Posted on February 6, 2014 by Tia Lalani

On Jan 21, four Elders came to speak about the history of our land. Professor Jérôme Melançon discusses what they said.

This Second Thoughts column ran in the Camrose Booster on February 4, 2014.

jerome_melanconJérôme Melançon
Political Studies and Philosophy
University of Alberta’s Augustana Campus

On January 21, the Augustana and Camrose community were invited to take part in a gathering with Elders from local Indigenous communities to learn about the meaning and the history of the land on which we live, study and work.

The Land on Which we Stand

The stories we hear about Camrose usually go back to the small log cabin built by Ole Bakken, a Norwegian settler, who was later followed by others coming from Wetaskiwin, and through which the railway ran. The community was first named Sparling (after a reverend) and then renamed Camrose (after a village in South Wales) to avoid confusion with other cities. And so today our friends and relatives think it must be so beautiful to live in Camrose. The Norwegian and Lutheran connections of the settlers continue to shape the demographics and the culture of the city to this day, even as it becomes increasingly religiously and culturally diverse – and Canadian.

CrowdThere is a good reason why we do not hear about people being settlers anymore: we see the whole territory as already occupied. There is no land left to settle. But because we see ourselves as the owners of this territory and because we have made it our own, we continue to take part in the settler mentality. That mentality depends on the fiction that land was there for the taking for millions to start a new life. New lives, new communities, a new country: we established ourselves on a blank slate, on a new land.

However, that fiction of a blank slate goes against another history. Of course, we know about the presence of the Cree and Blackfoot nations in the general area surrounding what is now Camrose, and stretching as far as Red Deer, the Rockies, and perhaps even Prince Albert, Saskatchewan.

In mid-January, four Elders from the First Nations located near Maskwacis came to speak to a gathering of Camrose community members, as well as students, staff and instructors of the Augustana Campus. These two men and two women are recognized in their communities as being knowledgeable about the land and its history, and so we asked them to tell us what they felt we ought to know about the land where we live, study, and work.

ElderWe heard about Asiniskaw Sipisis (“Camrose”) being part of a highway, a point through which various groups travelled through a territory they occupied through their movements rather than by enclosing it within fences. Sacred sites are still present all over this territory, and many people still visit them to pray and make offerings. That territory included what we now call Wetaskiwin, a deformation of witaskiwin-ispatinaw, “peace hills.” And I was surprised that three of the four Elders included stories about Residential Schools in the short time they had to speak to us.

My reaction was to ask myself: since these stories contain knowledge and directions, why did they tell them to us, here, now, in this context? I want to offer my own answer, both in gratitude for the stories I heard and to convey them to others. The practice of forcing Indigenous children to live in Residential Schools, where their language, culture, and spirituality would be violently taken away, goes hand in hand with the practice of renaming the places they inhabited. The assimilation of a people goes together with appropriating their land. And what is more, the Residential Schools have left a mark on the land: they are the physical link between our present and the times before the “settlement” of this land. Stories about these schools have only begun to be told, thanks to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. (The TRC has already heard from Residential School Survivors in Maskwacis and will be holding a national event in Edmonton on March 27-30.)

One of the many challenges First Nations face in Canada is to reclaim their culture and their territory: many cultural practices must take place on the land, in specific places. And after all, like anyone else, members of First Nations want to be able to state with pride where they are from and use their own words to do so. Renaming their community according to its traditional name, Maskwacis (“bear hills”), instead of Hobbema (a Dutch painter), is only one step. A previous step included building a new Ermineskin School, controlled by the band and staffed by members of First Nations, on the site of the Ermineskin Residential School.

Many Indigenous activists and scholars are saying that the success of this cultural revival does not depend on the recognition or help of Canadians of European descent. However, they stress that reconciliation through attempts by these Canadians (such as myself) at overcoming their settler mentality would go a long way toward breaking down the barriers that continue to stand in the way of equality, freedom, and dignity. It seems to me that it’s time to learn other stories and help make new ones on the land on which we can stand together.

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