Last week I wrote about our little house here in Canada ~ a “behind the music” sort of look at my quirky home-studio and the curious environment that inspires my music. To my unexpected surprise, the post was viewed and shared more than any other article I have written since this blog began in 2011. In all honesty though ~ I must come clean about something very important that I did not share in my last entry… a truth about our little Hobbit Hole that I am not pleased or proud to reveal. As my family and I live out, what may seem to be the romantic, 21st century pioneering of inner-city egg collection and bee farming…we are no urban “pioneers”, but we are “settlers” on owed property. We are occupiers of traditional land belonging to the Haudenosaunee, Neutral and Anishinabe Peoples.
Growing up here in Canada of Scottish, English, Polish and German ancestry, I was very aware from a young age that my forefathers were immigrants from other parts of the world. Thankfully, the history lessons my generation were given in school during the late 1970’s and early 1980’s presented a chronology of our country that was slightly more truthful than what our parent’s were taught as kids, or sadly, what is currently taught to school children south of the Canadian border. My peers and I grew up knowing full well that Columbus didn’t “discover America”, that “Indians” are people from “India”, and that the Indigenous people of our continent were victims of severe injustices and genocide.
Way back in the early 1960’s, my mother’s cousin had married a young Indigenous woman from one of Southern Ontario’s reservations who often spoke about the hardships she faced growing up. In college, my sister had a friend from the Six Nations reservation who was also very candid about difficult life “on the res”. These relationships, and others throughout the years, helped to foster in me a greater awareness of Canada’s past and its continued injustices toward Indigenous peoples ~ including the fact that many people, to this day, exist in poverty on reservations ~ many even without access to clean drinking water. Throughout my life I have fought hard to examine my own family’s history and honestly assess my personal role as an advocate of social justice in my “home and native land”.
Many individuals like me ~ third or fourth generation Canadians of Celtic or European decent ~ grow up feeling a sense of guilt, knowing that our ancestors played a part in the injustices carried out to established the current incarnation of this country so many of us now call “home”. It has been my effort, throughout life, to keep my feelings of disgust, anger and sadness over Canada’s history and continued injustices toward Indigenous peoples, from simply filtering through guilt into inactive empathy, sympathy or apathy. With a deep desire to avoid being superficially patronizing from a comfortable distance, I have tried over the years to seriously embark upon a quest for change: change in my birth-land by way of change in myself. Through listening, learning, communication and commitment to responsible choices, I have strived to force a wedge into the spinning spokes of social injustice.
So much of what I wrote about in last week’s blog ~ directly co-relates to what I have learned from listening to the wisdom of ancient traditions and the voices of those who speak to the sacredness of our earth and the interconnectedness of all creation.
Yet, even with all my deeply rooted passions and lifestyle choices, I recently found myself staring into the mirror of my own privileged ignorance ~ forced to count the creases of age old injustice, still marring my caucasian skin.
Attending a recent event at a local university, it was a privileged to hear the welcome address by G. Ava Hill, Chief of the Six Nations of The Grand River Council, here in Southern Ontario. Her brief words and reminders to those of us in attendance were among some of the most powerful ones I have ever heard. Within just a few moments, the view of my family’s little war time house near inner-city Kitchener was changed drastically.
Kitchener-Waterloo is located on the Haldimand Tract, which, on October 25, 1784, after the American Revolutionary War of Independence, was given to the Six Nations of the Grand River by the British as compensation for their role in the war and for the loss of their traditional lands in Upstate New York (www.sixnations.ca). The 950,000 acres given to the Haudenosaunee included six miles on either side of the Grand River, all the way along it’s length. Only 46,000 acres (less than 5 per cent) remains Six Nations land (www.sixnations.ca). ~ cited from lspirg
Caught up in the excitement of purchasing our first home, my family and I negligently set aside the responsibility of inquiring more deeply into how our decision would be allowing the wheel of injustice to spin onward for another generation.
For days I reflected and pondered. It was as if cold water had been splashed upon my face, awakening me from a dozy illusion or day-dream.
Being a man who often rolls his eyes at “No Trespassing” signs when out hiking in forests and notoriously leaves his house door unlocked, “owning land” had always seemed to rub against the grain of my more community-centred sensibilities. When setting foot toward purchasing a home with supportive family and their generous non-interest bearing loans, my wife and I were simply seeking a way of avoiding monthly rent payments that would increase each year, but leave us no investment down the road. When we bought our place and moved in, we made a vow that our house would always remain a place of community ~ open to friends, family, travellers and those in need. We promised ourselves that the little dwelling would be sparsely decorated, leaving room for as many people as possible for gatherings, meals, sleep-overs or study circles. We designated one full room of open, carpeted space as a library and place of reflection, prayer or play. As detailed in last week’s article, we dedicated the surrounding outdoor yard to the cultivation of vegetables, wild-flowers and herbs ~ a sacred meadow of reflection for any who may retreat there, be they “the two-legged, the four-legged, the wings of the air, and all green things that live.” as Black Elk is to have said.
And yet, with all those intentions, I had not thought more deeply about or respected the sanctity of the land itself. “Guilty” became a label I had now fully earned of my own accord and not just inherited indirectly from my naive, 19th century British ancestors simply seeking a better life abroad. Even worse ~ the verdict became clear to me during the same year as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada released their most recent 2015 report.
Immediately I spoke to my wife and daughters (who were still overseas at the time), explaining to them about the “six miles” on either side of the river that runs through our little city ~ land on which we now reside. Without so much as a heartbeat, my seven year old said, “That’s not fair. We can’t own their land!” A testimony to the purity of children and their ability to immediately recognize injustice.
My next step was to speak to a dear friend of mine ~ an educator and activist for the rights of indigenous peoples ~ seeking advice and direction.
She told me, “When I have talked to the Elders about the kinds of questions you have asked, they say, we cannot go back. We go forward. The land is for all of us. While I do know there are perhaps many angry Indigenous peoples who talk and fight about the land, there are many more who choose to focus on developing better relationships with Settler peoples. For the most part, Indigenous people are not fighting to get land back. An Elder said these words specifically. This is separate from active cases of land claim disputes. This…is leading me to say that, the answer is: Intention, acknowledgement and relationships.”
What I will do when the day comes that our family may decide to move, I do not know. Putting the property up on the market for sale to another private owner would not be a spoke in the wheel of injustice though, in my opinion. This irresponsible dilemma I have walked into will now require years of thinking and re-thinking about how exactly to “go forward”.
In the meantime, I will try to intensify my advocacy for the rights of Indigenous peoples of this country. I will seek to remind others (through my work and social interactions) of the sanctity of the land ~ advise and show through example how we may make better choices in life to care for this earth. I will do my best to use this experience as a lesson in humility, educate my daughters about my mistakes and their responsibilities as global citizens toward social and environmental justice.
As a request to those of you who have shared this article with me ~ take some time to learn about the place you live…the city, the street, the very plot you sleep on each night. Talk to the old timers…ask questions about where they came from…trace back their stories, like the lines on their faces or the train tacks, highways or rivers they travelled on. Find out where you have come from…who has helped you get where you are, and who you may have inadvertently stepped on to get there.
Fellow Canadians, Please read the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s 2015 Final Report. Make the intention to reflect upon it regularly and take an active part in it’s Calls to Action.
This follow up to last week’s blog is my first step toward some truth. The next small step: I am designing a small, engraved plate to place in my front garden near the sidewalk where neighbours pass, which will remind myself and others:
“In acknowledgement that the land our house sits on belongs to the Haudenosaunee, Neutral and Anishinabe Peoples.”