Did you know that February is also Indigenous Storytelling Month? I saw something about this earlier in the month, but for some reason, it did not click until I saw it again at my public library. The good news is that I was already there to pick up a book that would be perfect to work in for one final post in February.
Before I dive into my review, I want to direct people to my post on The Education of Augie Merasty: A Residential School Memoir by Joseph Auguste Merasty with David Carpenter. It was the first book I did a review on for this blog and still one of the most impactful works I have ever read. I highly recommend it.
So, here is my review of 21 Things You May Not Know About The Indian Act by Bob Joseph
This book is for people who want to walk with informed minds and hearts along the path to reconciliation.Joseph, 4
There is unfounded belief in Canada that we somehow escaped the racist reality that exists in the United States, a reality flamed by slavery and police brutality. I used to believe that myself, used to comfort myself with the fact that I live in Canada. However, through my own attempts to educate myself and listen to the stories of those who exist here, I have realized that is not the case.
While there are definite benefits to living here, Canada is not free from racism, is not free from the stain of history, is not free from its impact.
The continued existence of the Indian Act is a testament to that, still surviving 145 years after it came into law.
The Indian Act is an 82 page document that can be found here, if you are the type to enjoy reading acts. However, Joseph is quick to point out that if he had written about the entire Act, no one would have been likely to read it (10). This is why he opted to choose 21 things that were not common knowledge and sign a spotlight on them.
He originally wrote a blog post about them, where the 21 things were listed with external links. However, the book goes much further in depth. It provides background information and context. It shares quotations from those who were impacted or those who held the power to change or enforce the law. For example, when discussing residential schools, Joseph places this quotation in the text:
When the school is on the reserve the child lives with its parents, who are savages; he is surrounded by savages, and though he may learn to read and write, his habits, and training and mode of thought are Indian. He is simply a savage who can read and write. It has been strongly pressed on myself, as the head of the Department, that Indian children should be withdrawn as much as possible from parental influence, and the only way to do that would be to put them in central training industrial schools where they will acquire the habits and modes of thought of white men.Prime Minister John A. MacDonald, 1883 – Quoted in Joseph, 55
This line of thought is behind one of the worst atrocities committed on Canadian soil.
Children ripped from their parents and forced to attend schools where they were often mistreated and where death would find far too many of them. Parents were threatened with fines or jail time if they refused to send their children, at which point, the children would be taken anyway.
Yet, there are those who claim that is in the distant past, who would see that was said in 1883 and shrug it off as ancient history. I hope those people know that the last of the 139 residential schools across Canada was Gordon Indian Residential School in Punnichy, Saskatchewan (Joseph, 123). It closed in 1996. That is only 25 years ago!
This is not ancient history.
It is barely history at all. There are people alive today who attended these schools.
In fact, my grade 12 Native Studies teacher attended one. It made his class one of the best classes I ever took in high school because he was able to offer a perspective that is often lacking from these courses. My sister took the same course with a white teacher and when I took the university course, it was also taught by a white professor. While that does not make them uneducated, the tone is different when the course is offered by someone who truly understands the impacts.
This is not all that the book does though. After breaking down the 21 things you may not know, he discusses the way forward. He writes about dismantling the Indian Act and what should take place in its wake. He provides a timeline of residential schools and outlines all 94 Calls to Action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. He even includes some classroom activities, a discussion guide and further reading that people can check out.
His initial blog was powerful for simply providing the unknown information. The novel is powerful because it goes so much further. It is not simply a recreation of the blog post. It is a fully fleshed out look at each premises and what comes next. There is something striking about the way that Joseph writes this novel. There are quotations that stick with you, ones that I couldn’t get out of my mind, even as I wrote them here.
Some communities were removed altogether from their traditional lands… all they had known all their lives was gone and they were left facing a future impoverished, malnourished, vulnerable to disease, and controlled by the Crown.Joseph on the creation of reserves, 26-27
And so it began: the most aggressive and destructive of all Indian Act policies.Joseph on residential schools, 52
The tragic reality [of the Indian Act] is that what should have been a positive and respectful code of conduct degenerated over time into one in which government policies led to cultural genocide, assimilation, theft of land, denial of treaty and constitutional rights, racism, and increasingly punitive laws mean to control every aspect of the lives and deaths of the original inhabitants of what is now Canadian territory.Joseph, 84
Canada is changing, and I foresee a future in which the Indian Act will be a chapter in Canada’s history. To put is simply, the Indian Act was designed for a specific purpose that no longer exists in a country committed to reconciliation.Joseph, 103
The subtitle for Joseph’s book is “Helping Canadians Make Reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples a Reality.” It is a statement of hope, a plea for those who exist outside of Indigenous roots to come to the table, to take the time to educate themselves. That is the purpose of this novel: education. While reconciliation is listed on the cover, that is not truly possible while there are those who resist the change, who would rather hold onto their beliefs of superiority.
In light of my recent review of 12 Years a Slave, I was struck by a similarity that I had not noticed before. Yes, I am aware that Indigenous peoples were not slaves. However, our government created a pass system that reminded me so much of the passes that Solomon experienced in captivity. Those in power wanted to keep others in check, so they created a world where those without power had to have permission to move around. They were not able to move freely, stuck to the exact specifications of the pass they were granted or they would face punishment. These are not the actions of those who believe everyone is created equally, but rather the actions of those who believe themselves to be better for an arbitrary reason. An arbitrary reason that could be destroyed if those from below push back hard enough.
While I have already shared several quotations from this novel, there is one more that I want to share. When I read the quotation Joseph included that was made by Duncan Campbell Scott, the Deputy Superintendent General of Indian Affairs, I dropped the book in shook. This quotation comes from 1910 after a report was released unveiling the horrendous conditions of residential schools. I will let Scott speak for himself.
It is readily acknowledged that Indian children lose their natural resistance to illness by habituating so closely in the residential schools, and that they die at a much higher rate than in their villages. But this alone does not justify a change in the policy of this Department, which is geared towards a final solution of our Indian Problem.Joseph, [emphasis added], 60
When you hear the words ‘final solution,’ did you automatically think of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust? I know I did.
Do you know what the first thing that comes up when you Google ‘final solution’? Articles about the Holocaust, which was a genocide of Jewish people in Europe.
Okay, yes, the Holocaust did not technically start for another 31 years. However, the use of the same term that would become synonymous with that well-known genocide should create all the context that you need.
The goal of the Canadian government was the eradication of Indigenous peoples. They were not even trying to hide it. They openly spoke about it and created laws, or drafted amendments, that prevented Indigenous peoples from living to their fullest potential. That has a devastating impact that is still seen today, which is why I am so glad that I read this book.
I would recommend it to everyone. In fact, it should probably be required reading for every Canadian as we begin on this path to reconciliation.
If you would like to read this book, I urge you to purchase it from a book store owned by a person of colour. Here is a list of stores in Canada and the United States that are owned by Black or Indigenous people.