada stands clearly guilty of discriminating against Indigenous peoples by allowing this situation to continue.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this is the last chapter, and because there is no afterword or epilogue, this is Vowel’s closing statement for the entire book. It is a challenge to the idea that Canada does not discriminate, and a challenge to us to do something to make the system better.
I know what you’re thinking, though: OK, Ben, so you love this book as a teacher, but I’m not a teacher, so what would I get out of it? I’m glad you asked, invisible straw person voice.
It comes down to this, really: I keep having to remind myself is that the Canada I see—the Canada I grew up believing in—is not the Canada that many Indigenous people see. Growing up in a reserve, or growing up in a city but being exposed constantly to racist remarks or the threat of violence or being treated with suspicion and stereotyping … that necessarily brings about a different perspective. That’s what Vowel is trying to show us with Indigenous Writes. We Canadians pride ourselves on diversity and multiculturalism, yet some of us then turn around and leave racist comments on articles about missing and murdered Indigenous women, or we talk about how Indigenous people already have it too good in this country. It is a cognitive dissonance that is tragic, because it is quite literally killing people. If our country is as good and strong as we like to claim it is, we should be able to have a conversation about racism and actually act to end it.
It’s very easy to homogenize and lump all Indigenous peoples together when discussing “Indigenous issues”, and Vowel very deftly avoids generalizations. She discusses issues that tend to be common across the land, such as land claims, access to drinking water, stereotypes and myths and racism; she also discusses issues specific to the Inuit, Métis, and even particular nations. When she does this, lets her sense of humour come through, occasionally unleashing some well-deserved sarcasm as she dismantles an argument she has clearly dealt with too many times before. Like me, Vowel loves science fiction, and I greatly enjoyed how she references, analyzes, and deconstructs some authors’ portrayals of Indigenous peoples in their writing. Indigenous Writes is basically the rigour you’d expect from an academic textbook (the amount of endnotes alone could maim you if you dropped them on your toes) without the typically dry writing. It is the best of both world, academic and activist.
This is not always an easy book to read. There were times I had to take a break. Reading the essays back to back, it can feel very overwhelming, all of it, and unlike Indigenous people, I haven’t even lived it. Vowel recognizes the potential for succumbing to hopelessness, and she is quick to point out alternatives. She points to the staggering amount of research already presented on how to start the process of reconciliation: there’s the Neegan Burnside report on how to fix the urgent issue of drinking water on reserves; there is the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples with its complex, comprehensive twenty-year plan that fell by the wayside; there is, of course, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report on the legacy of residential schools. There are indeed thorny issues here, but we have the ingredients for beginning to solve them. We just need to actually, you know, acknowledge the problem and start doing something about it instead of locating the problems in the past or twiddling our thumbs and agreeing that it’s awful but, hey, what can you do? We need to stop blaming Indigenous people for existing, for still being here after centuries of us trying to wipe them out, and stop blaming them or their cultures for the problems that currently beset their communities.
You or I, on our own, of course cannot end or undo centuries of colonization, discrimination, and assimilation. But we can start, as individuals, by filling the gaps in our knowledge, challenging our own internalized racism, and checking our privilege. We need to have conversations about this—but remember that any given Indigenous person is under no obligation to educate settlers about these issues: that is on us! So when someone like Chelsea Vowel deigns not just to speak up, but to provide us with an invaluable, detailed collection of essays and endnotes, we need to pay attention.
On that note, I don’t usually do this, but I really want people to read this book, so here’s where you can order it directly from the publisher.