I am pleased to be here as a friend and admirer of Peter Clair and as a member of the board of commissioners at the Saint John Free Public Library. It is my great honor to welcome Peter and his beautiful family to this place. Saint John is, we know, a traditional meeting place, a place where nations have been gathering together for thousands of years, seeking effective ways of living alongside one another. So as we come together this evening, I am grateful for this opportunity to help recognize and honor the legacy of this land.
There are many reasons why I admire Peter’s novel, Taapoategl & Pallet, but tonight I want to talk very briefly about how this novel helps us honor the legacy of this land as a meeting place — a place of many nations — and how it allows us to practice living together and listening to one other. Listening isn’t always easy. In particular, Settler Canadians like me aren’t always very good at listening to Indigenous people. We don’t always know how to listen. We like to think that we are smart enough to understand most of everything that we encounter in our lives when in fact we don’t always have the contexts that we need to hear or understand.
This novel is about the land of the Mi’kmaq. We Settlers believe we know something true about that land — because that land is Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island and a large part of New Brunswick and Gaspésie. These places are familiar to us as Settlers — maybe we’ve spent our whole lives in these places. Maybe our relationships with these places go back generations. But these places are stories, and we live so deeply inside of our own stories that it’s sometimes difficult for us to hear or understand stories about this place that are different or even contrary to the ones we already know.
And so this novel is about the land of the Mi’kmaq — land that is inhabited by figures from Mi’kmaw oral tradition. Like Malsem, Glooscap’s evil twin brother. Or Gionig, a trickster figure who randomly drowns and is then brought back to life by a smoke enema — which is something that you can actually find described in colonial recipe books as a possible cure for drowning. Or the Miiigemooesso, the generally benevolent forest spirits that become dangerous when they feel disrespected. These and other figures are alive in this novel and across the land of the Mi’kmaq. They are out there now in what you or I might call New Brunswick or Nova Scotia or Prince Edward Island, doing their thing, whether Settlers know or care or not. They are out there on the land, acting and living and waiting to share their stories with any visitors who are willing and able to listen.
And this is a novel about the people who were made by their homeland. People whose bellybuttons are buried all across their land, reminding them of their maternal connections to their home. People whose language captured the sounds of the land while it was becoming — the sounds of glaciers shifting, rivers turning into gulfs, and island separating from mainlands. People who were performing their stories and plays long before Marc Lescarbot’s Theatre of Neptune washed ashore in 1606. People who modeled an entire writing system after the marks that sucker fish make on the river banks — because humans are not the only beings who can write.
This is a novel about a whole world that Settlers in this region live inside but can’t see and don’t know. And it’s about the Mi’kmaq people — how they have survived us. Our brutal efforts to forget them and to make them forget themselves.
And I am so grateful for this gift — this story that we can read and re-read as we learn to see outside of our own stories and look at this place through the eyes of the people who were made here. Please join me in welcoming Peter Clair to this meeting place.