Z is for Zzzzz: Apathy as Resistance

Image via: Prairie Dog

In July 2016, controversial radio host and columnist, John Gormley wrote a piece for the Star Phoenix about his ennui with activism. After referencing protests around Indigenous sovereignty and Black Lives Matter, he wrote the following: “Yawn. It’s just another day in the eternal competition of whose well-publicized hurt feelings, grievances and complaints should become your problem” (par. 3). Disparaging activists as “grievance collectors” (par. 5) and narcissists, he went on to bemoan the ways the world has changed. He ended by stating that he and others like him go about their lives “in a public silence and indifference that is often confused with tolerance” (par. 20).

This column prompted vociferous debate. Many noted Gormley’s privileged position. “Being white, educated and a celebrity you can afford to yawn at civil and human rights causes. I wonder if you would be writing the same article if you were born on a reserve or in the ghetto?” wrote on-line commenter, Sheldon Mojelski (2016, July 8). Another wrote: “This is a beautiful example of white privilege and being blind to how your privilege has landed you in radio and newspaper” (Jennifer Lee, 2016, July 8).

Kamao Cappo in front of Canadian Tire store where he was assaulted. Image via: CTV News

A year later, in July 2017, well-known Saulteaux elder, Kamao Cappo was assaulted at a Canadian Tire store in Regina after being accused of shoplifting. The Chief of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations, Bobby Cameron called this a case of racial profiling (Canadian Tire employee who kicked out and accused indigenous man of stealing no longer with company, 2017). “If a white person walked in there attempting to buy a chainsaw, I don’t think they’d have the same problems” said Cappo (Cowan, 2017). Many of the online comments about the story, however, were largely indifferent to the issue.

“I think you guys make a mountain out of every molehill” (Doreen Kearns, July 29, 10:30am).

“I have no idea what went on but I see the race card used for everything these days” (Cindy Bernard Higdon, July 28, 8:58pm).

“Don’t worry I am white and get the same treatment when I go to stores cause I look a certain way..bir [sic] I don’t let it affect me cause I know i am ok” (Jack Hodder, July 29, 12:34pm).

Even with video evidence of an assault in a store, many comments can be summed up by a yawn and a shrug. Whatever.

Image by torbakhopper via Wikipedia

A few years ago, before posting a rainbow (Gay pride) flag in my grade 3 classroom, I had nightmares about parents dragging me down to the principal’s office. I feared that many parents would hastily try to switch their children into other classes. But all this internal drama over a flag feels silly now.

Nothing happened.

Like absolutely nothing.

I spoke to one of my university professors about how I had anticipated so much resistance and instead there had been no reaction. She was not surprised.

Apathy is a form of resistance, she told me.

Image: No feelings by Damon White

Seltzer (2016) has defined apathy as a feeling of “not feeling” (par. 1, emphasis in original). It is an attitude of indifference, unconcern, unresponsiveness, detachment and dispassion. People with an attitude of apathy don’t care, and “frankly they don’t care that they don’t care” (par. 3). Whereas experiencing feelings about something is generally a prerequisite for meaningful action, those who are apathetic, feel nothing and are therefore not sufficiently stimulated to do “much of anything” (par. 2).

In the case of the flag, it is possible that parents actively support their children learning in an environment that makes space for sexual and gender diversity. However, it is also possible that the silence on this matter is more due to indifference than to tolerance. It’s hard to tell.

In the case of Kamao Cappo, apathy towards the violence he faced supports the status quo. It allows us to avoid doing anything about it. In both cases, apathy is a form of resistance that prevents us from having important conversations.

Image: White Young Woman in Embracing Rainbow by mayahawk

Thinking back, there have been many times when I have done something provocative, hoping to begin a conversation and instead been met with silence. When I pushed the issue, when I forced a conversation, I often got a pat response, citing progress as a guise for apathy.

There is this cloud of empty optimism that floats around many of these conversations; I am told that things are so much better than they used to be. “We never used to even talk about this in school, like we’re doing now.” “Well, the residential schools are closed now.” “Things aren’t perfect, but they could be a lot worse.” All of these responses lack an understanding of how much more work there is to be done and show little empathy for those who continue to face discrimination.

This empty optimism is a convenient conversation ender.

Image via Dan Green

In 1931, Aldous Huxley wrote Brave New World a dystopian novel about a future in which a rigid and hierarchical class system is brought about through psychological manipulation, reproductive control and the constant consumption of a soothing drug called soma. In 1949, George Orwell published his own dystopian novel called Nineteen Eighty-Four about a superstate that used constant government surveillance and public manipulation to maintain a perpetual state of war. Now, decades later, parts of each dystopia have come true, although perhaps more Huxley than Orwell. Neil Postman compared the two:

“What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egotism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance” (Postman, as cited in Postman, 2017).

In the steady, constant barrage of information that is our 24-hour news cycle, has truth drowned in a sea of irrelevance? Has information overload reduced us to passivity and apathy?

In her 2008 track “Master Teacher” Erykah Badu chants the refrain “I stay woke”. The song was about not being “placated, not being anesthetized” (Stovall as cited in Hess, 2016), and about shepherding in a new era of political consciousness. In 2013, after George Zimmerman was acquitted for the murder of 17 year-old Trayvon Martin, the phrase “stay woke” became a popular hashtag alongside #BlackLivesMatter. To #StayWoke was a rallying call for people to remain vigilant and alert, but also for Black people in particular to keep safe (Binyam, 2016).

Our society is increasingly becoming divided along these lines: between being asleep and being awake, between apathy and awareness, between silence and hope. Responding to Gormley’s column in 2016, commenter Alex Williams wrote: “At the core of activism, Mr. Gormley, is hope. Hope that we can improve things. Hope that our children will live in a more respectful and enlightened society” (July 8, 2016).

Sleep and awake by DarkVenusPersephonae

As I come to the end of my alphabet, after thinking about colonialism in the classroom from A to Z, what strikes me is this choice we have. When presented with evidence that we live in a world that we don’t want, we can choose to yawn and change the channel or we can choose to be awake to the struggles around us.

In the past week, besides Kamao Cappo’s assault, there has been an official apology by the Saskatoon Health Region for the coerced sterilizations of Indigenous women. In the United States, President Trump has banned transgender people from serving in the military. He has also tacitly endorsed police brutality. The vicious beating with a pole of 19 year-old Dafonte Miller, a Toronto Black man, by an off-duty police officer also continues to make headlines. This is not the world I want for myself, my students or my own children. At the risk of sounding like one of Gormley’s “attention-seeking grievance collectors” (par. 5), there is too much yet to be done to remain silent.

Stifle a yawn if you must, but stay awake with me.


Binyam, M. (2016, April 5). Watching the Woke Olympics. The Awl. Retrieved from: https://theawl.com/watching-the-woke-olympics-f41809d86955

Canadian Tire employee who kicked out and accused indigenous man of stealing no longer with company (2017, July 30), Toronto Sun. Retrieved from: http://www.torontosun.com/2017/07/30/employee-who-pushed-and-ejected-man-from-canadian-tire-no-longer-with-company

Cowan, P. (2017, July 27). Man claims he was accused of stealing because his is Indigenous; police investigating altercation at Canadian Tire. Regina Leader-Post. Retrieved from: http://leaderpost.com/news/local-news/man-claims-he-was-accused-of-stealing-because-he-is-indigenous-police-investigating-altercation-at-canadian-tire

Gormley, J. (2016, July 8). Gormley: Tapping out on the culture of activism. Saskatoon StarPhoenix. Retrieved from: http://thestarphoenix.com/opinion/columnists/gormley-tapping-out-on-the-culture-of-activism

Hess, A. (2016, April 19). Earning the ‘Woke’ Badge. The New York Times Magazine. Retrieved from: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/24/magazine/earning-the-woke-badge.html

Higdon, Cindy Bernard. (2017, July 28, 8:58pm) Re: In Pictures: Protest at Canadian Tire over livestreamed confrontation. CTV Regina News [Facebook Comment]. Retrieved from: https://www.facebook.com/ctvregina/posts/1666134180104766?comment_id=1666736410044543

Hodder, Jack. (2017, July 29, 12:34pm) Re: In Pictures: Protest at Canadian Tire over livestreamed confrontation. CTV Regina News [Facebook Comment]. Retrieved from: https://www.facebook.com/ctvregina/posts/1666134180104766?comment_id=1666736410044543

Kearns, Doreen. (July 29, 10:30am). Re: In Pictures: Protest at Canadian Tire over livestreamed confrontation. CTV Regina News [Facebook Comment]. Retrieved from: https://www.facebook.com/ctvregina/posts/1666134180104766?comment_id=1666736410044543

Lee, Jennifer. (2016, July 8, 12:10pm). Re: Gormley: Tapping out on the culture of activism. The Saskatoon StarPhoenix. [Online Comment]. Retrieved from: http://thestarphoenix.com/opinion/columnists/gormley-tapping-out-on-the-culture-of-activism

Mojelski, Sheldon. (2016, July 8, 10:52am). Re: Gormley: Tapping out on the culture of activism. The Saskatoon StarPhoenix. [Online Comment]. Retrieved from: http://thestarphoenix.com/opinion/columnists/gormley-tapping-out-on-the-culture-of-activism

Postman, A. (2017, February 2). My dad predicted Trump in 1985 – it’s not Orwell, he warned, it’s Brave New World. The Guardian. Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/media/2017/feb/02/amusing-ourselves-to-death-neil-postman-trump-orwell-huxley

Seltzer, L. F. (2016, April 27). The Curse of Apathy: Sources and Solutions. Psychology Today. Retrieved from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/evolution-the-self/201604/the-curse-apathy-sources-and-solutions

Williams, Alex. (2016, July 8, 2:01pm). Re: Gormley: Tapping out on the culture of activism. The Saskatoon StarPhoenix [Online Comment]. Retrieved from: http://thestarphoenix.com/opinion/columnists/gormley-tapping-out-on-the-culture-of-activism

X is for Xmas Gifts and the Wealth Gap

I remember reading an article about the racial wealth gap in the States. It said that the average Black family would need 228 years to build the wealth of a White family today (Collins, Asante-Muhammed, Hoxie, & Nieves, 2016). That’s an amazing statistic. I know it’s an American study and it is wealth relative to Black people who have a unique and troubling history in the States. However, this statistic made me wonder about the wealth gap in Canada, in particular, between White and Indigenous people. On the UN human development index, which measures living conditions, Canada as a whole ranks 8th while Indigenous peoples in Canada rank 63rd (Mackrael, 2015). This gives us a fairly good indication of a similar wealth disparity in Canada.

In Tim Wise’s (2015) lecture on White people’s 400 year head start, he argued that wealth disparity has nothing to do with “merit, talent, intelligence, hard work or investment strategies” (0:14). Rather, he argued that it has everything to do with White folks being given a significant head start. This head start began in the form of free land and this head start has not gone away despite the passing of equal rights-based legislation. In Canada, this head start began with free land grants to White families. In 1872, the Dominion Lands Act gave White families 160 acres of farmland for a $10 registration fee (for more details see chapter, U is for Unsettling). For a further $10, this land grant could be doubled.

Chinese Head Tax Receipt Image: Vancouver Public Library Historical Photographs

During this same time period (from 1885 to 1923), Chinese immigrants were subjected to a head tax, which began at $50 and was increased to $500 by 1904. When the Head Tax was repealed in 1923, Chinese immigrants were banned altogether from immigrating to Canada until 1947. Meanwhile, my White ancestors were welcomed with open arms and given vast tracts of land for a small administration fee.

One branch of my ancestors came to Canada in 1929 and made use of the provisions in the Dominion Lands Act, including the doubling provision, to start a family farm. That is where my own personal economic head start began.

It was my paternal grandmother’s family who came from England and homesteaded in Saskatchewan. I can trace my own wealth through this family line fairly clearly, in part because my grandmother made a point of giving me money. For birthdays, Christmases and graduations, I would get both cheques and savings bonds. These were all saved away for university. I remember all the thank you letters I wrote: “Dear Grandma, Thank you for the money. I put it in my savings account to save for university.” This added up to a significant sum of money over the years.

I did not touch the money until the third year of my Bachelor of Arts degree when I decided to take it out to do an exchange semester at a university in Paris, France. Having done this exchange and therefore taken classes at a French university, this allowed me to later enroll in a French Immersion teacher qualification program after getting my teaching degree. While my peers struggled for years to get continuous teaching contracts, I was hired almost immediately as a French Immersion teacher. Furthermore, having this salaried position allowed my husband and I to quickly buy a second house thereby beginning our rental business.

It is pretty easy to trace this accumulation of wealth. It began with free land, that then translated into money from my grandma which I then spent on an expensive exchange program, which got me a French Immersion teaching job and now translates into more property. That free land in 1929, has had a significant impact on my life today.

And by this, I am not saying that my grandma didn’t work hard or that I didn’t work hard, because we did. But it’s not only about hard work. There is a larger historical context at play. Some liken this context to a tailwind, making my hard work go further.

But if I’m getting a tailwind, someone else is facing a headwind. We must remember that land is a zero-sum game: if I’ve got it, that means someone else doesn’t have it. The land my ancestors built their farm on, was the land of the Cree. All the hard work the Cree put in as stewards of that land, the trail systems and berry patches, the healthy animal populations, was erased when my family cleared it. Now, close to a century later, the Cree continue to be impoverished by a diminished land base.

Budd Hall speaking at the Public Engagement and the politics of Evidence Symposium

Budd Hall (2015) shared a similar family land story in a symposium I attended a few years ago:

“I am literally standing here as a … direct result of my grandparents obtaining 200 acres of Halalt First Nation’s traditional territory on Vancouver Island through illegal means in the last quarter of the 20th century. Prior to the acquisition of this rich and productive land, my settler ancestors were landless and poor… Those 200 acres of Halalt traditional territory transformed my family into middle class citizens and the taking of that land created poverty among the generations on the First Nations side” (1:35).

Stories like these ones show us the genesis of our current wealth disparity in Canada.

It is crucial to be open about these stories. Owning up to the unfair ways that White families have been given a financial head start challenges our myth of meritocracy, the idea that people in our society are successful based on merit alone. We frequently talk about wealth as if it were entirely an “individually driven reality” (Utt, 2014) but we know this is not true. There is much more to wealth accumulation than the hard work of individuals, as my family history illustrates.

As a teacher, challenging this meritocracy myth in my classroom is imperative. The psychological implications of being told that things are fair, when students can feel and see that they are not fair is dangerous. “Students who are told that things are fair implode pretty quickly in middle school as self-doubt hits them and they begin to blame themselves for problems they can’t control” (Barrett as cited in Anderson, 2017). Erin Godfrey, Carlos Santos and Esther Burson (2017) have found that marginalized youth who grew up believing in the American dream, that hard work and perseverance leads to success in equal measure for everyone, show a decline in self-esteem and an increase in risky behaviours during middle-school.

In classrooms, students are frequently told that they can be whatever they want to be. Over time, many marginalized students realize that despite their best efforts, they simply can’t. Logically, they then begin to question whether it is not they themselves that are deficient. They fail to see the deficiencies in our system.

Because we don’t show them.

By hiding the ways that wealth disparities in Canada are created and maintained, we bolster false myths of meritocracy and we muddy the waters of our students’ understanding of the world. If we want our students to be successful, we have to be clear about how things work. It is the very least we can do.


Anderson, M. D. (2017, July 27). Why the Myth of Meritocracy Hurts Kids of Color. The Atlantic. Retrieved from: https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2017/07/internalizing-the-myth-of-meritocracy/535035/

Asante-Muhammed, D., Collins, C., Hoxie, J., & Nieves, E. (2016). The Ever-Growing Gap: Without Change, African-American and Latino Families Won’t Match White Wealth For Centuries. Washington DC: CFED & Institute for Policy Studies. Retrieved from: http://www.ips-dc.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/The-Ever-Growing-Gap-CFED_IPS-Final-2.pdf

Godfrey, E. B., Santos, C. E., Burson, E. (2017). For Better or Worse? System-Justifying Beliefs in Sixth-Grade Predict Trajectories of Self-Esteem and Behavior Across Early Adolescence. Child Development. Retrieved from: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/wol1/doi/10.1111/cdev.12854/full

Hall, B. [posted by Marc Spooner] (2015, August 12). Budd Hall Beyond Epistemicide: Knowledge Democracy and Higher Education. [Video file]. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1yfi6_1ysN4

Mackrael, K. (2015, May 13). Close the gap between Canada and its aboriginal people: AFN chief. The Globe and Mail. Retrieved from: https://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/close-the-gap-between-canada-and-its-aboriginal-people-afn-chief/article24430620/

Utt, J. (2014, May 26). Income vs. Wealth: How Privilege is Passed Down from Generation to Generation. Everyday Feminist. Retrieved from: http://everydayfeminism.com/2014/05/income-vs-wealth/

Wise, T. [posted by NehemiYAH] (2005, January 22). 400 Years Head Start and Advantages. [Video file]. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6JErESW-CQI



V is for Viewpoint: Looking at the World Through Lines and Circles

A few summers ago, I was in a social justice class with a Cree elder. We were talking about inclusion. My Cree classmate had a really difficult time understanding this concept. It finally came to her what the problem was. In her worldview, there was no exclusion, so the concept of inclusion made no sense. You have to believe in exclusion to understand the need for inclusion. In my friend’s concept of the world, everyone belongs. Everyone. Always. By default. The concept of inclusion is meaningless. Like the laws of gravity, inclusion just is.

My friend looks at the world like a circle, the medicine wheel, where everyone has a place. There is no place beyond the circle. There is only in the circle.

So when we wax philosophically and at great length, about inclusion, we are actually saying something very different about what we believe, about how we view the world.

That summer was when I began to think about lines and circles, about how Western culture is always drawing lines. We have come to believe that “morality, like art, means drawing a line someplace” (commonly attributed to Oscar Wilde, although unsubstantiated). We believe that this is what morality looks like: drawing lines.

Indeed in our culture, we are all about the lines, the lines in the sand that define who is us and who is them.

We call these lines all sorts of things.

In education, we have the line between passing and failing, the line between adequate and excellent, the line between high needs and high achievement.

In geography, we have covered the Earth with lines, dividing the planet into hemispheres and time zones and tricky little things called nations. We use lines drawn on a map to tell us who we are and where we belong. We build walls on these lines, thinking it will make us strong.

In economics, we’ve got the lines of profit margins and growth projections, an impossible tangle of capitalism and colonialism.

Both capitalism and colonialism like lines: the lines of constant growth, constant expansion, and the steady rising profit line. Except constant growth is impossible.

We should know that this is impossible.

Naomi Klein (2014) has written that “our economic system and our planetary system are now at war. Or, more accurately, our economy is at war with many forms of life on earth, including human life. What the climate needs to avoid collapse is a contraction in humanity’s use of resources; what our economic model demands to avoid collapse is unfettered expansion. Only one of these sets of rules can be changed, and it’s not the laws of nature” (p.21).

As it turns out, all of our lines are not taking us to where we need to go.

One of my 8 year-old students once asked a visiting Saulteaux elder how First Nations peoples came to be here, if they really came from Africa. And this elder painstakingly explained the theory of human migration, including references to DNA and land bridges. But he ended by saying that he and his people didn’t believe any of that anyway. His people have always been here, will always be here.

There is no line between not here and here.

There is just here.

This way of understanding Indigenous presence “deliberately defies a logic of before and after” (Chamberlin, 2004, p.51).

How differently would we behave if we believed in this, in this timeless connection to the land as opposed to the worldview of my ancestors which essentially boils down to a constant search for greener grass?

How would we treat this planet if we believed that we’ve always been here and will always be here, that Mars isn’t waiting?

On that note, isn’t it odd that we call Indigenous peoples nomadic, when they are so intimately connected to the land? And people like myself, who come from generations of constant wanderers, we’re called settlers.

Furthermore, what about how we use the term “primitive”?

Primitive in terms of what?

Joffre McCleary (2017) wrote a letter to the editor of the Barrie Examiner in which he argued that Europeans introduced “woolen blankets, copper kettles and metal implements to the Indigenous people they met” (par. 1) and Indigenous peoples should therefore be more “appreciative of what the Europeans brought with them” (par. 16).

He does not mention small pox, bison devastation or residential schools.

He does not mention pipelines, acid rain or global warming.

So what is primitive? Not having a copper kettle or not being able to live sustainably?

“If the metric were ‘truly sustainable living in symbiotic relationships with the environment’ what we consider ‘primitive’ would change” (Martin Heavy Head, 2017).

Primitive and advanced, nomad and settler, us and them. These are our false binaries.

Trevor Noah (2016) talked about this obsession with binaries in one of his monologues on the Daily Show. “It always feels like in America, it’s like if you take a stand for something you automatically are against something else” (as cited in Miller, 2016, par. 1). He talks about the binaries of cat people and dog people, Red Sox fans and Yankees fans, LOL texters and HA HA HA texters. It’s always one or the other. And this becomes particularly problematic when we are discussing movements like Black Lives Matter which is assumed to mean anti-police. Noah made the point that “you can be pro-cop and pro-black” (as cited in Miller, par. 3) and in reality, that’s what we should all be.

We are, each and every one of us, more than one thing. We are full of complexities and when we use imagined binaries we are simplistically dividing ourselves.

Whether as cat people or dog people, we are all still people.

Over the past few years, Moose Jaw has begun hosting an annual Round Dance. And what a friend noticed was that at first you think of a round dance as round, as a circle. But it’s not. It’s actually a spiral. It does not close off. People stand, hand in hand with their neighbour and move their way around and around. Stepping side to side, in time with the drum, the community all coming together.

And there is always a hand waiting to be held, a neighbour ready to be made, a place in the dance for all who want to join.

We are now living in a time of reconciliation. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada has published it’s final report. A National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation has been created in Winnipeg. All Canadians are beginning to become aware of the large and terrible history of residential schools and our on-going legacy of colonialism.

As we go forward in reconciliation with our neighbours and our friends, with the land and the other inhabitants of it, we need to take a critical look at all these binaries we create.

In particular, as teachers, we need to be thoughtful about the lines we are drawing in our classrooms. Are we teaching that Indigenous peoples came from Africa or are we talking about a timeless Indigenous presence? Are we clear about what we mean when we say primitive and nomadic? Are we trying to include some students because by default they are excluded?

Teaching requires an engagement with complexity and nuance that simple lines and binaries cannot afford us. It is time to think and teach beyond our own limited worldview.

In some ways, our planet depends upon it.

Parts of this chapter were presented at a Discovery Education Ignite session on October 6, 2016.


Chamberlin, J. E. (2004). If This Is Your Land, Where Are Your Stories?: Finding Common Ground. Toronto, Canada:Vintage Canada.

Heavy Head, Martin (@mheavyhead). “If the metric were ‘truly sustainable living in symbiotic relationships with the environment’ what we consider ‘primitive’ would change.” 27 July 2017, 9:06 PM. Tweet. Retrieved from: https://twitter.com/mheavyhead/status/890755359916253184

Klein, N. (2014). This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks.

McCleary, J. (2017, July 10). Europeans brought an administrative structure [Letter to the editor]. The Barrie Examiner. Retrieved from: http://www.thebarrieexaminer.com/2017/07/10/europeans-brought-an-administrative-structure

Miller, M. (2016, July 8). Yes, You Can Be Pro-Cop and Pro-Black Lives Matter: Trevor Noah makes a great argument. Esquire. Retrieved from: http://www.esquire.com/news-politics/videos/a46539/trevor-noah-black-lives-matter/

U is for Unsettling

I have fond memories of my grandmother’s farm. In the summers, we would often go there to visit for a weekend. I remember feeding the chickens, milking the cows and mowing the large lawn. I remember catching frogs with my brother down by the creek and drinking water out of a pail. I remember going to the town fair. The picture of my dad and I in a new outhouse hole that he dug one summer, is a family classic.

My dad’s mom grew up on this farm. Her family emigrated from England in 1929, when my grandma was 10 years old and my youngest great aunt was only a three-month old baby. To get from England to Saskatchewan, it was a seven day voyage by boat and then another seven day trip by train. The first thing they bought on arrival was a dairy cow because the baby needed milk.

In England, the family had been farming in a small township in Lincolnshire, on a small plot where they grew onions and mangels (a turnip-like fodder for animals). They had horses and cattle. But the land was not large enough to subdivide for the family’s three sons. They came to Canada to make a better life for their children. This was a common reason for coming to Canada, but so too was the thrill of adventure. One of my grandma’s neighbours described the Canada he thought he’d find. “Before leaving England I had seen Buffalo Bill and his Indians performing and I thought, if that was Canada, that was where I wanted to be. I expected cowboys and Indians and lots of shooting and horseback riding. Things in Canada were a little different, but I enjoyed it all” (Chapman, 1980, p. 209).

Image via: Library of Congress

My grandmother’s family didn’t see the Buffalo Bill show, but word of the opportunities in Canada reached them all the same. A cousin of my great grandfather had previously emigrated to Ontario and on a visit back to England had talked up farming in Canada. Also at that time, the Soldiers Settlement Board (SSB) was touring England to advertise settling in the Prairies and they spoke at my great-uncle George’s school.

In the end, my grandmother’s family came to settle in the township of New Osgoode, Saskatchewan near Tisdale. At the time, New Osgoode did not yet have passenger rail service. The family got off the train at the nearest stop which was Eldersley, ten miles from New Osgoode. At the station, they were met by an SSB man who lived in Tisdale. He drove the girls and my great grandmother to the farm in his car while a neighbour took the boys and my great grandfather in a sleigh. It was the end of April and it was storming that day. The neighbours fed them dinner.

New Osgoode Restoration Club, 1983, p.171

There had been a bachelor living on the land before my grandmother’s family arrived. He had retired and left. The house had bed bugs. My grandmother’s family used coal oil and put up heavy brown paper to try to get rid of them. Besides the small house, there was an old log barn, an ice house, a coal shed and a blacksmith on the property. Most of the land had already been cleared except for the south-east corner. That area had never been cultivated. In the years to come, the land was “scrubbed” with an ax, while the oldest two children pulled roots.

The Canadian government encouraged settlement in areas like New Osgoode that were densely forested by enacting the Dominion Lands Act (commonly referred to as the Homestead Act). Under the Act, any person who was 18 years or older could file for a homestead of a quarter section or 160 acres of land. The only payment was a $10 registration fee. To qualify, the homesteader had to reside on the land for six months of the year and have at least 10 acres under cultivation at the end of a three year period. Once these conditions were met, the homesteader received clear title to the land (New Osgoode Restoration Club, 1983, p.163). The Canadian Dominion Lands Act of 1872 was modeled on the American Homestead Act of 1862. One important difference between the two Acts though, was that farmers in Canada could acquire a neighbouring lot for an additional $10 fee, once they had met the requirements on their original plot. This allowed homesteads to easily double in size.

Growing up, I had always believed that my ancestors came to this country with nothing. That they built this life here with their bare hands. That our family’s prosperity was due to hard work.

But my ancestors didn’t have nothing. They had land. Free land.

Image via: Canadian Encyclopedia

Under the Dominion Lands Act, 1.25 million homesteads were made available on 80 million hectares. The survey grid used to organize this mass immigration is the largest in the world (Regehr & Yarhi, 2017). The Dominion Lands Act was repealed in 1930 when the management of lands and resources was transferred to the provinces. My grandmother’s family, arriving as they did in 1929, was among the last families to benefit from the Act. Currently farmland in the area is being sold for $695,000 for 320 acres (Point 2 Homes, 2017). Less than a century ago this same land could have been acquired with the payment of $20 in registration fees. Calculated with inflation, $20 in 1929 is equivalent to $280 dollars today (DollarTimes).

The fact that this land grant was even possible was due to the signing of Treaty 6 in 1876, in which the Cree, Saulteaux, Nakota and Dene First Nations agreed to share the land. The Treaty 6 text reads that the “Plains and Wood Cree Tribes of Indians… do hereby cede, release, surrender and yield up to … Canada all their rights, titles and privileges, whatsoever, to the lands” (p.2). However, the meaning of land cession and surrender was not discussed during the treaty negotiations (Taylor, 1985, p.15). Indeed, Treaty Commissioner Alexander Morris (1890) reassured the Chiefs who had gathered to sign Treaty 6, that he “did not wish to interfere with their present mode of living” (p.184). In describing the previous negotiations for Treaty 4, Morris went into more detail about his message from the Queen in regards to sharing the land.

Pearson Saskatchewan Gr. 4 Social Studies Textbook, p.55

“When you have made your treaty, you will still be free to hunt over much of the land included in the treaty. Much of it is rocky and unfit for cultivation, much of it that is wooded is beyond the places where the white man will require to go, at all events for some time to come. Till these lands are needed for use you will be free to hunt over them, and make all the use of them which you have made in the past. But when lands are needed to be tilled or occupied, you must not go on them any more. There will still be plenty of land that is neither tilled nor occupied where you can go and roam and hunt as you have always done, and , if you wish to farm, you will go to your own reserve where you will find a place ready for you to live on and cultivate” (p.29,emphasis added).

Just 28 years after the signing of Treaty 6, New Osgoode began to be tilled and occupied, preventing Indigenous peoples from roaming and hunting there as they had always done. This trend was repeated over and over again throughout the province until the lands that First Nations could use were reduced to a very small portion of Saskatchewan (see small map for a visual of this ratio). In Canada overall, Arthur Manuel (2015) has calculated that Indigenous peoples control only 0.2% of the land (p.8).

This does not feel like sharing.

New Osgoode Restoration Club, 1983, p.21

The first settlers to arrive in the New Osgoode area were a family from Ontario. In 1904, when they acquired their plot, the district was a rolling land covered with willows, poplars, tamarac, alder, birch, and spruce bluffs. Wild berries were plentiful: saskatoons and choke cherries by the river and strawberries and raspberries in the fields. Wildlife was also abundant: moose, black bears, lynx, deer and prairie chickens. The first settlers relied on the trees, berries and wildlife to sustain them as they began to clear out the land for farming. These first settlers named the township New Osgoode after the county of Osgoode in Ontario where they had come from, which in turn had been named after William Osgoode, the first Chief Justice of Upper Canada.

The name makes the land sound new. We like narratives of new.

Governor General David Johnston spoke of the courage and audacity of the pioneers in his speech from the throne in 2013. “Nearly 150 years ago, they looked beyond narrow self-interest. They faced down incredible challenges—geographic, military, and economic. They were undaunted. They dared to seize the moment that history offered. Pioneers, then few in number, reached across a vast continent. They forged an independent country where none would have otherwise existed” (par. 15). This is the origin story that I was raised believing, that my ancestors forged a country where none had otherwise existed, that they came to an empty land. However, the more I learn about the settling of New Osgoode, the less empty this land seems.

In 1904, as the first settlers arrived, there were no roads, only trails and the survey lines that had been cut every mile through the bush. One of the most established trails, that passed through the centre of New Osgoode, was the “Indian Trail” a footpath that led from The Pas to North Battleford and which is drawn on an early map of the area. There were other signs that the land of New Osgoode was not empty. “[O]ld Indian graves” (New Osgoode Restoration Club, 1983, p.9) were found on a number of homesteads and were still visible as late as 1983. Artifacts were also found. “Indian arrowheads, hammerheads, pemmican, and other Indian artifacts have been located by several farmers on their land” (New Osgoode Restoration Club, 1983, p.9).

The New Osgoode local history book, Preserving Our Heritage, was written by the residents in 1983. It is a comprehensive account of the settling of the township. However, in the book’s 470 pages, there are only a few mentions of “Indians”. Little interest in the first inhabitants of the area is noted. The section entitled “Indians” is only half a page long. “It is not really known what the area held for them [Indigenous peoples] prior to settlement in 1904” (New Osgoode Restoration Club, 1983, p.9). Nonetheless, there are a few hints, scattered throughout the book.

New Osgoode Restoration Club, 1983, p.134

In some cases Indigenous peoples are recognizable in their absence. For example, in October 1906, the “first white baby” (New Osgoode Restoration Club, 1983, p.134) was born. The parents were presented with a scroll and an engraved silver spoon. Clearly, the settlers were aware that Indigenous children had been born there for thousands of years otherwise the specification of “white” baby would not have been necessary.

A few settlers in their family history sections mention explicitly the presence of Indigenous peoples on their lands. Dorothy Murton (1983) wrote about the old Indian Trail that cut through her family’s farm yard, and about picking berries with her sisters. “Outside our lane a three cornered piece of land grew a yearly crop of wild strawberries, so was named “The Piece of Pie.” Up a small hill and around a bend saskatoon bushes took over with berries so plentiful that people came from miles around to pick them. We knew where to watch for the first green leaves in spring and hear the noisy frogs. As sure as the robins and blackbirds appeared in the spring, a few Indian tents would also appear, to disappear again in autumn. Slightly curious and shy, we would walk quickly by them with subdued chatter. Later we learned they came from Nut Lake Reserve and helped farmers clear the land of bush. We considered them friendly” (p.393).

Gerhardt Gaertner (1983) farmed on the same land as the very first settlers to New Osgoode. He noted the long history of his plot of land. “Norman’s father, Fred Howes, homesteaded here and was one of the first settlers in the area. We have found many Indian stones and arrowheads so I guess the Indians had it before that” (p.244).

New Osgoode Restoration Club, 1983, p.171

I asked my great aunt about any contact with Indigenous people she had growing up. She told me a story about her father chopping wood when she was 10. She was helping pile the wood when a “native came out of the bush”. Her dad asked the man what he could do for him and the man replied that he was hungry. My great grandfather offered to take him to the house for a meal but the man refused to go into the house. So my great grandmother brought out sandwiches. After eating, the man offered to chop wood. My grandfather said that this wasn’t necessary, but the man did it anyway before heading back into the bush (M. Barnett, personal communication, July 16, 2017).


These are all just fragments. Arrow heads. Graves. Berries. A trail. Sandwiches. But these fragments tell a bigger story, a counter-narrative to brave pioneers in an empty land. They tell an unsettling story of continuous Indigenous presence; they hint at Indigenous sovereignty.

Tuck & Yang (2012) tell me that “forwarding a thesis on decolonization without regard to unsettling/deoccupying land, [is an] equivocation[]” (p.19). In this chapter, I recount my family’s story of colonization and I try to imagine decolonization. But I am afraid my efforts are only an equivocation.

I have told you the story of the settling of New Osgoode, the land of the Cree, in Treaty 6 territory. This is the story of my ancestors. This is my story.

I don’t have a story of unsettling.

However, the land is more empty now than it has ever been. My grandma’s farmhouse is gone, as are the grainaries and the outhouse.

There is no town anymore. No church. No school.

All that is left are a few markers and a lonely railroad siding.

The spruce bluffs are gone. The berries are gone. The moose have long since “moved back north” (New Osgoode Restoration Club, 1983, p.243). What is left are field upon field of wheat and barley and rapeseed.

Even if we were to imagine giving the land back to the Cree, what would they think about what we have done to it?

It must be noted that my ancestors were kind, generous, hard-working people. It is important to recognize that their lives on the prairies were incredibly difficult. This story does not intend to make light of their sacrifices. However, this does not change the fact that they were given vast tracts of land for free. Furthermore, regardless of the kindness, generosity and incredible work ethic of my ancestors, the result of their occupation of this land is the complete and utter devastation of the ecosystem that thrived there just a century ago.

Photo: Heartless Machine via New York Magazine

I have just read the New York Magazine’s article “The Uninhabitable Earth” about our planet’s rapid climate change. “[A]bsent a significant adjustment to how billions of humans conduct their lives, parts of the Earth will likely become close to uninhabitable, and other parts horrifically inhospitable, as soon as the end of this century” (Wallace-Wells, 2017, par.2). “Two degrees of warming used to be considered the threshold of catastrophe: tens of millions of climate refugees unleashed upon an unprepared world. Now two degrees is our goal, per the Paris climate accords, and experts give us only slim odds of hitting it” (Wallace-Wells, 2017, par. 8). “[N]o matter how well-informed you are, you are surely not alarmed enough” (Wallace-Wells, 2017, par. 6).

I can’t help thinking about the role the settling of the Prairies has played in our global environmental disaster. Surely widespread deforestation has not helped. Moreover, by becoming the “breadbasket” of the world, we have helped feed a rapid and unsustainable global population growth.

Perhaps it is time to unsettle.

What would it look like to plant spruce bluffs and berries, to reintroduce prairie chickens and moose, to re-wild this township? What would it feel like to forge a path anew along the “Indian Trail”? Would I be considered friendly if a Cree family were to pass me along the way?

I imagine taking my daughter with me on the weekends to dig holes not for outhouses but for trees.

What could one hundred years of unsettling look like?

While Elon Musk imagines colonizing Mars, might it not be wise to consider decolonizing Earth first?





Calculate the value of $20 in 1929. (July 20, 2017). DollarTimes. Retrieved from: http://www.dollartimes.com/inflation/inflation.php?amount=20&year=1929

Canada. Treaty No. 6. Made August 23 and 28, 1976 and adhesions. Ottawa, ON: Queen’s Printer. Retrieved from: http://www.jamessmithcreenation.com/downloads/TREATY6TEXT.pdf

Chapman, H. (1983). Harry and Flossie (Thurman) CHAPMAN. In New Osgoode Restoration Club (Eds.), Preserving Our Heritage: New Osgoode & District 1904-1983. (pp.209-210). Saskatoon, SK: Midwest Litho Limited.

Gaertner, G. (1983). Gerhardt and Wanda (Lloyd) GAERTNER. In New Osgoode Restoration Club (Eds.), Preserving Our Heritage: New Osgoode & District 1904-1983. (pp.244). Saskatoon, SK: Midwest Litho Limited.

Johnson, D. (2013). Throne Speech 2013: The Full text for Governor General David Johnson’s statement. National Post October 16, 2013. Retrieved from: http://nationalpost.com/news/politics/full-text-of-the-speech-from-the-throne-oct-16-2013/wcm/a24a320b-adf5-463c-883b-45004ce2239b

Manuel, A. & Derrickson, R. M. (2015). Unsettling Canada: A National Wake-up Call. Toronto, Canada: Between the Lines.

Morris, A. (1880). The Treaties of Canada With the Indians of Manitoba and the North-west Territories. Toronto: Willing & Williamson. Retrieved from: https://ia600207.us.archive.org/20/items/cihm_14955/cihm_14955.pdf

Murton, D. (1983). Theodore and Frances (Kenny) WILL. In New Osgoode Restoration Club (Eds.), Preserving Our Heritage: New Osgoode & District 1904-1983. (pp.392-393). Saskatoon, SK: Midwest Litho Limited.

New Osgoode Restoration Club. (1984). Preserving Our Heritage: New Osgoode & District 1904-1983. Saskatoon, SK: Midwest Litho Limited. Retrieved from: http://www.ourroots.ca/page.aspx?id=1080560&&qryID=43fdcfee-732a-474a-8a0f-bb84483f66c5

Point 2 Homes (Accessed July 19, 2017). Ridgedale Farm Land, RM of Connaught No 457, Saskatchewan S0E 1L0. Retrieved from: https://www.point2homes.com/CA/Commercial-For-Sale/SK/RM-of-Connaught-No-457/Ridgedale-Farm-Land/45503158.html

Regehr, T. D., & Yarhi, E. (June 12, 2017). Dominion Lands Act. The Canadian Encyclopedia. Retrieved from: http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/dominion-lands-policy/

Taylor, J. L. (1985). Treaty Research Report: Treaty Six. Indian and Northern Affairs Canada: Treaties and Historical Research Centre. Retrieved from: https://www.aadnc-aandc.gc.ca/eng/1100100028706/1100100028708

Tuck, E. & Yang, W. (2012). Decolonization is not a metaphor. Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society. 1(1), 1-40. Retrieved from: http://decolonization.org/index.php/des/article/view/18630

Wallace-Wells, D. (2017, July 14). The Uninhabitable Earth, Annotated Edition. New York Magazine. Retrieved from: http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2017/07/climate-change-earth-too-hot-for-humans-annotated.html

Y is for Yearly: Why Ritual is important for Reconciliation

What is the point of a flag and tipi raising ceremony?

Will students remember what it means the next day, or the day after that?

Is this the best use of resources?

These are some of the questions we are grappling with as our school begins to plan for our annual tipi raising ceremony in the Fall. This year, we have purchased a Treaty 4 flag and have installed a flag pole. We will add raising the Treaty 4 flag to our annual Fall program. We are hoping to put all this together for September 15th, the anniversary of the signing of Treaty 4. This will be our third annual tipi raising ceremony.

Planning these ceremonies is intense. The tipi, which includes fifteen 16′ poles, needs to be transported to the school. We need to find and hire an Indigenous Knowledge Keeper to share the tipi teachings with us. We need dozens of tobacco ties for students to offer in thanks for these teachings. To celebrate, we like to have a drum group and pow-wow dancers come as well. We end with breaking bread/bannock together. That means getting over 600 pieces of bannock made. All of this takes time and it takes money.

The question becomes: Is it worth it? Are students learning anything? In a time of extreme fiscal restraint, can we pedagogically justify spending this kind of time and money on a one-day ceremony? I have never asked myself these questions before. It has always seemed obvious to me that these ceremonies are important. But now I am in the interesting position of having to defend ceremony as pedagogy.

Is ceremony pedagogy?

Thinking about this, I was reminded of Karmen Krahn’s talk about ritual at Moose Jaw’s first annual Hope Summit (2016). Krahn is a behaviour consultant  who holds a Masters degree in theology and has served as a minister. In her talk, Krahn described rituals as typically including three components. First, rituals are communal. They are shared; you are not alone. Second, rituals involve a story being told. These stories use symbols and often songs. Ritual language is used; we expect to hear certain words at certain times. Finally, after a ritual, you are different, something in the event changes you. Ritual is an invisible room, “a space between spaces, a time set apart from other times” (3:34) where magic can happen: “the magic of belonging, the magic of story, and the magic of change” (3:53).

Schools are full of rituals. We sing our national anthem every morning. We observe Remembrance Day every November. We plan graduation ceremonies every June. All year we celebrate student and staff birthdays.

If we take birthdays as an example, the structure of a ritual is clear. We celebrate birthdays together; we are not alone. We sing a song and we have symbols that tell the story of the birthday. The candles symbolize the years of life. The cake and presents tell us a story of celebration and belonging. At the end, we are changed. We recognize that the person having the birthday is older, certainly. But we are also changed because we are closer, our bonds are deeper, our community is strengthened.

Rituals bring us together.

One of our school goals is to increase a sense of belonging among our students. On this metric alone, rituals such as raising a tipi and the Treaty 4 flag matter and are worth pursuing. But, I can’t prove it.

I don’t have data to back me up.

In the case of ritual though, I would argue that data is irrelevant. All the things that matter cannot be measured. Furthermore, all the things that can be measured do not necessarily matter. Whether or not we can plot something as lines on a spreadsheet should not dictate whether something matters.

Rituals matter.

We engage in rituals, year after year, generation after generation because we can feel that they matter. As a species, we did not decide to have funeral services for example, because the data analysis looked promising. We have funerals because we have a fundamental human need to be together, to share common stories, to go through change, to be changed, together.

I do not need numbers to convince me of the importance of this.

Balfour Collegiate, Regina, SK

But it is true, on the surface it may look like these ceremonies do not accomplish their stated goals. Surely a tipi raising and Treaty 4 flag raising ceremony should teach students about the Treaty. Students should leave the ceremony, leave this ritual, with an increased understanding of themselves as Treaty People. But, possibly the day after the ceremony, students may have forgotten what they witnessed. They may walk by the Treaty 4 flag that will fly in our school yard and not see it, not be moved by it anymore.

But that’s why rituals are repeated, year after year.

We don’t celebrate Canada Day once, we celebrate it every year. We don’t remember veterans once, we honour them every year. Year after year, we build deeper understandings of these fundamental pieces of our history and of ourselves. We need to do this tipi and flag raising ceremony not just this year, but every year. This needs to be added to the things we do as a school just like Remembrance Day and Crazy Hair Day and Graduation. Tipi and flag raisings are an important part of honouring who we are and what we stand for, whether we can clearly articulate this or not.

Isabelle Hanson Kenowekesequape, Peacock student Kayleigh Olson, Elder Gerry Stonechild, Peacock principal Dustin Swanson and Regina musician Brad Bellegarde hold the Treaty 4 flag in the Peacock Collegiate auditorium. Lisa Goudy/Times-Herald

Possibly what rituals give us is deeper than language anyway. It is nebulous and ephemeral, resistant to the narrowness of words. What rituals give us more than anything are embodied understandings.

When we hear O Canada, we stand up. We might not understand the words we are singing but we understand on a corporeal level how to honour and respect our country. We stand. And we know that this is part of what makes us Canadian, what makes us belong here. On November 11th, as a child, I might not be able to rattle off the dates of World Wars or know what a Victoria Cross is. But I can begin to make the connections between poppies and honouring those we have lost. I might hear the poem, In Flanders Fields, and feel a deep stillness and sorrow, even though I couldn’t tell you what the words mean that day or the day after. When I blow out the candles on my birthday cake, I might not be able to articulate how the applause makes me feel valued, makes me feel like I belong.

I’m not sure that these things need to be articulated though. It’s enough that they are.

So we’re going to go ahead and plan this ceremony.

In September, I will pick up the tipi in my husband’s truck and he will come along with me to help carry and tie down the poles. I will find an Indigenous Knowledge Keeper who is willing to share with us the fifteen teachings that go with the fifteen poles. As a school we will offer tobacco and we will learn about these teachings and on September 15th we will raise the tipi together. We will place the tipi on the front lawn of the school.

And the symbolism of the tipi will help us tell the story of our treaty, of our nation and of the nations that were here before us and that are still here. Honouring the tipi and the flag in this way is one way that we begin to build Treaty-based relationships and expand our capacity to share this land.

In the afternoon we will gather in a circle around the Treaty 4 flagpole. We will all be wearing the colours of the Cree medicine wheel. In a circle we will gather together and raise the Treaty 4 flag, the symbol of our enduring treaty relationships.

The flag itself is made up of symbols: sun, grass and water. On September 15th, 1874 the treaty promises that were agreed upon, were agreed upon in perpetuity, forever, “as long as the sun shines, the grass grows and the river flows”. These are the words we should expect to hear at this time. We will talk about the promises made and the promises broken. These are key pieces of our story. Then we will celebrate a renewed relationship with drumming and dancing. At the end, we will eat bannock together.

On September 16th, the day after, if you ask our students what it means to be a Treaty Person, I hope that they will reflect back upon the ceremony. I hope that they will tell you about honouring treaty promises and relationships. I hope they will tell you about what it means to share this land and that being a Treaty Person is an important part of who they are. But if they don’t, if they shrug their shoulders and look confused. If they struggle to find words and end up not finding any that will answer your questions. I hope you will understand that this not a failing of this ritual, that this is not proof of our fiscal mismanagement. But rather, I hope you will see that this only indicates that our job is not done. That this Treaty 4 ceremony is still new to us. That we are still learning.

For hundreds of years Indigenous peoples have been treated as a problem in need of solving. Duncan Campbell Scott (1920), as the head the Department of Indian Affairs, explained the Canadian government’s policy towards the First Nations. “I want to get rid of the Indian problem…Our object is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic” (as cited in Titley, 1986, p.50).

In this vein, Canada banned both Indigenous ceremonies and Indigenous bodies from this land. From 1885 to 1951, the Indian Act included a Potlatch Ban which criminalized the practice of Indigenous cultural ceremonies, including drumming and dancing. During this same time period under the pass system, First Nations people could not leave their reserves without permission from the Indian Agent. Seventy years ago Indigenous children would not have been allowed on the front lawn of our school, on the land that we are now using for our tipi raising.

Our ceremonies today take place within this historical context.

And I know there is so much more to do than what we are doing. There are Treaty Education outcomes and Reconciliation Calls to Action and United Nations Declarations. But you have to start somewhere. In a time of chaos, Krahn argued that ritual “creates order” (6:36) and in a time of despair, ritual is a “reliable pathway to hope” (4:24). So we are going to start our year with the ritual of a tipi raising and Treaty 4 flag raising.

Will you join us?


Krahn, K. [Hope Summit] (2016, November 22). Hope Summit 2016: Karmen Krahn, Threshold. [Video file]. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wA7OUP40rZc

Titley, B. (1986). A narrow vision: Duncan Campbell Scott and the Administration of Indian Affairs in Canada. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press.

PDF-Tipi and Flag Raising Ceremony-learning outcomes