National Post – Father Raymond J. de Souza
As we head toward the national sesquicentennial on July 1 — formerly known as Dominion Day — aboriginal issues have come to the forefront.
Wednesday’s announcement here that the chiefs of the Treaty 7 tribes will serve as Calgary’s Stampede Parade marshals (for their third time) is one sign of that. The Stampede, founded in 1912, has always had prominent participation from the various tribes of southern Alberta. I remember as a child being impressed by the indigenous chiefs in the parade and going to the Indian Village on the Stampede grounds. Having all seven chiefs lead the parade this year is meant as a gesture of esteem for Canada 150th birthday. There were smiles and goodwill all around at the Stampede for the announcement.
It is not that way everywhere as the days tick down to July 1st. For many, the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) has become something a prism through which Canada’s entire history of aboriginal engagement has been viewed. That is not a fault of the TRC; it had a mandate to examine the difficult history of residential schools, to tell the truth about that period and to promote reconciliation.
Truth-telling about history, acknowledging both lights and shadows, is always a challenge. Two temptations have to be resisted
Yet somehow the TRC’s necessarily narrower focus on residential schools has come in some quarters to characterize the entirety of the experience of Canada’s indigenous peoples. Commentary on this topic increasingly tends toward treating Canada 150 as an occasion to mark a century and a half (plus) of brutalization by the Canadian state — and churches — of aboriginal peoples.
Truth-telling about history, acknowledging both lights and shadows, is always a challenge. Two temptations have to be resisted. The first is to remove the shadows in service of a comfortable history that poses no challenges for correction or contrition in the present. The second is to remove the lights, in service of using the shadows of the past to advance an agenda today.
Happily, an initiative by our Postmedia colleagues at the four Calgary and Edmonton dailies aims to avoid both temptations. Unveiled on Monday under the title of “Alberta 150,” the series presents 150 Albertans who have shaped both Alberta and Canadian history.
Happily, an initiative by our Postmedia colleagues at the four Calgary and Edmonton dailies aims to avoid both temptations
There are the figures that you would immediately expect: James Macleod — after who Fort Macleod is named — and Sam Steele of the North West Mounted Police, Sam Livingston — often called Calgary’s “first citizen” — and the suffragettes Louise McKinney and Nellie McClung. Remarkable figures, but an unremarkable list.
Yet amongst the first batch announced on Monday, the list included two aboriginal chiefs and two priests. That takes a bit of courage today.
Chief Crowfoot, also known as Isapo-Muxika (1830-1890), was a Blackfoot warrior who was successful in the wars between the Blackfoot and the Cree. Admitting that aboriginal tribes went to war against each other is rarely done today, as if that somehow makes them less human. War though is a sad, but universal, part of the human condition.
Crowfoot was far-sighted though, not only effective in war. As one of the head chiefs of the Blackfoot he established working relations with traders and settlers, as well as the police. He argued for peace and was one of the leading chiefs in the discussions leading to Treaty 7.
Father Albert Lacombe (1827-1916) was a Catholic missionary from Quebec who managed the extraordinary feat of brokering a peace treaty between the warring Blackfoot and Cree. He was trusted by both sides.
Indeed, he was instrumental in the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway. The Blackfoot threatened to block the railway from going through their lands. It was Father Lacombe that facilitated the agreement between Crowfoot and the CPR which permitted the transcontinental railway to be completed. For his efforts, the CPR made Fr. Lacombe the nominal president of the company for one hour. Perhaps more substantially, his friendship with the Blackfoot helped to maintain peace during the 1885 North West Rebellion.
We were taught the history of Alberta as a partnership between the Europeans and the aboriginal peoples. The history we learned overlooked many of the shadows
Fr. Lacombe lived among the Cree people for years, learning their language. Like several other missionaries, he translated the Bible into Cree and developed an early Cree dictionary.
Fr. Lacome was not quite as skilled a linguist as Father Emile Grouard (1840-1931), another person on the Alberta 150 list. A missionary from France who became a bishop in Canada, he learned to speak five aboriginal languages fluently: Cree, Dene, Beaver, Hareskin and Loucheux. Having installed a printing press, he published the first ever books written in Alberta, to say nothing of the first books published in the indigenous languages.
Growing up in Calgary, we were taught the history of Alberta as a partnership between the Europeans and the aboriginal peoples. The history we learned more than three decades ago overlooked many of the shadows, a history rather too comfortable. But there were also many lights, and the Alberta 150 project, begun this week, seems to have found the right balance.