“Good fiction’s job is to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.” - David Foster Wallace
I was born and raised in Hamilton, where I spent my elementary and high school days in the publicly-funded Catholic education system. From an early age, we were taught about the multicultural makeup of Canadian society. Our teachers called us a cultural mosaic, where each individual, regardless of their differences, was just as integral to the success of the nation as the next person. We were told that this mosaic, along with hockey, Tim Hortons, and saying “sorry”, was what made us truly Canadian. More than anything else, though, we were taught to define ourselves against America, the great Melting Pot. Because that’s what makes Canada so great - we’re a land of explorers and hockey players, sure, but, at our core, we’re a country that thrives in spite of our differences. Even if we are unable to firmly establish a definitive Canadian identity that isn’t intimately tied to double-doubles and Gordie Howe hat tricks, we are content in knowing that we are a peaceful, tolerant people.
For anyone who isn’t familiar with the geography of the area, Hamilton is roughly 35 km away from both Six Nations of the Grand River, the largest First Nations reserve in Canada, and the Mohawk Institute, the oldest residential school in Canada and one of the few that still remain standing to this day. Beyond our immediate borders, the last federal residential school officially closed its doors in 1996. For some perspective, I was just starting junior kindergarten that year. The high school that I attended ten years later was named after a Catholic saint who, according to religious canon, had his heart removed and eaten by Iroquois warriors after being tortured and killed. But don’t worry, the administration was sure to remind us of that every year. It’s what made us the Braves. Oddly enough, though, I never once heard the words ‘residential school’ until I took a Canadian history course in university…
But let’s pan back for a second. It’s now July 4th, 2017, and we’re still recovering from the collective hangover of the nation’s sesquicentennial celebrations. All around Canada, fireworks were set off to the tune of some of Canada’s most noteworthy citizens telling us how lucky we are to live in such a great country. We took our national myths - of Tim Hortons and hockey and snow and everything else that makes us us - and turned them into a nationwide party. Hell, even U2 was somehow involved, I think, though I’m still waiting for an official explanation of how they’re proud Canadians. On Parliament Hill, a lone teepee stood as a symbol of Indigenous resistance. It was taken down on Canada Day.
So, what am I trying to do by invoking stories from my childhood, my place of residence, and #Canada150 celebrations? In a roundabout (if slightly convoluted) way, I’m trying to say that collective myths - whether they be national, institutional, or communal - are dangerous. Sure, they make for great stories and even better parties, but they don’t tell the whole story. When we reduce Canadians to simple, hockey-loving, Tim Hortons-drinking, denim-wearing folks, we neglect to recognize the very real genocidal history that this nation is founded upon. In celebrating our myths, not only are we neglecting our duty to bear witness to the past, we are also continuing the silencing of Indigenous voices from all across Canada. From the disgusting Appropriation Prize debacle to the Joseph Boyden identity controversy, this year has, if nothing else, proven the fact that systemic racism is still alive and well in our nation.
Let me return to the epigraph, a quotation from David Foster Wallace who was, I believe, quoting a professor he once studied under, if only briefly. “Good fiction’s job is to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.” Take a look at what you just saw this past Saturday. The fireworks, the music, the Canadian tuxedos… What we just witnessed was arguably the most vivid, complete example of collective comfortableness in Canada’s 150 years. As writers living and writing in both the physical and historical shadow of our shared colonial history, it is our duty to resist the national myth-making process. We need to ensure that Indigenous peoples are given the voice that they have been denied. We need to read literature that unsettles the national myths that we have been taught since infancy. We need to write literature that disturbs those comfortable enough to celebrate a deeply flawed nation. Art has the ability to change the world; it’s up to us to make sure that it happens.
Before concluding, I’d like to be clear about one thing. Nothing that I am saying here is new. Indigenous authors, artists, commentators, and people have been talking about these things for a long, long time, in a much more succinct and intelligent manner. Though I wish I could list all of the people that have helped (indirectly) educate me, here are a few writers, artists, musicians, and scholars whose work I’ve found to be particularly illuminating over the years: A Tribe Called Red; Thomas King; Tracey Lindberg; Tomson Highway; Richard Wagamese; Eden Robinson; Bev Sellars; Hayden King; Leanne Betasamosake Simpson; and Drew Hayden Taylor.