Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Truth about Stories

Maligne Canyon
A friend recently recommended Thomas King’s, The Truth About Stories: a native narrative, to me and she was right; it’s a thought-provoking read. Too simplistically put, it’s an exploration of the influence of traditional narratives on the progress of our lives communally and individually. More specifically, it’s Thomas King’s personal experience of the clash of the white and aboriginal narratives. We all know the denouement, of course; we see its consequences every day.
But first, a word about “narrative.” Everyone inherits and learns a “story,” (although a better word would be “myth” used in its positive sense.)  The story is about life on earth, how it came to be, what it means to be a human being on the planet and where it is all headed. In some cultures, the foundational inheritance has been largely oral; in others, the story has been set to print and declared sacred as in the Koran and the Bible. To varying degrees, our lives are influenced—often unconsciously—by the story we inherit.
King points out, for instance, the harshness of the creation story in Christian/Jewish/Muslim theology as compared to aboriginal stories on life’s origins. How would Christians’ lives be different if in the story they inherited, God had sat down with Adam and Eve and negotiated a positive outcome instead of kicking them out of Eden and branding their offspring with the “born in sin” stigma? King muses.
Our inherited stories aren’t only religious, of course. Multi-millionaire Kevin O’Leary of Dragon’s Den said on a recent show, “We get up in the morning to make money,” and that too is the acting out of a story. A quote from David Suzuki reveals a very different story: “The human brain now holds the key to our future. We have to recall the image of the planet from outer space: a single entity in which air, water, and continents are interconnected. That is our home.” ( For most of us, the story underlying our choices is complex, a combination of religious traditions, experiences of survival in the modern world, reading and media influences, etc.  In the case of Canada’s aboriginal people, boarding school and other government policies sought to beat the story out of them. Finding a new story that will bring back dignity, purpose and self-esteem has been a near-impossible task for those of their leadership who see how necessary that is.
We underestimate the power of the story by which we live. Thomas King writes: “. . . James puts the barrel of a gun in his mouth and pulls the trigger. And in the novel (referring to Louis Owens’ Porcupines and China Dolls) as in life, whether he lives or dies depends on which story he believes (118).” There are better and worse stories, there are people who have adopted stories that are false or that contain elements that are false. It’s crucial both on the personal and communal level that our stories be authentic and that they be faithfully transmitted. In 9/11, for instance, we see the collision of two cultures, both acting out a false story, as we also see in the economic collapse through which we’re presently trying to find our way. Good stories lead to contentment, companionship, well-being and plenty. Bad stories lead to conflict, exploitation and disappointment.
And then there’s that whole other issue of failing to act on a good story we’ve been given. A quote near the end of The Truth about Stories says it well:
And for the world I’ve helped to create. A world in which I allow my intelligence and goodwill to be constantly subverted by my pursuit of comfort and pleasure. And because knowing all of this, it is doubtful that given a second chance to make amends for my despicable behaviour, I would do anything different, for I find it easier to tell myself the story of my failure as a friend, as a human being, than to have to live the story of making a sustained effort to help (166).
So what’s a good story to live? The gospels? The Koran? The political and economic stories: capitalism, communism, anarchy? The hedonistic ‘eat drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die’ story? The way to judge the quality of the story in which we’re living may have been best summarized by Jesus when he said:  Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?  (Matthew 7:16 - King James Version)” A good story produces good fruit; a bad story is a bush of thorns, a clump of thistles.


Friday, October 22, 2010

Russell Williams, the Media and Us

Alpine simplicity
I’m having a hard time these days coming to terms with both the story and the storytellers concerning the crimes and the trial of ex-colonel Russell Williams. Maybe it’s a mistake to try, like an attempt to rationalize the existence of the devil in terms of our daily lives. Right now, I’ve got my computer playing CBC’s Q with host Jian Ghomeshi; he’s assembled a panel that’s trying to analyze the news regarding the depravity of this powerful Canadian military man. A representative of the Toronto Star is just saying that there was no consensus on how to report the facts on the Williams’ case. Another panellist is responding with something like, “. . . the public has a right to know the facts, but they don’t have to be assaulted by the [the images of Williams in women’s lingerie.”] Apparently the Star had juxtaposed a photo of Williams in uniform and one of him in lingerie on the front page. Another panellist thinks the photo was powerful and true, compared to the story in the Globe and Mail, which was “dull.” A representative of the Globe and Mail is protesting that the G & B took the restrained route, and that images are different from words and that with text, one can stop reading when one wants. This is not possible with images, and so reportage has to exercise different choices with photos as opposed to text.

Not a bad argument, but I’m amazed at how much of what we’re hearing today is the media talking about itself, about whether or not they’re getting it right. Firstly, I don’t know if it’s any more legitimate for the press to charge, try and judge itself than it is for the RCMP. Normally, one would put more trust in the judgment of persons who receive the news, not the people who make it.

Consumers of cookies are the best judges of their quality.

Secondly, it seems to me that the media are constantly being tugged toward more explicitness, more raciness, more lurid content by the simple fact that the public can’t look away when traditional taboos are flaunted and exhibited. It’s the “I just can’t seem to look away . . . “ syndrome, or the impulse to run toward a fire or accident rather than away. Like I said, I’m having a hard time coming to terms with the interaction between me—a news consumer, the reporters—the news presenters, and the uneasy feelings that accompany any new revelation of the depravity of which men are capable, especially when the men in question are apparently “normal” . . . like me or you?

I’ve been surprised at how much I’ve seen of the Williams case on the TV news. It occurs to me that the more we tell the story of Williams’ crimes, and the more luridly we portray the man, the less likely we are to feel any responsibility for what happened to that man and what happened to others as a result. It’s the externalizing of the horror; the blacker we paint the villains, the whiter we seem by comparison, the less we’re likely to be implicated in their horrible deeds.

The world I dream about doesn’t breed people like Williams, Bernardo, Homulka and Pickton. It’s possible that the detailed reportage on their crimes will make the world better. Or worse.

And some fell in the gravel

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Trail Riders in Jasper

I just finished reading Negotiating the Numbered Treaties: an intellectual & political biography of Alexander Morris by Saskatchewan historian Robert J. Talbot, published by Purich Publishing in 2009. The book looks at treaty negotiations from the viewpoint of a primary negotiator and is refreshing for that reason. It also presents the reader with an interesting set of insights on the meaning of the treaties, not the least of which is the assertion that the impetus for negotiating treaties actually came from the First Nations and were not—as is often supposed—foisted on them.

What struck me most, however, was the moral basis that came to undergird Morris’s approach to treaty negotiation. Morris grew up among the privileged classes in Upper Canada and as a young man would have been inclined to use the word “savages” in reference to First Nations, but when he came in contact with the elders and chiefs in a treaty-negotiating setting, his views changed radically. He was impressed by First Nations’ leadership, began to see them as peace-loving, intelligent and honest brokers of their people’s future, and Morris appears to have sought to respond in kind, almost as if he were “going to school” under the tutelage of First Nations giants like Ahtakekoop and Mistawasis.

Two principles emerge as the guiding ethic of treaty negotiation, namely kinship and reciprocity. It would have been possible to enlist the crudest principle of manifest destiny, driving the First Nations bands off the land, or to adopt completely assimilationist government policy, and this might have happened if it hadn’t been for the clear sight and hard work of Alexander Morris. Although not easy by any means, the negotiations of the numbered treaties arrived at conclusions that at the time, satisfied both sides, although there were many on the Canadian side who considered them far too generous, and many on the First Nations side who felt they were far too miserly. The signings usually ended with a celebration.

I’ve been pondering the kinship and reciprocity paradigms ever since finishing the book, particularly after being involved in a discussion on Psalm 19 in an adult Sunday School class: “The Law of the LORD is perfect, refreshing the soul . . . etc.” Morris came to the conclusion that treaty negotiation had to take place under other principles than land ownership laws. For one thing, they meant little to the First Nations for whom land “ownership” meant something quite different than what Ottawa was visualizing.

So Morris based his negotiations on, first of all, kinship. His preambles almost always portrayed the white man and the red man (sic) as equal children of the Queen, who in turn was the Creator’s appointed representative on earth. There followed reciprocity, the principle that white man and red man would live side by side and would cooperate, settlers helping Indians, Indians helping settlers.

It’s not news to anyone that those who followed Morris in the implementation of the treaties reverted to the legalism that they found much more comfortable, hence the paternalism in the Indian Act and in the functioning of the Department of Indian Affairs, an injustice we’ve never addressed properly. This legalistic view is evident in much of the public attitude toward the treaties; very few enunciate a kinship and reciprocity ethic in their interpretation of them. Many see them as agreements that were fulfilled by the granting of reserves, when reserves were in fact addenda to the treaties as opposed to core issues.

Writer Roger Epp has made the case that all Canadians are treaty people. Morris would have said, “of course,” to this. Most Canadians, I fear, have no such view of the treaties.