“One could not exist without the other”: A Review of Peter J. Clair’s Taapoategl & Pallet

Peter J. Clair’s Taapoategl & Pallet was published in the fall of last year by Chapel Street Editions out of Woodstock, New Brunswick, and it was recently named a finalist for a New Brunswick Book Award in the fiction category. A few days before last year’s Word Feast literary festival in Fredericton, I stumbled across a copy at Westminster Books and was thrilled to have found a new Mi’kmaw novel to read – the first, I think, but please correct me if I’m wrong, since Lorne Simon’s Stones and Switches way back in 1995. Here’s the image from the store that I immediately and excitedly texted to friends and colleagues across the northeast:

ClairClair is widely known as an ash splint basket maker, and his baskets have been exhibited in galleries across the continent. When he’s spoken about his baskets in the past, he’s done so in the context of “a pattern without a break, without a beginning or an end” – a style of weaving based on the form of the periwinkle, a member of the shellfish nation and a traditional Mi’kmaw food source.[i] He uses the same design principle in his novel, where the narratives of Taapoategl and Pallet are woven together, at times echoing or merging before receding back into their distinct times and places. And like Clair’s baskets, it’s hard to say where this story truly begins. Is it with Taapoategl at home with her family? With the arrival of the colonizers and the forced displacements of Mi’kmaq communities? With the first steps of Pallet’s quest? Or does the story begin much earlier, with the weathered writings on birchbark, with the creation story that is brought to gatherings and read to the larger community – the story that produces the world through which both of these characters move despite the distance of centuries?

This story reaches into the future and cycles back onto itself almost continuously; its pieces are carefully interwoven to produce a larger historical sense of trauma and loss but also of connection, recovery, and irrepressible “belonging-to.”[ii] I’m searching for a way to discuss what I love about this incredible novel without giving too much away. I love the revisions of beloved Settler mythologies – the stories Clair weaves into his narrative about Chief Membertou, about Marc Lescarbot’s Theatre of Neptune, and about the invention of hockey. And I love the descriptions of the early Mi’kmaw writing system, which developed gradually within the context of the nation so that families could communicate with each other across time and/or distance. The system reflects “the connection between the Nigmag and the world around them” just as the language of the people “comes from imitating the sounds and motions in nature, the calls of birds or the manner in which a fish gathers food.”[iii] In part, this is a novel about the connections that were lost or endangered when language and stories began to be lost or forgotten – the histories and contexts and links that re-emerge when scattered pieces of bark are sought, recovered, and threaded back together by the people of their original communities.

Pallet enacts one person’s role in this recovery process. As a Mi’kmaw man, he has a place in the story of his nation, and through his journey, he both creates and claims his own belonging. He travels through a territory in which figures from Mi’kmaw oral tradition are ever-present, occupying their places on the land as always, living their stories and waiting to reconnect and share with their kin. While the Settler society of this region has systematically denied the relevance of Wabanaki oral traditions to the patterns of daily life, relegating traditional Indigenous stories to the distant world of mythology and intentionally weakening the relationship between Indigenous peoples and their cultural worlds, Clair does the reverse work, restoring the immediacy of his nation’s stories to the land from whence they first emerged.

Here is an exchange from his first encounter with a traditional figure:

Pallet stumbles past the fire and goes to the river to wash his eyes. He regains some vision and now sees a shadowy image. He is not sure how many there are. He squints his eyes toward his campfire; there is a dark round cloud above it.

Admitting to his confused state he says: “Ok. I’m Pallet and I’m from Signigtog. I can barely make you out. All I see is a dark cloud of smoke. I am glad you are here. I have been alone for so long. Are you from Tlaagati? Are you here to help?”

“Don’t be jumping to conclusions. Don’t be too hasty. Rest your eyes, Nigmag. It’ll come to you. My name is Miigemooesso. . .”

[. . .]

“I’m just trying to be honest, but I’m not used to this sort of thing. I’ve heard stories . . . and I accepted the stories for what they were. I have to accept that you are here. You are not just a story anymore.”[iv]

It’s significant that Pallet is half blind in this scene, which takes place relatively early on in his quest. He’s recovering from a compulsion to dismiss the possibility of what is happening to him, and he’s learning to accept that these figures aren’t simply of stories that long ago reached conclusions. The stories and their characters are alive, unfinished, ongoing – Pallet is himself inside of stories, and part of his journey involves learning to accept his place in those stories.

His journey also involves the recovery of Taapoategl’s story and the contribution of a ten-year-old girl’s survival knowledge to the collective memory of the Mi’kmaq. Pallet works with the elders at a summer gathering to piece together the fragments of this story, messages on birchbark that Taapoategl left behind in hopes that her family would find them. And while this process of finding takes centuries, her people are unyielding in their recovery efforts, refusing and refuting the notion that a little girl and her story could be irrevocably stolen from the present and future of her nation.

Taapoategl gathers a pile of pine needles and carefully covers over the gravesite, arranging them so there is no sign of disturbance. Like the old Nigmag, Taapoategl hides the gravesite as best she can. Hopefully, she will not have to move it. She knows gravesites are sacred because they are the hidden portals by which we return to our origins. She has heard Nigmag say the portals to the past must be tended to. You never know when the past will visit the present, the two feed on each other; one could not exist without the other.[v]

Taapoategl & Pallet empowers the future of an already powerful Indigenous nation by tending to the portals between the past and the present. It speaks of a territory that has been exploited and defiled across centuries by a colonizing culture that has strewn artifacts and bodies in the wake of its attempts to scramble and destroy connections between the Mi’kmaq and the land that mothered them. Like the people who kidnap Taapoategl, we have tried to steal and contain Indigenous stories — to hide them away, to hoard them, to render them unintelligible to Indigenous peoples. And yet the land has always remained occupied by its own stories.

Searching for a sense of connection and purpose, Pallet moves through his homeland, guided by an understanding of protocol passed down by his grandparents and his community. What he encounters and enters into on his journey are the stories of the land — the stories that have produced his living culture and connected his people as a nation for millennia. And by joining these stories he finds the sense of “belonging-to” that he seeks.

You can purchase a copy of this important book through the publisher or on Amazon.


[i] Janet Clark, Epogan: Recent Work by Peter J. Clair (Thunder Bay: Thunder Bay Art Gallery, 1997).

[ii] Peter J. Clair, Taapoategl & Pallet: A Mi’kmaq Journey of Loss & Survival (Woodstock: Chapel Street Editions, 2017), 2.

[iii] Clair, 118.

[iv] Clair, 22, 23.

[v] Clair, 143.

News & gratitude

Last month, Lara Minja of Lime Designs was honoured for the absolutely stunning work she did on my book, The Homing Place, which will be showcased during the 2018 Association of University Presses Book, Jacket, and Journal Show in recognition of Lara’s beautiful typographic design. Lara is a graduate of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, and I am so grateful for the work that she did with this project!


Even more recently, the book was selected as a finalist for two regional awards: the Writers’ Federation of New Brunswick Book Award for Non-Fiction and an Atlantic Book Award for Scholarly Writing. I was extremely surprised by these announcements, and more than anything else, perhaps, I am looking forward to the opportunity to meet and chat with other shortlisted authors at events in May and June. I don’t get out much these days. Peter J. Clair’s incredible book Taapoategl & Pallet, the best new novel I’ve read in some time, is a finalist for a New Brunswick Book Award in the fiction category, and there’s a question about periwinkles I’ve been dying to ask him.

My experience working with the team at Wilfrid Laurier University Press continues to be fantastic, and I’m grateful to Clare Hitchens for submitting my book for consideration in these competitions!

I’ll be reading from The Homing Place at the Central Branch of the Saint John Free Public Library on Tuesday, May 8 at noon as part of the Atlantic Book Awards Festival (the event  will be co-presented by Fog Lit Festival).

The Lone Mitten

the-education-of-augie-merasty-a-residential-school-memoir1My students will begin grappling with The Education of Augie Merasty: A Residential School Memoir tomorrow evening, and one of our many topics of conversation will be this striking book cover, which features a photograph of a single green mitten, taken by Alan Clarke.

In the second chapter of the book, Augie describes being sent out of school with another boy and made to walk for about 20 miles in a -60F windchill — their “punishment” for having each lost a single mitten on the previous day. It’s a distressing story of two “very nervous and scared” ten year old boys, alone but for each other in the middle of a vast frozen lake, each clutching a stick to protect against the wolves. When the boys eventually return to the school without their lost mittens, they are beaten.

Today it’s not uncommon to see lone mittens or other articles of clothing laying lost on the ground in parking lots or beside sidewalks or roadways. There’s even a Facebook group dedicated to images of shoes found lost on the side of the road. Some people are deeply fascinated with the lost-clothing phenomenon and can’t help but wonder or imagine how the items came to be lost.

Personally, when I see an abandoned shoe or glove on the side of a road, I think, with some amount of trepidation, what happened? There’s a story here — but if I’m being honest, I don’t especially want to know what that story is. I am not curious, I do not wish to know more, and I quickly avert my eyes. Because I always fear that it might be a sad or an upsetting story — like an abduction, an assault, or an accident. I don’t want to know what potentially horrible thing that lost piece of clothing might mean to somebody, somewhere.

So I have been thinking today about this photograph and about its efficacy as a representation of Settler Canada’s desire to avert its eyes from the history and legacy of the residential schools. Maybe we see the mitten and we look away because, if we’re being honest, we’d rather not know its story. And maybe our lives would be easier or happier if we didn’t have to think too hard about the mitten or about what it means to somebody, somewhere — if we didn’t have to connect it to a story of little boys, cold, alone, afraid.

Merasty’s memoir is powerful and it deserved powerful cover art, so kudos to the design team at the University of Regina Press.

Teaching Mihku Paul’s “The Water Road”

Mihku Paul gave me this beautiful copy of her poem “The Water Road” after I organized a reading for her at the Saint John Free Public Library several summers ago. This now hangs in my kitchen and I look at it when heating bottles of milk for my babies. It’s one of my favourites of hers, but also, more generally, one of my favourite things ever written about the Wolastoqiyik homelands.


And because it’s featured in the wonderful Dawnland Voices: An Anthology of Indigenous Writing from New England (ed. Siobhan Senier), I have the privilege of discussing it with students this week in a third-year Indigenous Literatures course at the University of New Brunswick in Saint John. To some degree, the poem is a response to The Old Meductic Fort and the Indian Chapel of Saint Jean Baptistea paper that was read before the New Brunswick Historical Society by Rev. W.O. Raymond in 1897. Raymond refers to a tributary of the Wolastoq River that the Maliseets call “Madawamkeetook, signifying ‘rocky at its mouth,'” and also to a report penned by Abraham Gesner — the Settler geologist who invented kerosene — who noted, in his survey of Wolastoqiyik portage paths, that the “‘solid rocks'” between Meductic and Tobique had been so well travelled that they were “‘furrowed by the moccasins of the native tribes.'” Gesner’s writings on these trails are themselves fascinating, filled with detailed references to awikhiganak, the images inscribed into tree bark that helped Wabanaki peoples navigate dense forests.

Against this incredible image of people traveling, for centuries, down worn and familiar passages, echoing the footsteps and movements of their ancestors, mapping and inscribing their land with their bodies, and leaving written messages, warnings, and instructions for one another along the paths, Raymond consolidates his simplistic idea of wandering nomads. He describes “the Indians of the Maliseet and Micmac tribes” as “a race of nomads, wandering about from one camping ground to another, as necessity or caprice impelled them.” Paul counters his vision of aimlessness with an exploration of her own personal reasons for travelling the water road. Her poem moves from Madawamkeetook down the Meductic trail to the Chiputneticook lakes at the Maine border and to Mattawamkeag, an eastern tributary of the Penobscot — where, Paul writes, “a girl became a woman.”

Screen Shot 2018-01-25 at 3.30.45 PMPaul herself grew up primarily in Old Town, Maine, but she also spent portions of her childhood among family at Indian Island, which stretches for miles along the Penobscot River. An enrolled member of the Kingsclear First Nation in New Brunswick, her family’s life in Maine was born of her grandfather’s struggles in the New Brunswick residential school system — experiences that ultimately caused him to flee the province before Mihku’s mother was born.

Paul’s poem speaks of someone who “became a woman” along the Penobscot, but whose “body craves the past, its water seeking / The cool flow, ancestral memory, / Where tributaries meet, flooding / Undernourished roots that cling to her edges / Eroded year by year with forgetting.” And so she follows the “map / Flowing inside [her body]” — from Penobscot to Mattawamkeag, to the Chiputneticook lakes, and up the water road to Meductic, where furrowed rocks speak of old life ways and the purposeful movements of a people who always find their way home.


Canadian Literature is a System of Enclosure

I’d been planning to deliver this paper on a panel dedicated to Canadian Exceptionalism at the Modern Language Association convention in New York City, January 5, 2018. Due to a massive winter storm, travel plans have been cancelled, but here is the text of my talk.

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When John Locke wrote, in around 1689, that “in the beginning all the world was America,” he did not mean that all the world was the United States.[i] He was instead invoking a common rationale for the expropriation of Indigenous land and resources – the biblical ethos that would enable the founders of American settler states, like the US and Canada, to view the lands and resources they desired as the natural domain of a chosen people who carried their rights inside of them as they traversed the globe, seeking new land to convert into the service of their missions. When Locke wrote that “in the beginning all the world was America,” he meant that all the world was waiting to be converted into parcels of property by a chosen, exceptional people.

As cultural ideology, exceptionalism exists to systematically justify Settler peoples’ occupation of land and control of resources, but there are ways in which we used to be a whole lot more explicit about this. In the late 1620s, the Mayflower invader Robert Cushman justified his presence in New England by explaining that “[the] God of old did call and summon our fathers by predictions, dreams, visions, and certain illuminations to go from their countries, places and habitations to reside or dwell here or there, and to wander up and down from city to city, and land to land, according to his will and pleasure.”[ii] According to Genesis 1:28, the Judeo-Christian God had instructed his people to “‘fill the earth and subdue it,” to “‘Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground,’” and the Mayflower Settlers, Cushman believed, were simply furthering that mission, just organising their lives around that sacred directive.[iii] Because American settler societies today are comparably secular, it can be more difficult to recognize this rationale at almost constant work; some Canadians might actually recoil from any suggestion that as a society we’re still just trying to act out a command from the Old Testament, and yet this exceptionalism remains fundamental to our extractive structures and economies.

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On the day in November when I started writing this paper, the Supreme Court of Canada greenlit the development of a massive ski resort on sacred Indigenous land in British Columbia. And this is just another day in Settler Canada – because in 2018, Canada’s highest governing structure maintains that section 35 of its Constitution Act does not grant Indigenous nations veto power over our God-given right to pursue development projects. Nothing will get between us and our sacred mission to “subdue” unsettled environments, to convert stolen Indigenous land and resources into our own properties.

Like the US, Settler Canada is an extractive, expropriative state whose unshakable belief in its own essential entitlement to land and resources is so ingrained that we no longer even recognize the historical ideologies informing our behaviours and governance decisions. The early Americanist Drew Lopenzina refers to this phenomenon, the process through which the colonizing culture legitimizes ongoing “violence and oppression by relying on intrinsically ahistorical narrative frameworks,” as unwitnessing – “the largely passive decision to maintain a particular narrative structure by keeping undesirable aspects of cultural memory repressed or inactive.”[iv] Today I’d like to speak about exceptionalism as a deeply undesirable aspect of Settler Canadian cultural memory – one that we have tried to obscure beneath popular invented narratives of peacekeeping and multiculturalism. To facilitate this discussion I’ll be referring to Oliver Goldsmith’s 1825 The Rising Village, known today among Canadiansts as “the first poem to be published in book form by an English Canadian.”[v] In what is perhaps my favourite piece of criticism on this poem, David Jackel argued against Goldsmith’s prominent position in the Canadian canon, concluding that “the poem has historical value, but it is neither a very good poem nor a Canadian documentary. What it ‘documents’ is a state of mind, and that state of mind is not Canadian but colonial.”[vi] For Jackel, as for many others, Canada was something much nobler than a colonizing culture, and Canadian Literature was much more than a settler colonial power structure.

But the colonial mechanisms of this poem are precisely what make it so enduringly Canadian. The poem manifests Settler exceptionalism – through the speaker’s invasion and seizure of land – and then Goldsmith unwitnesses that same exceptionalism through the assertion of a peacekeeper myth. Here’s the point where I’m picking up the thread of Goldsmith’s vision of early Canada – he’s describing the so-called “savage tribes” here:

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So he’s got a cottage at this point, but the woods around his dwelling place are filled with these unsettling people who “maintain / Their right to rule the mountain and the plain.” He’s being told repeatedly and explicitly that the land he’s trying to steal is already someone else’s home, and yet he’s buoyed by an enduring sense of his sacred mission to convert this soil into his property. In accordance with the ideology of exceptionalism, he “retains possession of the soil” no matter what dissenters may say, because the rights he carries inside of his body always trump those of peoples who were not chosen by his God.

Goldsmith offers an important and deeply conventional vision of how to assert and normalize these imported rights, which is fundamentally a matter of outnumbering Indigenous peoples on the ground and of holding or occupying land against competing interests. Here’s how Goldsmith describes the progression of Settler Canadian settlement:

Around his dwelling scattered huts extend,

Whilst every hut affords another friend.

And now, behold! his bold aggressors fly,

To seek their prey beneath some other sky;

Resign the haunts they can maintain no more,

And safety in far distant wilds explore.

Here we’ve got a classic “vanishing race” trope – the Indigenous people just pack up and leave because, in time, they too recognize the Settler’s inherent right to this soil. In deference to those rights, the Indigenous people vacate their ancestral land, the land their Creator gave to them as a gift, the land to which they have important responsibilities — they leave their homes and go west. Because in Settler mythology, Indigenous peoples aren’t really rooted anywhere, they are just wanderers. Goldsmith continues:

His perils vanished, and his fears o’ercome,

Sweet hope portrays a happy peaceful home.

You eradicate Indigenous peoples from your vision, since they’ve been the only thing, to your mind, contesting your title. You drive them from their territory, and then you amend your cultural memory by establishing an idea of yourself as peaceful.

On every side fair prospects charms his eyes,

And future joys in every thought arise.

He has rescued Settler Canadian futurity by eradicating unsettling knowledge from his vision.

His humble cot, built from the neighbouring trees,

Affords protection from each chilling breeze;

His rising crops, with rich luxuriance crowned,

In waving softness shed their freshness round;

By nature nourished, by her bounty blest,

He looks to Heaven, and lulls his cares to rest.

The arts of culture now extend their sway,

And many a charm of rural life display.

Where once the pine upreared its lofty head,

The settlers’ humble cottages are spread;

Where the broad firs once sheltered from the storm,

By slow degrees a neighbourhood they form;

And, as its bounds, each circling year, increase

In social life, prosperity, and peace,

New prospects rise, new objects too appear,

To add more comfort to its lowly sphere.

And here we have the systematic establishment of “home” for the Settler populace. Again, the Settler’s violence is elided from this vision – he has driven Indigenous people from their land just by maintaining his own natural rights. They’re OK – they’re safe! – they’re just gone. It was their choice to leave! There was no war, there were no scalping proclamations. And there are no treaties in this vision because there’s no one left to treat with. All that exists in this vision is the realization of this sacred covenant between the chosen ones, the soil they’ve subdued, and their god in heaven.

So the Settlers convert Indigenous land into their own homes first by building houses and cottages, then by expanding their comfort zones through systematic enclosure, and finally by planting crops on their land. This is a deeply English way of claiming, holding, and thinking about space.

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In Ceremonies of Possession, the American historian Patricia Seed describes the peculiar systems of enclosure that the first English settlers brought to bear on this continent. Anglo-American people created property through a three-part process – first we’d build houses or dwellings, then we’d draw a line or build a fence around the swath of land we were stealing, and then we’d plant gardens inside those boundaries to very clearly and literally mix our labours with the stolen soil. This highly ritualized sequence consisted of actions that were so conventional by the seventeenth century that their meanings could be easily understood by English people on both sides of the Atlantic “without elaboration” and “often without debate.”[vii] In the sixteenth- and early seventeenth centuries, what Seed calls the “enclosure movement” had converted huge sections of England and Wales into private, individually-held properties, pockets of land that individuals suddenly owned against their neighbours; through these rituals, some people produced property for themselves, but at the same time, “a considerable number of people” became “landless.”[viii] The historian Alan Taylor estimates that “about half [of England’s] rural peasantry lost their lands” through enclosure “between 1530 and 1630.”[ix] And some of those people came here.

Like their forebears across the pond, the first English Settlers on Turtle Island enclosed parcels of land in an effort to replace any existing ideas of shared or collective ownership with English expressions of individual ownership.[x] Over centuries, American colonizing cultures intellectually disavowed enclosure, rendering it effectively invisible to themselves.[xi] Of course, we still practice and benefit from enclosure – when we “buy a house in the suburbs” or in the country, for example,

“we are doing more than engaging in a private financial transaction: we are purchasing the idea of that land as ours – our own circumscribed space with attendant amenities like a backyard and privacy fences. Our purchase is a benefit of our placement on the inside of the structures of settler colonialism, and also a denial of Indigenous claims to those same lands.”[xii]

We enclose land to hold it as property against our neighbours. We pushed Indigenous peoples outside the boundaries of our enclosures, and then we normalized ahistorical narrative frameworks to make it very difficult to understand or imagine what Indigenous rights might look like within our settled environments. Through enclosure, we identified ourselves as the mediators of Indigenous presence within settled environments. Our daily behaviours actively carry forward the enclosure movement from sixteenth century England and yet enclosure itself has been disavowed as an undesirable aspect of Settler Canadian cultural memory – we maintain a murky sense of how enclosure dispossessed Indigenous peoples of their land during a far-off colonial period, but we cannot so easily accept that our lives and societies carry forward the same action and consequence. We cannot be those violent invaders, damnit, we are Canadians, we are peacekeepers, but those invaders are nonetheless who we are.[xiii] By unthinkingly living our lives inside these systems of enclosure we continue to hold huge sections of land against Indigenous peoples, interests, and claims.

To conclude, I want to think about this line where Goldsmith says that within the settled environment, “The arts of culture now extend their sway.” Because for me, this is a chilling and direct reference to how the arts function institutionally to reinforce and normalize structures of settler colonial occupation. Simply the words “Canadian Literature” or “CanLit” invoke enclosure – the physical borders of the settler state. The clearest example of this for me, and the one I use in my book, is how non-Indigenous scholars have collectively decided to define what an early Canadian author is today. If you scan the table of contents in any anthology that includes an “early Canadian” section, you’ll see that we define an “early Canadian” writer as an English, French, or Indigenous person who produced alphabetic text within the physical borders of what became the Canadian state. These borders didn’t even exist in the early period in question, but we compulsively impose them onto maps and onto history retrospectively. Because when we say “CanLit,” we are invoking these borders, this contained sphere of dominance, this system of enclosure that only exists to hold this section of northern Turtle Island apart and against competing claims.

This is the Canadian enclosure, the frame that supports our extractions. Settler Canadians view themselves as governors and as mediators of the contents of this frame, the boundaries within which we have established all our rights as an exceptional people. Without this frame, unbearably, we’re just Americans or Europeans. And so we intuitively proceed as though this frame contains the soil that we have subdued, peopled, and mastered, and this is why our exceptionalist ideology surfaces and resurfaces in the mechanisms of our society –  not only in our violent and expropriative development projects and Supreme Court decisions but also in our daily behaviours and in our most fundamental intellectual frameworks. And we struggle to treat others with love, respect, or generosity within the confines of an enclosure that was created by Settlers to hold space against Indigenous claims and interests.



[i] John Locke, Second Treatise of Government. Edited by C.B. Macpherson. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1980. 121.

[ii] Robert Cushman, Reasons and Considerations Touching the Lawfulness of Removing out of England into the Parts of America, from Remarkable Providences: Readings on Early American History, Edited by John Demos. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1991. 4-10. 4.

[iii] Genesis 1:28. For more on the Old Testament as a basis of colonial claims to ownership, see William Cronon, Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England (New York: Hill and Wang, 1983): 69.

[iv] Drew Lopenzina, Red Ink: Native Americans Picking Up the Pen in the Colonial Period (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2012): 12, 9.

[v] Desmond Pacey, “The Goldsmiths and Their Villages,” The University of Toronto Quarterly, 21 (October, 1951): 27-38. 38.

[vi] David Jackel, “Goldsmith’s Rising Village and the Colonial State of Mind,” Studies in Canadian Literature, 5.1 (1980): https://journals.lib.unb.ca/index.php/SCL/article/view/7941/8998

[vii] Patricia Seed, Ceremonies of Possession in Europe’s Conquest of the New World, 1492-1640 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995): 3.

[viii] Ibid., 20.

[ix] Alan Taylor, American Colonies: The Settling of North America (New York: Penguin Books, 2001): 120.

[x] On the distinction between common gifts and commodities, see Robin Wall Kimmerer’s beautiful discussion of strawberries in Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2013): 22-32.

[xi] Emma Battell Lowman and Adam J. Barker identify disavowal as “a key part of the Settler identity” that “marks Settler people as benefitting from the dispossession and destruction of Indigenous peoples while at the same time vehemently denying complicity in the events and processes that make that happen.” Settler: Identity and Colonialism in 21st Century Canada (Black Point and Winnipeg: Fernwood Publishing, 2015): 16.

[xii] Ibid., 32.

[xiii] For a thorough discussion of the peacekeeper myth, see Ibid., 44-47.

Maritime Urban Planning and the Interruption of Indigenous Life Ways

While out on a walk through Menahkwesk (Saint John, New Brunswick) yesterday, I took this picture from the top of what Settlers call Bentley Street. This street was built over top of a Wolastoqiyik portage path, a key part of an extensive and ingenious transportation network that regional Indigenous peoples used for trade and travel. This is the view from the top of Bentley Street, facing the Saint John harbour:


Before this road existed, the Wolastoqiyik would travel this route on foot so they could reach the supekuk (the ocean) from the Wolastoq river while strategically avoiding the treacherous rapids at what Settlers usually call Reversing Falls — the mouth of the Wolastoq where the most powerful ocean tides in the world dramatically reverse the current of the river twice a day. (Jason Hall’s fantastic 2015 dissertation is by far the best resource I have found on this river system.)

Based on recovered artifacts, archaeologists have very roughly estimated that for over 10,000 years, Indigenous peoples carried their canoes, babies, and cargo up and down this hill. After the Europeans arrived, Wabanaki peoples frequently used this route to bring furs and trade goods to the Settlers at Fort LaTour.

From the same spot on Bentley Street, I turned around and took this picture of the New Brunswick museum archives. This building is directly between the Bentley portage route and the river. I’ve been inside this building many times — the cover image of my book is actually an iPhone photo of a text that is currently held by this archive.


On the other side of this massive building are the riverbanks where the Wolastoqiyik would camp. This is now a protected archeological area that the NB government hasn’t figured out what to do with yet.

Every time I walk here, I think about the fact that New Brunswick chose to build its archive, to drop a massive rock, in the middle of this important portage route. There is a metaphor here about the ways in which the colonial archive interrupts the life ways of the Wolastoqiyik — and about how we have built our archives over existing archives. Literally, in this case, we built our archive over more than 10,000 years worth of stories and memories and materials that developed continuously on and with this soil across millennia.

In Support of Wolustukyik Mothers and Grandmothers


About thirty minutes north of Stanley, near Napadogan, New Brunswick, a group of Wolustukyik land and water defenders are building a culture and language camp. I was grateful for the invitation and opportunity to visit them a few weeks ago with my family, and they’ve not only built an impressive foundation for a lodge, but they’ve also successfully bartered for additional construction materials.

It’s cold and getting colder, and until they can get their winter shelter up, these women are living full time in a collection of tents and camping trailers. It’s very cozy in the trailers, but they have a continuous need for fuel (firewood + gas and propane for their generators), not to mention other essential supplies. Other ongoing construction projects include the installation of plumbing services — and everything costs money!

As Settlers who live and make our family’s living in this territory, my partner and I have been doing what we can to support the mothers and grandmothers and their camp. We are uninvited guests in this territory, and these women are protecting the land and water for ALL of our babies and grand babies. This is what leadership looks like.

As the Wolustukyik have always done, these women are showing us how to live in balance in this territory, how to be good neighbours, how to live in concert (rather than in power) with the more-than-human beings of the land, and how to take care of one another in the long term. As Settlers, we need to show that we’re listening and that we are doing our best to understand and learn. So it was an honour and a privilege to cozy into one of these trailers, to sit with these women for a few hours, to talk about measurable ways in which we could lend our skills and show our support, to chat and to listen to their stories. My son watched a Toy Story DVD while my daughter crawled around happily with a runny nose, and when we left, we did so with a new jar of bear grease that quickly soothed the raw skin on her upper lip.

I left behind two copies of my book, and one of those copies is currently up for grabs, along with many beautiful items, in a basket raffle. Here’s an image of just some of the items included in the basket:


Most of these items were made by the mothers and grandmothers, and every dollar raised will support the construction of the camp. Tickets are $20 CAD and can be easily purchased through Andrea Polchies on Facebook.


Responding to Hate Speech on UNB and STU Campuses

This week, the CBC reported that

The University of New Brunswick has confirmed that [white supremacist] posters were found on its campus. This comes after posters directing people to alt-right websites were posted on a Maliseet welcome sign at St. Thomas University.

As my colleagues think about how to best address these posters in the classroom, I thought I’d throw some of my own ideas out there, which may or may not prove useful. I’m not teaching currently, but if I were, this is what I’d do.

Directly acknowledge what the posters mean, the specific kind of hateful rhetoric that they further, and the role of that rhetoric across Canada in the present moment. These are not alleged posters; the people on the posters do not appear to be white; there is no confusion about what these posters mean. They have been showing up on campuses and in Canadian cities for years now, so talk about that. Say words like “white supremacy” and “Canadian white supremacists.” Explain that there are white supremacists at UNB and at STU in both the student and faculty bodies. Mention Ricardo Duschesne, but also explain how white supremacy functions systemically in the institutions of settler colonial power — in power structures  like Maritime universities.

Talk about the kinds of fears that inform these posters. Talk about the differences between Indigenous and EuroWestern ways of knowing — and about the kind of knowledge that Canadian universities have traditionally valued and protected. Talk about what it means to teach students to value knowledge that originated in Europe over knowledge that originated in the ground under their feet. Read and assign this important essay by the Anishnaabe/Haudenosaunee scholar Vanessa Watts.

Talk about how the beneficiaries of white supremacy and EurroWestern dominance react when they feel beset upon by Indigenous thought and resurgance. Talk about how those fears will increase as we continue to collectively work toward the transformation of entrenched Settler understandings of history and of place. Talk about how white supremacists adopt and distort the discourses of minority groups to reconsolidate their power.

And talk about the CBC article I linked to above. A useful classroom exercise would actually be to unpack that article, which raises all kinds of questions, like:

  1. Is it responsible to invoke Canadian multiculturalism when the hate speech we’re dealing with is anti-Indigenous? Isn’t multiculturalism itself an extremely fraught concept? How can a Settler Canadian formulation of nationhood respect Indigenous knowledges?
  2. Do white people really have a right to be here in this territory? What are the checks on those rights? Talk about the pre-confederation (Peace and Friendship) treaties.
  3. What other signs challenge the claim that Indigenous peoples are “welcome” on these campuses? According to a 1788 report called “Progress of New Brunswick,” the schools in this province were created “with a view of Civilizing the Indian natives and thereby making them useful inhabitants.” How, specifically, have the goals of our education system changed, and is assimilation into Settler Canadian society truly no longer one of those goals? How many UNB and STU departments employ Indigenous people? What percentage of UNB and STU courses are primarily designed to respect and further Indigenous thought? How are BIPOC students to infer, from the all-and-majority white makeup of most of these departments, that they are in fact “welcome”? We (settlers) rip down these signs when we find them, we “investigate,” and we distance ourselves from their hateful messages, but in what ways are we simultaneously complicit in their rhetoric?

Introductory remarks for The Outside Circle – September 26, 2017, Lorenzo Reading Series, University of New Brunswick (Saint John Campus)

It is my privilege this evening to welcome Dr. Patti LaBoucane-Benson and Kelly Mellings to UNBSJ and to the land that the Wolastoqiyik people call Menahkwesk. So as a Settler New Brunswicker and perpetual guest myself, I welcome you in the traditional spirit of the pre-confederation treaties that first bound my ancestors to the Wabanaki nations of the northeast as neighbours. These treaties tell us how to be together here in this territory and in this room as members of distinct nations, how to share space, and how to extend fairness and gentleness to one another. So I hope I can do them justice!

We’re here together tonight to learn more about this beautiful graphic novel, The Outside Circle, which was published by the House of Anansi in 2015. This is on the one hand a painful story about intergenerational or historic trauma – about the most visible symptoms of trauma, like addiction, violence, and self-destructive behaviour. It’s about the ugly realities that the EuroWestern genocide of Indigenous peoples continues to produce within and without the urban spaces of Settler Canada.


And it’s a story about healing and love. The kind of love that made me cry in front of my three-year-old while I was sitting on the sofa last week, otherwise quietly reading – and he said, “Mama, what is you doing?” and I thought to myself, “I’ll share this with you someday when you’re older, and it will help teach you about the important difference between a symptom and a character trait. It will help teach you to extend tenderness to people who are hurting.”

This is a story about the intergenerational love that has endured in Indigenous communities and in Indigenous bodies despite horrible violence and unspeakable trauma. The powerful love that remains between an Indigenous man named Pete and his community, between Pete and his elders, his family, his ancestors – the love between Pete and the bear who helps show him who he is and where he fits in his communities and in the important work of Indigenous recovery and resurgence.

And so we are here together to learn more about this difficult, painful, beautiful story.

I’m going to get out of the way here in just a moment, but I want to mention one more thing. You’ll often hear people say that in contemporary works of Indigenous literature, oral and alphabetic traditions occupy the same space. Probably because I work primarily on the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, it’s never before occurred to me how wonderfully this idea is represented by the graphic novel form – where you are essentially reading an alphabetic and a material text side by side and simultaneously. Sometimes the non-alphabetic, the visual, just takes over and tells the story for a while, and as a reader, even one who is perhaps otherwise totally immersed in EuroWestern norms and notions of literacy, it feels like the most natural thing in the world. As a reader, you just follow along, constantly and intuitively moving between alphabetic and material literacies in the context of a single story, and what an incredible way to teach the intimate interplay between traditional Indigenous and EuroWestern forms of literature.

There is something beautiful, too, I think, in the fact that the words of this story were produced by a Métis woman, and the images by a Settler Canadian man. At the end of the novel there’s a section of thanks, and Kelly thanks all those who “changed how I think and feel about First nations people. I hope my art has shared what I have learned.” I haven’t been able to stop thinking about this since I first read the novel last week. About the tender interplay between these beautiful images and these powerful words. About how Patti trusted Kelly with this story, and through his artwork, he said, I’m listening. I care about understanding, about getting this right, and I hear you.

I see this exchange now in every panel – an Indigenous woman saying, this is the story. It’s an important story. And a Settler man saying, I am listening. Let me show you, through my art, just how hard I am listening.

So let’s listen too. Please join me in welcoming these storytellers.

Scat Theory

Yeah, scat. You know, animal droppings. Bear with me here.

Recently, my three year old came home from forest school talking excitedly about scat. My kid is a big talker so this went on for hours. I began texting casually about this with one of his former forest school teachers, the wonderful Breanne Card, who recently moved to Iqaluit. She said that scat is important and that it can tell you many things about an animal — what it is, what it eats, and whether it is healthy.

She then mentioned that she and her husband had just seen some northern lights and that they were spectacular. My funny partner, Charles, quipped, “I’ve always thought of the northern lights as the scat as the ionosphere!” (It’s possible that he meant the magnetosphere. This is neither of our areas of expertise.) This all makes perfect sense if you think of the northern lights as a living being that communicates information about the health of the atmosphere.

There are so many possible applications of this idea.

Scat is what a being emits or leaves behind to communicate information about its wellness. Think about the recently published articles in the National Post and other major Settler Canadian media outlets by authors like Conrad Black, Barbara Kay, Jonathan Kay, and others. (I am not linking to these pieces, since as someone recently pointed out on Twitter, hate shares+clicks look the same to analytics programs as interest and support). Think about Frances Widdowson’s so-called scholarship.

Like scat, each of these articles communicate information about the state of their author’s health. And in important ways, they speak directly to the state of Settler Canada’s health. They are scat that powerful members of this social body are emitting and leaving behind for others. They communicate important information about who we are as a collective — as members of this vast society that continues to consolidate itself against the lands that comprise northern Turtle Island. The things that our members write, publish, and read communicate what we value and what we consume.

It’s time Settler Canada took a good hard look at its scat.

Yeah, scat.