Only fragments of myth remain.
The day after Emancipation Day, and the day after that, and the day after that: In the zeal to impose a new narrative order about Canada, history is being buried under an avalanche of apologies.
He is given new names in every setting and he slides through all his roles like water. He leaves only fragments of his myth behind; he has no cause or motive or moral to announce, and as a result is of no worth in the new societies of commerce, religion and imperialism.
That was the celebrated and award-festooned poet and novelist Michael Ondaantje, probably best known for his screen-adapted novel The English Patient, on Tay John, the protaganist in Howard O’Hagan’s amazing 1939 novel Tay John. O’Hagan’s Tay John is and at the same time is not loosely rendered from the life of the blond Iroquois Tay John - or Tête Jaune,Yellow Head, as in Tête Jaune Cache, as in Yellowhead Pass - who is also partly a work of fiction, you could say.
The story of the novel Tay John is a story about a forgotten literature and a discarded history that is now “of no worth in the new societies of commerce, religion and imperialism,” or of “anti-colonialism.” It is a rich and vast library of song and story and human experience and ways and means of understanding ourselves and our history. It can’t be easily conscripted to any side in the parochial culture-war conniptions that have replaced genuine and useful conversation about Canadian history. So, in the contemporary “debates” no sense or use can be made of Howard O’Hagan, or of Tay John, or of Tête Jaune, whoever that might be, exactly.
Some suggest that the Tête Jaune after whom Tete Jaune Cache and Yellowhead Pass and the Yellowhead Highyway take their names was the fur trade François Decoigne, after whom Decoigne, the dot on the map just west of Jasper, is certainly named. But that notion overlooks the very real yellow-haired trapper and hunting guide Pierre Hatsinaton, who also went by the name Pierre Bostonais, who may or may not be the man Parks Canada calls Pierre Bostonais Pagman, a Metis.
Hatsinaton was among the many “Iroquois freemen” who settled into the Rocky Mountains so successfully that early ethnographic maps inaccurately list “Iroquois” among the peoples indigenous to the Northern Rockies. Hatsinaton and his family were killed in an encounter with a party of “Beaver Indians” from the Rocky Mountain Trench in 1827.
O’Hagan himself is uselessly unsuitable in Canadian literature now because his Tay John was a messianic figure born an infant-shaman in his mother’s grave, and she was a Secwepemc woman, which would be pretty well untouchable as an idea now unless you’re an aspiring author who happens to be a Secwepemc woman.
More marks against O’Hagan’s re-admission to the firmament of Canada’s literati: He was born in Lethbridge, toiled as a surveyor in the Rocky Mountains and eventually returned to surveying and guiding in the mountains after managing to earn a law degree from McGill University. "I practised law for a month in Jasper, put one man into jail and got another out." He said he never got any royalties for Tay John.
O’Hagan worked for while as a reporter for the Edmonton Journal and the Montreal Star, and as head of publicity for the Central Argentine Railway (!). Arm-wrestled Malcolm Lowry of Under the Volcano acclaim during the days when Lowry was living in a bohemian squatter’s shack on Burrard Inlet across from Vancouver. "I put him down. It was a cinch," he remembered. Called Lowry a great writer but “a miserable little bastard.” O’Hagan ended up living in Victoria in the house built by the artist Emily Carr, whose own incandescent brilliance was already becoming “problematic” thirty years ago. O’Hagan died pretty well penniless.
This lengthy preamble is to show that Canadian history isn’t easily pinned down, so it’s quite natural to try to impose order on the events and the peoples of the past. For generations, what has passed for “Canadian history” is really mostly Ontario history anyway, and to the extent there is a common understanding of it all it consists of consensus around names and dates, as in: Alexander Mackenzie was the first explorer to reach the Pacific Ocean from Canada, in 1793. But hold on.
Indigenous people were making their way west across the Rockies in the 1720s from as far east Fort Michilimackinac, which is now in Michigan. The French explorer Pierre Gaultier de Varennes met an old chief from the Mongsoaeythinyuwok people who described his route to the Pacific in 1728, and gave what would prove to be meticulous accounts of the west coast and its great planked houses, and whales, and stocky bearded men who set out to sea in massive boats. The chief, whose name is unrecorded, thought the west coast people were Europeans of some sort because they were that much different from other Indigenous people he’d encountered along the way.
So an addendum to the entries under Mackenzie’s name would be a helpful corrective, but error of another order entirely arises from politically convenient abuses of the truth, and from the official entrenchment of magical-realist versions of history that are every bit as imaginary as O’Hagan’s fiction, except they’re trite and boring.
It’s quite true that African slaves in their thousands ended up in the British possessions of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland, and in the French colony of New France (Quebec) as well in Upper Canada (Ontario) prior to August 1, 1834. That’s the day when slavery was abolished in the British Empire. While various provincial governments have long observed a statutory holiday on August 1 or thereabouts, last year the Trudeau government rebranded August 1 as Emancipation Day.
Nice to see Ottawa catching up.
On the west coast, before Canada was born, Emancipation Day was a civic holiday in the Crown Colony of Vancouver Island, where the “octoroon” James Douglas, grandson of a “free coloured” woman from Barbados, was governor. The Hudson Bay Company, which he served for long years on the Pacific, considered Douglas a West Indian. He was eventually elevated to the post of governor of both Vancouver Island and the Colony of British Columbia, and later still he served as the governor of the united colony of British Columbia and Vancouver Island.
Douglas, whose wife Lady Amelia was an Irish Cree, saw to it when American miners starting flooding into Victoria in the 1860s that their first encounter with Crown authority was Black men, with guns, in uniform - the "African Rifles", a Victoria militia. Governor Douglas was not an unwelcome figure among the Coast Salish people, who had seen what American sovereignty had meant to Indigenous people just a few sea miles to the south, but he was not entirely beloved across all classes of Indigenous society, especially among the northern enemies of the Coast Salish.
Slaves served as labourers and status symbols throughout the west coast cultures. They were acquired in war and bought and sold and slaughtered in ritual displays of wealth and in marking important events like the raising of heraldic poles. “Colonialism” on Vancouver Island emerged with Douglas instructing his officials to allow Indigenous people to govern themselves as they saw fit and to leave them undisturbed in their customs, but to suppress slavery whenever the opportunity presented itself. This is not something to apologize for.
It’s been a habit of mine to remind people about this history. I took the opportunity of August 1 four years ago to get into it for Maclean’s magazine, here, to point out that the fashionable notion of a “racist colonial settler state” at the origins of Crown sovereignty in B.C. is a dreary revisionism that necessarily expunges the reality of those early years.
Following what Douglas called “that monstrous treaty” forcing the abandonment of the Columbia Territory to American forces in 1846, what followed was the Cayuse War, the Klamath War, the Salmon River Indian War, the Yakima War, the Nisqually War, and on and on. Non-whites were simply not allowed in the judisdictions that would go on to become Oregon and Washington state. Black people were denied the right to American citizenship.
Emancipation Day had made slavery history in the British Empire 33 years before the Dominion of Canada was cobbled together out of the British provinces of Canada (Upper and Lower, i.e. most of Ontario and Quebec), Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick (B.C. didn’t join Confederation until 1871).
Some people seem to think “Canada” still has something to apologize for in the matter, and fair enough, but it’s not clear on whose behalf Prime Minister Justin Trudeau would be apologizing for if he offered one. On behalf of all Canadians?
Dalhousie University history professor Afua Cooper has been asking Ottawa to apologize for slavery since 2007. After all, everybody else seems to get an apology, why not Black people? "There can't be any other explanation except that this is a specific form of anti-Black racism," Cooper says. She has kind of a point. The federal government has apologized to a whole lot of people for a whole lot of reasons going back decades.
Japanese-Canadians interned during the Second World War. Italian-Canadians who were unjustly declared “enemy aliens” when Italy declared war on Canada in 1940. The 23 Canadian soldiers executed during the First World War. Chinese-Canadians because of the “head tax” between 1885 and 1923. The Indigenous people confined to Indian Residential Schools for more than a century.
The “Komagata Maru incident” of 1914, when a ship carrying Sikhs from India was refused harbour in Vancouver. The state-enforced discrimination against gay people down through the years. The 900 German Jews turned away in 1939, 254 of whom ended up perishing in the Holocaust - I’m not sure how a mere apology is anything close to sufficient for that unpardonable disgrace, but let that aside.
Sometimes apologies are not so understandable. Prime Minister Trudeau apologized and exhonerated six Tsilhqot’in chiefs hanged in a terrible “betrayal of trust” in the final innings of what came to be called the Chilcotin War of 1864. The chiefs were given to believe they were coming down from the hills to parlay. It was a profound injustice alright, but at the time British Columbia was still a British colony - although James Douglas was no longer governor - and the war occurred seven years before B.C. joined Confederation. “Canadians” had nothing to do with it, and had no reason to say sorry. Even so, the Tsilhqot’in accepted Trudeau’s apology, so fair enough.
But Trudeau trespassed on outright fiction in his apology concerning the Komagata Maru, reconstructing that real-life geopolitical drama into a simple morality play involving 376 passengers aboard a converted coal carrier who arrived in Vancouver “seeking better lives for their families” and were told to go back where they came from. This is a bowdlerizing insult to the memory of the brave radicals who organized the Komagata Maru enterprise in collaboration with Socialist Party of Canada in the cause of India’s freedom struggle. And now, Trudeau’s version is part of official Canadian history.
A similar abuse of historical truth was committed by the federal government last May when Trudeau apologized for this: “Following Italy’s declaration of war against Canada on June 10, 1940, the Government of Canada interned more than 600 people of Italian heritage.” Sorry!
They were of Italian heritage alright, but they were interned because they were fascists, as historian (and my pal) Michael Petrou astutely noticed in the Globe and Mail. There were roughly 100,000 Italian-Canadians at the time. The 600 internees included 100 Italian sailors who happened to be in Canada when war was declared. The remaining 500 were among 3,500 Italian-Canadian members of fascist groups.
Here’s historian Luigi Bruti Liberati: “This judgment seems to ignore the fact that fascism was well founded in Canada and that a certain number of Italian Canadians had supported it actively, not hesitating on occasion to resort to acts of violence against co-nationals and anti-fascists.”
So Trudeau apologized on behalf of Canadians for that time their government was rather stern with fascists. Great.
The whole point of declaring August 1 Emanicipation Day, according to Trudeau: “The legacy of systemic anti-Black racism,” which is “still embedded throughout our society, including in our institutions.” That may be so, but I’d have thought it would be about the actual struggle to abolish slavery. Because that’s what Emancipation Day was and is about.
This would be a much more awkward matter for the Trudeau government to address, however. Ottawa doesn’t particularly care about actually-existing slavery, especially in Xinjiang. Unlike the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia, Canada still has no law to prevent the traffic in slave goods. Last month, the Modern Slavery Act, Bill S-211, was punted off for further study and amendments.
It’s only because the obligation now binds Canada as a result of the 2020 U.S.-Mexico-Canada free trade agreement that Ottawa is even pretending to care. But it’s an unconvincing show. The United States intercepted more than 1400 shipments of forced-labour imports in the final three months of last year alone. Since 2020, Canada has seized a single shipment of garments, which was later released.
So let the Trudeau government apologize for that. Canadians have a lot less to apologize for. I had a great weekend, got in a lot of bike time, and I spared a few thoughts for James “Old Square Toes” Douglas, and for Lady Amelia, and this newsletter is the result.