Last week at the Avenue Top 40 Under 40 event, I ran into Cary Williams. We’ve never officially met, but we follow each other on Twitter, so it’s sort of like we know each other, right? In any case, Cary had an excellent question for me: he was curious about how my writing about Edmonton’s past and our attitudes towards it could be read rhetorically relative to Todd Babiak’s Make Something Edmonton Project.
It’s a great question. I don’t know Todd. I almost worked up the nerve to say hi to him at last year’s Top 40 event, but I lost my resolve when I saw him surrounded by well-dressed and well-coiffed people. Did he really want to hear me blather about how I checked the The Garneau Block out of the Inuvik Centennial Library (which has a fabulous selection of books, by the way) in 2007 and I read it under the midnight sun during my first time working in the North? Probably not, I figured, so I went hunting for more bison meat-balls and crudites instead.
All this being said, I have been enjoying Todd’s magpietown blog. I started reading it in September while I was still living in Paulatuuq, and it gave me quite a bit of hope to see the groundswell of support for an Edmonton narrative. One that doesn’t resort to using the terms ‘world class’ or trying to emulate Vancouver/New York/Tokyo/or [insert city that recently built an arena or entertainment complex here]. I passionately believe that much of our struggle is borne of the fact that our myths have been firmly entrenched in the frontier narrative. Forget several hundred years of fur trade, or the interactions between Blackfoot, Cree, Saulteaux or Metis peoples. What matters to us is 1885 onwards, when Edmonton was a wild west town on the upswing, filled with hopeful businessmen intent on making a life in the empty and adventurous prairies. And then, once the city replaced wood with brick, mud with pavement, we start to focus on other economic narratives. Gateway to the North. Oil City. City of Champions.
Curiously, but not surprisingly, these narratives paint some people in a more flattering light than others.
For a Metis person, 1885-onwards has a different significance. This is when the struggle to affirm and acknowledge Metis rights on the prairies (or what was once rupertsland) was violently denied by the government, resulting in a tragic and complex battle at Batoche. By 1885 First Nations peoples on the prairies were seeing, in a very real way, that the Treaties they had signed in good faith were essentially not worth the parchment they were written on. 1885 is characterized by broken promises, bad negotiations and strife.
I grew up with the happy 1885 narrative. In Elementary School we made dutiful trips to the old Pioneer exhibit at the Royal Alberta Museum. We looked at stereoscopic images of women in petticoats and bustles, men with sharp facial hair and determined eyes. We learned about McKernan Lake and Richard Secord, John Oliver, William Groat, the fine upstanding men of Strathcona and how people crossed the river before bridges were built. We learned about coal mining in the river valley, the last spike in the railway, cold winters and picnics by the river.
All of this is to say, I didn’t know my own history. I was taught that we were a pioneer town. Yes, there had been a fort here, but that didn’t really matter. The city’s official, urban narrative begins once we emancipated ourselves from the shackles of the Hudson’s Bay Company monopoly on the fur trade, and struck out as enterprising and ambitious capitalists in the West. (I know it is likely not that intentional or thought-out or was probably a clinical and sterile decision made by several committees and signed off in triplicate, but it is indeed interesting that the University of Alberta renamed the Hudson’s Bay building as “Enterprise Square” — something that Dr. Frank Tough pointed out to me in passing a few years ago. He reiterated that this act is a sort of re-imagining of our history in a microcosm (one building) that speaks volumes of our attitudes towards who we are and what matters to us).
Like many Indigenous people raised in cities, I began to learn my history in University. Sure, my Dad took us to some round dances and pow-wows, and once he even took us to Lac St. Anne for the annual pilgrimage. But I wasn’t intimately connected to his family’s history. I didn’t know about the major role that the Metis played in the fur trade (or nation building) or the role that my own family played in the prairies. Because his family had been ashamed of their Metis-ness — something engrained and reinforced by prairie-building narratives that painted the Metis as traitors and good-for-nothings, I swallowed the Edmonton as Pioneer Achievement of Greatness and Wonder hook, line and sinker.
There is a danger in swallowing that narrative because it flattens the complexity and diversity of our history. We are actually, I think, more accurately “the city that grew out of the traditional territory of the Blackfoot, Cree, Saulteaux and Metis. Place of beauty, gathering place of many, home of peoples from all over the world”. Our post-1885 frontier narrative also ignores some of the downright criminal ways that land was acquired in order to make us the City of Champions. Here, Dr. Tough explains to the Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples how land was illegally acquired in Edmonton through scrip fraud by some of our most venerated pioneers: Richard Secord and James Lougheed. In this way, land that was intended for Metis peoples, in acknowledgment of their Aboriginal rights, was stolen by ‘enterprising’ men who we celebrate as part of the city-building project. In turn, the Federal Government, rather than acknowledge that the fraud had occurred and was an egregious violation of Canadian Law, simply changed the law so that the statute of limitations ran out and the actual theft of said land was no longer a matter of concern.
How do we swallow that revelation? I know when I first heard Dr. Tough guest lecture about this incident in an anthropology night class I took in 2004, I was outraged. “What do you mean the federal government simply changed the statute of limitations?” I thought. It was the first of many lessons in how Indigenous history, rights and meaning have been wiped from our collective consciousness in Edmonton. Many people’s idea of Aboriginal Edmonton is the person they run into at the Library or the guy they’re too scared to talk to as they cross the street. Frankly, that’s a travesty. This city is built on contested land. Those terrified, racist views of Indigenous peoples? Those are entrenched and shaped by our white-washing of how city-building actually proceeded. Plain and simple. And no matter how we attempt to rectify this by naming industrial sites after the reserve that once stood there or discussing how to accommodate Indigenous peoples won’t change the cultural consciousness that underlines our views of this space as a frontier — wild and free. That’s not to say that we aren’t trying to correct this, or that the city doesn’t deserve kudos for things like the Urban Aboriginal Accord. But in order to really understand who we are, we have to first understand the myths we’ve been drinking, eating and breathing for the last 120 odd years (Dr. Dwayne Donald calls these ‘origin stories’ — you can read his beautiful work here). And then we need to smash them and write our own story, one that acknowledges Indigenous history and also celebrates the voices and stories of the many other peoples who have made Edmonton their home and built it with their own two hands. The story we tell today is the WASP version of city building. And many of us feel out of place in that narrative because it minimizes or ignores the richness of what we have contributed to place-making and story-telling.
So, all of this to say: I welcome the Make Something Edmonton Project. It’s about damn time we started to focus on our in situ or indigenous realities, identities and talents. That being said, I hope that we acknowledge that the act of making something is sometimes dangerous. Heck, Secord and Lougheed made something: they crafted an elaborate hoax to hire someone to impersonate someone entitled to land. The Federal government made something: they rewrote a national law in order to excuse such behaviour. I was happy to read Todd’s post about Indigenous narratives, and I am also ecstatic to see him championing local businesses, artists, musicians and thinkers. We need this. We need to be proud of who we are, to stop deferring and demurring to other places in order to define ourselves. As my friend would say, we need to ‘put on our big girl pants and get on with it’.
As we bound forward with pride, making Edmonton our own, let us also remember the ways that we’ve unmade things. We’ve unmade our Indigenous and immigrant histories through our narrative that privileges building and expanding and remaking Edmonton. We’ve unmade countless beautiful and useful buildings in the hopes that newer, better, stronger towers would make us meaningful, give us worth. We’ve unmade our fur trade history and replaced it with (intensely white) settler/pioneer stories. We’ve erased the rural that existed just ten years ago quite literally with stucco, vinyl and drive-through banking. We are in the process of unmaking some of the most fertile agricultural land in the province and turning it into more unsustainable neighbourhoods. Let’s build a narrative of making that challenges and transforms the current ‘making’ stories. Let’s replace our wimpy and cowardly narratives with ones that are – to borrow a word from Todd – audacious.
My partner asked me last year what I thought the best response to the erasure of Edmonton’s non-white history was. I initially thought it was architecture, because I place so much value on space and identity and I want to see the land that my ancestors considered sacred to be honoured with beautiful, intentional buildings. This is a long-term goal, since buildings are particular creatures and don’t just emerge overnight (although a lot of post-awesome ones seem to). But I also realized that perhaps the most accessible and immediate way to alter narratives and transform space is art and music and poetry. While I sat in a lecture that Tomson Highway gave at the Faculty of Native Studies yesterday, wherein he discussed the fundamental differences between English and Cree as languages (English as spirit killing, Cree as joyous and pleasure-full), I imagined rewriting the city map with Indigenous names and stories. Or just replacing Oliver, Secord and their ilk with my own stories of each corner of the city. The place where I stood on an ant hill and had to be rescued. The place where I helped an elderly woman who had fallen on the sidewalk. The place where my nine-year old Dad and his brother tried to steal an old, broken down truck from the ice factory. Perhaps if we each rewrote the map, put our own stories up there, held them as equal and just as powerful in forming the city as the pioneers we currently celebrate, we could recalibrate our narrative. I imagine art installations and performance art that brings together Indigenous and immigrant stories* and tells them in the streets. Dance and music flooding the city core, and photo installations that wrap entire buildings with images of Metis sashes and pysanky and Chinese embroidery. Perhaps in some ways this is already accomplished through existing events, but I wouldn’t be opposed to more art. More music. More dance. More films that tell our stories! Celebration is really the best way to shift consciousness. I have always said I would rather move with love and joy than with anger.
So, I hope that Todd will forgive me for the audacity to engage with his narrative. And I hope that perhaps my Metis, prairie woman perspective can contribute in a positive way to Making Something Edmonton. Because I truly believe that the way forward is to throw away our hang ups and start moving with intention and spirit. This city is only ‘Deadmonton’ to those who refuse to engage in the richness of our history and burgeoning talent. To move forward means no more crapitechture, no more businessmen holding us hostage through world-class narratives. It means an honest and blunt assessment of the things we have done wrong. And a commitment to doing things right. This is our city and we’re gonna make it amazing — and we don’t need committees and studies to tell us this or to give us permission to be active citizens. It starts in the heart and makes its way to the streets through the stories we tell, the decisions we make and the things we create. So, thank you Todd for articulating how to move forward joyously. Let’s hold the past, present and future in tension and build something worth staying for and something that the ancestors would thank us for.
*This is something my amazing cousin, Kamala Todd, is already accomplishing in Vancouver through her film-making: http://vimeo.com/9725046