EuroCan, Eh?

When I was a kid, if anybody asked who and what I was, I would likely have answered proudly: ‘I’m Craig and I’m Canadian.’

That answer doesn’t work anymore, at least not the second half of it.

The assumption I would have unthinkingly made back in, say the mid to late 60s when my definitions of citizenship and identity were taking ‘final’ shape, was that the label ‘Canadian’ referred to caucasians of European and predominantly British heritage, the racial and national grouping that dominated during the colonization of North America in general and north of the 49th Parallel in particular. My upbringing and education did nothing to disabuse me of those notions. The only First Nations people I ever saw were in subordinate roles on TV westerns produced in the States… most often they were portrayed as the enemy, attacking the innocent settlers who were appropriating their territories.

Five decades on those skewed assumptions, so entrenched that it couldn’t even be called smug to hold them back then, have been swept into the dustbin of history – and atrocious history at that. To the ‘victors’ went the spoils along with the paternalistic prerogative to write official texts. Half a century later, though, the ‘spoils’ have been declared a dispossession by those who want to be polite, theft by those more interested in accuracy. As for the predominance of caucasian Europeans in Canadian society, that status has long-since been challenged statistically, socially, economically and culturally.

So for me to label myself a ‘Canadian’ anywhere other than an airport security counter, or perhaps when I’m travelling in a foreign land, is meaningless – sort of like identifying as a hockey fan when the guy in the seat next to me wants to know, ‘Which team are you rooting for?’

To lay claim to the title Canadian, particularly while the national dialogue about reconciliation is ongoing, would be preemptive, to put it mildly. The meaning of the term Canadian has to be redefined in the coming years. But titles that are being stuck to me as substitutes in the meantime don’t work either. To say I’m ‘non-aboriginal’ doesn’t describe who and what I am; it’s an exclusive term. To say I’m a ‘settler’ or an ‘occupier’ doesn’t describe me either. I was born in Canada, have no other place to go or that I would want to go. Canada is my home.

So I choose to call myself a EuroCan – a Canadian of European descent.

Many, who (like myself) are justifiably sickened by colonial history, will want to label me otherwise, and I accept that. But it’s important to remember that, to succeed, reconciliation must approach wrenching issues from many points of view, in a spirit of respectful dialogue. Everyone has to accept responsibility for a sincere and just outcome. Ultimately, you have to be talking not only to a people, but to persons, to achieve reconciliation, and to talk to people with cultural and social sensitivity you need a name for them. EuroCan works for me.

Reconciliation: can we prove it’s not too late?

Fort Victoria depicted by Photographer/Artist Sarah Crease (1826-1922). An idyllic outpost of empire built – like most other settlements in Canada  –  on First Nations territory.

In preparation for writing Uphill From Here I have begun some deeper study into First Nations cultures and the deplorable colonial record of  attempted annihilation perpetrated against indigenous people’s in Canada. Most of us in this day-in-age condemn that disastrous effort and accept the need and mutual responsibility for reconciliation. But I don’t believe EuroCans by-and-large are at the place yet were we can comprehend the full scope of the tragedy.

My understanding about this blight on our history is probably average, perhaps a little better than, which is to say, I have much to learn. Even at this early stage, though, I see that the descendants of the colonists (and the colonists themselves) could have learned so much from the original inhabitants of this continent about living in community and harmony with the land, if only our ancestors had substituted for the motivating mindsets of greed and conquest perspectives of curiosity, open-mindedness and adaptation.

All is far from lost, however. The resilience of First Nations cultures, and their resurgence in modern modes, means there’s still a chance for EuroCans and other ethnic groupings in this country, to learn more harmonious, less barbaric approaches to community in nature than were imposed by the 17th Century settlers, who began arriving in numbers from Europe about two centuries after the so-called ‘discovery’ of North America.

A good starting point for me, I hope, is the University of Toronto online course Aboriginal World Views and Education.

Devlin’s need for reconciliation

The first turning point in Uphill From Here (see previous posts) will be Dev’s realization that he does need to achieve reconciliation, and that working toward it will be a lifelong preoccupation.

Despite the hardships he has faced and overcome, Dev still inhabits a zone of innocence He isn’t aware of inherited transgressions that have to be addressed if he is going to make his world right. Because of his lack of knowledge, he can proceed as if there is no need to distract himself with anything outside the line of sight between his present and imagined future.

But with understanding comes personal responsibility. First, he has to admit his adamant rejection of his mother, Debbie – his attempt to eradicate even her memory – has been a hateful and hurtful course. Then he has to learn that forgiveness is not his to give or withhold; it is up to Debbie to forgive or blame herself, his only choice being to either help or hinder her, to show compassion or vengefulness.

Then he gets to know Marie, and is drawn to her in his first sexually charged encounter. But through her and her brother Jason, he is forced to recognize more and more deeply the urgent, but dauntingly complex need for reconciliation between EuroCans and First Nations people. The perplexing irony is his love for Marie deepens the more he comes to understand her passion and resolve for her people; but at the same time he sees how difficult it might be for them to become friends, let alone lovers. Their struggle with this paradox lies at the heart of Uphill From Here.

Maria’s brother, Jason, who represents an even more hardline approach to the assertion of First Nations rights will, in a sense, express points of view Marie suppresses because she loves Devlin more than she is prepared to admit.

From my journal
April 3, 2018

Adopt a character – experience fiction from the inside

Part of my search for understanding is connection with real people, whose life experiences overlap with those of my characters. Writing at its best is a transformative process. Points of awakening, of brilliance, shine through when I as an author am amazed at what I’m discovering as I get to know my characters. Only then can I convey that sense of wonder to readers, passing along new and fascinating insights into the cultural and social milieus of my story.

I call the process of reaching out to develop characters ‘adoption’. By that I mean participants adopt characters, whose social and cultural responses they understand, and who can guide me as a write the story. Adopters will be in a very real sense co-writers.

Three characters in particular would benefit by having adopters work with me:

  • Devlin Smith, who is setting out to achieve his dreams of becoming a Paralympian and lawyer;
  • Marie Gilbert, who is defining herself as a First Nations activist, woman and artist in the 21st Century;
  • Debbie Smith, Devlin’s mother, who is grappling with her addictions, dysfunctional history, and terminal illness.

Devlin, as the protagonist, will be the focal point these various perspectives converge on. But the characters in his life have to be real, three-dimensional, imposing, and to achieve that presence, I need help to deeply appreciate their stories.

So what am I asking of the people I hope will adopt these characters? I envision ongoing dialogue as episodes are written, conversations about how or why a character might react the way he does to a given event; the emotions that would be triggered by an incident. Most of all, I am looking for descriptions of what ‘reconciliation’ looks like to them.

In other words, I want adopters to experience what’s happening in the novel and express their cultural and social reactions. I see them as collaborators and friends, who will feel safe opening up from their points of view so that I can represent my characters with depth and integrity.

A long climb up a steep hill in Ladysmith

A description of  the ‘inspiration’ and process for my  work in progress, Uphill From Here

For the most part we learn by experience. Events are analyzed, compared and absorbed as they happen, life’s meaning effervescing like the tantalizing flavours of a simmering stew.

But as a novelist that sequence, the acclimatizing passages of growing up and growing old, is frequently reversed, or inverted. In an ‘inspired flash’ I have been given Devlin Smith’s life-story in my current novel in progress, Uphill From Here. Now I have to examine the events in that skeletal outline, giving them breath, life, meaning, all the while asking: ‘ Why have I been given this responsibility?’

At the beginning of that process for this novel, I’m reaching into my communities to discover experiences and perspectives  that will make an inspiring story compelling, or what I like to call ‘real fiction’.

Join me on Devlin’s long, hard climb up a short, steep hill in Ladysmith. Let’s find out more about how he got to the foot of Symonds Street and his struggle to get to the top of that challenging grade. I’m looking for: ‘adopters’, ‘enactors’, ‘beta readers’… anyone interested in helping me tell Devlin’s story.

Read the outline to Uphill From Here, and find out how you can get into the story as it’s written.