Playing the Indian Card

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

A Hundred Solitudes

Gabrielle Roy

Amid all the current fuss over cultural appropriation, there is a blatant case of cultural appropriation happening right now in Ontario Schools. And it is getting worse.

According to the National Post, Grade Eleven students in the Lambton Kent School Board are all being required to take an English course focusing on aboriginal writers only.

I protest this imperialist exploitation!

Obviously, for most of these kids, Indian culture is not their own culture. So, by the logic of the day, they have no right to these books.

But then again, if we ask aboriginal students to read books written by non-aboriginals, of for that matter to write in French or English, it is also not cultural appropriation.

Instead, they are being subjected to cultural genocide.

Yet it is not cultural genocide if the books are Indian, and the students not.

If there is logic here, rather than pure prejudice, it escapes me.

The local authorities, of course, make their case.

Why, the authorities argue, should Ontario kids be studying Shakespeare?

“Hey, I love Lord of the Flies. I love Shakespeare,” Sherman said. “But really, we’re talking about 15th century Veronese landlords (Romeo and Juliet) or something like that. Does that resonate with Canadian kids? Or the British schoolboy class structure?”

So, by that logic, does it occur to you as well that what they should be reading, what they can truly relate to, is Canadian Indian novels?

Isn’t there another, more obvious, option?

Have they never heard of Canadian literature?

Not, I suppose, if they to have gone to Canadian schools.

I recently came across a discussion thread in which fellow Canadians found they could not name an actual Canadian book that they had studied in high school.

Me neither.

It may have changed recently, but when I went through, we got some Canadian poems, some Canadian short stories, but nothing so long as a novel.

As a result, I fear, the typical Canadian thinks and knows too little of Canadian culture. I think a lot of us were shocked when Alice Monroe won the Nobel Prize. Alice Monroe? Have foreigners heard of her? Do foreigners actually read her? Who the heck is she, anyway?

This strikes me as a spectacular failing on the part of Canadian governments. In what other country is the literature better known by foreigners than by the locals? It is as though Canada’s governments are deliberately undermining both Canadian culture and Canadians’ sense of being a nation.

It is the duty of a government, and of public schools, to promote national unity and a sense of national identity. That is what government schools are there for: to imbue good citizenship.

For as long as anyone can remember, Canadian governments have actually been doing the reverse. Most Canadians grow up with a sense that there is no Canadian culture. And none other than the current Canadian prime minister has actually made this claim.

If a Canadian kid wants to be a writer, in turn, he is given no models. He or she grows up, as I did, believing literature is something that happens only elsewhere.

This leads to a reflection: what books should be taught in Canadian high schools? What are the essential chronicles of the Canadian experience?

Obviously, not Canadian Indian literature, as such, and only Canadian Indian literature. This is the colonial mentality perpetuated: now, instead of being colonized by the British and Americans, we who are not Indian—the vast majority of Canadians-- get to be colonized by the Indians. No improvement.

As of the 2011 census, 4.17% of Canadians saw themselves as of native ancestry. More said English, French, Irish, Scottish, German, Italian, or Chinese. The largest group, bless them, said Canadian. The native population in Ontario, where these schools are, is even smaller. And, we are often told, different native cultures are not interchangeable: an Iroquois has no more in common with a Cree than an Italian does with a Finn. So virtually nobody here is reading about their own culture.

Recent Canadian literature has been caught up in the same Canadaphobia. Instead of presenting something universally Canadian it tends to focus on some other cultural group, portraying it as separate or even alienated from the Canadian mainstream. Case in point: Canadian Indian literature, presented and considered as a separate entity. Hardly a way to built Canadian identity and solidarity.

The books studied in Canadian schools should promote Canadian unity. This does the exact opposite.

This does not mean the novels chosen should ignore the experience of minorities. The Canadian experience is largely the immigrant experience. But said minority experiences ought to be about the attempt to integrate, not to separate.

I have a few suggestions:

Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town

Anne of Green Gables

The Tin Flute

The Wars

The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz

The Luck of Ginger Coffey

Fifth Business

Roughing It in the Bush

Two Solitudes

Who Has Seen the Wind?

The reader may have others.

It is time we started thinking, and writing, for ourselves.

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