Can Canadian lit help us explain the Boushie tragedy?
by Kate Sutherland. Originally published on Policy Options
October 3, 2018
When the verdict was handed down in the Gerald Stanley trial, it immediately seemed to me to be wrong on the law. I had trouble making sense of how anyone could apply the defences argued to the facts established and arrive at an acquittal in the death of 22-year-old Cree man Colten Boushie. How did the jury get there? What was going on in their minds?
If it’s difficult to explain the outcome of a trial by focusing only on the laws and principles that were raised by the Crown and defence, we should look beyond law for illumination. We can’t know what was going on in the minds of the jury. But we can look at the ideas, perceptions and biases embedded in the broader culture; consider how these may have affected various legal actors and figured in the result.
I’ve been collaborating for some time with Osgoode Hall law professor Signa Daum Shanks on a project that involves analyzing representations of Indigenous peoples in fiction. We began with a conviction that literary texts not only reflect societal values but also shape them. We resolved to investigate what Canadian literature might reflect about societal understandings of the lives of Indigenous peoples, and how reading it may have influenced perceptions of and attitudes toward Indigenous peoples’ legal status at various points in time.
As the Stanley trial unfolded, I was in the midst of rereading several Prairie novels from the first half of the 20th century, and I was struck by the extent to which, nearly a century on, the damaging stereotypical representations that appeared in those novels were echoed in the trial and in responses to it. The connection of white settler farmer characters to the land was celebrated, their transformation of the land for agriculture treated as a heroic endeavor. By contrast, Indigenous characters (when present at all) were portrayed as interlopers in the Prairie landscape, unconnected to land or community, wishing ill on settlers, prone to theft, and threatening violence. These novels had become Canadian classics by virtue of inclusion in the New Canadian Library: for example, Grain by Robert Stead, Settlers of the Marsh by Frederick Philip Grove, and Wild Geese by Martha Ostenso. While not read much now, these literary works would have regularly appeared on the syllabuses of high school and university English classes.
But of course, such representations of Indigenous peoples are not confined to the classics. The damaging stereotypes may be even more blatant, and thus more widely disseminated, in best-selling fiction. Jordan Abel brilliantly deconstructs this aspect of this genre of novels in his 2016 poetry collection Injun, highlighting the way they deploy racial epithets (such as the “injun” of the title), racially charged terms of violence (warpath, scalped), and land-related terms in ways that favour settlers and disenfranchise Indigenous peoples.
These stereotypical representations in classic and popular literature reflect the colonial values that underlie the theft of Indigenous land, and the legal and extra-legal violence visited upon Indigenous people within Canada. This makes this body of literature a helpful diagnostic tool in coming to grips with what might be going on beneath the surface of contemporary legal decisions such as the Stanley verdict. It also underscores how fiction can influence readers to accept and perpetuate injustices done to Indigenous people. Of course, fiction doesn’t do this on its own; it’s one strand that should be considered together with other media such as film, news media, social media, and legal and political discourse.
If literature is part of the problem, it could also be part of the solution. A number of studies have indicated that reading fiction can build the capacity for empathy. Clearly the sort of stereotypical portrayals I’ve described won’t have this effect, but a switch in reading materials could begin to dislodge the stereotypes. Those settler Canadians who immediately assume menace upon encountering a young Indigenous man might be less likely to do so if they become acquainted with such realistic, complicated, fully human characters as Saul Indian Horse (Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese), Larry Sole (The Lesser Blessed by Richard Van Camp), Jared Martin (Son of a Trickster by Eden Robinson) and Frenchie (The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline).
In Richard Wagamese’s Indian Horse, after the horror of being torn from his family and forced into residential school, Saul finds an unexpected refuge in hockey. But ultimately that too is taken from him by the racism he experiences as the sole brown face on the Maple Leafs’ farm team. He responds with anger, then copes through alcohol, eventually becoming, in his own eyes, the embodiment of a caricature. But after witnessing his journey, the reader could never reduce him to that caricature.
A few decades on, in Richard Van Camp’s raw coming-of-age tale, The Lesser Blessed, Larry Sole contends with the intergenerational trauma visited on the children of residential school survivors as he navigates high school in 1980s Fort Simmer (a fictional analogue to Fort Smith), Northwest Territories.
The back cover of Eden Robinson’s Son of a Trickster, set in contemporary Kitimat, British Columbia, proclaims: “Everyone knows a guy like Jared: the sixteen-year-old burnout in high school who sells weed cookies.” But those who think they know Jared likely wouldn’t suspect that he uses the proceeds of those weed cookies to pay his dad’s rent, one of many ways that he essentially parents his parents. Jared upends everyone’s expectations, including his own.
Finally, at the centre of Cherie Dimaline’s The Marrow Thieves, is Francis or “Frenchie,” struggling to survive in a dystopian future Ontario. Fearing he’ll never again see his parents and older brother, he tries to serve as a repository of family memory and is hungry for the story and tradition that has been denied him. He also takes seriously his responsibilities to his new family made up of a multigenerational group of fellow survivors, in particular as protector of those younger than himself, as his brother had once protected him.
Monolithic stereotypes have to be cleared away so that they are recognized as such. Nuanced fictional portrayals like the ones I have described could help to dismantle the stereotypes and foster empathy.
I’ve focused on this quartet of fictional young Indigenous men, because the Stanley trial has preoccupied me with how damaging stereotypes of young Indigenous men may have contributed to the violence done to Colten Boushie, and the denial of justice for his family and community in the aftermath. I’m not suggesting that any of these characters can or should serve as representative of Boushie or of Indigenous youth more broadly. In fact, my point is the opposite. He, and Indigenous youth, are unique individuals with their own experiences, histories, families, communities, nations, territories. Monolithic stereotypes have to be cleared away so that they are recognized as such. Nuanced fictional portrayals like the ones I have described could help to dismantle the stereotypes and foster empathy.
Of course, settler Canadians shouldn’t need to be educated to meet and treat Indigenous youth as human beings. And these novels are complex literary texts and were not created for this purpose. But many of us do require a narrative that will counter the colonial narratives we regularly consume in a myriad of media, and the novels I’ve mentioned, plus many more, have been generously put into the world so we can learn from them. We should read these books, promote them, and assign them in schools. We should also support the writing and publishing of many more books as part of a broader campaign to create a safer world for Indigenous youth and ensure there is justice for the families and communities of those who are subjected to harm.
Photo: Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese, Son of a Trickster by Eden Robinson, The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline and The Lesser Blessed by Richard Van Camp. Photo by Madi Haslam.
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