Nouns are revealing. We call English homesteaders “settlers”, but Ukrainian ones “immigrants”, writes Professor Margery Fee. Similarly business reporters describe monthly StatsCan unemployment figures as “job creation numbers”; the Conservative cabinet renamed the budget as an “Action Plan”; and the heritage department selected as its monosyllabic themes for Canada’s 150th anniversary: “Strong. Free.” They might have chosen “Big. Snowy.” You get the picture.
Fee is a professor of English at the University of British Columbia. Her intriguing book Literary Land Claims examines the nouns and adjectives we use in describing Indigenous people. Note they are never described as Indigenous-Canadians. “The French in Canada called themselves Canadiens; this name was appropriated from them along with transfer of the territory called Canada,” Fee writes. “They became hyphenated French-Canadians. However, the label Canadian was applied grudgingly or not at all to other racialized groups.”
Fee even challenges the presumptive title of her book, “land claims”. How did people who occupied all of Canada for thousands of years end up “claiming” territory that was theirs to begin with, as if ownership was an allegation?
The author recounts a 1968 meeting with Tony Antoine, then-spokesperson for the Native Alliance for Red Power: “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”.
Literary Land Claims is a thoughtful analysis of revisionist Canadian history legitimized by the language of officialdom, radio talk show hosts and everyday citizens. Many Canadians have very definite opinions on Indigenous “welfare” and “grievances”. Few know Parliament passed Indigenous versions of the Nuremberg Laws.
Lawmakers in 1911 amended the Indian Act to expel First Nations from any reserve located within the incorporated limits of any town of more than 8,000 residents, and in 1927 restricted Indigenous people from hiring their own lawyers.
“Canada is filled with people who firmly believe that Canadians are among the most tolerant and most civil in the world and that ‘their’ government treats Indigenous people well – even too well,” Fee writes. “Little is taught in Canadian schools and universities that might fill the huge gap between what ‘ordinary’ citizens believe and what many white scholars and judges, not to mention Indigenous activists and intellectuals, are now saying.”
Literary Land Claims argues one of the first barriers to public understanding of our colonial and contemporary treatment of Indigenous-Canadians is language. An example: when Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence carried out a self-described hunger strike near Parliament Hill in 2013, National Post columnist Christie Blatchford described the protest as “an act of intimidation if not terrorism”. Prof. Fee explains, “Tolerant ordinary Canadians were once again seriously inconvenienced by ungrateful, dishonest and potentially violent Indigenous people.”
Words matter. Our treatment of Indigenous people is: Self-serving. Reactive. Unfair. Literary Land Claims is: Blunt. Fresh. Good.
By Holly Doan
Literary Land Claims: The ‘Indian Land Question’ from Pontiac’s War to Attawapiskat, by Margery Fee; Wilfrid Laurier University Press; 326 pages; ISBN 9781-77112-1194; $29.24