(This piece appeared in Geez, Issue No 39, Decolonization, (2015): 28. Print)
Like so many settlers from my generation, I have lived disconnected from the land and from my history. Now at the age of 29 I am in the process of reclaiming and weaving together the forgotten codes, stories, and scars that I carry in my being.
My father, a man full of deep pain, both mental and physical, did not participate in my life, except for the handful of letters he sent sporadically throughout my childhood. Raised by a warrior woman, a single mother full of deep love, I thrived and yet secretly longed for something I could not quite put my finger on.
When my father took his life almost seven years ago, I felt like the loss and pain might swallow me whole. I put all his letters, along with a binder of notes, into his old blue backpack; it sat unopened on my shelf for months. I did not want to look inside. I did not want his death to define me.
It is difficult to grieve for someone you do not know. My story of grief and discovery began with meeting my father's family and learning about his roots in Canada's East Coast. I was surprised to learn that I was the great, great, great, great granddaughter of Angelique Judith Benoit Burton, a descendant of the Mi'kmaq people who are indigenous to Canada's Atlantic provinces. I am connected to the Bras d'Or land in Nova Scotia.
A couple of years ago I attended the Truth and Reconciliation meetings in Vancouver. For hours and hours, as the rain poured down, as well as tears, we all listened together and bore witness. I entered into the grief as both a settler and visitor living on the unceded traditional territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations.
The Indian Act, a horrific and painful strand in Canada's history, was intended to “kill the Indian in the child.” Therefore, one of my acts of resistance is to learn from, reclaim, and celebrate (but not appropriate) the incredibly rich culture of the Mi'kmaq people from whom I am descended. Tangibly, this means planning a trip to Nova Scotia this summer, where I will meet aunts and cousins for the first time and visit the land where my dad walked as a little boy. As a visual artist, I also hope to spend time with Mi’kmaq artists and basket weavers listening and learning.
When my dad died he didn’t leave me a letter. Instead, he sent me pictures of his family wrapped up in a torn-out calendar page of Nova Scotia. I almost didn’t open it out of fear and anger, but he left me what he could: a type of map that not only will lead me to Nova Scotia this summer, but also out of grieving in isolation towards others.
My independent western mentality often thinks in binaries: good, bad, colonizer, peacekeeper, ill, healthy, sad or happy. Indigenous cultures teach me another way of thinking, a way that incorporates all the shades of pain, beauty, and truth that make up a history. The path of reconciliation, I have learned, is not straight, but is perhaps more like a Mi'kmaq basket: circular black ash wood, woven above and below, each piece made stronger because of its interconnections. This is the way of Msit No’kmaq (all my relations): our history is woven into our future, our healing made stronger because of our interconnections.
2015 My Blue Bucket of Gold, The Cheeky Proletariat, Vancouver, BC - street art installation
To view the accompanying booklet click here