Aboriginal Policy through Literary Eyes

Article excerpt

JO-ANN EPISKENEW EXAMINES A number of literary works by Canadian Aboriginal writers dealing with Indian and Metis people. Together, they reveal the devastating effects of public policy.

Episkenew traces this history from 1973, when Maria Campbell penned Halfbreed, her account of growing up in northern Saskatchewan. This work was the first Aboriginal voice to reach both Aboriginal people and non-Aboriginal Canadians, making Campbell "the mother of Canadian Aboriginal Literature."

In the years since, Aboriginal literature has flourished. Because of the enormity of past policy failures, many creative works by Aboriginals have been semi-autobiographical, exploring these failures through personal stories.

Episkenew calls attention to literary contributions as part of a process of wider consultation, warning that too often well-meaning policy makers forget until it's too late to consult with Aboriginal people about the policy they mean to create.

INDIANS NEVER GOT MENTIONED IN ANY OF THE SCHOOLBOOKS EXCEPT FOR being the guides for the brave explorers discovering the country. I could never figure out how you could say you were out discovering something when you needed a guide to help you find it. But Indians were always second to the explorers who were creating the real history of North America.... We were either heathen devils running around killing people or simple savages who desperately needed the help of the missionaries in order to get straightened out and live like real people.... If white people hadn't gotten here when they did we'd have all died. (Wagamese 1994, 12-13)

Many Aboriginal Canadians can relate to Garnet Raven's satirical description of his experiences in the educational system. A status Indian, former foster child, and exconvict, Garnet is one of the narrators of Richard Wagamese's Keeper 'N Me, a novel that describes how Canadian public policies to re-educate Aboriginal people profoundly affected the lives of the Raven family Although policies specific to education comprise only part of the government of Canada's response to the "Indian problem," the common objective of all policies seems to have been the re-education of Aboriginal people. [1]

That Aboriginal people needed to be reeducated is a perception based on several premises, premises shared by most people of European ancestry since 1867. When the newcomers first arrived in North America, they had little time to worry about re-educating anyone; they were too busy trying to survive, something they would not have been able to do without the help of and education from Aboriginal people. But as this dependence on the Aboriginal population lessened, and as the Aboriginal population was decimated by disease and loss of the land base for their traditional livelihood, the government of the new nation of Canada focused attention on policies to deal with the people whom they believed redundant.

At the time, in the late 1800s, most Canadians of European ancestry believed that the original people of this country were destined to become a "vanishing race." Indian people were to be pitied, to be sure, but were still unpredictable and dangerous. The newcomers considered their European way of life clearly superior; since the Indians' lifestyles were incompatible with modern society, they were, therefore, doomed to extinction. There was nothing in the Indian peoples' ways of life -- from their relationship to the land, to their methods of rearing and educating children -- that the newcomers considered worth preserving anywhere but in museums. The newcomers developed policies to control Indians and to ease their inevitable passage into oblivion.

Unlike the Indians, the Metis were not objects of pity. The newcomers' attitudes towards the Metis were different because of their deep-seated fear of miscegenation. William Keating led an American expedition to the North West, which culminated in a report to the United States government entitled Narrative of an Expedition to the Source of St. …