Introductory remarks for Taapoategl & Pallet – January 8, 2020, Saint John Free Public Library (Market Square)

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.

Introductory remarks for Distorted Descent – November 21, 2019, University of New Brunswick (Saint John Campus)

These remarks were delivered before a reading co-sponsored by the Office of the Piluwitahasuwin, the UNBSJ Faculty of Arts, the Lorenzo Society, and the Departments of Humanities and Languages/History and Politics. This event featured a respondent’s panel with Amanda Reid, Elder Miigam’agan, and Emma Hassencahl-Perley.

I’m pleased to welcome Dr. Darryl Leroux to campus and to Saint John. Saint John, or Menahkwesk, is, we know, a traditional meeting place. There were so many nations gathered here in Menahkwesk when Samuel de Champlain arrived in 1604 that he couldn’t tell whose territory this was. I am deeply grateful for this opportunity to honor the legacy of this land as a place where many nations have been gathering for thousands of years, seeking effective ways of being together and sharing space.

Dr. Leroux is a professor in the department of Social Justice and Community Studies at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax. His book, Distorted Descent: White Claims to Indigenous Identity, was published by the University of Manitoba Press in September of this year. It deals with a troubling social phenomenon in which white Settler Canadian people in places like Quebec and Atlantic Canada are systematically shifting into Indigenous identities and organizing themselves in ways that, he shows, actually oppose the rights and interests of Indigenous people and nations.

Dr Leroux’s work on this subject has been controversial. As you can imagine, he is considered a threat and an enemy by those whose claims to Indigenous identity he challenges in his scholarship. He is the only academic I know who has required security personnel at some of his lectures. I have feared for his safety! Thankfully, that is not the case here today, but undeniably, Dr Leroux’s work has been a major catalyst for a sensitive conversation that many people simply don’t want to have.

This book has also found a lot of support among Indigenous academics and communities, which is something that Amanda Reid, Elder Miigam’agan, and Emma Hassencahl-Perley will speak to shortly. The Mi’kmaw legal scholar Pam Palmater, Chair in Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University, says, “Distorted Descent is a brave, original piece of scholarship, offered in the context of a politically sensitive and socially controversial subject of Indigenous identity. His research exposes the extent to which white settler colonialism undermines Indigenous rights through the theft of Indigenous identity. It’s a real wake-up call.” Brenda MacDougall, Chair in Métis Research at the University of Ottawa, says, “This is a timely and important study highlighting Canada’s historical literacy about who Indigenous people really are which, coupled with an exponential growth in interest in genealogical research and DNA tests that trace your ancestry, has supported the claims of white-Canadians to Indigenous ancestry.”

And so we are pleased to welcome Darryl today to this meeting place, this place where we are still very much in the process of finding more empathetic, meaningful, and intentional ways of sharing space. Settler Canadians are not always good at sharing, and we do not always make the time for difficult, challenging, or uncomfortable conversations – conversations that might actually change our behaviours or help us do a better job of honoring historical agreements. And so we are grateful for work that helps us better honor and protect the legacy of meeting on this land with respect and care for one another. Please join me in welcoming Darryl Leroux to campus.

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.

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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.