The first thing you notice when you land here is the virtual lack of snow.
Maybe the expectation of a postcard setting with banks of snow, a riverside blanketed with wide, white fields and huge tufted spires, cornices, and trees has left room for no other image. But the marginal snowfall here is unsettling. Sure, there’s the usual Quebec winter scene everywhere you look but it’s lessened by a few slumped and spotty feet of snow.
It was down time for us. We were here at the end of a short tour to promote books and lecture at Toronto’s York University and to be with family we haven’t seen for six months. My wife’s sister lives here with her two children. The kids are nearing the end of their high school careers and big changes will happen soon. This time of life is awesome in its creative potential and we were happy to be here to see them.
One of the things that was important to us was to visit Old Montreal. Both of us had been here a number of times before but it was our first time together. We were both drawn to the narrow cobblestoned streets, the fabulous architecture, art, boutiques and ambiance of people navigating the streetscape of a city that had existed not all that long ago.
History is a marvelous thing. Stepping away from the pages of books and being able to walk where great events took place or where people lived lives that were the foundation of what we experience today is fascinating. The old part of Montreal has always charmed me. I’ve never been to Europe and all I’m able to glean of its atmosphere I’ve gotten from the cobblestoned streets of Old Montreal. It was great to be back again.
History. I wonder why we go to such lengths to preserve it. As I walked those old streets I felt alienated again. This is a history that has no part of my own even though I can claim to be more genuinely Canadian than those who raised this city. There’s no evidence of the First Nation village that preceded it. There are no grand statues of the native scouts who led the French to this site nor are there monuments to the strength of the peoples who showed them how to survive here. It’s a one-sided history at best.
Montreal and Canada itself would not exist without the intervention of native peoples. In fact, the story of Canada itself is the story of her relationship with native people. It has to be. The country did not start to become until First Nation people chose to aid and welcome the newcomers. To frame the national story in anything less than that light is to diminish the glow of Canada. We know the names of the explorers who took credit for opening up the country but we do not know the names of the native guides who took them there.
And that sad fact is not just relegated to the pages of history books. It’s being played out again today. When the world gathers in Vancouver for the Winter Olympics, there will be a marginal aboriginal presence. Sure, the logo reflects native culture and there are four host aboriginal nations but it’s all bunting really.
No one is going to get a chance to shine a light on the reality of aboriginal life in Canada for those millions of visitors. The story of Canada’s relationship with her native people will be told in a way that reflects honour, equality and respect.
But Canada has still not signed the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Native people still live in horrendous conditions without heat or water. Even on the Musqueam Reserve in Vancouver, conditions are desperate. But no one will see that or hear about it. Instead, Canada, Vancouver and British Columbia will all jump farther and run faster from telling the truth of her history with her own people in order to bask in the admiration of the world.
So that years from now, walking those streets, there will be tales of glory; of how a city, a province and a country came together to present one of the finest Winter Olympics ever. There will be tales of co-operation with native nations. All that is written and all that is seen will reflect that line and that will be the accepted history.
But no one will speak of the fact that absolutely nothing changed for First Nations once the games concluded because nothing will. It’s all smoke and mirrors and it’s all marketing. Once the gate is counted, First Nations will get none of it. The debt’s too high, for one thing. They served their purpose for the other. History will say nothing about that.
Richard Wagamese is Ojibway and the author of Keeper’n Me. He won the Canadian
for Dream Wheels and his new novel, Ragged Company, is out from
Doubleday. He can be reached at email@example.com