Quest to Become a Modern White Ally Week 2

Last week I embarked on a quest.

I want to understand how to become a white ally.

I plan to do this by exploring my family’s history here in Canada and by learning about racism and colonized thinking and how I personally contribute to the problem. I also think, when all is said and done, my journey will lead me to a deeper understanding of my own spirituality.

This is my first week in…

The week began with my many gremlins. Thoughts like, “I don’t know what I’m doing”, “Why did I choose to start this quest”, “This is a stupid idea”, “I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing”, “Why open this can of worms”, etc. But as Elizabeth Gilbert writes about creativity and fear, these are all very boring thoughts. We all have them when we face something new so I won’t bore you with more details about my attempts to quit before I even started.

Next I did something I’m not proud of.

Cree artist Kent Monkman has partnered with the Art Museum at the University of Toronto for “a large-scale show of new works exploring the 150 years before and after Confederation, narrating a story of Canada through the lens of First Nations’ resilience”. I first learned about this show on Facebook. (Here’s a link to a video where Kent speaks about the show, which is called “Shame and Prejudice: A Story of Resilience”.) The first time I saw these paintings, my initial thought was, “Look, its English soldiers taking the First Nation kids away and putting them in residential schools – not French soldiers.”

This thought is ridiculous on so many levels and I’m ashamed I even thought it but after looking past the shame I noticed something really interesting. The painting I’m referring to depicts men dressed in red coats and black pants – basically the uniform of the RCMP. When first looking at the painting my eyes didn’t even see what is actually there!  My eyes saw a story that has been carried on in my French Canadian culture for generations. As a child, I heard discussions around kitchen tables and community events that blamed the English for a lot of things. Without even realizing it, my first instinct was to try and dilute the difficult feelings the painting was evoking by finding someone to blame. I instantly became defensive and it was such a programmed, unconscious reaction.

Kent’s paintings evoke a lot of feelings. I think he did an absolutely amazing job of this. It’s really hard to look at and be really present with the pieces in his show.

The last thing that happened this week was I lost my sense of patriotism. (Don’t worry. I suspect I’ll find it again at some point. At least, that’s what I’m hoping.)

While reading about Kent’s show, I read it is Canada’s 150th birthday this year. I knew this of course but it hit me differently this week. As I mentioned last week, my family has lived on this soil for over 400 years. We were here long before Canada even became a country. Canada is so very young and its story of colonialism is so much closer than I was imagining it to be. Heck, my grandma is 91 years old. She was almost there at the birth!

But what is the birth of Canada exactly?

From what I’ve gathered, it was conceived because English and French explorers and traders became increasingly interested in the rich resources North American land contained. They brought their armies and their treaties and tried to acquire land that was not theirs. At first they were amicable but eventually they wanted more.  If they couldn’t acquire what they wanted peacefully, they did so with force and manipulation. Basically, they did whatever they had to do to get what they wanted.

That is the birth of my country.

That is the history lesson I wasn’t made privy to during all my morning Oh Canadas in school.

I know that’s a very diluted and simple summary of a very long and complex history but still…how am I supposed to celebrate Canada Day? How am I supposed to feel national pride?

One of my ancestors came here as a poor French soldier. He settled in Quebec near the late 1500s, married into a wealthy family, built a lucrative business trading furs. His quality of life improved by moving here. Can the First Nation people whom he traded with claim the same thing? Was their life improved by our settling here?

Until next week,

(photo by Antii Paakkonen)

Dana da Ponte

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