When our Ancestors arrived on the shores of Turtle Island, they brought their cultural beliefs and social mores with them. They were looking for a “fresh start,” but instead of taking their cues from the indigenous civilizations already thriving in the “new world” they replicated the familiar lifeways of home. Honoring natural law and living in balance with Earth Community had been outdated concepts for centuries, in the European lands from which they sprang. During the era of launching nation-states in the Americas, all over the world People of the Earth were still respecting nature and finding the sacred in wild places. Yet our Ancestors were part of a social organization based on hierarchy and control, and they went on to repeat the colonial pattern.
As we fast forward to the present, in my work as a social justice activist I am often asked if things could have been different in the beginning, in our “first contact” interactions with First Nations. But I honestly don’t think we can just imagine a kinder, more benevolent Settler Society into being! Driven by notions to fulfill some great “Manifest Destiny” on “Terra Nullius” (lands proclaimed empty by religious decree), the mad scrabble to build Empire and grab the “goodies” like land, resources, title and prestige were the priorities of the day. Our Ancestors were busy re-creating themselves into something grand, and other than trading partners and wilderness guides, First Nations had no place in that rosy picture.
And yet, as the settlement of what was to become “Canada” progressed, miracles were happening. As a Scottish family with a newborn baby wound their way through southern Ontario in 1832 by coach and Durham boat, their craft capsized in the waters known today as “The Narrows” at Lake Couchiching. The tiny baby was my third great-grandmother Eliza Emily Bailey, and she was rescued from the channel and brought safely to shore by a kind member of the Chippewa (Ojibway) Nation. As part of an immigrant wave that engulfed a pristine wilderness, the flourishing of my Ancestors has given me the haunting legacy of her miraculous rescue, and my deep roots in the Ontario landscape. Seven generations later, I am astonished at how Eliza’s story transcends ordinary ethnoautobiography, and am overcome by a set of questions tangled up with destiny, kindness, reciprocity, retribution, ancestral memory and structural inequality.
First of all, I wonder about the obvious, or would my family line even exist had Eliza perished in the waters of Lake Couchiching? And who was her rescuer exactly, and was he thanked profusely for his kindness? The story may be dramatic but it is far from unique, as countless narratives describe how the “first contact” Settler Society were welcomed, integrated, and dependent upon First Nations everywhere, who freely gave us gifts of food, land, medicine, and our very lives. The trail is cold, but their original generosity and kindness is deeply woven into the heritage fabric of our families and communities. Even the structure of Canada owes a great collective debt to the first peaceful treaty agreements between native and non-native leaders, and to the partnership model of indigenous diplomacy that contributed to our first constitutions and laws.
Canada’s first constitutional document, the 1763 Royal Proclamation, was ratified at the Treaty of Niagara in 1764 between the British and 2000 leaders from the First Nations surrounding the Great Lakes – the Nipissing, Anishnaabe, Algonquin, Odawa, Huron and Haudenosaunee. At this event, the British accepted a nation-to-nation relationship rooted in a policy of non-interference, and codified by the symbols of covenant chains and wampum belts in sacred ceremony, all parties agreed to benefit equally from the bounty of the land. The ongoing legitimacy of Canada, and our Canadian identity, stems from these original constitutional relationships between the Settler Society and First Nations. Rooted in the philosophy and practice of non-interference, peaceful co-existence and respect, the founding agreements make us all treaty people, and the legacy of indigenous diplomacy, law and peacemaking benefit all Canadians. The ensuing years of oppression, de facto apartheid, archaic legislation such as the Indian Act, and Euro-domination over Canada’s First Nations does not detract from the foundational status of the treaties.
Unfortunately, tolerance for cultural diversity or peaceful co-existence was never the policy of the Settler Society, and the ongoing agenda of Empire has given us permission to deny, forget about, or gloss over these early contributions to our well-being by First Nations. Like so many others in Canada, my family owes our lives to First Nations, but what have we done to return the favor? In stark contrast to the success of Eliza Emily Bailey and her descendants, what has been the experience of the Ojibway people since 1832? Beginning with genocide and the theft of their lands, the Settler Society has gone on to enact racism, oppression, assimilation, relocation and residential schools on First Nations. And to top it off, our Canadian society was founded with values of white supremacy. How can we reconcile the kindness our Ancestors experienced with the commonly-held stereotypes of “savage” and “primitive?” From our vantage point today, looking back at history we can see how racism and genocide were normalized, and imbedded into Empire-building. For if a human being is labelled “sub-human” who will feel remorse at their removal or passing?
So thorough were the policies of racism, that growing up in our secure and happy world in Ontario, we were completely oblivious to the First Nations all around us. Until quite recently, very few people wondered why preeminent First Nations folks were living like second-class citizens, or took the time to recognize the beauty and diversity of societies that had thrived in the area for millennia. In my own case, integrating the new information about Eliza Emily Bailey into my life came with a major shift from the personal to the political. I had been drawn to learning about First Nations culture and history for many years, and at the exact moment that I discovered the story of her miraculous rescue, I was already involved in social justice activism and solidarity with indigenous people. Connecting directly with an Ancestor is not an easy thing to do, but was I responding to Eliza’s directive on some deep level, to give back to the First Nations who had given so much to me? Today, my focus on First Nations solidarity work has increased far beyond what I would ever have imagined.
Right now, and in the interest of being a good Ancestor to the next generation, I have come to the conclusion that my purpose is to engage with the truth, challenge the racism found in whitestream society, and to create much-needed space for healing and reconciliation. The struggle for all descendants of the original Settler Society must be to shift from unconsciousness, denial and guilt about our colonial legacy, to the righteous anger of critical thinking, reflection and social justice activism. And as we come to an authentic recognition of our shared history with First Nations and explore the myths and misconceptions we have about each other, we can become empowered to use our new-found awareness to build solidarity, and as a catalyst for change. There is much we can do to eliminate institutional racism and contribute as allies to the anti-oppression, human rights and land claims struggles of our First Nations neighbours.
Even today, indigenous people are subject to genocide and assimilation, and are at the frontlines of the places affected most by ecocide and pollution. Can we even imagine what is must be like, to survive an apocalypse (i.e. the collapse of one’s society) only to face another holocaust in today’s potential for climate disaster and massive change? The hope for social justice and a new sustainable society will be built on egalitarian values that embrace all forms of difference – all colours, all ethnicities and all religions. Right now, learning intercultural competency skills, respecting indigenous cultures and lifeways, attending anti-racist trainings, and understanding white privilege are all key to this process.
As I hold the story of Eliza’s rescue deep in my cellular memory, my eternal gratitude for her rescuer is rooted in the no-time and no-place of the spirit world. And in the end, the interface of my own family with the Ojibway people leads me to believe that as we shake free of our colonial past, it is essential that we all become protectors of Turtle Island, to stop the destruction and plunder of what has become our ancestral lands as well. Yet how well do we truly know this place? Our Ancestors tried to recreate their homelands here, but at the heart and deep in the roots, these lands are not Europe, but something “other.” Perhaps as the years pass and we continue to experience privilege as part of the Settler Society, it may be a good idea to finally become intimate with the land. Not as a backdrop to our daily round, or as landscapes to enjoy, or sites for managed spaces like gardens, but as lands of the greatest beauty, that have their own right to life, that hold all the elements we need to thrive, sites of unimaginable destructive power, that are wild and unknowable, that have their own purpose and trajectory, that are held sacred, and that are beloved by countless diverse groups of indigenous peoples.
Can we also, before it is too late, dedicate ourselves to that love? By virtue of our rootedness in our communities, our buried Ancestors, and our mutual regard for the land, for better or worse both native and non-native people now share Canada, and it may not be too late to establish the peaceful co-existence that the colonial powers denied us all.
Pegi Eyers is the author of the award-winning book Ancient Spirit Rising: Reclaiming Your Roots & Restoring Earth Community. She lives in the countryside on the outskirts of Nogojiwanong in Mississauga Anishnaabe territory (Peterborough, Ontario), on a hilltop with views reaching for miles in all directions. www.stonecirclepress.com