We need each other to survive.
Canada’s Indigenous peoples have long had less—less opportunity, worse health, fewer years of life. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission helped many Canadians better understand a significant cause of the unequal relationship between Aboriginals and non-Aboriginals. In reading the TRC report I was reminded of a prairie Métis woman’s memoirs published back in 1973. Maria Campbell’s Halfbreed revealed as painfully as recent accounts how broken the relationship is. But the author saw an eventuality that still isn’t much discussed.
Campbell grew up dirt-poor near postwar Prince Albert. Her Cree-speaking community had “no pot to piss in or a window to throw it out.” Lacking Status, they squatted on road lines and Crown land. Some Métis were eventually given 10 acres of rocky muskeg and told to break it, by hand, in three years, which proved impossible. Maria’s mom died in childbirth and the then-12-year-old raised her six siblings, living on roasted gophers while their dad worked farms and a trapline and hunted. The family lived in a one-room cabin until evicted. “Poverty was not ours alone,” she writes. “But [non-Aboriginals] at least had dreams, you had a tomorrow. My parents and I never shared any aspirations for a future.”
Teachers hit Maria’s siblings for being “unclean”; classmates ridiculed the non-whites. When welfare agents went to put the siblings in foster care, Maria (at 15 years old) hastily married a white man to keep the family together. He beat her and soon left her. Welfare seized the kids. Maria ended up in Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton, and fell into a long haze of prostitution, heroin, alcohol and violence. Her survival is a miracle, no less her writing about it.
The book doesn’t set out to shame non-Aboriginals and is even darkly funny at times. Maria rats out her dad’s hunting in a national park—for an Oh Henry bar. But it is an indictment of our government. “I only want to say: This is what it was like, this is what it is still like,” Maria writes. Policies and practices her community was subjected to seemed designed mainly to humiliate her people and break their spirits.
Inspired by her Cheechum (grandmother), Maria eventually allowed herself to imagine better days: “One day, very soon, people will set aside their differences and come together as one. Maybe not because we love one another, but because we need each other to survive. Then, together, we will fight our common enemies.” Now we indeed share common enemies, from pollution, species extinction and resource scarcity to man-made natural disasters, which will spare none of us. But Indigenous people such as Maria Campbell have survived decades of adversity. Her example has much to show other Canadians about humility, courage and resilience.
Today Maria Campbell is a prominent Métis leader and teacher. She has lived to witness positive steps: the TRC and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s agreement with its calls to action, the inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Canada’s apology for residential schools, the Daniels decision on Métis status, the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, even talk of revisiting the Indian Act.
An even better sign of progress is that problems such as undrinkable water on reserves, low graduation rates and high incarceration and suicide rates are increasingly seen less as “Native problems” and more as our collective responsibility.
At book’s end Maria speaks at the Prince Albert prison and is given a painting of a burnt-out tree stump with little green shoots poking out of the ashes. Aboriginals are by far this country’s fastest-growing demographic. May the hope of the shoots be fulfilled in our lifetime. #