Monday, July 5, 2010

Stare at our map long enough and eventually things take shape. For me, shape begins at the perimeter and travels inward, dissolving provincial and territorial boundaries until the mainland emerges as a great blank slate, expressionless, leaving only our islands in its wake. Blink, and all but two of them disappear. Canada’s Tasmanias, earrings on the face of the nation: Newfoundland and Haida Gwaii.

Geography will always have a hand in what our country looks like, but it is social relations that fuel my transformation of it -- the best evidence being a televised poll conducted six years ago, where the CBC asked, Who is the “greatest Canadian”? That it came down to an athlete running across the country on a prosthetic limb, and a preacher who championed a system whereby the athlete could afford his limb, proved the real “winner”. If only the poll had stopped there.

Newfoundland and Haida Gwaii are unique not only in geography but in history – and this, I believe, is why my adventures in map-staring always produce the same result. I am fascinated by these places, less by their physical isolation than their relationship to Canada and each other. Newfoundland joined Confederation in 1949, out of economic necessity (said Joey Smallwood); sixty years later, at the instigation of the British Columbia provincial government, the Queen Charlotte Islands shed their “slave name” and became Haida Gwaii, a move that afforded the Haida Nation symbolic power, as opposed to the more sustainable political-economic variety.

Not to stop there. Newfoundland is generally seen as one of Canada’s oldest settlements, but only to those whose conception of Canada begins with contact, a situation that lead to the elimination of one of the island’s indigenous populations, the Beothuks, extinct by 1823. Haida Gwaii, with its “new” name, is little over a month old, yet many continue to think of Canada’s First Nations peoples as belonging to time immemorial, just as many think of Haida Gwaii as a series of islands comprised wholly of Haida. What better way to further subjugate a people than to reduce their histories to an immutable essence. I say this with the knowledge that although the rights of Canada’s First Nations peoples are entrenched in our constitution, they remain conveniently undefined.

Everything I have written thus far has been written in advance of Pacific Coastline’s July 30th 8:20AM flight to Masset, Haida Gwaii, where I have been invited by the islands’ arts council to read -- first at Howler’s Pub, in Queen Charlotte City, then at the Tllel Fall Fair. Arts organizers have told me that I can go “all out” at Howlers, but that Tlell’s negative thematic (“no sex, no drugs, no alcohol”) implies a family atmosphere. Already I sense the arts council’s disappointment, for the material I want to bring with me is neither incendiary nor kid-friendly. Perhaps I will write something once there.

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