Five nonfiction books about Canada

It’s July! When I think of July, I think of two things, Canada Day (because I’m Canadian) and Disability Pride Month.

For this month, I’ll be sharing a book lists both about Canada and about Disability Justice.


July 1st is Canada Day. It celebrates the passing of the British North America Act, which unified the United Canadas, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick as a single dominion within the British Empire. Canada didn’t become fully independent from the British Empire until 1982!

In late June of 2021, unmarked graves of Indigenous children were found at a residential school in BC. This sparked outrage across the country and led to many Canada Day celebrations to be canceled or changed into gatherings of remembrance/protests.

These unmarked graves were a reminder of how much still needs to be done for reconciliation and how recent this history really is. The last residential school was shut down in 1996 (Gordon Reserve Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan). That’s within my lifetime!

In recent years, it’s become more common to use July 1st as a time to protest or organize peaceful rallies.

Photo by Andy Holmes on Unsplash

Learning about Canada

No matter how you choose to spend July 1st, I think Canada Day is a great day to learn more about Canada.

It’s important to understand how this country was formed, what influenced the creation of all our systems, and most of all, what we’ve done wrong as a country, to ensure that we have changed and continue to change for the better.

Our history informs our present. The past has lead to the present, and continues to influence it.

There are many laws formed long ago that still play a role in our governance. For instance, the Indian Act (from 1876!) is still active and plays a vital role in the federal government’s relationship with Indigenous nations. I should note, it has been amended over the years, but that doesn’t mean all the issues have been fixed.

Like most things in life, context is key. History is just the context for where we are at now, which is why it’s important to better understand how we got to this point.

The nonfiction books about Canada below showcase a range of information about Canada, starting with a personal memoir of a settler, along with a handful of nonfiction from Indigenous authors and perspectives.

Indigenous voices have often been ignored and silenced throughout Canadian history, so it’s even more vital to listen to their voices now.

Five nonfiction books about Canada

Here’s a list of five nonfiction books about Canada.

  1. Roughing It in the Bush by Susanna Moodie (1852)
  2. The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America by Thomas King (2012)
  3. Seven Fallen Feathers: Racism, Death, and Hard Truths in a Northern City by Tanya Talaga (2017)
  4. 21 Things You May Not Know About the Indian Act: Helping Canadians Make Reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples a Reality by Bob Joseph (2018)
  5. Peace and Good Order: The Case for Indigenous Justice in Canada by Harold R. Johnson (2019)

Keep reading to find out more about each one. I’ve listed them in order of when they were published.

Roughing It in the Bush (1852)

by Susanna Moodie

  • Year Published: 1852
  • Storygraph Categories:
    nonfiction, history, memoir, challenging, emotional, informative, slow-paced
  • A canonical work of Canadian literature, with historic and cultural value, as well as literary merit

Roughing It in the Bush, first published in 1852, helped to destroy British illusions about life in Upper Canada. Susanna Moodie described a life of backbreaking labour, poverty, and hardship on a pioneer farm in the colonial wilderness. Her sharp observations, satirical character sketches, and moments of despair and terror were a startling contrast to the widely circulated optimistic accounts of life in British North America, written to entice readers across the Atlantic.

The spontaneity, wit, and candour of Moodie’s account of life on a backwoods farm give Roughing It in the Bush enduring appeal.

Links:

The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America (2012)

by Thomas King

  • Year Published: 2012
  • Storygraph Categories:
    nonfiction, history, challenging, informative, reflective, slow-paced
  • Won the 2014 RBC Taylor Prize and was a finalist for the 2013 Trillium Book Award and the 2014 Burt Award for First Nations, Métis and Inuit Literature
  • Adapted into a documentary titled Inconvenient Indian

The Inconvenient Indian is at once a “history” and the complete subversion of a history—in short, a critical and personal meditation that the remarkable Thomas King has conducted over the past 50 years about what it means to be “Indian” in North America.

Rich with dark and light, pain and magic, this book distills the insights gleaned from that meditation, weaving the curiously circular tale of the relationship between non-Natives and Natives in the centuries since the two first encountered each other. In the process, King refashions old stories about historical events and figures, takes a sideways look at film and pop culture, relates his own complex experiences with activism, and articulates a deep and revolutionary understanding of the cumulative effects of ever-shifting laws and treaties on Native peoples and lands.

This is a book both timeless and timely, burnished with anger but tempered by wit, and ultimately a hard-won offering of hope—a sometimes inconvenient, but nonetheless indispensable account for all of us, Indian and non-Indian alike, seeking to understand how we might tell a new story for the future.

Links:

Seven Fallen Feathers**: Racism, Death, and Hard Truths in a Northern City (2017)

by Tanya Talaga

  • Year Published: 2017
  • Storygraph Categories:
    nonfiction, history, politics, challenging, informative, sad, medium-paced
  • Won the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing in 2017, the RBC Taylor Prize for Literary Nonfiction and PMC Indigenous Literature Awards in 2018

In 1966, twelve-year-old Chanie Wenjack froze to death on the railway tracks after running away from residential school. An inquest was called and four recommendations were made to prevent another tragedy. None of those recommendations were applied.

More than a quarter of a century later, from 2000 to 2011, seven Indigenous high school students died in Thunder Bay, Ontario. The seven were hundreds of miles away from their families, forced to leave home and live in a foreign and unwelcoming city. Five were found dead in the rivers surrounding Lake Superior, below a sacred Indigenous site. Jordan Wabasse, a gentle boy and star hockey player, disappeared into the minus twenty degrees Celsius night. The body of celebrated artist Norval Morrisseau’s grandson, Kyle, was pulled from a river, as was Curran Strang’s. Robyn Harper died in her boarding-house hallway and Paul Panacheese inexplicably collapsed on his kitchen floor. Reggie Bushie’s death finally prompted an inquest, seven years after the discovery of Jethro Anderson, the first boy whose body was found in the water.

Using a sweeping narrative focusing on the lives of the students, award-winning investigative journalist Tanya Talaga delves into the history of this small northern city that has come to manifest Canada’s long struggle with human rights violations against Indigenous communities.

Links:

21 Things You May Not Know About the Indian Act: Helping Canadians Make Reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples a Reality (2018)

by Bob Joseph

  • Year Published: 2018
  • Storygraph Categories:
    nonfiction, history, politics, race, challenging, informative, reflective, slow-paced
  • Winner of the 2019 Bill Duthie Booksellers’ Choice Award

Based on a viral article (on CBC), 21 Things You May Not Know About the Indian Act is the essential guide to understanding the legal document and its repercussion on generations of Indigenous Peoples, written by a leading cultural sensitivity trainer.

Since its creation in 1876, the Indian Act has shaped, controlled, and constrained the lives and opportunities of Indigenous Peoples, and is at the root of many enduring stereotypes. Bob Joseph’s book comes at a key time in the reconciliation process, when awareness from both Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities is at a crescendo. Joseph explains how Indigenous Peoples can step out from under the Indian Act and return to self-government, self-determination, and self-reliance—and why doing so would result in a better country for every Canadian. He dissects the complex issues around truth and reconciliation, and clearly demonstrates why learning about the Indian Act’s cruel, enduring legacy is essential for the country to move toward true reconciliation.

Links:

Peace and Good Order: The Case for Indigenous Justice in Canada (2019)

by Harold R. Johnson

  • Year Published: 2019
  • Storygraph Categories:
    nonfiction, history, memoir, politics, emotional, informative, reflective, slow-paced

An urgent, informed, intimate condemnation of the Canadian state and its failure to deliver justice to Indigenous people by national bestselling author and former Crown prosecutor Harold R. Johnson.

In early 2018, the failures of Canada’s justice system were sharply and painfully revealed in the verdicts issued in the deaths of Colten Boushie and Tina Fontaine. The outrage and confusion that followed those verdicts inspired former Crown prosecutor and bestselling author Harold R. Johnson to make the case against Canada for its failure to fulfill its duty under Treaty to effectively deliver justice to Indigenous people, worsening the situation and ensuring long-term damage to Indigenous communities.

In this direct, concise, and essential volume, Harold R. Johnson examines the justice system’s failures to deliver “peace and good order” to Indigenous people. He explores the part that he understands himself to have played in that mismanagement, drawing on insights he has gained from the experience; insights into the roots and immediate effects of how the justice system has failed Indigenous people, in all the communities in which they live; and insights into the struggle for peace and good order for Indigenous people now.

Links:

Final thoughts

I hope you found something of interest in this list of books.

I’m always looking for more suggestions of books to read. I’d love to know which books you love or that you would recommend. Let me know in a comment below!

Have you read any of these books? What did you think of it?

I’d love to hear your thoughts in a comment below.

History is the stories we tell

This is a quote from the book The Inconvenient Indian by Thomas King.

Quote by Thomas King, “Most of us think that history is the past. It’s not. History is the stories we tell about the past. That’s all it is. Stories. Such a definition might make the enterprise of history seem neutral. Benign.
Which, of course, it isn’t.”

Have you read this book? I’d love to hear your thoughts in a comment below!

If you’re interested, you can read an excerpt from the book here.

The Inconvenient Indian – Summary

The Inconvenient Indian is at once a “history” and the complete subversion of a history—in short, a critical and personal meditation that the remarkable Thomas King has conducted over the past 50 years about what it means to be “Indian” in North America.

Rich with dark and light, pain and magic, this book distills the insights gleaned from that meditation, weaving the curiously circular tale of the relationship between non-Natives and Natives in the centuries since the two first encountered each other. In the process, King refashions old stories about historical events and figures, takes a sideways look at film and pop culture, relates his own complex experiences with activism, and articulates a deep and revolutionary understanding of the cumulative effects of ever-shifting laws and treaties on Native peoples and lands.

This is a book both timeless and timely, burnished with anger but tempered by wit, and ultimately a hard-won offering of hope—a sometimes inconvenient, but nonetheless indispensable account for all of us, Indian and non-Indian alike, seeking to understand how we might tell a new story for the future.

Copyright © 2012 by Thomas King.

You can find more details here on Goodreads and on StoryGraph.

Forget Columbus

Excerpt from The Inconvenient Indian by Thomas King

Photo by Abigail Loney on Unsplash

This is an excerpt from the book The Inconvenient Indian by Thomas King.

Most of us think that history is the past. It’s not. History is the stories we tell about the past. That’s all it is. Stories. Such a definition might make the enterprise of history seem neutral. Benign.

Which, of course, it itsn’t.

History may well be a series of stories we tell about the past, but the stories are not just any stories. They’re not chosen by chance. By and large, the stories are about famous men and celebrated events. We throw in a couple of exceptional women every now and then, not our of any need to recognize female eminence, but out of embarrassment.

And we’re not easily embarrassed.

When we imagine history, we imagine a grand structure, a national chronicle, a closely organized and guarded record of agreed-upon events and interpretations, a bundle of “authenticities” and “truths” welded into a flexible, yet conservative narrative that explains how we got from there to here. It is a relationship we have with ourselves, a love affair we celebrate with flags and anthems, festivals and guns.

Well, the “guns” remark was probably uncalled for and might suggest and animus towards history. But that’s not true. I simply have difficulty with how we choose which stories become the pulse of history and which do not.

In 1492, Columbu sailed the ocean blue.

On second thought, let’s not start with Columbus. Helen was right. Let’s forget Columbus. You know, now that I say it out loud, I even like the sound of it. Forget Columbus.

Give it a try. Forget Columbus.

Instead, let’s start our history, our account, in Almo, Idaho. I’ve never been there and I suspect that most of you haven’t either. I can tell you with certainty that Christopher Columbus didn’t discover the town. Nor did Jacques Cartier or Samuel de Champlain or David Thompson or Hernando Cortes. Sacajawea, with Lewis and Clarke in two, might have passed through the general area, but since Almo didn’t exist in the early 1800s, they couldn’t have stopped there. Even if they had wanted to.

Almo is a small, unincorporated town of about 200 tucked into south central Cassia County in southern Idaho. So far as I know, it isn’t famous for much of anything except and Indian massacre.

A plaque in the town reads, “Dedicated to the memory of those who lost their lives in a most horrible Indian massacre, 1861. Three hundred immigrants west bound. Only five escaped. Erected by the S&D of Idaho Pioneers, 1938.”

Two hundred and ninety-five killed. Now that’s a massacre. Indians generally didn’t kill that many Whites at one time. Sure, during the 1813 For Mims massacre, in what is now Alabama. Creek Red Sticks killed about four hundred Whites, but that’s the largest massacre committed by Indians that I can find. The Lachine massacre on Montreal Island in Quebec in 1689killed around ninety, while the death toll in nearby La Chesnaye was forty-two. In 1832, eighteen were killed at Indian Creek near Ottawa, Illinois, while the 1854 Ward massacre along the Oregon Trail in western Idaho had a death toll of nineteen. The 1860 Utter massacre at Henderson Flat near the Snake River in Idaho killed twenty-five. The 1879 Meeker massacre in western Colorado killed eleven. The fort parker massacre in Texas in 1836 killed six.

It’s true in 1835, just south of present-day Bushnell, Florida, Indians killed 108, but since all of the casualties were armed soldiers who were looking for trouble and not unarmed civilians who were trying to avoid it, I don’t count this one as a massacre.

By the way, these aren’t my figures. I borrowed them from William M. Osborn who wrote a book, The Wild Frontier, in which he attempted to document every massacre that occurred in North America. The figures are not dead accurate, of course. They’re approximations based on the historical information that was available to Osborn. Still, it’s nice that someone spent the time and effort to compile such a list, so I can use it without doing any of the work.

I should point out that Indians didn’t do all the massacring. To give credit where credit is due, Whites massacred Indians at a pretty good clip. In 1598, in what is now New Mexico, Juan de Onate and his troops killed over eight hundred Acoma and cut off the left foot of every man over the age of twenty-five. In 163y, John Underhill led a force that killed six to seven hundred Pequot near the Mystic River in Connecticut. In 1871, around one hundred and forty Pinal and Aravaipa Apaches were killed in the Camp Gran t massacre in Arizona Territory. Two hundred and fifty Northwestern Shoshoni were killed in the 1863 Bear River massacre in what is now Idaho, while General Henry Atkinson killed some one hundred and fifty Sauk and Fox at the mouth of the Bad Axe River in Wisconsin in 1832. And, of course, there’s always the famous 1864 Sand Creek massacre in Colorado, where two hundred peaceful Cheyenne were slaughtered by vigilantes looking to shoot anything that moved, and the even more infamous Wounded Knee in 1890, where over two hundred Lakota lost their lives.

Of course, body counts alone don’t even begin to tell the stories of these slaughters, but what the figures do suggest—if you take them at face value—is that Whites were considerably more successful at massacres than Indians. So, the 1861 Almo massacre by the Shoshone-Bannock should stand out in the annals of Indian bad behaviour. After the massacre at Fort Mims, Almo would rank at the second-largest massacre of Whites by Indians.

Three hundred people in the wagon train. Two hundred and ninety-five killed. Only five survivors. It’s a great story. The only problem is, it never happened.

You might assume that something must have happened in Almo, maybe a smaller massacre or a fatal altercation of some sort that was exaggerated and blown out of proportion.

Nope.

The story is simply a tale someone made up and told to someone else, and before you knew it, the Almo massacre was historical fact.

The best summary and critical analysis of the Almo massacre is Brigham Madsen’s 1993 article in Idaho Yesterdays, “The Almo Massacre Revisited.” Madsen was a historian at the University of Utah when I was a graduate student there. He was a smart, witty, gracious man, who once told me that historians are not often appreciated because their research tends to destroy myths. I knew the man, and I liked him. So, in the spirit of full disclosure, I should say that I have a bias towards his work.

Bias or no, Madsen’s research into Almo settles the question. No massacre. As Madsen points out in his article, attacks by Indians did not go unmarked. The newspapers of the time—the Deseret News in Salt Lake City, the Sacramento Daily Union, the San Francisco Examiner—paid close attention to Indian activity along the Oregon and California trails, yet none of the papers had any mention of Almo. Such an event would certainly have come to the attention of Indian Service agents and the military, but again Madsen was unable to find any reference to the massacre either in the National Archives or in the records that the Bureau of Indian Affairs kept for the various states and territories. Nor does the Almo massacre appear in any of the early histories of Idaho.

You would expect that the rescue party from Brigham who supposedly came upon the carnage and buried the bodies of the slain settlers—or the alleged five survivors who escaped death—would have brought the massacre to the attention of the authorities. Okay, one of the survivors was a baby, but that still left a chorus of voices to sound the alarm.

And yet there is nothing.

In fact there is no mention of the matter at all until some sixty-six years after the fact, when the story first appeared in Charles S. Walgamott’s 1926 book Reminiscences of Early Days: A Series of Historical Sketches and Happenings in the Early Days of Snake River Valley. Walgamott claims to have gotten the story from a W.M.E. Johnston, and it’s a gruesome story to be sure, a Jacobean melodrama complete with “bloodthirsty Indians” and a brave White woman who crawls to safety carrying her nursing child by its clothing in her teeth.

A right proper Western.

That the plaque in Almo was erected in 1938 as part of “Exploration Day,” an event that was designed to celebrate Idaho history and promote tourism to the area, is probably just a coincidence. In any case, the fact that the story is a fraud didn’t bother the Sons and Daughters of Idaho Pioneers who paid for the plaque, and it doesn’t bother them now. Even after the massacre was discredited, the town was reluctant to remove the marker, defending the lie as part of the culture and history of the area. Which, of course, it now is.

Have you read this book? I’d love to hear your thoughts in a comment below!

The Inconvenient Indian – Summary

The Inconvenient Indian is at once a “history” and the complete subversion of a history—in short, a critical and personal meditation that the remarkable Thomas King has conducted over the past 50 years about what it means to be “Indian” in North America.

Rich with dark and light, pain and magic, this book distills the insights gleaned from that meditation, weaving the curiously circular tale of the relationship between non-Natives and Natives in the centuries since the two first encountered each other. In the process, King refashions old stories about historical events and figures, takes a sideways look at film and pop culture, relates his own complex experiences with activism, and articulates a deep and revolutionary understanding of the cumulative effects of ever-shifting laws and treaties on Native peoples and lands.

This is a book both timeless and timely, burnished with anger but tempered by wit, and ultimately a hard-won offering of hope—a sometimes inconvenient, but nonetheless indispensable account for all of us, Indian and non-Indian alike, seeking to understand how we might tell a new story for the future.

Copyright © 2012 by Thomas King.

You can find more details here on Goodreads and on StoryGraph.

Extermination and assimilation

Excerpt from The Inconvenient Indian by Thomas King

Photo by Saksham Gangwar on Unsplash

This is an excerpt from the book The Inconvenient Indian by Thomas King.

Throughout the history of Indian-White relations in North America, there have always been two impulses afoot. Extermination and assimilation. Extermination of Native peoples, especially in the early years, was not considered “genocide”—a term coined in 1944 by the legal scholar Raphael Lemkin—so much as it was deemed a by-product of “manifest destiny”— term struck in the 1840 when U.S. Democrats used it to justify the war with Mexico. Extermination was also seen as an expression of “natural law,” a concept conceived by Aristotle in the fourth century B.C. and used by the Spanish humanist Juan de Sepulveda in the sixteenth as a legal justification for the enslavement of Native people in the Caribbean and Mexico.

The means of extermination didn’t much matter. Bullets were okay. Disease was fine. Starvation was acceptable. In the minds of many, these were not so much cruelties as they were variations on the principles underlying the concept “survival of the fittest,” a phrase that Herbert Spencer had fashioned in 1864 and that would become synonymous the Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection.

The second impulse, assimilation, argued for salvation and improvement. One of the questions that the Spanish worried over was whether or not Indians were human beings. This was the subject of the great debate organized by the Vatican in Valladolid, Spain, in 1550 and 1551 where the cleric Bartolome de las Casas maintained that Indians had souls and should be treated as other free men, while the aforementioned Juan de Sepulveda made the case on behalf of land owners, arguing that Indians did not have souls and were therefore natural slaves. De las Casas’s position carried the day, but the “Indians have souls” argument provided no more than a philosophical victory and had no effect on the day-to-day actions of Spanish colonists in the New World, who continued to use Indians as slaves to run their plantations.

Neither the English nor the French spent any time with this question. For these two groups, Indians were simply humans at an early point in the evolution o the species. They were savages with no understanding of orthodox theology, devoid of complex language, and lacking civilized manners. Barbarians certainly, and quite possibly minions of the devil. But human beings, nonetheless. Ans as such, many colonists believed that Native people could be civilized and educated, believed that there was, within the Indian, the possibility for enlightenment.

Extermination dominated the early contact period assimilation the latter, until finally, in the nineteenth century, they came together in an amalgam of militarism and social theory that allowed North America to mount a series of benevolent assaults on Native people, assaults facilitated by force of arms, deception and coercion, assaults that sought to dismantle Native culture with missionary zeal and humanitarian paternalism, and to replace it with something that Whites could recognize.

These assaults came singly, in partnerships and from various angles. In general, settlers and missionaries of one flavour or another led the way, taking turns leapfrogging each other into the “wilderness.” In Canada, it was the French and the Jesuits, followed by the English and Anglicans, Methodists, and Presbyterians. In the American northeast and along the Atlantic coast, it was the English and the Puritans, Methodists, Baptists, and Presbyterians, with a smattering of fQuakers and other non-conformists working out of Rhode Island. In the southeast, it was the Spanish and the Jesuits and the Franciscans. In the far west, along the Pacific coast, it was the Spanish and the Franciscans, while, much later and farther north in California and up the Pacific coast, it was the Russians and the Orthodox Church.

Francis Jennings, in his book The Invasion of America, called Christianity a “conquest religion.” I suspect this description is true of most religions. I can’t think of one that could be termed a “seduction religion,” where converts are lured in by the beauty of the doctrine and the generosity of the practice.

Maybe Buddhism. Certainly not Christianity.

Missionary work in the New World was war. Christianity, in all its varieties, has always been a stakeholder in the business of assimilation, and, in the sixteenth century, it was the initial wound in the side of Native culture. Or, if you want the positive but somewhat callous view, you might wish to describe Christianity as the gateway drug to supply-side capitalism.

Have you read this book? I’d love to hear your thoughts in a comment below!

The Inconvenient Indian – Summary

Here is the book summary:

The Inconvenient Indian is at once a “history” and the complete subversion of a history—in short, a critical and personal meditation that the remarkable Thomas King has conducted over the past 50 years about what it means to be “Indian” in North America.

Rich with dark and light, pain and magic, this book distills the insights gleaned from that meditation, weaving the curiously circular tale of the relationship between non-Natives and Natives in the centuries since the two first encountered each other. In the process, King refashions old stories about historical events and figures, takes a sideways look at film and pop culture, relates his own complex experiences with activism, and articulates a deep and revolutionary understanding of the cumulative effects of ever-shifting laws and treaties on Native peoples and lands.

This is a book both timeless and timely, burnished with anger but tempered by wit, and ultimately a hard-won offering of hope—a sometimes inconvenient, but nonetheless indispensable account for all of us, Indian and non-Indian alike, seeking to understand how we might tell a new story for the future.

Copyright © 2012 by Thomas King.

You can find more details here on Goodreads and on StoryGraph.