By André Carrel
With the release of the concluding report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada in 2015 the nation finally came face to face with the reality of an historic evil perpetrated under the authority of our Constitution. The report documents the impact of residential schools on Aboriginal children and their families; and it calls for action on a wide range of measures needed to guide Canadians and their governments on the long road to reconciliation.
With Valley of the Birdtail authors Andrew Stobo Sniderman and Douglas Sanderson (Amo Binashii) document that experience with a focus on two neighbouring Manitoba communities, the reserve community of Waywayseecappo on one side of the Birdtail, and Rossburn, the white town, on the other side of the river. The book touches on highlights over the span of 150 years, from the proclamation of the Indian Act and the signing of treaties in the 1870s to the present. It touches on milestone events – Louis Riel and the two world wars – and how history has shaped the lives of Waywayseecappo residents Linda Jandrew, her daughter and her grandfather, and of Jim Cote and his stepfather. Alongside their stories readers meet Rossburn residents Nelson Luhowy, his son, his father, and his grandparents. The role governments played in their lives is chronicled by actions and decisions taken by Treaty negotiator Alexander Morris, by Indian agent Hayter Reed, and by the Minister of the Interior, Clifford Sifton.
The authors document the depth of institutional racism in the federal government’s determination to engage Indians in farming. By 1889 Waywayseecappo’s residents had 182 acres under cultivation, producing crops of wheat, oats, barley, rye, potatoes, turnips, carrots, and onions. This was a remarkable improvement over the previous year’s 50 acres. Today such a result would be celebrated as a success. That, however, is not how the government responded. Farming technology had progressed in the last decades of the 19th century. Instead of encouraging farmers on reserves to make use of new technologies, the Department of Indian Affairs adopted a policy for agriculture on reserves: Indian farmers on reserves were denied access to machinery, ordered instead to seed by hand, to harvest with scythes and hoes, and to grind grain with hand mills. They had to manufacture these tools themselves. Some Indian agents’ chicanery went so far as to prohibit the use of nails and lanterns.
The rationale was that, with less technology and less efficiency, the Indians would learn to work harder and experience the redemptive power of industry, thrift, and self-sufficiency. While Rossburn farmers organized themselves to purchase a threshing machine, the Department of Indian Affairs stopped Waywayseecappo farmers from pooling their resources to buy farm machinery. Further to that, Waywayseecappo farmers were not allowed to sell their product off reserve without the Department’s permission. A grotesque example of this prohibition is the $20 fine imposed for the unapproved off-reserve sale of a bundle of firewood for $1.65.
This book documents rules imposed by the Department of Indian Affairs which the RCMP was reluctant to enforce because there was no legal basis to them. Restrictions at that time prevented Indians from hiring lawyers. By 1898 Waywayseecappo’s cultivated acreage on the reserve had dwindled from the 182 acres nine years earlier to just 8 acres. How were they to challenge the discrimination and blatant injustices perpetrated against them?
While the federal government suppressed farming efforts by Indians on reserves, it encouraged Ukrainians to emigrate with offers of free farms. Maksym and Dorota Yaskiw, Nelson Luhowy’s grandparents, were among the thousands who responded to Canada’s call. Their decision was rewarded with a gift of 160 acres of farm land. Nelson recalled that Ukrainian immigrants had struggled and worked hard to build successful farms from the land they had been given by the Canadian government. Referring to the people on the reserve across the Birdtail, Nelson remarked that “They were given land, too, but they didn’t make anything of it.”
The book tells of residential school incidents experienced by Waywayseecappo kids such as Linda Jandrew who, in 1965, as a six year old, after just a couple of weeks at the residential school, hurried from her dorm to join the obligatory line-up for inspection at the entrance to the dining hall. Linda remembers that she had forgotten to put on her shoes. The school’s assistant administrator, Mrs. McKay, asked the six year old girl about her shoes. Linda, frozen with fear and unsure of her English, tried to explain that she had forgotten them. McKay struck Linda with such force to the left side of her head that her hearing was permanently damaged. Recalling this incident fifty years later, Linda remarked that some cope by becoming alcoholics, and some don’t.
The difficult and thorny path of reconciliation is reflected in the lives of the Luhowys. Troy, Nelson Luhowy’s only child, born in 1971, grew up in Rossburn and from an early age was exposed to the sight of drunken Indians lingering on the streets of Rossburn, cursed and denigrated by the white community. But reconciliation, tentative at first, did eventually take root in the valley of the Birdtail. Both Troy and his father, Nelson, were delighted and honoured to be teachers at the Waywayseecappo School.
There is a big difference between reconciliation at the level of individuals, as in the case of Nelson and Troy Luhowy, and reconciliation at the constitutional level. When Linda Jandrew received a copy of Prime Minister Harper’s 2008 House of Commons apology to former residential school students, she read it, then crumpled the paper and threw it away: “This won’t bring back the hearing in my ear.” Apologies do not erase what happened in the past.
Acknowledgments of meetings held on unceded land amount to little more than polite gestures, albeit well-meant. Canada’s Constitution gives Parliament exclusive legislative authority in all matters relating to “Indians, and Lands reserved for the Indians.” These bland words provided constitutional authority for the Indian Act which, since 1876, allowed everything done to and with Indigenous people: from hitting a six year old girl with such force so as to leave her hearing impaired for life, to denying Indigenous farmers the use of nails to teach them the value of hard work.
The authors argue convincingly that reconciliation will require the redistribution of access to wealth and to effective mechanisms of governance. The Constitution’s powers are shared by Parliament and the provinces; it leaves no room for First Nation governments. Meaningful reconciliation will require both Parliament and the provinces to open a space for First Nation governments by yielding some of their jurisdictions and powers to them.
Valley of the Birdtail is an intensely researched, well written, and eminently readable book. The authors do not offer solutions to our Constitution’s predicament; what they do provide readers with is a greater appreciation and understanding of the challenges. Solutions to any problem are conditional on a prior understanding of the problem. Valley of the Birdtail makes an exceptional contribution to such understanding.