Wandata’s Trial and today’s Canada

While reading the chapter that informed this morning’s post, I was particularly struck by the number of parallels between Manitoba in 1902 and Canada in 2013. Now, to be sure, this is more than likely to be a big ol’ ball of confirmation bias – I have learned more about Canada’s history with First Nations in the past few months than I have in the preceding 28-odd years, so I’m sure a lot of my facts will seem to resemble each other more than they might actually in ‘real life’. That being said, there were a number of things that stuck out to me that I want to reflect on here.

First, I must once again express my shock at the racist ethnocentricity and quasi-cartoonish evil that is the banning of dancing. I am not sure why, but I honestly believed my country was never so laughably puritanical as to say that dancing threatened the moral fibre of adult human beings. Clearly I am not immune to the kind of self-flattering overestimation of Canada that I criticize in others. This new information does give me serious cause to drastically revise my estimation of Sir John A. Macdonald downward – he was not a man who was laudable or worthy of emulation, and that becomes clearer the more I learn about him.

I find the conflation and intertwining of ‘civilization’, ‘capitalism’, and ‘Christianity’ very interesting in this example. The Canadian government, with its supposed defence of freedom of religion, did not extend those principles to aboriginal people (even though, strictly speaking, that wasn’t the government’s call to make in the first place). Capitalism was, explicitly in this case, part and parcel with a definition of civilization that included Christian belief and profession. The idea that another model, one that had been stable and effective, was worthy of exploration or at least deserved to be left alone did not seem to enter into the minds of those who were charged with making such decisions. Instead, a threat to one plank of the economic/religious/cultural fervor was a threat to all of them, and was ‘dealt with’ accordingly.

I was also struck by the similarities, strained though some would argue they may be, between what Canada did and what the religio-fascists are currently doing in Mali, Somalia, and other places where they have the ability. Dance, as an artistic expression or as a deeper expression of cultural existentialism, is an open and notorious threat to totalitarian regimes, especially those soaked in the self-righteousness of their religious belief. When it is Islamists in Africa committing these atrocities, Canada rightly stands up and shouts its opprobrium; when it’s Christofascists in our own country, we put them on the $10 bill. Now, to be sure, the comparison between Al Shabbab or Malian Touareg fascists and the Canadian government is certainly not 1:1, but I do not see them as being entirely dissimilar.

In light of the massive and ongoing #IdleNoMore activist movement, I also gained a new perspective on their chief tool: the public Round Dance. I was lucky enough to be invited to participate in such an event when I attended a rally here in Vancouver. The use of dance as a form of protest seemed to me to be an incredibly effective method – it is decidedly peaceful, it is distinctive, and it invites participation from passers-by. What I didn’t have much appreciation for, at least prior to learning about the Indian Act, is how subversive the use of dance is in this context. It is not merely a fun way to protest – it is a strong affirmation of aboriginal identity and sovereignty, and a giant ‘fuck you’ to Canada’s racist and assimilationist history.

Now I don’t know nearly enough about the life and personal history of erstwhile Canadian Senator and Conservative Party mouthpiece Patrick Brazeau to judge the fairness of such a comparison, and I am particularly loath to tread heavily in personally excoriating a man who is about to be very publicly crucified*, but I am fascinated by the parallels between him and Tunkan Cekiyana. I do not think that either man felt as though he was betraying his people by seeking to align them more closely with the power and influence of the settlers and their (our) government, but both adopt much the same arguments when attempting to cast themselves as ‘one of the good ones’. I doubt history will look kindly on either of them.

Backhouse notes the absence of women in the legal battle at the time. Men were the politicians involved, a male lawyer took part in the attempted appeal, character references were sought by Dakota men and not women. Backhouse asks what I think is an interesting question – was the involvement of women absent in fact, or only through the lens of history. This question cannot be answered, it seems, which is a shame. The role of women is remarkable (and often so) in the #IdleNoMore movement, and it certainly strains credulity that no women at all were involved in the dance bans, either in Wanduta’s specific case or the campaign more generally.

Finally, I would be remiss if I did not point out the presence of the same kinds of ad hoc reasoning that was used to vilify and exclude black settlers from the Western provinces in this case. It seems that the practice of powerful men of the day was to decide that they were against some practice by ‘those people’, and then to invent a pseudoscientific (read: bullshit) reason why their bigotry was entirely rational. The number of parallels that I could draw to other examples of this kind of ‘back-filling‘ is enormous, and such a task would necessitate a parallel blog, but in keeping with one of my theses for this year’s Black History Month exploration, I feel this an opportune time to explicitly draw that particular parallel.

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*While I have no love at all for Patrick Brazeau, I do not look forward to the racial tone that his vilification will undoubtedly take, particularly if it revealed that alcohol was involved. Even prior to his arrest, I found the level of racial abuse levelled at him – often by other First Nations people – to be shocking and saddening.


  1. janiceintoronto says

    OK, so read Pierre Burtons history tomes.

    Canada was indeed created by a bunch of crooks. It’s all documented, and true.

    Don’t be surprised. There was oodles of money to be made and you just -know- how money attracts some really undesirable people.

    Unfortunately, they’re on our money now…

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