Book Review: Surviving Canada

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Published Saturday July 29th 2017 in the Winnipeg Free Press.

On June 29, in the days leading up to Canada’s mega-hyped sesquicentennial anniversary, a “re-occupation” ceremony unfolded on Parliament Hill in which a teepee was erected by protesters led by Bawaating Water protectors from Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., in order to remind Canadians that their capital city sits on unceded, unsurrendered Algonquin territory.

In much the same way, Surviving Canada: Indigenous Peoples Celebrate 150 Years of Betrayal is an effort to “re-occupy” the Canadian mind, especially our public discourses concerning not just Indigenous issues but the very nature of our country.

Through an eclectic and highly provocative collection of essays, speeches, poems and multimedia (including tweets) from the country’s leading Indigenous and non-Indigenous writers, thinkers and creators, this book challenges the reader to look beyond the anniversary and to question almost everything we’ve ever been taught about the origins, actions and moral foundations of the Canadian nation-state.

With this latest release, Winnipeg’s ARP Books — which also recently published Aqueduct by Adele Perry and the edited collections The Winter We Danced and The Land We Are — strengthens its reputation for publishing some of the most significant literature on Indigenous-Canada relations.

The editors are both with the University of Manitoba. Kiera Ladner (Cree) — who previously edited ARP’s 2010 book This is an Honour Song: Twenty Years Since the Blockades — is an associate professor in political studies who has since 2011 led the university’s Mamawipawin, or Indigenous Governance and Community Based Research Space. Her co-editor Myra Tait (Anishinaabekwe) is a master’s student in law and member of Berens River First Nation who is also associated with Mamawipawin.

Ladner and Tait have assembled an impressive and diverse array of contributors whose 42 pieces fill more than 460 pages. A review such as this is scarcely adequate to describe the scope and content of the material in Surviving Canada. However, the book’s cover — which depicts an inverted maple leaf flag — is an apt metaphor for its purpose: any self-aggrandizing notions the reader might hold regarding Canada’s history are swiftly disabused.

Surviving Canada may already be best-known for its inclusion of the incredibly powerful poem, Canada, I Can Cite for You 150 by Christi Belcourt (Métis), which has been widely shared online. But all of its entries are equally potent.

Among the book’s most provocative essays: Jeff Corntassel (Tsalagi [Cherokee]) and Christine Bird (Anishinaabekwe) accuse Canada of being a “serial killer” and all of us complicit in its crimes against Indigenous peoples, in particular women, girls, Two Spirit and queer people; James (Sa’ke’j) Youngblood Henderson (Chikasaw and Cheyenne) explains how the confederation we know as Canada illegitimately assumed authority over — but then proceeded to ignore — Indigenous treaties with the British Crown dating back to 1621, resulting in “intractable gaps in (our) constitutional narrative;” and Jana-Rae Yerxa’s (Anishinaabekwe) disturbing creative non-fiction piece Her in which she describes rooms of white people haunted by a laughing spectral Indigenous woman with a noose around her neck.

Non-Indigenous authors include Louise Mandell, the daughter of Holocaust survivors, who compares Canada’s dehumanization of Indigenous peoples to that of the Nazis against the Jews, calling both “radical evil;” the University of Manitoba’s Adele Perry, who offers a one-chapter treatment of her book Aqueduct detailing the century of legal and environmental injustice inflicted on Shoal Lake 40 First Nation in order to provide Winnipeg’s drinking water; and University of Guelph political scientist David MacDonald writing about most Canadians’ studied ignorance and amnesia about the genocidal foundations of their settler state, calling instead for open commemoration of this genocide.

While Ladner and Tait encourage the reader to approach the chapters in any sequence they wish, it might have been equally interesting had they organized the readings thematically. As well, it’s unfortunate that the book’s contributors and their backgrounds are not described in a dedicated section as is customary for edited collections. Instead, one is referred to the publisher’s website for their biographies — fruitlessly, as it turns out.

Small matters such as these cannot, however, detract from the gut-punching impact of Surviving Canada. By turns eloquent, scholarly, bitter, profound and angry — yet at times hopeful — this is a deeply discomfiting and significant book.

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