Public thinker John Ralson Saul says it’s time to acknowledge historical Aboriginal relations

By Laura Stovel

At 7 pm on September 27 the renowned Canadian intellectual, John Ralston Saul, will be speaking at the Performing Arts Center about his book, A fair country: Telling truths about Canada.

In his book, Saul argues that Canadians have forgotten – sometimes deliberately – the long history of cooperation between Aboriginal people and the first European settlers, traders and travelers. Canadian culture has been much more influenced by Aboriginal cultures than we care to admit. The Canadian preference for equality, diversity and inclusion of new cultures, our ability to work with political complexity and our connection with nature – the qualities that make us distinct from other national cultures – are rooted in our many years of cooperative interactions with Aboriginal people. If we are looking for a template for the future, he says, maybe we need to acknowledge and reclaim our true past.

Saul writes that for centuries many of the first settlers and fur traders in Canada, especially the ones that really thrived, had close relations with Aboriginal people and many men “married up” into Aboriginal families. In this way they inherited important trading networks and essential knowledge of how to survive in this new, and often harsh, landscape. Most of those early European settlers were from lower classes and they saw new opportunities for social and financial advancement.

As a result of those relationships, Saul defines Canada as a “Métis nation” both literally and figuratively. Literally it means that many Canadians with long roots in this country have some Aboriginal ancestry. Figuratively, Canada is Métis because the best of its political and social culture is a mix of the great civilizations that melded here.

Saul argues that our history and relations with Aboriginal people were “cleaned up” by a new wave of officials toward the late 1800s to align them more with England and France. (It would have also corresponded with new demands on the land as the economy shifted from an emphasis on fur trading to mining, logging and farming). This produced a kind of amnesia about important aspects of our past.

How does this relate to Revelstoke where, many locals believe, Aboriginal people never really settled? There was too much snow, so the story goes. That view is incorrect. In fact, Revelstoke seems to have been a regular winter hunting area for the Sinixt people who lived and travelled on the Columbia River between here and Kettle Falls in the south. According to several anthropologists there was a First Nations settlement called skxik’n by the Tonklawatka (Tum Tum) River in the Big Eddy near its confluence with the Columbia River. To acknowledge this presence we only have to look as far as the names of local rivers – Illecillewaet; Alkokolex and Incommapleux – which all derive from Aboriginal names for the sites.

(A recent talk in Revelstoke by archaeologist Nathan Goodale demonstrates that Aboriginal people have lived along the upper Columbia River for thousands of years).

The Sinixt, like most western First Nations, were devastated by small pox epidemics that first arrived with European contact on the coast in the late 1700s. These epidemics worked their way through trade routes into the interior. By 1830 the Sinixt survivors started to move south but continued to hunt, fish and camp for long periods in the Big Eddy area throughout the 1800s.

Many records exist of First Nations guiding, feeding, and rescuing European travelers along the Columbia River, demonstrating an intimate knowledge of the land and environment in this area. Yet it is surveyor Walter Moberly who is credited with ‘discovering’ Eagle Pass, the site of a well-established Aboriginal trade route, for the proposed Canadian Pacific Railway in 1865. The Moberly story almost never mentions the Sinixt people, led at the time by Chief Gregoire, who provided Moberly, James Turnbull and their men with directions, advice, canoes and supplies and who were well-acquainted with the area between what became known as Three Valley Lake and the current Big Eddy.

Today, September 18, is National Truth and Reconciliation Day. This acknowledges the highly destructive project of residential schools carried out by the federal government, in cooperation with major churches. The goal was to assimilate First Nations, Métis and Inuit children by forcing them to live away from their families and communities in boarding schools that were usually educationally inferior and often highly abusive. In the spirit of truth and reconciliation, and in light of the opportunities that Saul suggests would come from embracing our rich history of cooperation with Aboriginal people, perhaps it’s time to look at, and be inspired by, our own Aboriginal history in this area.