A Portrait In History: Me, My Grandmother, and Colonialism

Painting by Ethel MaheuxWhen I was a little boy, I liked to draw portraits of my grandmother.

This is how I drew them:

I would draw the biggest circle possible on whatever sheet of paper I had. Then, I would add a tiny little head, tiny little arms, and tiny little legs.  

To make sure there was no doubt about who I was drawing, I’d always label it “Grandma.”

And, then, I’d show it to her and giggle and giggle. “See how fat you are, Grandma. This is how fat you are!”

My grandmother always enjoyed my playful gibe by portrait and she always laughed along with me. She encouraged me to draw and she also taught me how to draw better. I can still see the effects of her tutoring in my half-formed doodles today.

I recently discovered art that my grandmother made as a child or, perhaps, as a young woman. It was mixed in with the notes a musician and self-taught anthropologist prepared for an unfinished book on Algonquin culture. My great grandmother, Angélique Maheux, was one of her informants.   

I’m not sure what I expected when I went to look at the notes, which are held by the Canadian Museum of History, but I know it wasn’t what I did find. There are reams and reams of notes, documenting many aspects of Algonquin culture — and much of it is attributed to my great grandmother.

Mixed in among the notes, I also found artwork created by my grandmother, Ethel, my great aunt, Grace, and a great uncle I never knew — Frank. I also learned that it was he who carved the sculpture of Paginawatik, a chief who played a crucial role in the creation of the River Desert Reserve No. 18 — known today as Kitigan Zibi. My great grandmother, it seems, was a descendant.       

My grandmother was a constant presence during my boyhood. She looked out for me and my brother, contributing in ways that were obvious and in ways that were probably not so obvious — especially to a child. She must have been aware of how unwell my mother was becoming and stayed close to help out anyway she could.

“Grandmothers never abandon their grandchildren,” my great grandmother once said — according to one of the notes attributed to her in the collection left behind by the musician-turned-anthropologist. Unfortunately, grandchildren sometimes abandon their grandmothers.

In the summer of 1995, when I ended my relationship with mother because of her mental health issues, I also ended my relationship with my grandmother. I don’t think I intended to end my relationship with my grandmother but, at that time, if I thought of my grandmother at all, I was probably resentful. I didn’t think she was doing enough to get my mother help and seemed, at times, even to enable her delusions.

I realize now that I really had no idea what my grandmother was doing or not doing to help my mother. I had lived with my father for the last few years of high school and had fled to southern Ontario for my first year of university. I had returned to Ottawa for the summer only because I had no other choice — to take a job I didn’t want. I can’t remember if I even saw my grandmother that summer. From her perspective, it must have seemed like I simply disappeared.

With the benefit of hindsight and a better understanding of Canada’s colonial history, it now seems plausible that my grandmother might have been understandably reluctant to institutionalize her daughter “for her own good.” Canada’s track record when in it comes to institutionalizing indigenous people “for their own good” has been abysmal. It also occurs to me only now, in writing out these reflections, that she must have been enduring and, perhaps, resisting colonialism in her own way. I really have no idea one way or the other.

In high school, I tried to write a poem to express my understanding that there was more to my mother’s illness than what was happening in her brain. She was a single mother living on mother’s allowance. Had she been comfortably middle class or wealthy she probably would have had a stronger support network and probably would have found help. I understood that class framed and shaped her illness and her experience of it. It never occurred to me that colonialism also had a role to play. That isn’t too surprising, I guess. A sickness has to be named before it can be diagnosed.  

A few months ago, I found — I am pretty sure — my grandmother’s obituary online. If it is hers, she died only a year ago, which means that she was alive the whole time I have been back in Ottawa. Had I looked for her a little sooner I might have been able to speak with her. Of course, I didn’t look for her sooner because I didn’t yet have any questions to ask her. Now that I’m starting to ask the right kind of questions, I have many, but timing is, as they say, everything.

Unfortunately, even if I had reached out to her in these last few years, she might not have recognized or remembered me. The obituary I found implies she had been struggling with Alzheimer’s. I have, nevertheless, heard that it’s the oldest memories that are often the last to go. So, she might not have recognized me, but there is a chance that she might have remembered the story of a grandson and the portraits he drew of her and, in turn, she might have shared some old stories of her own.

My Place In Your History

img_20150725_113856“There are stories in these stones, this place, this land. Remember the stories, tell the stories, and you’ll always be on the path to healing.” It sounds like something my great grandmother might have said to me. The words come to me, as I am sitting in McCormick Park in Hintonburg, a neighbourhood in Ottawa, our nation’s capital.   

I imagine these words for my great grandmother because twenty-eight years ago, I was twelve years old and a student at Connaught Public School, which is a few hundred metres from this spot. In those days, my friends and I would come here to share our lunches, play poker, and smoke paper bag cigarettes. Sitting here now, the memories of that time rise up like ghosts on an ancient Indian burial ground.

According to Desmond Morton, “one of Canada’s most noted and highly respected historians,” my great grandmother was “full-blooded Odawa.” He makes this claim in an essay about her husband and my great grandfather, Frank Maheux. I stumbled across Morton’s essay late one night two years ago, when it occurred to me that the internet might help me settle once and for all whether or not one of the family legends about my great grandfather was true.

I was born in this neighborhood, not far from McCormick Park, where I’m sitting now remembering ghosts and imagining words for my great grandmother. The Grace Hospital is long gone, but the land is still there. There’s a different building there now, but it seems to me to be reminiscent of the old. I’m not sure if that’s a trick of memory or if it was intended by the builders. Either way, it’s the land of my birth and many many others born in Ottawa.

Morton’s claim about my great grandmother’s pedigree came as a bit of a surprise to me because, growing up, I don’t remember anyone being as certain of her blood quantum as he seems to be. “She was probably full-blooded” is how I remember my family describing her. Much more surprising is Morton’s claim that she was Odawa. My grandmother and my mother always described themselves as Algonquin. My grandmother even ran a service organization with the word “Algonquin” in its name. It’s possible she meant “Algonquin” in the broadest sense of the term, because the Odawa are a part of the Algonquin language group, but I’m pretty sure my grandmother thought she belonged to the Algonquin nation. I wonder what they put on her status card, when they gave her one in the eighties.  

Connaught Public School still exists, but the building I knew is long gone. The land is still there. The new building — of this I am sure — was built to be reminiscent of the old. Thanks to an open house in honour of the school’s hundredth anniversary, I was able to walk its halls a few months ago. The interior of the new building is not like the old, but it couldn’t keep the ghosts of memory from rising up. A few of the ghosts even morphed into people, who then reminded me of stories I had forgotten. My stories, of course, aren’t the only stories remembered in those halls. For others, I was the ghost that became the living breathing storyteller.

As it happens, Morton was very late to the party, when he published his article on my great grandfather in 1992. In ‘84 or ‘85, when I was in grade five or six at Connaught, I wrote a short piece about my great grandfather for Remembrance Day. Morton and I wrote about him for the same reason. My great grandfather’s letters from the front, written to my great grandmother, somehow managed to make it back to Canada uncensored, and then, thanks to my great aunt, ended up in Archives Canada. In the piece I wrote, I remember that I focussed on the horror and brutality of life in the trenches, which my great grandfather describes graphically in his letters. Morton’s piece paints a broader picture, illustrating how my great grandfather was a typically atypical example of a soldier in the Canadian Expeditionary Force.

I’m sitting in McCormick Park today, reminiscing with ghosts and imagining words for my great grandmother, because I came here for a change of scenery. Normally, I read in Parkdale Park, a few blocks away. It’s a nice spot in this gentrified and gentrifying neighborhood, but it’s new to me. There are no ghosts there, so I forgot that I might run into them here. I’m trying to finish the last few pages of Rupert Ross’ Indigenous Healing, but I am distracted by the memories of this place, the memories invoked by the book, and the words I imagine for my great grandmother.

As an adolescent, the idea of my great grandfather resonated with me. I wouldn’t say I idealized him, but I think I wanted to see a part of myself in him. It probably began with the short piece I wrote about him, but it occurs to me only now that the appeal of him must have been the simple fact of his availability for this kind of identity making. He was a story my mother and my mother’s family often told and they told it with pride. He had the gall to enlist in three wars and would spend long months alone deep in the bush watching for forest fires. It was said that he came from a good French family, which connected us by marriage to Sir Sandford Fleming, but his family had disowned him for marrying an indigenous woman. He rode a moose once. His story, in my family’s telling of it, is thoroughly Canadian.

In McCormick Park, I take a picture of the table and stools that conjured my ghosts and the words I imagined for my great grandmother. The table and stools are anchored deep into the cement and are likely to be here long after I am gone. I am sure my ghosts aren’t the only ones that haunt this spot. Others, in time, will also come to call this place home. I post the photo to Facebook and tag friends, who might remember the lunches we spent together here at this spot a very long time ago. The likes and comments trickle in. Someone I haven’t seen in twenty-eight years, and who I will likely never see again in person, responds. He tells me that when he returned to Ottawa a few years ago, the spot where I am sitting now is one of the places he made a point of visiting. He writes, “Thought I was the only one who remembered.” No, I remember. This place remembers. We all remember, even if we sometimes forget to tell the stories.

Unfortunately, neither Morton’s essay nor my great grandfather’s service record, which can also be found online, corroborates the family legend I had set out to verify. According to the legend, it was often said that my great grandfather had been awarded the rank of “King’s Sergeant”, a rank only the King himself could take away, because he had saved an officer’s life in combat. No such rank, it seems, is likely to exist. If it does, it wasn’t awarded to my great grandfather, but he did, nevertheless, earn the Military Medal for bravery. I also learn, however, that he contracted gonorrhea while on leave, didn’t send as much money home to his family as he could have, and twice admits in his letters to murdering prisoners. The problem with family legends — like history — is that the facts often get in the way of a neat, clean, and simple story.

In Morton’s article, there is a picture, unfamiliar to me, of my great grandfather and his dark skinned wife and children. He is in uniform and she and the children are in European clothing. There is something unexpected and unsettling in my great grandmother’s broad and warm smile. Her eyes are in shadow, but they seem to look directly and happily into the camera and the future — both hers and mine. The demeanour captured in this photo doesn’t match my memory of the grim and unsmiling demeanour captured in the photos taken at the other end of her history. I wonder, looking back into that happy face so much like my own, across the void of a history unknown, untold, and unwritten, if I am the great grandson she wanted or the product of a betrayal she could not foresee?

“There are stories in these stones, this place, this land. Remember the stories, tell the stories, and you’ll always be on the path to healing.” It sounds like something my great grandmother might have said to me had her history, my history, and the history of this country been very very different.

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NB: I wrote this story about a year ago. I didn’t share it until now because I submitted it to a contest, which it did not win.  I’ve learned a lot more about my great grandparents since I first wrote it. You can learn more here.

My Betrayal: A Short History of My Search History In My Search for My Family’s History

Frank Maheux, my great great grandfatherIt started with a Google search. I’m not even sure what prompted it.

A few years ago, it occurred to me that the internet might be able to answer an old unconfirmed family story. It was claimed that my great grandfather had been awarded the rank of “King’s Sergeant”, a rank only the King could take from him.

My search led me to a thread in an Army.ca forum, which had been started by someone who must be a relative of mine. Like me, he was wondering if the rank of “King’s Sergeant” existed. In the back and forth of the thread, my great grandfather’s name — Frank Maheux — was mentioned. One Google search later, and I found a scholarly article about Frank, written by Desmond Morton, “one of Canada’s most noted and highly respected historians,” and an online version of Frank’s service record.

At the time, I was excited to discover that my great grandfather had been officially immortalized into Canadian history by one of Canada’s leading historians. I was also excited to discover that the same historian described my great grandmother — Angélique, I learned was her name — as a “full-blooded Odawa.” By my memory, my family had only ever described her as “almost or probably full-blooded.” Thanks to Morton and his article, I realized that my mother’s family was much more a part of Canada’s history than I had ever imagined.  

I shared the article and my great grandfather’s service record on Facebook, and I really did not think much more about it until I did another Google search, perhaps, a year or more later, when I decided — again, I’m not sure why — to investigate my indigenous heritage a little more carefully.

I quickly discovered that the Odawa are not an Algonquin nation, as I had thought, but are, in fact, a totally different and distinct nation, even if they are a part of the Algonquin language group. I had assumed the Odawa were an Algonquian nation — if I had thought about it at all, when I first read Morton’s article — because my family had always said my great grandmother was Algonquin. My grandmother, who had her status returned to her in the 80s, also identified herself as Algonquin. So had my mother. All at once, however, thanks to Morton’s article, I was now descended from the Odawa rather than the Algonquin.  

Prompted by this discrepancy between Morton’s professional history and my memory of my family’s oral history, I dug deeper into Google, looking for other references to my great grandfather. I made another discovery.

In the footnote of another article, Morton claims “Maheux” is a corruption of the Irish name “Mayhew,” and that my great grandfather’s family was Irish. This claim about his ancestry also came as a shock because my family had always said Frank (née Francois-Xavier) was French Canadian and from a good French family that had disowned him for marrying an indigenous woman. My identity had been remade once more by Morton. I was now more Irish than I had previously thought.   

And so it went.

For about a year and a half, I thought my mother’s family was descended from the Odawa nation and the Irish. For about a year and a half, I took Morton’s professional history over my family’s oral history. For about a year and half, I embraced the ancestral identity that Morton’s official history had handed down to me. For about a year and a half, my understanding of my ancestral identity was wrong.

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A few weeks ago, yet another Google search remade — or rather, returned to me — my family’s history. And this time, I remember why I searched.

I was thinking and writing about the place of my mother’s family in our colonial history. How had my family got it so wrong? Clearly, this was one more legacy of colonialism and its attempt to erase the “Indian problem” through genocide. It occurred to me, however, that my family and my great grandmother may have been complicit in the attempt to erase their culture from history.

I speculated: maybe Angélique had embraced cultural assimilation when she married Frank. Maybe she had seen the writing on the wall and decided to embrace the winning team. Maybe, because she had renounced her indigenous heritage and stubbornly refused to talk about it with her children and descendants, maybe, after she was dead, my grandmother and mother, operating in the cultural vacuum created by my great grandmother, mistakenly thought they were Algonquin only because Ottawa sits on unceded and unsurrendered Algonquin territory. Yes, my mother’s family was Indian, I speculated, but maybe we somehow managed to get it wrong.

In other words, to resolve the historical dissonance between Morton’s professional history and my memory of my family’s oral history, I developed a new family history, in which my ancestors were partly to blame for our cultural myopia.  

That was the theory anyway, but I couldn’t quite bring myself to write it. I wrote and rewrote a blog post which — I now see — was driven by that theory, driven by the desire to articulate it explicitly, and yet I couldn’t write it for some reason. I was stuck. I couldn’t finish the piece. I didn’t know why I couldn’t finish it, but some part of me had a wordless hunch that something wasn’t quite right. It wouldn’t let me complete the story I had invented to vindicate Morton.

And so, in frustration, I turned once more to Google and found this site, which looks to have only been launched in December 2015. It collects the birth and marriage records of the Weskarini nation, an Algonquin nation. And on that site, in black and white, I found the marriage record of Frank Maheux and Angélique Kaponicin. My great grandmother was unquestionably Algonquin, as my family had always said. I also learned the English version of Angélique’s Weskarini name: White Caribou Woman.

I decided to Google the translation of Angélique’s Weskarini name and, unbelievably, it turned up in the search results. It turns out that White Caribou Woman — Wa Ba Die Kwe, in her first language — was an informant on Algonquin culture for a woman who was herself a “complicated character” in Canadian history. My great grandmother was not only Algonquin but one of two women who together appear to be important sources of our present day knowledge and understanding of Algonquin culture. They were also both descendants of Luc-Antoine Paginawatik, who was instrumental in the creation of the River Desert Reserve No. 18 — now Kitigan Zibi.

Emboldened by this discovery, I contacted Irish Heritage Quebec, an organization that encourages and aids genealogical studies of Quebec Irish families. In an email, I explained Morton’s claim about Frank’s surname and his family, including details about Frank’s parents that I learned from the Weskarini site, and, within a few hours of sending the email on a Monday night, I was informed that Morton was probably wrong about Frank being Irish. A few days later, after a few more records had been consulted, I was told that Frank was French Canadian — just like my family had always said.

So, in the end, Morton, the professional historian, was wrong, my family’s oral history was right, and I was left with one more unavoidable and nagging question: why the hell had I believed him?

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At the risk of blowing my own horn a little too hard, before I go any further, I need to emphasize that I am a well-read, highly critical, and highly independent thinker. I’ve had about as good an education as any person could have received. I have always felt comfortable challenging authority, if I felt it necessary to do so. I’m in good health and I’m comfortably middle class. If anyone was in a position to stare into the face of professional and academic authority and say, “no, that’s not true,” it should have been me. And yet, when a historian of some note wrote something about my family that I knew to be wrong, I immediately doubted my family’s oral history, instead of doubting the professional historian’s “official” history.

So how did it happen?

It’s tough to say, but, like any other attempt at historical analysis, I can identify some plausible causes and mechanisms.

The most important factor at play is that I have been out of contact with my family for many years. Had I brought Morton’s claims, say, to my grandmother, she would have said at once that he was spouting nonsense. On the strength of that strong rebuttal, I’m sure my normal resolve to challenge authority would have kicked in. The strength and resilience of a family’s oral history is grounded in the family members who tell it and retell it. A family history with no family to tell it withers in the face of “official” history.  

It was also important, I think, that there was plenty in Morton’s imperfect history that I wanted to hear.

To start, it was an ego boost to discover that a historian had written about my great grandfather, a relative that I have always been fascinated by. Once charmed by the historian’s gift of “historical relevance”, I was probably psychologically primed to be more accepting of whatever story he told.

Second, Morton resolved in a favorable light a fact about my great grandmother which had always been left ambiguous. My great grandmother, according to Morton, was unequivocally “full-blooded”, while my family — in my memory — had always been wishy-washy about her pedigree. Because I wanted to believe Morton on this aspect of his imperfect history, I probably became much more susceptible to accept all of it.

Finally, Morton’s claim about my great grandfather’s ancestry offered a simpler and neater version of my identity. In Morton’s version, I was now almost all Irish, with a full-blooded shot of Indian as an accent. There was no French Canadian to further muddy the already less than clear waters. Like a scientist drawn to a new theory because it is aesthetically neater, I was drawn to Morton’s history of my family because my blood quantum was now — in my eyes — aesthetically neater.

In other words, Morton’s imperfect history of my family had enough good in it that I was tempted to bite, and I took it hook, line, and sinker.

My foolish acceptance of Morton’s imperfect history, however, is not even the most troubling aspect of this short history of my search for my family’s history. Far more troubling to me is the fact that I tried to resolve the dissonance between Morton’s imperfect history and my family’s oral history by imagining a story in which my great grandmother was complicit and even culpable in the death of her own culture. In doing so, I not only aided and abetted Morton’s imperfect scholarship, but I effectively ended up blaming the victim of that imperfect scholarship — my own flesh and blood. In the face of professional academic authority — when it mattered the most — I capitulated and betrayed my family and, ultimately, myself.

The betrayal — thankfully — was short-lived, but it was a betrayal nevertheless: a very personal betrayal, which may be one more consequence — and symptom — of the long-lived and unresolved betrayal at the heart of our colonial nation.

And what of the question that started this journey, is there any truth to the family story that Frank, my great grandfather, was awarded the rank of “King’s Sergeant”? 

My internet research, so far, is inconclusive. The existence of the rank is hotly contested because there seems to be no official record of the rank ever having existed. All that we have in support of the claim that the rank existed are personal anecdotes and family stories — like my family’s story about it being awarded to Frank.

And while it might very well be true that my family got this part of its history wrong — an oral history needn’t be venerated to be respected — I would certainly hope, if you’ve made it this far, you are now more willing to accept the notion that our “official” history — however professional — shouldn’t be taken as a final authority either.

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Postscript: I reached Desmond Morton by email. He thanked me profusely for my corrections. He also indicated he would correct the record, if at all possible. It was a very encouraging exchange.

Seven Shades of Colonialism: Through the Looking Glass of Cultural Genocide

My great grandparentsSeven — I have read — is the number of generations that are taken into consideration when indigenous people make a decision. I have read of this teaching here and there, but I don’t remember my grandmother ever sharing it with me.

I do remember her giving me and my Grade 2 class (or was it Grade 3?) a talk at Cambridge Public School. She taught us that Indians always intentionally leave an error in their arts and crafts as an act of humility. To help illustrate the teaching, she let me and my classmates inspect a beaded bracelet, challenging us to find the error in it. No one did. Later, she showed me the intentional flaw and gave me the bracelet.

I’m not sure if she presented herself and her Indianness to my class because it was a “cultural” day or because it was a “bring-a-parent-to-school” day. Both are equally plausible.

Here’s the strange thing. My grandmother was an Indian, she presented herself to my class as an Indian, but it never occurred to me that I was an Indian too.

Much later, I sometimes used my indigenous ancestry as a kind of get-out-of-jail-free card, to escape the imprisoning routines of ivory tower identity politics. Inevitably, someone would attempt to undercut my credibility by stating the obvious: I am white and male. To which I would reply, “yes, I look pretty white, but my great grandmother was a full-blooded Indian. Am I suddenly more credible now?” Colonized identities come in many shades of grey.

It was my great grandmother, as far as I can tell, who made the decision to embrace Canada’s non-indigenous and colonizing culture. I like to think that she made the decision to integrate into the colonizing culture after weighing the costs and benefits for her future descendants, including me. I like to think she settled on integration because, based on the facts available to her at the time, she thought it was the best choice for her descendants. Cultural assimilation isn’t a foreign concept to indigenous peoples, but she probably had no idea that European assimilation, like its treaty making, was a very different kind of beast.

Nevertheless, in all the pictures of her that I’ve seen, she always wears European clothing and, despite being the towering figure of a sprawling family, I have no memory of any of my relatives telling me that she wanted them to hold onto her indigenous language, culture and traditions. I remember only that my great aunt always mentioned how silent a paddler she was whenever we were out on the lake together.

A few years ago, I was allowed to sit on a catwalk at the back of the National Arts Centre’s studio theatre, to live tweet a dance event. As I tweeted, I watched and, for the first time, something struck home. The piece was about the residential school system and the suffering it had wrought on generations of Indians — not all of whom actually attended the schools. It finally occurred to me that I am connected directly by blood to people who suffered in those genocidal institutions and to those who have also suffered because previous generations had suffered in them. Whatever its shade may be, I had skin deep in the hateful game of colonialism.

Since that first moment of understanding, I have learned much more about Canada’s genocidal history. I have a hunch that my great grandmother’s decision to integrate into Canada’s colonizing culture may have saved her direct descendants — including me — from the sharpest edges of the colonial machine — like the residential schools — because, when she agreed to marry my great grandfather, she ceased to be an Indian in the eyes of the government. By suiciding the “status” Indian in herself and by hiding in plain sight, she hid her descendants from Canada’s more overt attempts to murder the Indian in them. Nevertheless, she had brothers and their children — my relatives — probably ended up in those genocidal schools.

Unquestionably, the shade of my skin, the totalness of my assimilation, and my conventional gender identity and sexuality have all protected me from the most visible abuses of colonialism. Arguably, all things considered, I’ve even done pretty well for myself, considering I grew up surrounded by the aftershocks of cultural genocide. I am also sure that my successes would have been much harder to come by had my skin been darker and my indigeneity more overt.

And yet, from the other side of the mirror, from the perspective of my great grandmother’s parents, my life probably does not count as much of a success because I have no ties to a land, a language, or a family. And, to be honest, without a wife, family, home, car, or conventional career, the few beads and baubles of success I have collected along the way don’t really count as much of an achievement by colonial standards either.

I don’t know if I am what my great grandmother hoped for when she married my great grandfather, but I know I am one of the seven generations she might have taken into consideration when she made her decision to integrate. I know, from the perspective of material well being, I have much more than she could have ever dreamed of at that time. I also suspect she wouldn’t be too concerned about my total integration into the colonizing culture because she seems to have embraced it herself. I suspect, however, that she would be disappointed that I have no connection to the family that she worked so hard to keep together.

The tricky thing about history, as is well known, is that it is always written by the winners to suit their own wants, needs, and agenda. Remembering and memory — the science is showing us — also works much the same way. The “I” that I have become remembers its past to suit its own wants, needs, and agenda and, presumably, the wants, needs, and agenda of those who have written the history I was taught and am trying to unlearn. Having been raised scalp deep in colonial culture, it really should come as no surprise that my memories — what I remember and don’t remember — say much more about my place in that culture and history than they do about my great grandmother’s in hers.

Me, My Mother, and You: Colonialism’s Bastards

SelflessSelf2I never knew my maternal Grandfather. I’m not sure if my mother ever knew him either. Like me, my mother was a bastard.

I remember, when I was little, she once claimed to have seen him on the bus. I also remember that she claimed to have seen him when she was very young.

She said she had peered down from the stairs, under the cover of darkness and the assumption that she was asleep, and saw him arguing with someone — maybe my grandmother — in the front hallway of one of her childhood homes.

I say “claimed” because my mother would later claim many things I knew not to be true. Perhaps, these claims of her having seen a forever absent father were an early sign of what was to come.

Until very recently, I had always assumed my maternal grandfather was white. It was a natural assumption. Every mirror reminds me that I am white — no matter how Indian my mother, grandmother, and great grandmother looked.

I recently realized that my “natural” assumption is one more legacy of colonialism. The aim of colonialism in Canada — and around the world — is to create in all of us a deep and natural longing to be whiter than white — bleached of land, language, community, culture and history — whatever the colour of our skin may be.

I also realized that my maternal grandfather — had he been a status Indian — probably would have gone to residential school. My maternal grandmother probably did not.

She was the daughter of a French Canadian veteran and her Indian status was returned to her only in the eighties. She was probably spared some of the worst physical horrors of the residential school system because my great grandmother had given up her status to marry my great grandfather.

Nevertheless, I am sure any school my grandmother attended, whether she slept there or not, would have also tried very hard to kill the Indian in her too. My mother as well.

Now that I know much more of the history of the residential school system, it seems unlikely that anyone who had my blood in their veins ever attended an official residential school. However, had I been raised in a traditional indigenous community, I would have been raised to look upon all the older men and women of the community as grandfathers and grandmothers.

It is only the Western colonial obsession with the “racial” purity of blood that cuts off my ties — our ties — to a shared history we should all call our own. In a just world, we’d remember all of the boys and girls who attended residential schools as our grandparents, our aunts and uncles, our sisters and brothers. We are as much children of their history as are their direct descendants.

In truth, I don’t know anything about my maternal grandfather’s ancestry. He might have had any kind of blood flowing in his veins. Because he surrendered — or was denied — any direct influence on the stories I tell, I am free to write any story I want about him — even one that absolves him of some of the responsibility of what was probably the abandonment of my mother and grandmother.

Nevertheless, because I know the history of this land, I know one truth about him that no story can ever erase. Whoever he was, he was a child of colonialism. Like me. Like you. We are all the bastard children of colonialism.

We are often told that blood is thicker than water. Story, however, is thicker than both. Our western colonial obsession with the “racial” purity of our blood is just one more story we are taught to tell ourselves. It is a colonial fairy tale — like whiteness — invented to divide and weaken us and to make it easier for domination to stride freely and do as it pleases.

We are much more than the stories we tell, but the stories we tell — and don’t tell — can bring us together or hold us apart. The story of colonialism is our story — all of us — whether we like it or not. The only question you or I face is how to weave our own story out of it.

Go home, Philosophy. Evolution has got this.

Blue and BrutalI have no memory of a time when I didn’t believe in evolution.

Of course, that can’t actually be the case.

I was raised, at first, in a bland non-denominational Christianity. Then, after my parents separated, I was immersed whole hog into Catholicism. It seems likely, at some point, I believed in some version of Creationism. Even so, if I had a conversion moment — not on the road to Damascus, as it were — I don’t remember it.

I do, however, remember when I first started to understand the full implications of the theory. It was when I taught this essay by John Dewey, as part of an introductory course on human nature. I had, of course, read and studied the essay before I taught it, but it was only when I taught it that its message really hit home.

The message is simple, if you are ready to hear it.

Evolution elegantly explains the variety of species. It is also an explanation that offers no guarantees. Broadly-speaking, any outcome for any species is possible. The only condition is that the outcome is always going to be the result of a reproductive advantage.

That’s it.  

That conclusion may seem pretty innocuous these days. We live, after all, in the worldview that was shaped by evolution’s discovery. It is, nevertheless, a pretty earth-shattering conclusion for a vain little species like us.

Evolution tells us we aren’t special. We weren’t preordained. We weren’t a necessary outcome. We aren’t the best or even the fittest. The only claim that we can make is that our ancestors reproduced more successfully than their competitors. Who knows? Maybe some prettier, smarter, and stronger version of us decided having kids wasn’t worth the effort.

And, having thought about the implications of evolution for many years, I am also now inclined to think evolution answers – in broad terms – almost all the fundamental questions of philosophy. What are we? Why are we here? What is morality? Why are we moral? What is thinking? Why do we think? What is knowledge? What is beauty? Essentially, any question that can be transmogrified to the question, “why are we the way we are,” is best explained by evolution.

Of course, that means the only questions evolution can’t directly answer are metaphysical – but even now I’m wondering if an evolutionary lens might be usefully focused on these kinds of questions. Evolution, nevertheless, has an indirect answer to metaphysical questions. We ask metaphysical questions because we evolved to think about and understand the universe in these ways. Conceivably, we might never have evolved to ask and answer these kinds of questions. The planet is filled, after all, with very many successful species that aren’t particularly smart, reflective, or concerned about the nature of the universe.  

There are, of course, many smaller, more focused questions worth asking and pursuing, but, as far as the big “why, oh, why?” questions, it seems to me evolution will be the ultimate and fundamental explanation for all those kinds of questions about us. Physics and cosmology will, of course, take care of all the metaphysical questions.

Which is to say, I suppose, that Hawking is essentially right. Philosophy, as a discipline, is dead. Philosophy, thought of as an outlook or way of thinking, should and, of course, will continue. It should, however, be a kind of thinking done within an empirically grounded discipline rather than being a discipline onto itself. The notion that philosophy is a distinct discipline should go quietly into that good night. 

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As Insignificant As A Star: The Brief Light of Consciousness

Pale Blue Dot“We’re made of star stuff,” Carl Sagan famously quipped.

Sagan makes this claim, in part, because of what we are made of. We humans, like all other animals and most of the matter on Earth, are made of carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen. These elements, we know, were created in stars long ago.

Sagan also makes this claim because he wants to make us feel special. He adds, in a curiously Hegelian turn of phrase, “We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.”

In this way, Sagan adds his voice to a chorus of opinion about the nature of human consciousness. Like Sagan, many other people want to characterize the fact of our consciousness as something profoundly special. They want human consciousness to be much more than one more mere phenomenon of the universe. Sagan wants us to feel special because we are conscious of the universe and can come to know it.

Sagan’s claim about the specialness of humans, however, like all such claims, does not make much sense.

Yes, we are made of matter that originated in stars. That matter, however, has existed in one form or another for billions of years. It will exist for billions more. The amount of time it will be animated by our consciousness is imperceptibly short. From this perspective, consciousness and whatever it might come to know is of no more or less significance than anything else.

Consciousness, nevertheless, is precious to us. From our perspective, it should be. Its temporality, its finitude, its ephemeralness, its very nature shouldn’t diminish its preciousness to us. It only seems less precious, I think, when we fantasize, like Sagan, about its special significance.

We humans seem to have a desperate need to make ourselves out to be much more than we are. Even a cosmologist like Sagan, who is all too aware of the vastness and scale of the universe, succumbs to this desperation. It is this desperation to be more than we are, I think, that leads either to hubristic fantasy or pointless nihilism.

Instead, we should accept and embrace our indifferent and fleeting place in the vastness of the universe. It is, after all, the most plausible account of our place in the universe. It may also be the key to truly enjoying our brief time as conscious and experiencing matter here on our pale blue dot of a planet.

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