‘Intending to heal wounds’
Meeting my Treaty Kin: A Journey towards Reconciliation
by Heather Menzies
Vancouver: UBC Press, 2023
$29.95 / 9780774890663
Reviewed by Linda Rogers
As we sit in our compounds surrounded by cognitive barbed wire, we hurtle toward everything we fear: plague, climate change and war. With the call for reconciliation between Native People and the descendants of settlers from other cultural realities, Heather Menzies grabbed her pliers and proceeded to cut through the fences that guarded her ignorance.
The first item, as in all First Nations business (before meeting her Nishanaabe cohort: Bonnie Bressette, Marcia Simon, Cully George-Mandoka, and Kevin Simon), was self-identification. Heather Menzies, scion of the Scottish Highlands, also a restless colony not quite out of English Imperial influence, is a descendant of Ontario settlers on treaty land. Before she approached her treaty kin, she had to divest herself of privilege and examine the context from which she came. She needed to make her declarations of reparation before claiming kinship.
When she first approached her treaty kin, she was rebuffed. One of her eventual collaborators appeared at a window and disappeared. This is the face of grief, the sister of a murdered man, her being wounded by the assault on him, not the welcoming tradition, hands uplifted, of the people who have lived here longest.
Heather Menzies persevered. She already had a perfect opening for her account of a personal journey.
This is a distracting process as she draws us into her insecurities in an unequal partnership that mirrors the progress of settler and native families in their treaty territory. The first premise of what we have been calling Indigenous culture is equality among children of the land. Menzies admits she is not yet of it, having settled and moved from her family’s new territory to Vancouver Island, where she enjoys a career in journalism and scholarly research.
“I didn’t question how the Canada Land Company had acquired all this land in order to sell it. I assumed it had been lying there vacant. Empty. There for the taking.”
That is a flat assumption of many across Turtle Island, and her remorse is palpable, although potentially disingenuous in a confident writer and scholar, an invitation to forgiveness and perhaps a model for fellow settler descendants to clean house.
In the beginning, we feel the ingenuousness of her quest to understand the fragile rooting of a transplant, something her new allies accept with tolerance. That shifts the power balance, as they become her teachers in a minefield of wounded dignity.
By the time Bonnie introduces her to Marcia, a proud knowledge keeper, she has started the work and insecurity turns to indignation as she manages the initial investigation. Many over-smiling, white-comers experience the reticence of tribal elders, their crossed arms and stern faces. Menzies discovers how and why these matriarchs have earned the right to be judge and jury. Humour and righteous indignation often leaven the passivity of men, but the women are more rigorous.
She reminds herself, “I’m here to learn how to be a treaty person, and I haven’t even begun to learn.” There is no route to discovery without listening, and this she does, putting aside her anxiety as the Stoney Point elders open up and tell the stories of genocide, their silence broken by trust, the only way to get past threats and shame, the transference of guilt from the perpetrators of unholy violations, one of the worst being the murder of mother language.
“There’s nothing blissful about ignorance once you’re up against it, I thought, especially when faced with someone who’s been paying the price of it.”
As the elders began to talk and unfold the bizarre paper trail of legal and ethical betrayal, Menzies returned to her anxieties time and again. It is true her treaty friends may have played on her insecurity and guilt, but she was actually there to facilitate their moment of justice, the publication of their stories, and the reader has to wonder how her insecurities impeded the process.
The matriarchs, rule keepers, and mistresses of ceremony, were muzzled but not silenced. They eventually spoke and their reward is a book of truth, facilitated by Menzies, Our Long Struggle for Home: The Ipperwash Story.
They are the mother trees, their DNA resistant to genocide. As a feminist, Menzies had anticipated that sisterhood might transcend the desecrations of colonising, but it is not that easy. Centuries of mistrust do not disappear in a few magical gestures of good faith, and this story in the end belongs to the perseverant author and all who follow her on the path of good intentions. She is forgiven her anxieties as the real stories emerge and we are given the opportunity to examine our own entitlement.
Menzies’ frustrations anticipate the difficulties we all face as a people intending to heal wounds inflicted over centuries with a few magic words and more promises, when neither have any earned currency in the moral universe.
The book narrated by her treaty kin is a common story of our generation that has watched the deaths of Dudley George, Anthany Dawson, Justin Jones, Chantel Moore ad nauseum.
Murder is the slaughter of innocents, discontinuation of language, and desecration of the Earth Kevin Simon recognizes as Mother. “It was like an umbilical cord anchoring him to the earth in a way I could never know myself, not like that, in a way that is simply lived, an ineluctable part of your identity.”
The aftermath of murder, interruption of ancestral energy, is the anguish of pole-axed mother trees twisting in the wind. That is the real blueprint, and Menzies, who was schooled for neglecting to read the Mother and Auntie transcripts from the hearing that followed a peaceful protest and murder, is showing us that the work of peace is harder work than she imagined.
It is a relief when the author recounts the breakthroughs in her understanding of the connections that make her subjects a resilient people.
In a transformative graveyard scene, she finally realises the meaning of spirit, the essence of life that is passed from being to being, as Raven becomes human and grandmother becomes grandchild. In the graveyard with her new friends, she finally understands and we feel the rapture.
There is no barrier between beings. All is form-line, one life, one spirit, moving into the next. That, she finally understands, is the character of the people she struggles to know even as she is disconnected from her own ancestry.
If we are to succeed as a nation and as a world, there are lessons to be learned from Heather Menzies quest to decolonize herself. There are protocols for everything from birth to death, the fixed narrative of storytelling, the one story of every living thing that we need to discover. They do not come from random selection, but from wisdom. We are all matter and anti-matter and respect is what gives us the space to define our shapes in a world guided by spirits, the guardians of all our relations.
Linda Rogers‘ many works include Say My Name: the Memoirs of Charlie Louie (Ekstasis Editions). Her Empress Trilogy is now complete with the publication of Repairing the Hive. Friesen Press printed her edited pandemic collection, Mother, the Verb, Swan Sister Treasure Book (2022), the stories of activist artists. Editor’s note: Linda Rogers has recently reviewed an omnibus review of poetry (by Shaun Robinson, Carellin Brooks, Jen Currin, David Ly, Zoe Landale, Gennie Gunn, Joseph Dandurand, Kristina Bresnen, Dale Tracy, and Karen Enns) as well as books by Brandi Bird, Leslie Gentile, David Bouchard & Kristy Cameron, Karen Whetung & Lindsay Delaronde, Julie Flett, and Shawna Davis & Toonsa Jordana Luggi, for The British Columbia Review. Her book Crow Jazz (Mother Tongue Publishing, 2018) was reviewed by Paul Headrick and Mother, the Verb, Swan Sister Treasure Book is reviewed by Cathy Ford.
The British Columbia Review
Interim Editors, 2023-24: Trevor Marc Hughes (non-fiction), Brett Josef Grubisic (fiction)
Publisher: Richard Mackie
Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board now consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. The British Columbia Review was founded in 2016 by Richard Mackie and Alan Twigg.
“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster