Paula Simons, Edmonton Journal
EDMONTON – Come summer, I like to sneak onto the fifth floor deck of the Edmonton Journal building to eat my lunch. I love to snatch 15 or 20 minutes away from the air-conditioned newsroom to enjoy the sun, overlooking the river bank. From up here, our city looks beautiful with its contrast between the glassy highrises of the downtown and the green valley below. The Journal sits in one of the oldest parts of downtown Edmonton, where settlers starting building well before this part of the west even joined Confederation. From up here, on the fifth floor deck, I can look down on the Edmonton that existed even before we joined Canada and the great Canadian experiment.
This is Treaty Six land. This is the traditional territory of the Cree people. Long before my ancestors arrived here from Eastern Europe, our first people stood on this riverbank, looking down at this river. This was their place long before it was ever mine.
I was born here. I have spent the better part of 50 years calling this city home. I have spent much of my working life telling Edmonton’s stories, excavating its past, documenting its present, planning its future. But in many profound and important ways, I am still an interloper here.
That’s not something I’m always comfortable to admit. A few months ago, I wrote a column about the demolition of the ugly old Staples store on 101st Street, which was knocked down to make way to a new arena-district office block. It was a pretty straightforward column, marking the end of an era when we were so desperate for any kind of investment downtown that we allowed a remarkably ugly office supply store to occupy one of the key entryways into our downtown core. It was a celebration of downtown renewal and new hope for Edmonton’s core.
I didn’t expect it to generate much controversy, not compared to some of the pieces I usually write. So I was quite taken aback when a number of young aboriginal activists took to social media to denounce the column for its failure to recognize the old Staples site as Treaty Six land. The complaint struck me as absurd. After all, I wrote back to them, all of Edmonton is built on Treaty Six land. By their logic, I should have to acknowledge that fact in print, any time I wrote about any real estate development in the city.
“Why pick on this particular column — about a Staples store, of all things — to make that point?” I harrumphed to myself. But as the months have gone on, I’ve asked myself why their comments rankled me so much. The answer isn’t easy one to articulate. But I’ll try. Those young indigenous activists made me defensive because they forced me to face a supremely uncomfortable conclusion. I am a trespasser here, on my home and native land.
Last month, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission gave Canadians an incredibly valuable early Canada Day gift. With its final report into the tragic failures of the residential school system, the commission gave us a way to better understand how previous governments set out to erase aboriginal language, culture and spirituality from this place.
Many non-indigenous Canadians were deeply offended by the report’s use of the term cultural genocide. It’s understandable, I suppose. When we hear the word genocide, we think of Hitler, and the Final Solution. No one much likes to be compared to the Nazis. The kind of slow, gradual cultural and demographic erasure that was committed here was less ruthless, less efficient, less deadly than the mechanized efficiency of the Nazi death camps. But what happened here in Alberta over the course of decades was an ethnic cleansing, nonetheless.
European settlers wanted to tame and break and farm and develop a land that seemed to them empty and virgin. But they couldn’t maintain the illusion, the myth, that they were building a New Jerusalem in the wilderness while the wilderness was still peopled. So over the years, the people who were already here, the ones who hadn’t been killed by disease or starvation, were rounded up and contained on Indian reserves and Métis settlements.
Those who could “pass” as white were allowed to do so, provided they left their cultural identity behind, and blended into the pioneer communities around them. Many others saw their children rounded up and taken away to “schools” designed to strip them of their culture, faith, and language.
Some of those teachers and school administrators were sexually twisted sadists. Others, many others, were perfectly well-meaning. They truly believed that trying to turn their students into “white” Christians was the best gift they could give them, that they were preparing them to survive in a new country. Those well-intentioned missionaries were blind to the devastating consequences of their own Eurocentric colonialism. They truly believed they were God’s favoured people, and that they would be remiss in their moral duty, if they did not try to re-create young aboriginal children in their own image.
And that is the “inconvenient truth” of Canada — a country built on an imperial foundation. And as Canada approaches its 150th birthday, there can be no reconciliation, no healing, no forgiveness, no hope for a shared future, until we internalize that truth. My ancestors, immigrants from the Russian and Soviet empires, weren’t directly culpable for any of this. There were no Jewish residential schools. My urban grandparents were entrepreneurs, not farmers. They weren’t homesteading on anyone’s ancestral hunting grounds.
But that doesn’t matter. My grandparents were the beneficiaries of the colonial dirty work done before they got here. And I remain the beneficiary of that legacy, even today. So does every other Edmonton settler, whether their ancestors arrived here in 1905, or whether they just got off the plane from Manila or Los Angeles or Yaoundé or Damascus last Tuesday.
We settlers rarely want to acknowledge that little reality. Whenever we got here, wherever we came from, it makes us feel too defensive, too guilty, too uncertain of our right to be here, too angry at having our own integrity questioned. It’s easier to say, “Well, that was all a long time ago.” Or, “They lost, they signed treaties, they should get over it.” Or “I’ve worked hard for what I have, and I’m not going to feel ashamed of what I’ve built here.”
Over the years, I’ve written many Canada Day columns that celebrate our immigrant narrative. I’ve gloried in the mythology of Alberta as a promised land where people from all around the world, people with different languages and religions and cultures, could come and build a new and more just society together. I still love that narrative; it speaks so directly to my own family history and to the values about this city, province and country that I love. But it glosses over the most fundamental fact of our shared history, the fact that there were already people here when the first trappers and traders and settlers arrived. And the fact that they’re still very much here.
Still, we can’t build a strong and healthy and just post-colonial nation together just by feeling guilty. Guilt is not enough. Apologies are not enough. Reconciliation rhetoric isn’t enough. And government reports aren’t enough. As Canada approaches its sesquicentennial, we need a new Canadian deal, one that provides equality of economic, educational, and social opportunity to all. That starts with a new narrative, one that doesn’t simply celebrate the story of the doughty pioneer, but one which acknowledges our first peoples and which lets them speak for themselves.
We all need to celebrate the fact that indigenous culture did not die, despite the best efforts of governments, churches and schools. It endured, and it endures today in new, evolving and powerful ways that enrich our whole community. Our aboriginal neighbours and fellow-citizens are still very much with us. They are not victims of history who deserve our pity. They are resilient survivors who demand our respect. In Edmonton, we are indeed all treaty people. And on Canada Day, this former Dominion Day, we need to absorb that truth, right into the marrow of our bones.
Today, I am honoured to be a Canadian. I am honoured and grateful to to live on Treaty Six land, where my grandparents sought and found protection from the horrors of their homeland, where my husband and I chose to raise our own family. I am honoured to share this remarkable city with you all. Let us transform our future here, together, with courage and compassion. Let us build on a foundation of truth. Let us reconcile, not just with one another, but with the complicated, painful and inspiring past we all share.