Wednesday, July 13, 2022

Review notes from the west coast: UPDATED

Catching up on the British Columbia Review, which must be the most comprehensive review publication in the country these days, online at least (though it only covers BC books), brought me to Ken Favrholdt's review of the new second edition of Unsettling Canada by Arthur Manuel and Ron Derrickson, with an introduction by Naomi Klein. The first edition was published in 2015, without the introduction.

This review is a mostly biographical sketch of Arthur Manuel and suggests the book is largely a personal memoir. If this truly is the "decolonization manifesto" mentioned in the review's headline, the reviewer might have discussed those matters in more detail.  

But Manuel is important, as readers of his second (2017) book The Reconciliation Manifesto (also co-authored by Derrickson) will recognize. That one still strikes me as the best summary available of what is required for "reconciliation" to succeed and how to go about it: namely, treaty implementation leading to a secure revenue base and serious Indigenous self-government. From this review, I'd recommend going to Reconciliation Manifesto first.  [July14: see more on this in the update below]

The Review also published Jason Colby's review of Possessing Meares Island: A Historian’s Journey into the Past of Clayoquot Sound by Barry Gough, a prolific scholar of early west coast history whom I feel I've  never sufficiently covered here (or elsewhere). Meares is an island tucked into the west coast of Vancouver Island, the scene of much eighteenth century contact history and also of recent confrontations over both logging and indigenous title. The book under review covers Gough's involvement with both aspects of that history: as a historian of the contact events and as a consultant in the legal struggles over logging and title.

Colby's review suggests the book also provides a glimpse into how "what matters" in Canadian history has been changing, and how that complicates life particularly for long-active historians with a long publication record. Colby praises Gough, "a genial and learned guide":

He gives careful attention to the experience of Indigenous peoples, emphasizing their relationships to land and sea and teasing out their nuanced interactions with Europeans. In doing so, Gough wrestles with the asymmetry of source material that inevitably results from an encounter between an oral culture and a literary culture. Put simply, non-native explorers and settlers tended to leave the written documents that historians have traditionally considered their “primary” sources, thereby privileging European accounts and perspectives. “Of all the challenges the historian faces, this is the most formidable,” he admits. “And so it is with this book” (p. 7).

He also praises Gough's account of his work as a consultant historian in contemporary legal matters:

In 1986 (when I was still in middle school), Barry Gough learned of the threat to Meares Island and the stakes for Indigenous rights, and he answered the call. Over the following years, he marshalled all of his knowledge, research skills, and intuition as a historian to help save Meares Island and secure Indigenous title. That is the big picture, and he deserves our thanks.

Yet Colby has reservations:

Gough’s account is richer in maritime than in Indigenous history, to be sure, and there are moments when his phrasing seems to mimic the diction of non-native sources too closely. At times, this can be innocuous and even charming, such as when he describes characters as “raw-boned” or “well-moneyed” (p. 153). But in other passages, it results in language that demands further analysis.[...]

In addition, despite Gough’s careful attention to contingency, there are also passages that seem to hint that history itself was the product of European agency. Of the decades during which European ships bypassed Vancouver Island’s West Coast, for example, Gough writes that “history had passed the place by” (p. 129). Of the British effort to chart the coast and inner waters, he observes, “The navy’s survey of Clayoquot Sound stands at the gate of history: the ancient giving way to the modern, the Aboriginal world view to that of Western science” (p. 155).

That may be where more than one veteran Canadianist is: trying to work with a new paradigm, still not entirely succeeding -- or, at least, not entirely satisfying some younger, born-woke readers.

Update, July 14:  Reader Jared Milne expands on Arthur Manuel and his reviewers:

I caught your blogpost about the writings of the late, great Arthur Manuel today. I don't know if you've read Unsettling Canada, but I have and I can say that while the book is excellent, the review you cited...not so much. 

Unsettling Canada gives a lot of historic, personal context towards the struggle for Indigenous rights and self-determination, including Manuel's idea of taking the resistance international by appealing to various UN agencies. The book also summarizes some of the most long-standing problems surrounding Indigenous governance-namely, how band councils can still be overridden by Ottawa bureaucrats even today. 

He and Grand Chief Ronald Derrickson also offer some interesting political points, namely how Algonquin peoples in Quebec developed good working relationships with lumber companies and provincial authorities that could have led to mutual benefits for everyone, made with actual in-depth Native involvement. They even point out that Indigenous territories with full control over their resources might actually charge lower stumpage fees than provincial governments, and more of the wealth from resource development itself would stay in Canada. 

Unsettling Canada is perhaps more personal and historical than The Reconciliation Manifesto, but the former gives the latter some more context and background.

Thanks, Jared, I think you are right. And (should have been made clear) I have not read Unsettling Canada.




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