This book should be required reading for the Euro-Canadians who think living conditions on reserves are as good as or better than the average Quebecer’s or who believe government funding should be cut to aboriginal people or for the journalists who have been accused of racism against native peoples.
As a matter of fact, all peoples within Canada, both nonnative and native, should read this latest of efforts from Boyce Richardson. It contains what the history books do not—simply the truth about how the Euro-Canadian people regarded this land and its original inhabitants. It takes you on a voyage of discovery about today’s attitudes. It contains both history and thoughful insights into today’s problems across the country.
The book is dedicated to the many aboriginal peoples who welcomed Boyce to their land. Many Crees will recognize the people he names: Bearskin, Jolly, Blacksmith, Awashish and Voyager.
The opening passage refers to the title: “Terra Nullius, a land that is empty of people. This is the legal concept used by Europeans when they first arrived in North America. They wanted to justify their claim to own all the land, pretending
that no one else had been here first.”
The first chapter is entitled, “Celebrating Survival.” It talks about a conference where indigenous peoples from the American Continent gathered to celebrate their survival after a 500-year holocaust. Boyce expands on this: “The confernece was a riveting experience, even fora white urban skeptic. These were the people whose very survival was put in question from the moment we arrived in North America with our aggressive European technology, cultural arrogance and fanatical proselytizing religion. It is now believed there were between 90 and 110 million aboriginal people in the Americas, of whom 90 per cent were killed or died in the first century after European contact—incomparably the most appalling holocaust in human history,” Boyce writes.
“For many native Americans, their survival is still in question. Every day, somewhere in this hemisphere, some of their people are being killed. One could understand their euphoria: their conference validated for them the fact of theirsurvival.”
This is the beginning of the trip Boyce Richardson takes you on across the country from the Alantic provinces to the Pacific Ocean. He takes you through time, from before the first European contact with the Americas to today. He covers the issues at the heart of native politics in a way never done before.
He is at once historian and reporter. He not only analyzes data, history and what he is told by native and non-native people, but he is emotional about it. He makes no bones about what he knows and feels.
One of his insights that I found interesting was when he talked about the media. He notes that media interest in native peoples is ethnocentric and arbitrary. This issue is just starting to be looked at here in Quebec. Remember, Boyce said it first!
He says, “As disadvantaged blacks in the United States
discovered long ago, the quickest way to arouse media interest is to start shooting,” a reference to the increase of native coverage after the Oka crisis. The suicide attempts of native youths at Davis Inlet were of interest to the media as a sensationalist story, but little attention was paid to Davis Inlet despite a book telling of the community’s problems a full year before.
One of the passages that captured my fancy was “Native self-government: escaping the tentacles.” A definite must-read for anybody wondering how the other First Nations around the country are doing in terms of self-goverment. In the future, The Nation will look into this.
Sandy Bay was an interesting case. Isaac Beaulieu helped write the Manitoba Indian Brotherhood document called Wahbung (“Our Tomorrows”). This was a plan for the future that challenged Euro-Canadian control over aboriginal life at every level. Sandy Bay is currently still using it.
Sandy Bay also took over the local residential school when the government tried to shut it down. The government tried to scare them out of business by proposing something called a master tuition agreement. To the government’s amazement, Sandy Bay accepted and generously offered to accommodate the non-native children from the surrounding area. That was the end of the coversation until they once again proposed to educate non-native children, alarming the government officals once more.
Boyce tells the story with a lot more style than I have. Check it out.
The Mistissini Lake community in northern Quebec is Boyce’s pick as one of the most interesting aboriginal places in Canada.
The last character in Terra Nullius, who is a Cree from Chisasibi, deals with what Boyce sees as a sign of hope. I won’t spoil the ending for you. After all, I just spent two pages talking about this book and it’s not enough. Get it… soon.
“Terra Nullius, a land that Is empty of people. This Is the legal concept used by Europeans when they first arrived In North America. They wanted to Justify their claim to own all the land.”