Canada in Turmoil

The 20th Century was supposed to belong to Canada, said former Prime Minister Wilfred Laurier. Well, that’s over. Now it is time for the earth.


Okanagan Falls Vineyard in the Fall

The netting is to keep off invasive English birds called starlings. Oil money from the tar sands has paid for all this. The original agricultural ‘development’ of the valley took place before the First World War, to launder dirty money from the genocide of the Belgian Congo. Can all this just please stop?

There is a word that is somewhat taboo in Canadian artistic, “cultural” and “intellectual” circles. This word is “indigenous,” when applied to certain groups of people and rarely when applied to land.


Pölich an der Mosel, Germany, where the grapes were first planted by the Celts.

In Canadian Culture, grape growing like this is considered indigenous and to be at the heart of local culture, because it has a 30 year history. In other words, a colonial crop is being considered as indigenous within colonial society and its concept of ‘land’, which is, according to colonial rules, understood as “earth”. It is not.

In reference to people within Canada, the term “indigenous” is allowed to be used in racist terms, to refer to certain peoples and to exclude others. The people it includes in my “land” are the Syilx, the Similkameen, the Tulameen (a southern Tsilq’hotin family), the Ashnola (an inland Sto:lo family), and the Secwepemc, whose ancestors and this land were one for at least 10,000 years. Because the Syilx were plateau peoples, it also includes the Nez Perce, the Colville, the Warm Springs, the Umatilla, the Methow, the Wenatchi, the Yakima, the Moses Lake, the White Salmon, the Chelan, the Wanapum, the Sinlahekin, and many other peoples, all of them brothers and sisters — all of them one people in the land.


Peshastin Pinnacles, Wenatchee Valley

In colonial American culture, the indigenous sacred site above is considered a “natural landform” and the pear orchards below are considered to be indigenous to “the people” or “the state”.

In Canada, the people that the term “indigenous” completely excludes are everyone else: culturally, socially, intellectually, personally, and individually. It excludes, in other words, almost everyone, forever. This is a non-negotiatable point. It is an eternal internal Berlin Wall.


Grape Vines on the Internal Canadian Wall

Precious water is squandered to produce a luxury urban product, Ice Wine, for sale to wealthy Chinese industrialists and the urban financial elite. These ones were unharvested, because the technology was inappropriate to the climate.

Since I have the mixed fortune of living a certain part of my life within the cultural net of the place called Canada and the greater part of it as a creature of the earth, that is partly caught in its net and partly in that of the United States of America, this taboo touches me daily and directs my actions as surely as a barbed wire fence directs cattle, and like those cattle I don’t like it. In fact, I don’t know why I should like racism or being herded. Oh, I know why I am being asked. I am being asked (or, rather, directed) to accept it, because in the past people of Caucasian heritage stole this land from its people, belittled and diminished their cultures, damaged the land greatly, and at times systemically (and at times just stupidly) attempted to obliterate both their cultures and their people.


Orchard, Richland, Washington

Smoke from estranged, burning Yakima People’s grasslands, Canadian water to try to transform a ‘desert’ into ‘productive’ land, New England crops carried to the new West to heal the American Civil War on neutral ground, French poplars planted to break the local wind … it’s like a plantation on Mars. This is how people who don’t live on the earth treat her.

Usually, this history is placed in the past. Occasionally, it is rightfully understood as being an ongoing part  of the present. If so, it denies me my identity as an indigenous person, in order to safeguard against ongoing and systematic cultural diminishment of “indigenous” people. There is a kind of triage going on, in which, in the name of nationalist Canadian culture and certain developing cultural fashions, my sense of indigenous identity must be sacrificed, in case it infects the cultural body of “the country” as a whole.


One Contemporary Face of Racism

These luscious wild cherries, which could start a local industry, which require no water and little care, and which were vital to the Syilx, are considered weeds and left to their rightful place, “nature”, and the birds — exactly as the Syilx have been treated. When used in this sense, “indigenous”, as a synonym for “natural” or “native” is a profoundly colonial term.

Canada, you see, is a country directed from a centre, not one that has evolved from its parts. Its connection with its regions is tenuous. Now, let me clarify this word “Canada”, for a moment. Like most things in the North American north, it means two things: one is Canada, the countries of Upper and Lower Canada that evolved together organically, and which are in the East, on the Great Lakes and the St. Laurence River; the other is the idea which they “published” or “mapped” westward across the continent. It is an idea which Upper and Lower Canada effectively purchased with a railroad. I’m talking about the second of those countries. There’s a third, too, the one in which the people actually live, but that’s a discussion for another day.


The Railroad’s Canada

155 years later. This is called “industry” and is understood as “land use” and “private property” in a system in which “public land” or “public space” is either industrial or park land, to satisfy Canada’s founding principles of natural romance harnessed to industrial exploitation, for which indigenous peoples were put onto reserves made purposefully small so that they would provide a working class for a small elite. The attempt, in other words, was to turn the Syilx into the Irish.

In Canada (the let’s buy this land and lay a map over it Canada), the paradoxical denial of individual identity and circumstance in the name of protecting individual identity and circumstance passes as intellectual activity, and is the same kind of big Marxist lie that lay at the heart of East German society and eventually brought the society and its culture to ruin. It’s strikes me, given that history and example, as being a bad idea.

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Russian Graves in the “English Garden” of Belvedere Palace, Weimar, Germany

Now untended and falling down. Canada is just such an “English Garden” — which is a particular “wild” European conception of Nature.

As for racism, a definition might be in order. In Canadian English, “racism” is “the life view that considers people of non-Caucasian heritage, and their culture, as being lesser than Caucasian people and culture and in its extremes non-human.” Such a definition is important for a corporate identity such as “Canada”, which has become one of the world centres of multi-cultural identity, in whose cities global identities and the strong, populist individualism required to provide identities between them, rule with dynamic hybrid vigour (and some troubling problems). In English, however, the word means “the separation of people on racial grounds.” That’s how tricky the social map is in Canada. The Canadian definition is laudable, because it works against nonsense and oppression, yet it falls afoul of the broader meaning of the word, because it does profoundly separate people based on genetic markers. In fact, it is completely based upon doing so — in the name of not doing so. That kind of paradox is profoundly Canadian. It is a form of intellectual barbed wire.


Canadian Intellectual Barbed Wire

Individualism has a social price. Breeding of these “Nicola” apples was done at public expense. The apples were then given to “private” “owners” of “land”, to sell “publicly”, to make a profit off of the exchange. The apples, however, don’t sell, and even the deer are prevented from getting off of the hills. The only money made here is by fencing companies. Not only does contemporary Canadian culture not live on the earth, but it fences itself off from it in social and physical ways, which it praises.

It takes on other peculiarly North American forms, too. For example, although I am from the “land” (I give the word quotes, because even the word is inadequate; it’s more a story than the land and more a body than a story and more time than space) and it is my body and memory and soul, current intellectual fashions direct me to understand this (my identity, the deepest core of my being) as an error — even a sin.


This Destroyed Syilx Salmon Stream, However, is Not Considered a Sin

It is considered to be a consequence of something called “global warming”, which is understood as a “natural” or “indigenous” process, not a social one.

In compensation, I am given, by Canadian culture, a group, to which I am said to belong. I only need to be taught that I belong to it. This is a classic definition, by the way, of Marxist re-education.

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The Father of East Germany in His Garden

Reading his Marx, but maybe not the hearts of men.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not anti-Marxist, just as Wolf Biermann was not anti-Marxist during the ten years the East German government held him under house arrest for being anti-Marxist. Like Biermann, I’m in favour of true socialism.

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Don’t Grow Bitter in These Bitter Times

Wolf Biermann, singing in West Germany after ten years of house arrest for criticizing a hypocritical regime. 1976.

Luckily, since Canada is a dynamic culture, I am given many groups. One of them is: “The group of all people who live in the Okanagan”, which usually means “All white people in the Okanagan,” and never includes the American half of the valley, and its people. It’s like building a wall in the middle of Vancouver or Belfast. Some of the things that humans do would be insane, if it were not easy to understand that they are done because humans are the greatest predators on the planet — some members of the human species are as eager to predate on other humans as they are on bull elk and brown trout. The trick is that at times that defensive instinct becomes predatory in and of itself.

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The Blue Hell

The state security prison of Bautzen, East Germany, home to West German journalists, critics of the regime, and anyone who tried to flee and was caught. Inmates in solitary confinement sang Biermann’s songs to keep themselves sane. The guards were pissed off.

Another group given to me is: “Canadians.” Sometimes that group includes “indigenous” people and sometimes it does not, but it is always, in evolving contemporary speech, referred to as “we.” Who is this “we”? It is a fascinating word. In popular contemporary Canadian culture, which is to say the culture that is evolving rapidly and has the greatest chance of becoming dominant Canadian culture in the future and seeing its cultural genes transmitted broadly, “we” means a multiple of related things in a dynamic relationship: “all humans” (a post-racist genetic term, that names humans by biology determinism and thus denies indigenous culture and identity while proposing to foster it), “a statistical majority of Canadians” (this is the definition used for the purposes of governmental planning at all levels), “the real Canadians” (or, in translation, “The Real People”, or “us”) (a class-based term, employed in a culture that prefers to see itself as being without class-based distinctions of privilege but which draws strong lines between people based on cultural affiliations, intellectual ability, and other markers, which are called “elite”, which is a term meaning “oppressive”, which means “oppressive of the people.”)


For Thirty Years, Canada’s National Broadcaster has Been Broadcasting That Hockey and Canadian Identity are the Same

The Canadian prime minister has just personally published a history of hockey. I loathe hockey.

Ironically, the “real Canadians”, being a class of honourable and decent normal folks with honourable roots in the working and middle classes, now are the cultural elite and inhabit all of its institutions, and are responsible for them, while, at the same time denigrating the former “elites”, as if they were oppressing them, and calling themselves the oppressed class. This is what revolutions look like up close and personal.


Syilx Land De-Syilxed

This land has been under land claim since 1895, when it was illegally alienated through a cynical process. Now it is irrigated by processed sewage water, on which are grown cattle and on which are built “view houses”. It is part of the “land use plan” of the City of Vernon, British Columbia, and from my house I look out on it every day.

Given the statistical bias within Canadian culture and the reality that Canada is one of the most urbanized cultures on earth, “Canadians” usually means, understandably enough, “people who live in a large city and view the earth through it and its social and physical webs and structures, including those of government and the elite status structures granted to its institutions.” It’s not very intellectually precise, but intellectual precision, you see, is part of oppressive elite culture. The dominant intellectual trends in Canada today are “deconstruction”, a form of Marxism, and “vagueness,” an aesthetic form that has found fertile ground in philosophy. The thing is, I belong to all of these groups, but only marginally, and only insofar as Canadian and its new colonial master, American culture has infiltrated my land and my indigenous, land-based self, especially as it has been taught to me.



Yes, this is what it looks like. These men are hauling up one of the last sturgeon on the planet, in front of one of the mothballed nuclear reactors of the Manhattan Project on the Columbia River, so they can let it go again, so they can haul it up again. This is considered sport and is considered a part of local (ie indigenous) culture and to be an inalienable human right.. It is taking place directly across the home island of the Wanapum People, who chose not to sign a treaty with the Americans, because they were the rightful owners of their land and did not need permission. As a result, they were considered for a century to be non-peoples, and even today talk in Richland, Washington, the headquarters of the Manhattan Project’s production facilities, easily runs to dismissal of them as being a people who never had a home and were denigrated by all other peoples of the area as vagrants. So much for being indigenous.

I tell you, though, I’m in Iceland for six weeks, on the farm of a man who came home from just such a colonial identity in 1939, and I don’t intend to come back to the barbed wire that I left. I am indigenous. The Okanagan is my place. Now, “place”, that’s another interesting word. In indigenous thinking, it is a physical location, that is identity, in which “earth” and “spirit” and “self” are the same thing. There is no word for this in English, and if we were to make one, something like earthspiritself, it would sound preposterous and would hardly do the job. But it is there, and it is physical, and it is story, and there are few points of contact between it and the ruling mythology, the scientific world view. I am trying to build some on this in an Icelandic room with a clear view over a field of horses to ancient mountains in which I feel profoundly at home.


Icelandic Horses Watching Me Watch Them …

… even though I don’t speak their language.

And that brings me back to “place”. In “Canadian English”, this “place” does not mean a physical location. In fact, in contemporary “avante garde” Canadian literary practice, “placelessness” is the norm and physical identity is exactly the kind of counter-revolutionary, reactionary, class-oppressive consciousness that literature exists to root out, to mock, and to destroy, for once and all. In its “place”, is proposed the dominant, contemporary “Canadian” sense of “place”, which is one’s social “place”, ie, one’s place in the Marxist social structure of evolving human consciousness in a post-physical world. It is also “real place”, otherwise known as “where ‘we’ live”. By “where ‘we’ live” is meant the Canadian colonial grid, the world of streets and suburbs and whacky real estate development schemes and designer wineries and dance lessons that constitute most of daily life. No argument there. The land is a post card seen at a distance, experienced only in “recreational time” or through “recreational activities”, which often include parks, walking paths, and boats, through which one can “get out there” and “be free” and “breathe some fresh air” and experience the ultimate, Canadian romantic colonial rush: “nature”.


Chopping Up Invasive Weeds in the Spring …

… to allow summer visitors and locals “getting out into the sun” a chance to “play” in nature. With the disinterest of the provincial government in managing its natural environment, it is left to local institutions to commit “weed triage”, abandoning most areas to ruin and preserving those with the greatest human interface. This is called ‘pragmatism’.

This is “place” within the dominant culture of this “place”. As an indigenous person, I look at it with amazement. We will never save the planet that way. That way, we will guarantee ourselves the ultimate “placelessness”: no inhabitable planet at all. It is a colonial mindset, going back to the European and Canadian roots of this nation, and it, not “place”, is the one that needs to be healed or even set to rest. In Canadian English, “colonialism” happened in the past, and was done largely by white people to “Indians” and to a European sense of place, which they called “land.”


This is not land.

Colonialism, however, is ongoing. It infiltrates everything. I personally don’t like being oppressed by it, but many people don’t seem to mind. It’s not that my sense of “Okanagan” “place” does not include parks, walking paths, suburbs, shopping malls, grocery stores, and all other parts of the Canadian ‘grid’, but that I am not rooted in them and do not derive my identity from them. I get it from the land.


This is My Self Portrait…

taken shortly before leaving for Iceland.

The clarity that comes in Iceland is in part that the landscape is so profoundly similar, in part that the balance between senses of place is not so completely one-sided, in part that the language is more honest and that class identity holds a lesser sway over culture, and in part that culture here is rooted in a kind of physical place, using a language that rises from it. It is, in other words, indigenous. It is healing to be, for awhile, in a place in which I am able to be myself, without negotiating intellectual fences, and in which being indigenous is not a sin.


Here I am in Iceland

Of course, this is not my country, but that’s not the point. My sense of indigenous culture goes back through the “land” of my childhood to the sense of indigenous culture of my ancestors in northern Europe and back through them to the depths of time and human space. The line is unbroken. Indigenous people around the world are creatures of the earth. They are her people. For me, it is not a simple line, as it winds its way through 1930s Germany, with all the political and social difficulties tied with that, but it is a clear and honest line. I do not believe that humans have a chance on this planet unless they find ways to create social groups that honour indigenous relationships to her. We need all our people, together. There is, however, no ‘we’. There are many, who are one, while remaining many. And in that thought, I show my German-Canadian colours at last, a bit faded and tattered, but still flying.

p1120005Downtown Vernon

Hub of the North Okanagan. Colonial British Columbia volunteered here to be shipped off to France in August 1914. We are left to sell our junk among bomb splinters. Formerly prosperous regional cities in East Germany look just like this, as do formerly prosperous fishing villages in Iceland. Only the flag is different, but what’s a flag? Pshaw, just something blowing in the wind.

Nationalism has outlived its time. Until flags mean less and the earth more, humans will continue to be an endangered species.

2 replies »

  1. I’ve been pondering this idea of “place” a lot lately, and haven’t gotten my head around it. This helps. I’ll have to read it a couple more times…. The ending: “Until flags mean less and the earth more, humans will continue to be an endangered species,” is perfect.


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