Off The Book Shelf – originally published in the Brentwood Cares newsletter
By Rosemary Brown
Many of us want to learn more about Indigenous Issues and Racism but don’t always know where to start . So I thought I would share with you what I have been reading in two book clubs: Chapters and Chat facilitated by Indigenous activist Michelle Robinson and the Settlers’ Book Club facilitated by Cat Schick, a Calgary artist. Both book clubs can be searched for online (Chapters and Chat through the Calgary Public Library, called Indigenous Book Discussion Group: https://calgarylibrary.ca/events-and-programs/programs/indigenous-book-discussion-group/ and http://settlersbookclub.com)
In Chapters and Chat we have alternated reading books with studying The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 Calls to Action. The 94 Calls to Action (available online) are a blueprint of what Indigenous peoples want to see action on in many areas including but not limited to child welfare, education, health, public services, and justice. One can track the progress being made on the Calls by googling Beyond 94. One can also get much more information on the issues that gave rise to the 94 Calls by checking out the Truth and Reconciliation Report Volumes from the public library.
The last book we read is a must read – 21 Things You May Not Know About the Indian Act by Bob Joseph. In just over 100 pages of fast paced but detailed writing Joseph summarizes the history that different sections of the Indian Act have had on Indigenous Peoples in so many aspects of their lives. He ends with a discussion of how the Indian Act could be dismantled. There are also several appendices including one terminology, a classroom guide and the TRC’s Calls to Action.
Off the Bookshelf (2)
by Rosemary Brown
Last month I introduced readers to two book clubs: Chapters and Chat and the Settlers’ Book Club, both of which can be found online. One book which has been read in both clubs is Indigenous Writes by Chelsea Vowel. Vowel, a Métis lawyer based in Edmonton, makes it clear that she is not speaking for all Indigenous peoples. On the other hand the issues and analyses she presents echo those of many of the other books we have read. In this book Vowel uses humour and a well-documented research to explore a range of issues including but not limited to terminology, identity to residential schools and the 60’s Scoop, water, justice, the treaties, education. As such this is an excellent book to read alongside the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions 94 Calls to Action. Vowel also has an extensive section challenging prevalent myths around Indigenous peoples.
One of the themes running through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 Calls to Action is the need for anti-racism education among health care professionals, child care workers, educators, the police, members of the justice system, etc. So in the Settlers’ Book Club we have also been reading several books about racism. The first was White Fragility: Why it’s so hard for white people to talk about racism. This was written by the white American author and anti-racism facilitator Robin Diangelo, White Fragility explores the myriad reactions that we as white people often experience when either
discussing racism or being challenged for racist comments and behaviours. These include everything from anger, and denial, to withdrawal, tears and or silence.
While I had been aware of these typical reactions before I read the book, I appreciated how Diangelo locates them within the context of white supremacy and what she calls the “good/bad binary”. She unpacks what white supremacy is and how as white people we are socialized into racism. Because we often are unconscious of this process and
because we have bought into the notion that good people cannot be racist —that the racists are only those radical white supremacists. She ends with a discussion of how we can build resiliency when talking about racism so that we do not fall into typical reactive behaviours. This book has given me and others a lot to think about, as well as a list of very useful resources for further learning.
Off the Book Shelf (3)
By Rosemary Brown
One of the first and most impactful books we read in Chapters and Chat was Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation and the Loss of Aboriginal Life.The author is James Daschuk, Associate Professor in the Department of Kinesiology and Adjunct Professor in the Department of History at the University of Regina. The question motivating the research for this book was what were the root causes of the gap in health outcomes for Indigenous peoples as compared to mainstream society in Canada. Using a range of sources including government documents, reports from Indian agents, the RCMP and the Hudson Bay company, Daschuk locates the origins of the gap in health outcomes for Indigenous peoples on the prairies in the impact of the fur trade economy, the destruction of the buffalo herds and harsh government policies.
I was deeply disturbed to learn that the Canadian government, under the leadership of Prime Minister John A. MacDonald, deliberately withheld food relief as a means to force treaties and reserves upon Indigenous peoples in order to clear the way for the railroad and settlement. Even after treaties were signed food relief, which was most often not only inadequate but spoiled, continued to be a means for control. Previous to the late 1870s and despite fatal diseases introduced through the fur trade, the Indigenous population was quite healthy. Now malnourished and crowded onto reserves they were not able to withstand the impact of tuberculosis which spread dramatically, killing a significant number of people and making others more susceptible to other diseases. A more recent example of the link between malnourishment, overcrowding and the spread of tuberculosis was a tuberculosis outbreak in the 1980s among the Lubicon Nation in northern Alberta after the disruption of their traditional economy by imposed oil and gas development.
While I found the content of Clearing the Plains difficult and upsetting to read I strongly recommend this book to others. It encompasses an important part of our history here in Alberta one that we cannot continue to ignore if we are serious abut the Truth and Reconciliation process.
This past summer the Settlers’ Book Club read Desmond Cole’s The Skin We’re In: A Year of Black Resistance and Power. This book is a must-read for anyone interested in gaining insights into the relationship between black communities and urban police forces. A black investigative journalist in Toronto, Cole recounts events from the year
of 2016 on a month to month basis. He describes in chilling detail incidents of police brutality as well as interactions with immigration and child welfare. Cole is also an activist who speaks up at hearings and other public events. He describes these as well as the community organizing efforts of everyday people. Cole weaves in stories from other provinces, including the visit he made to cities in Alberta to meet with communities concerned about the issues of carding and racial profiling by the police. This book was a timely read shortly after the Black Lives Matter protests held across the world and. It continues to be significant for understanding the experiences of Black people in this
country at the hands of the authorities, and the need for change. As Cole states “Some of us have decided that policing as it exists today will never contribute to our safety or freedom”.
Off the Book Shelf (4)
In Chapters and Chat we read Clifford, Harold R. Johnson’s poignant memoir of his older
brother. The story is related through a melange of memories as Johnson spends a day and night camping outside the long-ago abandoned home where he had lived with his Swedish father and Cree mother and siblings, at Montreal Lake in northern Saskatchewan. These memories range from escapades into which Clifford led Harold to discussions of scientific theories and allusions to astral travel.
The memoir offers insights into the critical role his mother played in securing a livelihood for the family through trapping, as well as the impact on the family of a forced move from the bush and trap lines into an urban area. The memories of Clifford extend into adulthood and the tensions that sometimes existed between Harold and Clifford. The conversations they had as adults continued to fascinate me, as did Clifford’s analysis of the difference between looking and seeing when discussing internalized racism, and stereotypes of Indigenous peoples. The book left me wishing I could have met and had a chatwith Clifford and with the desire to read more by Harold R. Johnson.
To honor Black History Month, the Settler’s Book Club read Cheryl Foggo’s Pourin’ Down Rain. Foggo is a Calgary-based award-winning author, playwright and filmmaker. Written thirty years ago and recently republished, Pourin’ Down Rain combines personal memoir and family history, all contextualized within the larger story of the migration of Black settlers into Canada around 1910.
Foggo was born in Calgary in 1956, and she describes what it was like to grow up in Bowness as part of the small close-knit community of Black families who also lived in her neighbourhood. She also recounts the long but much anticipated road trips to visit grandparents and other relatives in Winnipeg. The close bonds between Cheryl and her cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents gave her a sense of identity and pride which helped her deal with the racism she encountered growing up.
She explains that she grew up into a consciousness of racism based on the experiences around her and the stories she heard from friends and family, especially when it came to finding work in Canada. There were the comments of classmates and the sudden shunning by a white boyfriend in high school. She describes the first anti-racism march she participated in and the continued evolution of her thinking when it came to racism.
Then there were the family stories told by her aunts and great aunts that related the conditions that led to the migration of hundreds of Black settlers from the U.S. into Canada. These included Foggo’s great-grandfather, who left Oklahoma for Saskatchewan in 1910.
Interspersed with the stories and vignettes of family life are numerous and wonderful photos of family, friends, and neighbours. These all contribute to a powerful depiction of what it was like to grow up Black in Calgary and in Canada in the 60’s and 70’s.