Literary Land Claims

The 'Indian Land Question' from Pontiac's War to Attawapiskat
Wilfrid Laurier University Press (CA)
  • 1. Auflage
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  • erschienen am 10. Juli 2015
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  • 326 Seiten
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978-1-77112-100-2 (ISBN)
Literature not only represents Canada as 'our home and native land' but has been used as evidence of the civilization needed to claim and rule that land. Indigenous people have long been represented as roaming 'savages' without land title and without literature. Literary Land Claims: From Pontiac's War to Attawapiskat analyzes works produced between 1832 and the late 1970s by writers who resisted these dominant notions. Margery Fee examines John Richardson's novels about Pontiac's War and the War of 1812 that document the breaking of British promises to Indigenous nations. She provides a close reading of Louis Riel's addresses to the court at the end of his trial in 1885, showing that his vision for sharing the land derives from the Indigenous value of respect. Fee argues that both Grey Owl and E. Pauline Johnson's visions are obscured by challenges to their authenticity. Finally, she shows how storyteller Harry Robinson uses a contemporary Okanagan framework to explain how white refusal to share the land meant that Coyote himself had to make a deal with the King of England. Fee concludes that despite support in social media for Theresa Spence's hunger strike, Idle No More, and the Indian Residential School Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the story about 'savage Indians' and 'civilized Canadians' and the latter group's superior claim to 'develop' the lands and resources of Canada still circulates widely. If the land is to be respected and shared as it should be, literary studies needs a new critical narrative, one that engages with the ideas of Indigenous writers and intellectuals.

Margery Fee is a professor of English at the University of British Columbia, where she has taught Indigenous literature since 1996. Her most recent articles in that field appeared in What's to Eat? Entrees in Canadian Foodways, edited by Nathalie Cooke, and Troubling Tricksters: Revisioning Critical Conversations, edited by Deanna Reder and Linda M. Morra. She co-authored the Guide to Canadian English Usage.
  • Englisch
Wilfrid Laurier University
  • 3,68 MB
978-1-77112-100-2 (9781771121002)
1771121009 (1771121009)
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Chapter One

"How Can They Give It When It Is Our Own?": Imagining the Indian Land Question from Here

I arrived in Musqueam territory in 1993, an univited and oblivious guest; I thank the Musqueam people for welcoming me anyway, and for the chance to get to know some of them in language classes, at ceremonies, on committees, and in conversation. Part of their land was handed over to the University of British Columbia by the provincial government in 1910, but the first buildings did not appear until 1925 (Norman). Lately, they have been getting some nearby land back (Yonson). I still remember the first time-around 2003-that I heard a president of the university, Martha Piper, acknowledge publicly that the university occupied traditional Musqueam territory. Now this phrase is firmly incorporated into the life of the university: the chancellor says it at every convocation. Musqueam people have been saying these words over and over again, persistently reminding listeners of their title to this point of land at the mouth of the Fraser River, which pours into the recently renamed Salish Sea. Such persistence creates a river of words (including those of the lawsuits Musqueam is famous for); slowly a delta rises, land that people can inhabit.1


So when did I realize that there was a problem? In the fall of 1968, I had the good fortune to meet and talk to many Native activists at a student-run conference held at Glendon College of York University in Toronto. These activists were organizing against the White Paper of the Trudeau government,2 a major manifestation of what Harold Cardinal called "the unjust society" in his book of that title. I even got to drive Cardinal in from the airport. Although I was impressed by his beaded buckskin jacket and his amazing way with the audience, he was too earnest for my taste. (I had just turned twenty; he was twenty-three, and had just been elected leader of the Indian Association of Alberta-I had no idea how impressed I should have been by that!) Another activist impressed me even more. Tony Antoine was the spokesman for the Native Alliance for Red Power (see Fidler; Josephy, Nagel, and Johnson). Wearing his red beret, he ripped up the Indian Act and demanded his land back, a piece of guerrilla theatre that made a huge impact.3 Chatting nervously with him later, I asked him where his land was. When he said, "Vancouver," I replied, inanely, "Oh, I don't think they'll give you that back, not with all the buildings." He looked right at me: "We don't want the buildings." This abrupt comment has shaped my thinking and my career, testimony to the power of Indigenous pedagogy.4

FIG. 1 Today Your Host Is Musqueam, Native Hosts, 1991-2007, Hock E Aye VI Edgar Heap of Birds (Cheyenne/Arapaho). Photo Margery Fee.

Now, although I do acknowledge Indigenous ownership of the land I live and work on, what this acknowledgement means remains to be worked out, and not just by me. This work has to be done collectively, by everyone living on the territory now designated as Canada. Indeed, the work may extend beyond that, since Canada has signed many international conventions, including-belatedly-the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2010.5 What follows is my best attempt to write through some of the issues that I have struggled with in my career of teaching Canadian literature, postcolonial literatures, and, since 1985, Indigenous literatures. This book, then, is situated knowledge, coming from the lifelong perspective of someone who can be categorized as a "white settler/invader." I acknowledge this label as a useful check on any desire for an easy national identification. Nonetheless, however useful such labels may be in assessing someone's likely knowledge or standpoint, I regard them as (powerful) sociopolitical constructs that can be changed. Although I recognize the dangers of writing as an oblivious Canadian nationalist, enthusiastic white wannabe, or absolution-seeking colonizer, I persist in writing to attempt decolonization. Destabilizing established frameworks, stereotyped identity categories, and dominant discourses is an effort that is bound to lead to mistakes and misinterpretations. Still, I hope this book will complicate purist notions of identity and land ownership and help shift debates around land and identity in Canada into a better place.


As someone whose ancestors all arrived from Britain at least three generations ago, I know that my current high level of education, income, and privilege results from their access to cheap land and resources.6 Canada's national prosperity also comes from these assets. And I have benefited from having a life history and appearance that align me with the dominant idea of what it means to be a "proper" Canadian. These privileges have not been extended to Indigenous people or communities. Although Indigenous people make up less than 5 percent of the total population, a quick visit to Statistics Canada's Aboriginal Statistics at a Glance reveals headings announcing that Aboriginal people are more likely than other citizens "to live in houses requiring major repair" and "to have trades and college certificates" rather than degrees, and to have a "lower median total income." They are "still less likely to be employed" and to be "over-represented in custody." If the Indigenous population is considered separately from the Canadian population as a whole on the United Nations Human Development Index, it ranks at the level of countries like Panama, Malaysia, and Belarus (see Daschuk 18). Indigenous life expectancy lags that of the rest of the population.7 So why isn't there enough prosperity to go around? Why do many Indigenous people live in material conditions that are routinely described as "Third World"?8 These are colonial conditions that in the past inclined them to agree to treaties that were manifestly unclear and unjust. These conditions continue to make it difficult for them to organize against continuing encroachments on their land (Lawrence, Fractured 70). Restorative justice takes time, energy, and lawyers.


Although law is a narrative discipline like the other humanities disciplines I have relied on to write this account, literary land claims should not simply be collapsed into legal ones. Law, as Pierre Bourdieu explains, operates in a separate cultural field. For law, unlike the other humanities disciplines, interpretation is not an end in itself. Rather, the legal decision has the effect of an act: "The judgment represents the quintessential form of authorized, public, official speech which is spoken in the name of and to everyone. These performative utterances, substantive . decisions publicly formulated by authorized agents acting on behalf of the collectivity, are magical acts which succeed because they have the power to make themselves universally recognized" (Bourdieu 838; italics added). When E. Pauline Johnson spoke the words of her "Indian wife" on stages across Canada-"By right, by birth, we Indians own these lands"-she was performing a performative. However, in order to work, the "magic" requires the authorization not just of an audience but also of a large collectivity. There is a big difference between applauding a stage performance and agreeing to transfer land title. When Johnson spoke, Indigenous opinions rarely reached the mainstream; few had the privilege of a platform or a press. However, this situation has been changing as more and more Indigenous people have used their talents to move into locations where they can make their opinions and those of their communities public. The law is usually represented as fixed, graven on stone tablets; it gets its stability from the collectivity that authorizes it and after that does not resist it. However, despite the collectivity's implied or explicit assent, the law's institutionalized power obscures its violence from the "ordinary Canadians" that form the majority. Dissent is inhibited through the use of carceral spaces such as reserves, residential schools, and prisons to produce governable subjects, thus serving the law's aim to preserve "peace, order and good government" (Constitution Act, 1867, sec. 91). Those working in the creative and narrative disciplines can expose this violence and chip away at the assumption-often conveyed by literature, literary criticism, history, and many other narrative forms-that the "Indian land question" was fairly settled long ago and once and for all.


In fact, one of the most serious conflicts faced by Canada is foundational, between Indigenous land ownership and the claim asserted by the Crown. Even reserve lands have been under constant pressure. In 1911, the Indian Act was amended to allow Indigenous people to be forced off a reserve without their consent if it was located within the borders of an incorporated town or city with a population of over eight thousand. Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier described such reserves as "a source of nuisance and an impediment to progress"...

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