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Revisiting Canada's Constitutional Origins

From the “reoccupation” tipi on Parliament Hill to the broad coalition supporting Idle No More’s National Day of Action, Canada’s 150th anniversary was dominated not by the half-billion dollar party thrown by the federal government, but by a multitude of events, demonstrations, and conversations countering the official narrative of #Canada150. The demand to revisit our troubled history, to unsettle our political identities, and to decolonize the relationship between Indigenous people and the Canadian state transformed the character of our national discourse, and dominated the news cycle, drawing sympathetic responses and outright support from mainstream media editorialists in the National Post, the Edmonton Journal, the Globe and Mail, and beyond.
Writing in Vice, Drew Brown concisely summarized the skeptical, if somewhat optomistic mood that seemed to eclipse all others these past several weeks:
“Canada is not my nation, but it is my country. I like it well enough, and I take Confederation seriously. Beneath the rotting floorboards of a century and a half of crooked carpentry I really believe there is a moral foundation worth recovering. Federalism, the political arrangement whereby different groups of people could live and work together in common while still holding autonomy over their own affairs, is as far as I can tell one of the better political ideas yet devised—even if its application has so far been dicey.
It's honestly refreshing that #Canada150 feels like a bust. That the gap in our boring nationalist jubilee has been filled by Indigenous activists and other people who have long been relegated to the sidelines of Canadian cultural life. The conversation currently happening about decolonization this July 1 makes me believe it's still possible to turn our federalist principles of equality and multinationalism against the imperial impulse at Canada's heart."
So where to start? I think Brown rightly looks to our country’s origin in identifying a possible path forward, not only in terms of reconciliation but also for a renewed relationship between the state and Indigenous people in Canada.
Unlike the United States, Canada was not established by some founding document, or some dramatic historical moment. Rather, our original Constitution was an attempt to codify the unwritten body of laws that mediated the relationship between English and French colonialists and Indigenous peoples.* Sometimes referred to as “treaty federalism”, these laws were “neither European nor Aboriginal in origin or substance, but drew elements from both sides to produce a unique set of intersocietal rules.” According the constitutional law scholar Brian Slattery:
"As Aboriginal-European contacts became more extensive and important, and as the balance of power gradually tilted to the European side, there was a slow process of accommodation whereby Aboriginal peoples were constrained to accept piecemeal the suzerainty of the Crown in return for its protection. In some instances, this arrangement was the fruit of understandings reached in treaty sessions; in others, it was the result of informal processes whereby the Crown's suzerainty was gradually extended and acquiesced in; more rarely, it was the product of war or overt coercion. The important point is that Aboriginal nations were active participants in the lengthy processes that eventually gave rise to the federation of Canada."

In other words — and in relative contrast to some of the more fiery rhetoric we’ve heard in recent weeks — Canada’s founding represents not a genocide or the submission of Indigenous peoples to a colonial power, but the unique attempt to forge a multinational state based on equality, mutual recognition, and continuity. Over time, of course, and quickly, these founding principles were eroded, and replaced by racist legal doctrines and government policies that quickly led to and justified the horrors of residential schools and other tools of cultural genocide, vast socio-economic inequalities, and over a century of Indigenous-Crown relationships based on bad faith and coercion.
Fortunately, and despite decades of efforts by the federal government and settler Canadians to gloss over this part of our history, Indigenous and First Nation leaders have fought endlessly to retain and assert their constitutional rights to self-determination and equality upon Canadian lands. From modern treaties to the TRC, the courts, the government, and even public opinion are slowly — glacially —shifting to reflect the original multinational character of the Canadian state.
* Pierre Trudeau’s attempt to create such a founding document in the 70s and 80s nearly tore the country apart. Ironically, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, designed to create a unified national identity, in fact enshrined Canada’s unique multinational character.

Ghachar Ghochar: Vivek Shanbhag’s Great Indian Novel

Still looking for a good summer read? Head to the bookstore immediately and pick up Ghachar Ghochar by the Indian novelist Vivek Shanbhag. It’s one of the most brilliant novels that we’ve read this year.
A concise and supremely crafted book just 120 pages in length. Ghachar Ghochar tells the story of a tight-knit family as it transitions from poverty to wealth, observing with incredible precision the shifting and increasingly tense familial dynamics as they come to the fore.
“The well-being of any household rests on selective blindness and deafness,” Shanbhag writes, with Tolstoyesque authority.
Published in American English for the first time in 2017, the book has already created quite the buzz. “This spiny, scary story of moral decline, crisply plotted and no thicker than my thumb, has been heralded as the finest Indian novel in a decade,” states a review in the New York Times:
“The Great Indian Novel has almost always referred to a particular kind of book: big, baggy, polyphonic and, crucially, written in English — “Midnight’s Children,” say, or “The God of Small Things.” Admirers of this austere little tale, who include Suketu Mehta and Katherine Boo, have compared Shanbhag to Chekhov. Folded into the compressed, densely psychological portrait of this family is a whole universe: a parable of rising India, an indictment of domestic violence, a taxonomy of ants and a sly commentary on translation itself.”
Ghachar Ghochar (the title refers to a nonsense phrase meaning “knotted beyond repair”) was originally written in Kannada — one of India’s vernacular languages, spoken by around 40 million people. Translator Srinath Perur took over 18 months to translate the novel, “taking it apart in Kannada and putting it back together in English — lightly editing it here and there, even adding a scene or two.”
As Parul Sehgal notes, translating the book “was a matter of establishing a voice that could be convincingly savvy and blind. He wrote and rewrote the early pages until he settled on a tone he believed could carry the novel.” Writing in The Guardian, Deborah Smith suggests that “reading beyond our tiny borders shows us what we’ve been missing, and proves the necessity of translation for a dynamic literary culture: Ghachar Ghochar is both fascinatingly different from much Indian writing in English, and provides a masterclass in crafting.”
Anyways, pick up this book. Though it’s a dark book, it is filled with wisdom, and profound moments of love mixed with sadness:
“I leaned into one of the shelves, amid the clothes, and breathed deep. It was a smell I could not identify, but I had come to know it so well. I took a sari and sniffed it. The scent seemed to diminish rather than intensify. It was the same with any garment I picked out of the wardrobe. Whatever fragrance the whole wardrobe had was missing in the individual clothes it held. The more keenly I sought it, the further it receded. A strange mixture of feelings I could not quite grasp — love, fear, entitlement, desire, frustration — flooded through me until it seemed like I would break.”

Our Take on the Polaris Long List: Part 3

The Long List for the Polaris Music Prize 2017 was recently announced. The award goes to the best album by a Canadian artist released between June 1, 2016 and May 31, 2017.

Throughout the summer, we're going to try to listen to every album on the list, and provide our thoughts and recommendations. We've only got a couple for this newsletter, but there'll be more next week!

Leonard Cohen — You Want It Darker

Much has been written about Leonard Cohen’s swan album — a dense and humorous meditation on death, God, and the absurdity of life. Like Bowie’s Blackstar, the album was a parting gift to his devoted fans, and a powerful testament to the weight of his genius as a musician and a poet.
Musically, You Want It Darker is like most of Cohen’s music from the 2000s — slow and simple, wise and funny, his baritone hovering just above the floor. But in the shadow of death, these songs take on an added weight, as if they are hymns (take the standout track, “Treaty”, for example).
A novelist, a poet, and a musician, Leonard Cohen is one of Canada’s all-time finest artists, one who somehow remains forever underrated. Though this album does really fit the bill for the Polaris Prize, it’s impossible to overlook. Expect to see it on the Short List.


Louise Burns — Young Mopes
I’d never heard of Louise Burns before, though this is her second Polaris Long List nomination. And I must say that I’m impressed. This is a solid indie rock album, one that combines well-crafted hooks with the sounds of new wave and post-punk — kind of like Angel Olsen or PJ Harvey meets The Cure or even Billy Idol.
Young Mopes is an easy listen, and one that I returned to quickly. However, if YouTube views and comments are any indication, Mopes is still very far from becoming a household name. So here’s to hoping that this nomination sparks some interest!
Louise Burns - "Storms" [Official Music Video]

“No core identity, no mainstream”

Canada’s 150th anniversary was punctuated by a collective sense of unsure footing in regards to where we stand as a nation. Justin Trudeau has described Canada as a “post-national state” with “no core identity, no mainstream.”

In an op-ed in the New York Times, Stephen Marche makes the case that the reluctance of Canadians to celebrate itself is something worth celebrating. Marche writes: “The election of Justin Trudeau has brought a new generation to power, a generation raised on a vision of history more critical than laudatory. We dream of reconciliation with the victims of our ancestors’ crimes rather than memorialization of their triumphs.”

The attempt to celebrate Canadian nationhood and identity has been underscored by the self-deprecating reminders of our failures. Indigenous voices that call out narratives that exclude Indigenous voices have been a welcome, albeit at times an uncomfortable and justifiably awkward, part of this conversation.

For example, in a recent article titled “The Canada most people don’t see”, Scott Gilmore highlighted a familiar narrative regarding problems on reserves. He cites a very real lack of social infrastructure, the disparate burden of exotic disease such as HIV and TB, and “a Canada of broken windows in tarpaper shacks.” Upon first read, it appears to be a good summary of the disparity of two realities of Canada.

Within a week, four Indigenous writers authored a response to Gilmore’ article. They called on Gilmore to listen to the voices who have been working on these particular issues. The article challenged the idea that Indigenous peoples have “been passively enduring these injustices, waiting with bated breath for One Good White Man to stand up and save us.” The authors instead focus on the roots of the issues such as unemployment and Indigenous priorities for change.

The effort to regain agency on issues that define Canada were echoed by Clayton Thomas-Muller, an activist from Mathais Colomb Cree Nation in Northern Manitoba. After Gord Downie of The Tragically Hip received an Order of Canada, Thomas-Muller wondered why “a non-native, white rock-and-roll star white male became one of the most visible faces around the discourse around residential schools survivors and reconciliation.”
“When it comes to collective Indigenous resilience, let us speak for ourselves.”

It’d be naïve to say that there’s no mainstream in Canada. But that’s maybe not a bad goal to aim towards. Reflecting on the plural narratives of Canada and reconciling with the past is a good place to start.

The Week's Links

In many respects, Texas is a microcosm of American politics, with blue urban centres pitted against rural and suburban areas of the state that are staunchly Republican. A gerrymandered electoral map that favours Republican candidates has distorted the true breakdown of party affiliation in the state, granting the Republicans minorities in both houses. This has emboldened more extreme elements of the Republican party to use their dominance to challenge liberal mayors and municipal councils in Texas, and their progressive agendas.

Who Owns Black Pain?
Zadie Smith on Race and Risk in American Culture.

From King Crimson to Rush, from E.L.P to Radiohead, here is the story of the rise, fall, and unlikely persistence of popular music’s most reviled and most baffling genre: prog-rock. “The prog-rock pioneers embraced extravagance: odd instruments and fantastical lyrics, complex compositions and abstruse concept albums, flashy solos and flashier live shows. Concertgoers could savor a new electronic keyboard called a Mellotron, a singer dressed as a batlike alien commander, an allusion to a John Keats poem, and a philosophical allegory about humankind’s demise—all in a single song (“Watcher of the Skies,” by Genesis).”
British author (and former spy) John le Carré (The Constant Gardener, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold), on why it’s more important than ever to learn a second language: “Those who teach language, those who cherish its accuracy and meaning and beauty, are the custodians of truth in a dangerous age.”
Will the world get fired up about CanLit? Writing in the Globe, Mark Medley reports on why the timing seems right for Canadian writers to reassert themselves on the world stage.

Here's another track to add to your best of summer 2017 playlist:
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