- by Anne Finlay-Stewart

In the midst of the Dr Seuss, Pepe Le Pew, et al discussion, a local young father made the statement that he had always known the difference between fiction and real life because he had “good parents” Further, he said, fiction did not influence him.

This morning I woke up with a tune in my head, and as I struggled to put words to it, I was horrified to discover that I could, and these were the words.

We are the Red Men, tall and straight, 
In our feathers and war paint :
Pow-wow, pow-wow, 
We're the men of the Old En Cow. 
We are the Red Men, 
Pow-wow, pow-wow.

I doubt that I have sung this for well over fifty years, but it was a staple at both my summer camp and Girl Guide campfires. It had actions – a scooping action for “down among the dead men”, and in some Boy Scout circles apparently “fingers across throat, make zip noise”.

While I was sitting around that fire with almost all white girls, singing this song and a dozen others like it, the 60s scoop was going on. A friend's family adopted two girls from a Manitoba First Nation, and I never truly thought for a moment about their homes and birth families. Residential schools were open for more than thirty years after I last sang this song.

We sang the beautiful “Land of the Silver Birch”. I don't know who I thought was building their wigwam high on the rocky ledge, but I am pretty sure I identified with that “My heart cries out for thee, Here in the lowlands, I will return to thee, Hills of the north” and it was about returning to summer camp. The original residents of the land on which the camp sat were no more than misty figures from school books in my mind, consigned to some undefined past.

I do not know when I first really understood that there were Indigenous people around me. Certainly not as long as I lived in Toronto. Perhaps, vaguely, when I lived in Hamilton – but only that Six Nations people were not far away, not that I was walking past them on the city streets.

When I came to Owen Sound in 1994, I was already forty years old. Only here did I begin to see and meet Indigenous people. Those were the years of white men throwing fish guts and racial slurs at the Market. Neighbours of Nawash, Dudley George, the Ipperwash Inquiry, the “fishing wars”, Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women, Hope Bay cottagers, land claims. The past twenty-five years have opened my eyes to the reality I had been taught to ignore.

I have been voting for fifty-five years. For thirty some years my generation has been in positions of authority and decision making. For most of that time, over a hundred First Nations communities have been under a boil water advisory while I have never had a day in my life without access to safe drinking water.

Reading that these songs, cartoons, mascots, and the caricatures they repeat are “part of our heritage”, “harmless” or that they have “fallen out of favour as 'potentially' politically incorrect” makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck.

I too had “good parents”, but I internalized many two-dimensional fictions about people we never bothered to try to understand. These caricatures are hurtful to the people they reference, there is no question. They have also damaged me and my non-Indigenous contemporaries and our whole culture.

I wasted decades living in only a fraction of the diverse community all around me, while my neighbours were diminished by stereotypes and slurs. 

I will not waste another day.




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