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Olympic Games, Athens, Greece
I know I am supposed to be here, this is more than a race to me.
I know she is watching the baby she chose not to throw away.
Maybe this will finally make her see that everything that happened before tonight was worth it. That she is worth it, that I am worth it, and so are all the other mothers and children like us.
The eight of us had only a few moments left to warm up over the hurdles before we would be introduced to the thousands in the Olympic Stadium. It was loud before the start of the 100 metres hurdles final. People were shouting, and flags from around the world were being waved in the air by hopeful fans. Everything happened in slow motion, as if I were in a trance. The officials putting down hurdles, then scurrying out of our way, teammates watching nearby from the stands with Canadian flags wrapped around their shoulders, the other runners grunting and slapping their thick quads into submission—or was it an act of intimidation? None of us finalists made eye contact. It was as though the others were just bodies floating about. But we could see the tension around the corners of our mouths; our faces mean, expressionless corks that prevented all our emotions from spilling out.
I walked back to my lane marker after practising a start and knew there was nothing left to do. I was ready. Every cell in my body felt electric, as if I could shock the life out of anything I touched. I pulled in a deep breath, held it for five thumping heartbeats, then let it rush out of me with any microscopic remnants of doubt. I enjoyed this feeling and this moment despite the magnitude of it. I’d never felt anything so encompassing, so kinetic. I recognized it as that perfect edge. The one all of us athletes try to recreate hundreds of times in practice, in our dreams, in our journals—but never can. Because nothing can replicate the biggest day of our lives. No imagining can ever be real enough.
The fuzzy haze I saw before big races blurred everything: the crowd, the outside lanes, Melissa the American to my left, and Irina the Russian to my right. Everything but my ten waist-high barriers, out in front, which were crisp and clear. The starter commanded us to take our marks, and the customary ritual began as we made our way into our blocks.
Think of all the work you’ve done, Perdita. You can do this.
We were two Americans, two Russians, one Jamaican, a Ukrainian, and two Canadians. The fastest and most fearless sprint hurdlers left standing in the world. I was the world champion and the youngest among us, unbeaten in a string of races leading up to the Olympics, including my heat and semifinal rounds in Athens. Even though I had welcomed the eyes of my entire country on me and understood I was the favourite, remarkably I had arrived at the start line carrying only the weight of my own expectations. “If you want it, you can’t be afraid to go for it” is a mantra a hurdler must adopt before even starting her climb to the top of the world.
“Set!” the starter yelled. I raised my hips. The riotous crowd was suddenly silent, I was alone, and my Olympic dream was before me.
The house still stands, a large white house on a long, sloping hill, nestled against the blue-shadowed foothills of the Jura mountains in a tiny corner of France. To the right of the house, sprays of arching, red-berried shrubs border a path that leads to the barn; to the left, a decorative terrace with white balustrades stretches toward lush fields of wild grass that ripple in the wind. A wide circular fountain filled with clear water dominates the front courtyard, while brown cows graze in the lower meadow, just below the old granary.
The view from the house is stunning, uninterrupted, bordered by pine-covered mountains, and centered by wide-open sky and the shine of water, a sweeping slice of the Rhône River. A flock of birds catches the eye, a mass of silver wings swinging in upward drifts across the sun.
All this beauty, and yet no one stumbles upon this place accidentally. The village of Izieu, a mere scattering of houses, is miles away and the narrow road twisting up the mountain is a wilderness of ivy and brambles. Encroaching tree branches meet overhead, turning the road into a green tunnel.
Step into this space and the air is electric, charged with all that once happened here. Time slides in some unfathomable way and suddenly you are there at the moment it began. The clock ticks. The hour strikes.
You want to shout out to the children, "Run! Hide! It's not too late!"
But the children are playing, drawn back to the place where they were happy, their spirits woven into the woods, sparking off the surface of the river. Their bodies are sketched in shadow, their movements slightly out of rhythm, jumpy, as if you were watching an old black-and-white newsreel.
Three young boys swing from the limbs of a craggy apple tree. Two sisters, hand-in-hand, shyly watch from the mossy edge of the woods, lingering in patches of shade. Another group of children has turned the fountain into a wading pool. You hear the lilt of their voices above the splashing. A toddler bounces up and down as if there is too much energy in him to be contained in one small body. In one corner of the terrace, two teenagers steal a kiss.
The rush of a child's breath whispering into your ear is like the flutter of a butterfly wing, a soft puff of displaced air that you wish you could capture in a jar and keep forever.
You lay the palm of your hand on the bark of a tree just to check on reality and you imagine that a child once lay their hand on that very spot, or maybe that spot is now further up the tree, further than you can reach, up in the tangle of branches above your head.
But time buckles again and you are back in the present, abandoned amid an aching vacancy.
You squint your eyes and blink and blink again, but the children are gone and it does no good to shout into the wind that they should have been safe. They should have been.
You wander inside now, hoping to find their sharp presence again, touching, naming, and identifying, acknowledging the significance of a child's crayon drawing, row upon row of empty desks in a makeshift classroom. Upstairs, there is a dormitory, yawning space where once there were beds, pillow fights, faces reflecting the light of candles, warm hands reaching out to comfort.
There are photos of the children, some blurry, some clearly in focus. You feel an urgency to learn every name, memorize each set of eyes, each nose, each smile, every freckle and twist of hair. But you are quickly defeated. Each face is a universe.
The stillness of the photographs is inherently elegiac. Sometimes, the paper evidence of a crime is more reliable than memory or testimony.
Outside again, you stand in the front yard and stare up at the House of Izieu, solid enough to have survived for over a hundred years and yet, in retrospect, as ethereal as a dream. The dream lasted for only a moment, but that moment was brilliant.
Then the light goes out. Nothing prepares you for it. The loss. The darkness. Nothing moves, not a leaf, not a bird, not you. The river stops flowing. The moment has come.
The story is too terrible to speak of in the present tense. You must slide into it from the past, the details trapped in the tangled nets of history.
The last two months of 1942 were as bleak as any Sabine could remember. Clouds and lightning raced across the sky from the sea almost every day. The sky was grey, and the ground was grey with the uniforms of the German soldiers who had swept south to occupy all of France, but for eight départements to the east of the Rhône. The newspapers printed pictures of troops crossing the now defunct Demarcation Line. Miron's parents were deported from Paris and Sabine had heard nothing from her family in months. The badlands of Rivesaltes were black with mud.
To add to the general gloominess, Sabine sensed that a remoteness had crept between her and Miron over the past few months. They had spent too much time apart. Even though she felt as if the events of her day were not real until she'd told him about them, he was still only an audience, not a participant in her daily life. She spent more time with Marius in his truck than she did with her own husband. Miron had withdrawn when he heard the news of his parents, not turned to her as he usually did for comfort. There were long lulls in their conversation and disagreements that flared into spurts of anger. Sabine felt like she'd failed him in some fundamental way, that she had become a different person without telling him.
At Landas, she and Miron had done so much together, scraped a farm from the dirt and planned a future. Perhaps the loneliness she often felt now was just the loss of that future and not the diminishment of love. That morning, despite the rain, Miron had left her to eat breakfast alone while he went outside to mend a fence. She waited at the window, watching him, sure that if he would only look back at her, her thoughts would be as transparent as the glass she stood behind, and they might begin together a different kind of mending. But Miron did not look up, and Sabine could not wait for him.
During a break in the downpour, she put on her raincoat and headed for the OSE headquarters in Montpellier, for she had heard rumours that the Vichy police had ordered releases at the camps to stop. Rumours came more quickly than radio broadcasts these days, transmitted mouth to mouth like lifesaving breath, and the rumours were usually as true as they were bad.
When she reached the town and walked down eerily empty streets, a brush of rain fell across her face and she snapped open her umbrella. She heard a rattle of drops on the umbrella overhead and then a hand gripped her arm, pulling her into a doorway. She opened her mouth but before she could scream she heard a familiar voice.
"Don't go to headquarters. It's locked up."
"What's happening, Marius?"
"OSE's gone underground. There are soldiers at the door watching."
"What should I do?"
"Try our friend at the prefecture."
Before Sabine could even respond, Marius was walking away from her on a mission to warn others. She changed direction and headed for the offices of the Hérault, hoping to find the fidgety young man she'd met so many months ago.
To her very great relief, he was still there, but occupied, according to his secretary, with no hint of the irony of the double entendre in her voice. Sabine took a chair in the outer office and some twenty minutes later heard herself announced, much to her alarm, as Jeanne Verdavoire.
As she entered Monsieur Fridrici's office, the secretary handed back her papers, her false papers, and closed the door.
The young man's mouth twitched to see the look on Sabine's face. "Madame Verdavoire," he teased. "You look remarkably like a certain Madame Zlatin I once met. But so many people come and go these days, I must be mistaken."
Sabine smiled, releasing the tension in her body, but the light mood of Monsieur Fridrici changed quickly. "Come, please sit. There's no time to lose. You know that OSE has closed its doors?"
"I have a friend, a subpréfect at Belley in the Italian zone." He picked up his pen and began writing, handing her a note. He opened a drawer and pulled out a sheaf of documents. "I also have a set of papers that will allow you and a number of children to travel. Do you understand?"
She nodded again.
"The Abby of Prévost is holding a number of packages for you. Do not leave them there long. A pleasure meeting you, Madame Verdavoire. Bonne chance."
Sabine rose, as did the young man. They shared one last look at each other, direct and stripped of all pretence, one human being to another, and then Sabine turned away. She knew what she must do and hoped Miron would forgive her.
On the way home, she opened the note, memorized the name, Pierre-Marcel Wiltzer, and then dropped the scrap of paper into a sewer.
By the time she reached the farm, her hair was dripping with rain, the umbrella having buckled in the wind. For once, Miron was not outside, driven in by the weather, no doubt. She let herself into the warm kitchen, casting aside her wet coat and calling out for him, but he did not answer. He must be making an egg delivery, she thought, and set about fixing a simple lunch of omelette and bread. An hour later, she sat at the table, eating alone again, pretending she was not watching the clock.
Come-from-aways think it's the tide that brings the wreckage in, but any local child will tell you the truth of the matter. You can have fifty fine days in a row, and the beaches will be clean and empty except for the usual haul of rockweed, driftwood, and old plastic bottles. Fifty fine days, and then there'll come a thick, foggy night of the sort we do so well around here, and the next morning there it'll be—a rocket engine from an alien spaceship, or a cracked satellite dish as big as a bus, half-buried in the sand down on Bartlett's Beach.
I found out that Shauna was pregnant on one of those thick, foggy nights. She told me over the phone. She said she wanted to come tell me in person, but her dad was out with the truck. She wasn't crying or nothing. She just sounded kind of tired and sad. After she finished speaking, there was a long silence while she waited for me to say something, but I was on the old rotary phone in the kitchen, and my mom was within easy earshot, and I wouldn't have known what to say anyway. So we both just said goodbye and hung up.
That night, I bundled myself up in coat, hat, and scarf and trudged through the half-frozen mud down to the wharf, the fog wet against my cheeks. There's an old dory down in Peter Saulnier's shed that he gives me the use of sometimes. Last summer, I ran a little ferry service to Gull Island. You can walk to the island at low tide, but tourists don't always know that, and if they arrived at high tide, they would pay me five dollars for the crossing. If they arrived at low tide, on the other hand, they might walk to the island and fall asleep sunbathing, and I would have to go and rescue them when they woke up and found themselves marooned. Those ones would also pay me the five dollars.
I always liked rowing that dory. I did some of my best thinking going back and forth between Gull Island and the beach. There's something simple and clear about the effort of straining at the oars while the waves slap wetly against the sides. There's also something about it that makes me think of sex, and maybe that's why I went and fetched it on the night I found out that Shauna was pregnant.
I opened the shed as quietly as I could, not wanting to wake Peter's dogs, and dragged the dory over the dunes and onto the beach. It was so dark I couldn't even see where the waves began, so I just dragged the boat along the sand until I felt the seawater soaking into my boots. Then I jumped in and began to row.
The fog brings the wreckage in, and it's the wreckage of a spacefaring civilization. Those are the local facts. There are various theories to explain those facts, and they depend on who's doing the telling.
Joey Outhouse reckons we're an alien dumping ground.
"Just look around you," he'll say if he's pressed and has had a whiff or two of rum. "Imagine looking down on the Earth from space and thinking to yourself, Now, where am I going to throw all my old trash? The shit nobody wants anymore? Well, I'm telling you, boy, those aliens looked down, and they went all around the world, and this was the place they chose. And be honest: Does that surprise you? It don't surprise me one bit. Just look around you!"
But old Bob Piecemate, who's been to college and fancies himself an intellectual, takes a different view on the issue.
"There's always been something special about this area," he says. "We're close to a portal of some sort. Ley lines intersecting and whatnot. That's where the fog comes from. It's no earthly fog. Nobody who's been out in it can claim it is. The portal opens, and the fog flows out of it. And our dimension is like a bridge. And sometimes, while a spacecraft is passing from one dimension to the other, a bit gets caught and breaks off."
As I rowed through the fog, I thought about the letters of acceptance on the kitchen table and my mom so thrilled that I would be going to college. That was impossible now, of course. I thought about the sort of job I would be able to get in town and knew there were no jobs to be had now that the tourist ferry from Maine was no longer running and no one was buying lobster on account of the recession. I thought about leaving for the city, but I knew that Shauna would want to stay near her family and her church.
This whole town is like Gull Island, I thought. If you stay too long, it becomes impossible to leave. A piece of you catches, and you have to break it off if you want to get away.
I knew after five minutes that I had overshot the island, but I kept rowing anyway, pulling blindly into the fog until even the orange smudge of the lights on Killam's Wharf had disappeared. And then I was alone.
It was a still night, and I felt that I was rowing through a big cold absence. I thought that this must be what it's like to be in outer space, floating through so much nothingness that all the effort you can give won't make a damn bit of difference, because you'll never get where you're going.
It occurred to me that I would be able to see stars if I were in space, but it was too foggy for that. But then, all of a sudden, I could see stars, a whole galaxy of them, spread out below me, underneath the water. And they weren't the reflections of stars neither, I can promise you that. Above my head, the fog was still as thick as stew. But below me — far, far below — the stars burned bright and clear.
Even on a still night like that one, the ocean is always moving, but those stars didn't move. They just hung steady, as if the water were nothing but a thin film and I was looking down through it at something beyond.
Well, I stared into that starry, submarine sky for a long while. I stared until my feet had gone numb and I could barely move my muscles, and I knew that I should start rowing for land, or I would freeze to death. But I no longer knew which way land lay. There were no clues to be had out there in the fog.
I write this in the middle of a pandemic.
There is much that we don’t know. Scientists are racing to create a vaccine. Immunity from a second round of COVID-19 is unclear. The virus’s timeline in our lives remains a mystery, although public health officials say it could last a few years.
Here is what we do know.
When COVID-19 landed in North America, we had already witnessed its death march through seniors’ homes in Italy, Spain and France, killing thousands — retired teachers, accountants, electricians and bakers. The parents and grandparents of Europe.
We knew that elders, winners in the lottery of long life, were vulnerable.
When the virus arrived, in cities large and small, nursing-home deaths surged and soon, New York, Chicago and Los Angeles became COVID-19 hotbeds. In Ontario and Quebec, infections decimated long-term care, but not before a young geriatrician tweeted a warning: seniors’ homes will blow up like a tinderbox.
Dr. Samir Sinha was right. So were countless others, from AARP, the influential advocacy organization for older adults, to the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario, all telling governments to focus on COVID-19 in nursing and retirement homes. Give all staff masks, test everyone, not just those with symptoms because, as we soon learned, the telltale signs in older people were as innocuous as an upset stomach or nothing at all. The virus used stealth.
Those were the infection control actions, but the bigger crisis, the spark to the tinder that Dr. Sinha cited on Twitter, was the system that controls seniors’ homes. For decades, long-term care has operated on a tight budget, draining the life pleasure of the people who reside within while devaluing the work of staff, forcing many to work in two or three locations just to make a living wage. This is how a virus spreads from one home to the next.
As I write this in June 2020, we still don’t know how many elders will die.
We do know that the coronavirus-related deaths of older people are forcing the industry and politicians to confront reality, even though it was there to see all along. Going into the pandemic, governments mostly viewed nursing homes as a second-tier system for residents whose frailties were similar to those in acute care hospitals.
It remains to be seen if these flaws laid bare will lead to improvements, but the suffering will not soon be forgotten. Families were banned from visiting, a policy meant to keep residents safe, even though workers unintentionally brought COVID-19 inside, infecting the people in their care. Without proper protections, the virus spread. As weeks passed, and staff grew sick or terrified, families realized that parents and grandparents were dying, alone.
There will be a generation of adult children who live with the trauma of knowing their mother or father spent the final moments of life with no one to hold a hand or speak quiet words of love. As a journalist with the Toronto Star newspaper, I have spent the pandemic writing about seniors’ homes, speaking to families that were emotionally destroyed. People who had the means
I’m sitting on the old footbridge that leads to my cabin in the woods. Beaver Creek passes silently below. Ducks fly overhead. Ferns, cardinal flowers and moss grow amid grey rocks at the water’s edge. Spiders wander over my notebooks, which are spread out on the bridge’s rough planks, pages held open by stones.
This is the place that inspired this book. By the creek and in the forest, I discovered a rich inner dimension I didn't know existed. Far from my city life and work-obsessed routines, I began to know what gives my life meaning. And to recognize the value of protecting a divine spark, though I’m not religious, and of amplifying the extraordinary—nature, spirit, art, creative thinking—in impoverished times. A retreat means removing yourself from society, to a quiet place where moments are strung like pearls, and after long days apart in inspiring surroundings, you return home refreshed and with a new sense of what you want to do with your life.
In the fraught modern era, you’d think our timeless human desire to retreat would feel more urgent than ever. Yet taking a step back has become an act of 21st century rebellion when disengaging, even briefly, is seen by many as self-indulgent, unproductive and anti-social. But to retreat is as basic a human need as being social. To withdraw from the everyday is about making breathing space for what illuminates a life.
CHAPTER 3: THE LAND ACKNOWLEDGEMENT AS CULTURAL PRACTICE
THE LAND ACKNOWLEDGEMENT SWEEPS THE NATION
In order to understand what I propose regarding the reclamation of the Land Acknowledgement, it is important to know that Customary Law adheres to inherent acknowledgement protocols pertaining to both cultural (or tribal) identity and ancestral Land affiliation. Identification of self, accompanied by characteristics of language terminologies, dress, hairstyle, adornment, tatouage, architecture, and artifacts were/are directly aligned with one’s hereditary Land base, crafting a cultural definition.
The practice of self-positioning and Land or Territorial Acknowledgement for purposes of governance, negotiation, trade, subsistence, celebration, and ceremony has obviously been diminished, even denied, by the impact of colonization. Lands have been lost, lands have been taken, peoples have been relocated, cultural communities have merged by adoptions or reserve systems, colonial boundaries have created divisions, children have been taken, and European values, religion, and governance structures have been imposed, adopted, and rejected. Regardless, Indigenous peoples within the nation-state of Canada are reaching back into ancestral memory, which has been kept alive by brave Knowledge Keepers, and bringing these Practices of Old to the forefront of contemporary society—with determination, energy, and pride.
Since the release of the TRC report in 2015, Land or Territorial Acknowledgements have been sweeping the nation. For the last few years, government, academic, and arts institutions have led the acknowledgement of the Original peoples of the lands they are situated upon. Under Justin Trudeau’s Liberal leadership, Land Acknowledgements have become standard practice at the commencement of federal events and announcements. Although no government at any level has officially mandated the practice, the Land Acknowledgement has grown exponentially in popularity.
The National Hockey Leagues’ Winnipeg Jets and Edmonton Oilers announce their home games with a Land Acknowledgement. More than 250,000 students within the Toronto public school board hear an acknowledgement every morning. Toronto has put acknowledgements in its bus shelters. Christian churches across Canada provide statements at the beginning of their services and print a Land Acknowledgement in their bulletins. Commemorative plaques are appearing on condo buildings in Vancouver. Regina’s Globe Theatre installed an acknowledgement plaque in its lobby. The Canadian Union of Public Servants’ website includes Land Acknowledgement guidelines. Amnesty International published “a process of reflection” to encourage activists to write their own Land Acknowledgements. Individuals and institutions have taken it upon themselves to include statements beneath the email signature. And the list goes on and on.
When Land and Territorial Acknowledgements first began to circulate, they provided powerful declarations of Indigenous existence—past and present. For the first time, everyday Canadians were hearing about diverse cultures and attaching location to Original inhabitants. It woke Canadians to the fact that there is Indigenous presence in this country and a prehistory to colonization. They often evoked unintentional discomfort. They were Elder led.
The phenomenon spread like prairie fire, pushing east to the Atlantic and even toward the north, but some of these fires are starting to die out, dwindling because of inefficacy, uncertainty, or theft. Most organizations decide if and when a Land Acknowledgement is to be done, how long it needs to be, where it fits on the agenda, and whether projecting it on a screen is easier to avoid mispronunciations or whether it makes a better impression to have an Indigenous person deliver it. The Ontario Medical Association voted to discard the exercise “as a meaningless form of tokenism.” Strathcona County councillors, in Alberta’s energy and agricultural centre (Treaty 6 territory), vetoed a proposal to make the Land Acknowledgement standard practice at council meetings. The city council of Richmond Hill, in southern Ontario, scrapped their Land Acknowledgement in lieu of a proposal for training on Indigenous issues. Many, including Indigenous people, are currently questioning the purpose—and effect—of these acknowledgements. Land Acknowledgements are coming under scrutiny and are at risk of disappearing just like the Land itself.
AT FIRST THERE WAS FEAR
While Indigenous people were breathing a sigh of collective relief—or jumping for joy—that mainstream Canadians were suddenly interested in publicly acknowledging Indigenous peoples and lands, there were simultaneous inaudible gasps in some of those auditoriums. I heard panicked conversations and aggressive comments made to Elders who were initially tasked with providing the Land Acknowledgement at theatre opening-night parties. I heard one person say, “So, do you want us to give the land back, is that what this is about?” For others, it feels good that, at least, colonial institutions are assuming some role in the name of Reconciliation to bring Indigenous consciousness to the top of the show. Is there any popcorn—maybe made from Indian corn—to be served with that?
There are two camps regarding who should deliver a Land Acknowledgement: Indigenous representatives (preferably Elders) or non-Indigenous event organizers. The latter is becoming the norm, within which there are two more camps: one, for the non-Indigenous event organizer to consult with Indigenous peoples (although event organizers do not necessarily follow the guidance provided by the consultation); or two, also becoming the norm, for the non-Indigenous host organization to figure it out themselves. The second option means “winging it” or being very strategic with what is said for purposes of public appearance.
Pottawatomi and Ojibwe-Anishinaabe writer and educator Hayden King famously stated how he regrets writing a Land Acknowledgement for his employer, Ryerson University situated in the city of Toronto. In conversation with Rosanna Deerchild, CBC radio host of Unreserved out of Treaty 1 territory, he defines the practice as “a political statement encouraging primarily non-Indigenous people to recognize that they’re on Indigenous land and hopefully do something about it.” His Land Acknowledgement was later criticized because of referencing that “all newcomers are invited into the Dish with One Spoon Treaty.” So, instead, Mr. King would rather provide people with a framework and let event organizers write it themselves.
The Indigenous Circle of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) maintains that the practice of giving a Land Acknowledgement provides mainstream Canadians an opportunity to educate themselves about local Indigenous realities. Bob Joseph, member of the Gwawaenuk Nation located in what is now British Columbia, and president of Indigenous Corporate Training Inc., suggests that, in giving a Land Acknowledgement, it is “up to you which words to choose and how deep you want to go.”
Templates, guides, and tips have been developed—including the popular Canadian Association of University Teachers’ (CAUT) document listing acknowledgements for territories where universities take space across Canada. This runs counter to OPSEU’s assertion that the rich diversity of Inuit, First Nation, and Metis history and cultures “cannot be captured in a pre-written statement read at the beginning of a meeting.” More recent Indigenous sentiment is for those delivering the acknowledgement to “speak from the heart and make it personal,” rather than keeping to a script. I understand where this sentiment is coming from, but it is just not good enough.
The overriding outlook is that Land and Territorial Acknowledgements are the responsibility of the colonizer or settler Canadian community. The onus has been placed on the non-Indigenous event or committee/meeting host organizer to do their research and get the hard work done. In response, Indigenous spectators hope these wayward acknowledgements conclude by initiating actions and concrete obligations to Indigenous communities, and to better appreciate or honour First Nation treaties.
Land Acknowledgements have been increasingly criticized as tedious, performative, tokenistic, and rhetorical. If non-Indigenous event organizers are left to their own devices, why would it be anything other than less than satisfying? Metis writer and legal scholar Chelsea Vowel, from Treaty 6 territory within what is currently known as Alberta, observes: “The way in which territorial acknowledgements are delivered must matter. Are they formulaic recitations that barely penetrate the consciousness of the speaker and those listening? Are they something that must be ‘gotten through’ before the meeting or speech can begin? Can we escape dilution through repetition?”
Initially, Land Acknowledgements may have made an impact as most Canadians had not a clue what Indigenous Land base their suburb or city or town was built upon, treaty or no treaty. I would like to think most Canadians, at least, have become conscious of how little they know about First Nation, Inuit, and Metis peoples’ history, and each distinct people’s relationship with the federal government. In fact, both Indigenous people and non-Indigenous Canadians are products of the same educational institutional framework where history has been dangerously one-sided and Indigenous perspectives purposely excluded.
The initial shock, unsettling or not, of Indigenous Land Acknowledgement is long over. The same lame words that mean nothing and amount to nothing now have Canadians yawning while sitting comfortably in their seats once again, ready to enjoy the show or start their meeting (virtually or otherwise). Perhaps the grand plan was to have Canadians rendered desensitized—even angered—by its redundancy and empty speechifying? This way, when pipelines, mines, dams, and fracking are blocked by last-resort frontline Water and Land Protectors, Canadians won’t care to hear any more about Indigenous anything, especially about inherent rights, treaty rights, Aboriginal title, hereditary leadership, unceded territories, or the Royal Proclamation of 1763 and all the too-bad so-sad broken agreements. After all, aren’t all people immigrants from somewhere? Aren’t we all descendants of Africa? Should we not acknowledge Africans as the Original Original peoples of Turtle Island? That is the depth of ignorance I witnessed in response to the trend of Land Acknowledgement. And that is how far removed the Canadian conscious can be from Indigenous peoples’ history and realities.
So, with ready-to-use templates for fill-in-the-blank information pertaining to whatever territory one finds their building on, I question: Have event organizers done the work? Are they doing the work? From what I have heard and read, Land Acknowledgements from across this nation-state of Canada are muddled, unimpressive, uninstructional, downright confusing, and often factually incorrect. So, no, those in charge are apparently not “getting it right,” and Indigenous peoples are increasingly criticizing them for it. As a result, we find non-Indigenous Canadians opting out, complaining of its efficacy, redundancy, and purpose. I repeat, the Land Acknowledgement is being stolen just like the Land itself.
Indigenous peoples have handed over the responsibility of the Land Acknowledgement far too easily, without recognizing it as an opportunity for Metis, First Nation (and Inuit) peoples across this nation-state to assert and honour our own ways of knowing and being. It is time to (re)claim the Land Acknowledgement as a contemporary expression of Truth sharing in the spirit of Reconciliation, based on precolonial protocols.
The Land Acknowledgement is a wonderful opportunity for Native peoples to reinstate orators to share some of our greatest Teachings within the history and context of colonization. The written word has claimed what was once the role of great oral historians and Traditional Teachers. There are more and more great works of history and literature about the Indigenous experience, as more and more Inuit, First Nation, and Metis scholars and creative writers get published. Authors who put their research or personal memoirs and experiences on the page are equivalent to the great orators of the past. Their works often provide great leadership, guidance, and insight. They provide comfort and they combat isolation, especially for those who walk with each foot in different worlds. It can be a lonely and disheartening journey. But books of comfort are only accessible to those who have access to the page: the literate. Socioeconomic status and technology and geographical location can impact access to Indigenous-authored literature, and the business of books means these bound accounts are destined to become obsolete by going out of print or going out of fashion because of a new trend. They are representative of one specific type of learning mode, reaching a targeted audience for a certain wave of time.
A few years back, I started a master’s degree in Aboriginal and world Indigenous educational studies at a reputable university. I was at first relieved to know it was a course of study for Indigenous students delivered by Indigenous professors, then much dismayed to discover the course was confined to a colonial academic framework. Although we spoke of the value and application of Age Old Knowledge, we were instructed to use only the most recently published articles from the youngest minds as references in our dissertations. This was a contradiction. The program was indicative of a clash of knowledge systems existing within the stronghold of a colonial institution.
When I drew from older publications and cited works from across the decades to share still-relevant Wisdom (as is the case with Wisdom) that had been passed down, landing in some previous academic’s printed page, I was told my citations were too “outdated.” How can Traditional Knowledge ever be outdated? How can the voices of Elders from written accounts published long ago be forgotten or excluded from current discourse? It discredits their very memory and sharing of Wisdom when books with their knowledge are tossed to the wayside, replaced by new publications and current ideas. If the bible is a two-thousand-year-old reference book, why can’t the publications of our most impressive Indigenous thinkers be compiled and considered contemporary classics? Not everyone has access to the sharing of Oral Teachings, and, in addition, our memories have largely been colonized.
My father was an educational publisher who told me how the business of universities worked: students had to purchase newer editions of perfectly good educational resources to keep the flow of money circulating back to the university, the published professors, and the publisher. This is part of regular business strategies in contemporary economies. If books have become the main records of Indigenous Knowledge, we are putting our knowledge at risk of being lost along with those books, abandoned in damp basements, dusty attics, or mouse-infested sheds. We’ve all seen it.
Tatanga Mani (1871–1967), or Chief Walking Buffalo, of the Stoney Nakoda First Nation in what became Morley, Alberta (Treaty 7), attended the Red Deer Residential Indian Industrial School. He was an internationally renowned Great Orator. In Touch the Earth: A Self Portrait of Indian Existence, a collection of “American Indian” writings compiled by T.C. McLuhan, Tatanga Mani says:
“Oh yes, I went to the white man’s schools. I learned to read from schoolbooks, newspapers, and the Bible. But in time I found that these were not enough. Civilized people depend too much on man-made printed pages. I turn to the Great Spirit’s book, which is the whole of creation. You can read a big part of that book if you study nature. If you take all your books, lay them out under the sun, and let the snow and rain and insects work on them for a while, there will be nothing left. But the Great Spirit has provided you and me with an opportunity to study in nature’s university, the forests, the rivers, the mountains, and the animals, which include us.”
Nature’s university is currently crumbling, which, in the words of this wise Elder, includes us.
We have a history of great leadership through oratory practice. As Cecil King explains, drawing from Frazer E. Wilson’s Around the Council Fire:
To obtain ‘oratorical efficiency’ our young men were trained by our Naagaanzidijig (chiefs and elder statesmen). The Naagaanzidijig instructed the young men and gave them the opportunity to practice oratory in public in our councils. Our men were trained to speak boldly without hesitation, to be confident, and to be able to speak rapidly, extemporaneously. Our orators were those with a ‘clear and open mind, a trained memory and previous experiences in statecraft [gimakahnwin].’ They learned the correct protocol in addressing representatives of our allies and from our enemies. They knew whom they should address as ‘Uncle,’ ‘Elder Brother,’ or ‘Younger Brother.’ These distinctions came from a thorough understanding of the relationships among our different nations and our history, alliances, and international connections.”
Oral histories are accounts of events or experiences of long, long ago passed down through the generations. New academics are trained to put spins on compiled “old information” to make their work unique and refreshingly different. By contrast, traditional peoples inherit that “old information,” accredit the Elders or Knowledge Keepers who passed it along, and, in the case of oral historians, are trained to recite that information verbatim. I wonder how many of our youth are being trained in this way today? Oral historians and storytellers are the messengers of tried and true Teachings and events, natural or otherwise, that applied to our ancestors and continue to serve and inform their descendants. They are not the inventors of rescripted histories or reinvented cultures, as they take Age Old Wisdom and contextualize that knowledge into a relevant framework of current reality. Grounded in Age Old Knowledge is a grounded identity: it is our strength, our comfort, and our hope, going forward.
This is why I continue to draw from publications written decades ago, just as I draw from my conversations with Cultural Carriers, Knowledge Keepers, and Elders who hold Age Old stories or knowledge from yesteryear to pass along, according to tradition, in a new context. Scientific discoveries may need to be updated, but Age Old morals, values, and worldview hold true for all time. This is not to say that Indigenous cultures are stagnant. Those stories of character foibles, animal tales, and star gazing can be embellished or contextualized for any kind of lesson needed to assist on one’s Earth Walk. Indigenous astronomy is finding its way into the mainstream science of the universe, and, hence, into mainstream institutions of study. Yet, its ultimate analysis is to help guide how to live in a more loving way, not to be guided by personal profit or the advancement of one’s career.
Nothing comes easily to me.
I’m a mathematician, but I didn’t show much aptitude for math until I was thirty. I had no idea, in high school, why I had to turn a fraction upside down when I wanted to divide by it, or why, when I wrote a square root sign over a negative number, the number suddenly became “imaginary” (especially when I could see the number was still there). At university I almost failed my first calculus course. Fortunately I was saved by the bell curve, which brought my original mark up to a C minus.
I’m also a playwright. My plays have been performed in many countries, but I still won’t read a review unless someone tells me it’s safe to do so. Early in my career I made the mistake of checking the papers to see what two of the local critics thought of my first major production. It seems unlikely that they consulted each other before writing their reviews, but one headline read “Hopelessly Muddled” and the other “Muddled Mess.”
I often wish I was more like my literary and scientific heroes, who seemingly could produce perfect poems or solve intractable problems in a blinding flash of inspiration. Now that I’m a professional mathematician and writer, I console myself with the thought that my ongoing struggles to educate myself and the strenuous efforts that I needed to make to get to this point have produced an intense curiosity about how we achieve our potential.
A Slow Learner
From an early age I became obsessed with my intellectual capabilities and with the way I learn. When I started to teach in my twenties, first as a graduate student in philosophy and later as a math tutor, I also became fascinated with the way other people learn. Now, after teaching math and other subjects to thousands of students of all ages and after reading a great deal of educational and psychological research, I am convinced that our society vastly underestimates the intellectual potential of children and adults.
During my undergraduate studies, I showed as little promise in writing as I did in mathematics: I received a B plus in my creative writing class—the lowest mark in the class. One evening, in the first year of my graduate studies in philosophy, I began reading a book of letters by the poet Sylvia Plath, which I’d found on my sister’s bookshelf while babysitting her children. It appeared from Plath’s letters and early poems that she had taught herself to write by sheer determination. She had learned, as a teenager, everything she could about poetic metre and form. She wrote sonnets and sestinas, memorized the thesaurus and read mythology. She also produced dozens of imitations of poems she loved.
I knew that Plath was considered to be one of the most original poets of her time, so I was surprised to learn that she had taught herself to write by a process that seemed so mechanical and uninspired. I’d grown up thinking that if a person was born to be a writer or mathematician, then fully formed and profoundly important sentences or equations would simply pour out of them. I’d spent many hours sitting in front of blank pages waiting for something interesting to appear, but nothing ever did. After reading Plath’s letters, I began to hope that there might be a path I could follow to develop a voice of my own.
I imitated the work of Plath and other poets for several years before I moved on to writing plays. By that time, I’d taken a job at a tutoring agency to supplement my income from writing. The women who owned the agency hired me to tutor math because I’d taken a course in calculus at university (and I neglected to tell them about my marks). In my tutorials I had the opportunity to work through the same topics and problems again and again with my students, who ranged in age from six to sixteen. The concepts that had mystified me as a teenager (such as why does a negative times a negative equal a positive) gradually became clear, and my confidence grew as I found I could learn new material more quickly.
One of my first students was a shy eleven-year-old boy named Andrew, who struggled in math. In grade six, Andrew was placed in a remedial class. His new teacher warned his mother that she shouldn’t expect much from her son because he was too intellectually challenged to learn math in a regular math class. In the first two years of our tutorials, Andrew’s confidence grew steadily, and by grade eight, he had transferred to the academic stream in math. I tutored him until he was in grade twelve, but I lost touch with him until recently when he invited me to lunch. In the middle of our lunch, Andrew told me that he had just been granted full tenure as a professor of mathematics.
When I was growing up I would always compare myself to the students who did well on math competitions and who seemed to learn new concepts without effort. Watching these students race ahead of me at school made me think that I lacked the natural gift I needed to be good at the subject. But now, at the age of thirty, I was surprised to see how quickly I could learn the concepts I was teaching, and how easy it was for students like Andrew, who had never shown any signs of having a “gift” for math, to excel at the subject with patient teaching. I began to suspect that a root cause of many individuals’ troubles in math, and in other subjects as well, is the belief in natural talents and natural academic hierarchies.
As early as kindergarten, children start to compare themselves to their peers and to identify some as talented or “smart” in various subjects. Children who decide that they are not talented will often stop paying attention or making an effort to do well (as I did in school). This problem is likely to compound itself more quickly in math than in other subjects, because when you miss a step in math it is usually impossible to understand what comes next. The cycle is vicious: the more a person fails, the more their negative view of their abilities is reinforced, and the less efficiently they learn. I will argue that the belief in natural hierarchies is far more instrumental in causing people’s different levels of success in math and other subjects than are inborn or natural abilities.
In my early thirties, I returned to university to study mathematics (starting at an undergraduate level) and was eventually granted one of Canada’s highest post-doctoral fellowships for my research in the subject. In the meantime, I’d also received several national literary awards for my plays, including a Governor General’s Award. I don’t believe I will ever produce work that compares to that of my artistic and intellectual heroes, but my experience suggests that the methods I used to train myself as a writer and mathematician—which included deliberate practice, imitation, and various strategies for mastering complex concepts and enhancing the imagination—could help people improve their abilities in the arts and sciences.
When I was taking my degree in math, I often wondered how my life would have gone if I’d selected a different book from my sister’s bookshelf the night I discovered Plath’s letters. I felt lucky to have regained the passion I’d had as a child for creating and discovering new things and lucky to have been encouraged to follow my passion by my parents and family. Watching my students become more engaged and successful in math, I began to feel that I should do something to help people who’d lost faith in their abilities, so they could regain their confidence and keep their sense of wonder and curiosity alive.
In the final year of my doctoral program, I persuaded some of my friends to start a free, after-school tutoring program called JUMP (Junior Undiscovered Math Prodigies) Math in my apartment. Twenty years later, 200,000 students and educators in North America use JUMP as their main math instruction resource, and the program is spreading into Europe and South America. Its methodologies have been developed in consultation with and guided by the work of distinguished cognitive scientists, psychologists and educational researchers, many of whom you will meet in this book. These methods are easy to understand and apply, and they reinforce confidence in your abilities rather than assigning you to a particular skill level. They can be used by adults who want to help children learn any subject more efficiently or who want to educate themselves and pursue a new path in life, the way I did.
Before I describe these methods and the research that supports them, I will look more closely at some myths about intelligence and talent that prevent us from fully developing our intellectual abilities and that create an extraordinary range of problems for our society. Because people have so much trouble imagining that they could be good at subjects they struggled to learn in school, they also have trouble imagining what the average brain can accomplish or understanding the magnitude of the losses our society incurs when we fail to educate people according to their potential. This failure of the imagination creates a self-fulfilling cycle of frustration and lost opportunities for many people; to escape from this cycle we need to re-examine our most basic beliefs about what it means for people to be “equal” or to have equal opportunities in life.
Every society is plagued by invisible problems that are particularly hard to solve—for no reason other than because they are invisible. Sometimes a society has to collapse before the problems that stopped it from progressing can be seen. And sometimes this process can take centuries.
The ancient Greeks were remarkable innovators. They established the first democracies and produced a staggering number of mathematical and scientific breakthroughs. But this great, progressive society was hobbled by an insidious problem they could not see. Even the most enlightened thinkers of 400 BC were convinced that women were inferior to men and that slavery was as good for slaves as it was for their owners. Aristotle wrote, rather chillingly, that some people are born to be masters, while others are only fit to be “living tools.” The Greeks couldn’t begin to solve the most serious problems of their time because they couldn’t conceive of a more equitable society.
Over the past three hundred years, the idea that every person is born with the same inalienable rights and privileges, regardless of their race, gender or social status, has slowly taken hold across the world. In theory, in most nations, we have all been granted these same rights.
In practice, however, these rights are not always upheld in the same way for every person. And in many parts of the world, the impact of these rights on people’s quality of life is still rather limited. Even in Western democracies, people who are born with the same inalienable right to vote don’t necessarily enjoy the same social or economic opportunities.
Half of the world’s wealth is owned by 1 percent of the population, and tens of millions of people still don’t have enough to eat or proper access to health care or sanitation, even in the developed world. We are confronted by an array of threats—including economic instability, climate change, sectarian violence and political corruption—that have a greater impact on the poorest and most disadvantaged people of the world. In such a world, it’s hard to imagine a society in which people are born “equal” in any material sense or in which they can exercise their basic legal and political rights in the same way.
The laws and constitutions created to give everyone a fair chance in life have only partially succeeded in levelling the playing field. That’s because the most serious disparities in our society are not simply the result of legal or political inequalities but are also caused by a more subtle and pervasive form of inequality that is difficult to see. This kind of inequality might seem to be a by-product of social and political forces or of the deficiencies of capitalism, but I believe it is primarily caused by our ignorance about human potential. In the developed world, this inequality can affect the children of the rich as much as it does the children of the poor (although wealth does help mitigate its consequences). In many ways, it is the root cause of other inequalities. I call this kind of inequality “intellectual inequality.” And I will argue that it can easily be eradicated, particularly in the sciences and mathematics.
In this book I will sometimes use examples from JUMP Math to illustrate various principles of learning and teaching. But this is not a book about JUMP. My claims about human potential and the methods of teaching and learning that can unlock that potential are backed by a large body of research in cognitive science and psychology that is independent of JUMP. One day this research will be more widely known, and we will all be compelled to set much higher expectations in mathematics and other subjects for ourselves and our children, whether or not we use any particular math learning program. When we have understood and absorbed the full meaning of this research, our present beliefs about our intellectual abilities will seem as antiquated and as harmful as the belief that some people are born to be slaves and others masters. And the problems we have struggled to overcome since antiquity—which originate in our failure to foster intellectual equality—may finally be addressed.
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