“White despair: face to face with ennui in suburbia”

In a recent article in the Globe and Mail, entitled “Native despair: face to face with ennui on a reserve,” Richard Wagamese describes the despair he encountered in a northern Native reserve.  (Be sure to read his article. It’s definitely something I’ve encountered too. And read the comments. Some of them push back with other questions worth considering. Seriously, click on the link and read it. Now. It’s short. And then come back here and finish reading this post).

Wagamese suggests that The hardest battle in our fight to save our native children is against ennui. ”   Might it also be the case that the hardest battle in our fight to save our settler children from perpetuating colonialism is also against ennui? Much deeper than boredom, apathy, and hopelessness, ennui is the life-draining force that permeates communities in various ways and to differing degrees, including settler communities (shocking, I know. ). Wagamese describes ennui as something “about a ton heavier and a lot deadlier than simple boredom. It means a lifelong sort of tiredness. It means lassitude, an unrelenting feeling of nothingness. It means you give up trying, dreaming or seeing yourself doing something better. Ennui is a potentially fatal symptom of an oppressive and unjust socio-economic and political system.

Photographed by Aaron Huey at Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota.

Now, I don’t want to undermine the particular struggles that many Native reserves across Turtle Island (aka North America) face and work against every day.  And I commend the work of Richard Wagamese and many others who have big dreams that they end up sculpting into seemingly meaningless arts and crafts programs. They are not meaningless. When I read the article, I was so glad to read that Wagamese stayed there and tried to create something nonetheless. In the face of ennui, you stayed and fought, instead of taking the easy way out and leaving; chi miigwetch to you for that.

I do, however, want to turn the focus away from “Native issues” or the more derogatory “Indian problem” as it is often called by settler communities.  Wagamese rightly points out a primary (though not sole) source of of ennui on reserves.  He writes, “it’s the system that brings a people to that. It’s the Indian Act. It’s an imposed welfare mentality. It’s generation after generation of crushing isolation and poverty. It’s the deeply ingrained belief that there is nothing else possible and that no one sees us or cares about us anyway. It’s the entire history of Canada and her relationship with native people focused despairingly on our most vulnerable.”  All of these things are true. There is more to the picture than this, but this is probably the most important part and the part that is ignored, resisted, and denied far too often.

I have spent my summer reading both Native and settler writings, trying to write as a repentant settler and an ally of Native communities across Turtle Island, and living among both Native and settler communities in Manito-Ahbee (aka: Manitoba).  The denial of the Indian Residential Schools history that I have encountered both in books and in the media, and the resistance towards any sort of socio-econo-political change that would reduce some of the privileges and benefits of settlers in favour of bettering the lives of Native reservations and urban Native communities has absolutely appalled me.

In her book on the Indian Residential Schools and settler responsibility, Paulette Regan refers to some numbers to paint a picture of the level of public ignorance.  It is worth quoting her at length here.

“The results of a national benchmark survey conducted in May 2008 confirm that, though Canadians are somewhat familiar with the sexual and physical abuse that occurred in the schools, very few have a substantive knowledge concerning the policy goal of assimilation that lay behind the IRS system. […] According to the survey, fully “one-third of Canadians (32%) feel they are not very familiar with Aboriginal issues, while just under two in ten (17%) are not at all familiar.” […] Among the general population who were aware of residential schools, 37 percent knew that students had been abused and molested, 20 percent knew that they had been separated from their families, 14 percent identified the mistreatment of Aboriginal people and discrimination, […] 7 percent knew that the goal of the schools was assimilation into mainstream society, 4 percent knew that the schools were run by government and churches.”[1]

This level of public ignorance is staggering, though not entirely surprising.  The attitudes encountered towards what are often deemed “Aboriginal issues” are frustrating and unsympathetic.  In a recent article in the Winnipeg Free Press, Don Marks wrote about his own encounter with resistance, flippant attitudes, and even disdain.  He comments on a conversation about the Indian Residential Schools with some of his friends: “We all agreed that impacts of the residential school experience were multi-generational and had to be dealt with, but I soon discovered most of my friends would just as soon forget about it and move on.”[2]  Common attitudes of denial are expressed in phrases such as, “Look!  I didn’t do it.  My parents didn’t do it and neither did my grandparents!  Why should I be responsible for something that happened in the past”,” or “we said we were sorry and gave you some money,” or “get over it.”[3]  Both denial and ignorance are forms of resistance to IRS truth-telling.  “Claiming ignorance is a colonial strategy,” asserts Regan.[4]  “We have chosen to ignore many facts, problems, and cries of pain.  As a result of our ignoring we know little.  Then, if we are charged with responsibility, we are apt to protest that we did not know. […]  We did not know because we did not want to know.  We did not want to know because the truths we would face would be unpleasant and incompatible with our favoured picture of ourselves, and they imply a need for restitution and redress, threatening our comfortable way of life.”[5]

A shot from the Arcade Fire’s music video for “The Suburbs.”

When I come face to face with settler denial and resistance, I am certain that I am face to face with an elusive, rampant, and fatal ennui that traverses suburbia.  (I use the term suburbia as a cipher for settler communities, whether or not they live in city suburbs.)  My attempts to engage settlers suffering from ennui are comparable to Wagamese’s work on the reserve. I had big plans. No one showed up. No one showed interest. The people who show up to Native-settler reconciliation events are usually the same folks. They are already freed from ennui in many ways. They have done some of the hard work of learning of Canada’s colonial history and are already committed to listening to stories and ways of healing that Native elders tell. But those who suffer from ennui, those who resist again and again, who deny again and again, I don’t know how to fight this ennui. Perhaps one painting, one photo collage, one decorated hula hoop at a time. Because if I believe that Wagamese’s work was not meaningless, then neither is the work we must do among settlers. The worst thing we can do is give up and resign ourselves to ennui. Or, to put it another way, settlers too must be idle no more.

[1] Environics Research Group, “National Benchmark Survey” (prepared for Indian Residential Schools Resolution Canada and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Ottawa, May 2008), 7, http://epe.lac-bac.gc.ca/100/200/301/pwgsc-tpsgc/por-ef/Indian_residential_schools/2008/414-07-e/summary.doc quoted in Paulette Regan, Unsettling the Settler Within: Indian Residential Schools, Truth Telling, and Reconciliation in Canada (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2010), 41-42.

[2] Don Marks, “Canada’s history of denial,” Winnipeg Free Press, July, 24, 2013, A9.

[3] Marks, “Canada’s history of denial.”

[4] Paulette Regan, Unsettling the Settler Within: Indian Residential Schools, Truth Telling, and Reconciliation in Canada (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2010), 45.

[5] Trudy Govier, “What is Acknowledgement and Why Is It Important?” in Dilemmas of Reconciliation: Cases and Concepts, eds. Carol A.L. Prager and Trudy Govier (Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2003), 78 quoted in Regan, 45. Emphasis is mine.


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