I was into my fifth decade of life when I first came in contact with a group of people living in northern Quebec who were subsistence hunters and trappers. I was poorly equipped for the events that followed, having only the one qualification, that I had grown up with a kneejerk sympathy for the underdog and the oppressed, as these people certainly were. I have often wondered how I came by this sympathy for the underdog; perhaps it had something to do with being the youngest in a family of macho males, and as a child observing the brutal insensitivity with which my father treated wandering bushworkers who, after a weekend of carousing in the city, would turn up at our family home hoping my dad would stake them to the return trip to the distant sawmill where they worked and of which he was the owner. It might also have begun to develop earlier, when I was in elementary school, and one member of our class, who was generally called Pisspants Critchfield, a poor, smelly kid from a neglectful home, was always the first picked on by the teachers to be given the strap day after day. However it originated, this tendency to sympathize with the underdog was very much reinforced by my experience as a reporter working for newspapers. Because I discovered that every newspaper I worked for had in common that they used the poor and disadvantaged as the subject of occasional articles, but thereafter never showed the slightest interest in improving their condition.
In the (almost) five decades that have passed since I made that first contact, I have often tried to argue with friends that if we had been a really humane nation, as our leaders liked to suppose we were, we would have cherished these hunters and trappers with their remarkable gifts, knowledge and insights, and so arranged our economy as to keep their lives viable, an economy based on their particular skills that would have carried them painlessly into the modern world. I have found it a hard argument to make, because the general assumption, even of people who are not hostile to the indigenous people, is that they have been by-passed by the modern world of technology and industry, simply cast into the role of victims. A population unable to compete in the modern world, always foundering before the “balance of advantage” argument, the advantage always being judged in terms of money, of which the indigenous people have none, and in which they normally take little interest. To paraphrase a currently fashionable concept, they have usually been found to be “too small to succeed,” just as the banks have been found too big to fail.
I suppose one would have to say that the bald facts discourage any romantic argument in their favour: a tiny population of 5000-6000 Cree people occupied a territory that in total is almost as large as Western Europe. The justice or injustice of the way they were treated really didn't enter into the calculations of those making the decisions. Whenever anyone arrived among the indigenous peoples with the intention of sinking a mine, for example, or cutting timber, that person or company was given prior use of the land, and the inhabitants who had lived there for millenia were simply pushed out. In 1968 I visited hundreds of them living in tents, always on the edge of irreversible poverty. This was the normal operation of colonialism, alive and well in modern Canada.
I am not intending to argue this case here; I mention it only because yesterday I came across some interesting reflections on nomads in a book I am reading by the British writer Bruce Chatwin. The hunting people who were established in Canada when Europeans arrived to settle in their lands fitted the definition of nomads, although most of them occupied specific, huge areas of land across which they had always roamed. Under European influence, most of these peoples were gathered into small villages, where they could be administered the minimal attributes of a modern life, like education, health services and the like. This very act of sedentarization in itself was enough to destroy the vitality of these peoples. For example, the Naskapi, as they were then called, had built their lives around the winter chase of the caribou over the treeless tundra of northern Quebec. I first heard of them when I met a young Norwegian anthropologist, Georg Henriksen, who had studied them, and so admired them that he made it his life’s work to write in their defence. Years later a young CBC reporter in Newfoundland, Marie Wadden who had suddenly discovered the existence of these people in her province, and was appalled by how they were being treated, got in touch with me to ask how she should go about writing a book on them. (I gave her Bernard Shaw’s advice: “keep the seat of your pants on the chair”). She did write an admirable work Nitassinan, which to my mind is one of the best accounts of the operations of old-style colonialism deep in the heart of modern Canada.
In the 1960s, these two peoples, the Cree of northern Quebec, and the Naskapi of Labrador, had managed to retain their semi-nomadic traditional hunting culture to a remarkable extent. The Cree with whom I came into contact had managed to do this by an accident of history, namely, that the Scotsmen of the Hudson’s Bay Company who arrived in the 1600s had eve since serviced their trading posts exclusively through Hudson Bay, arriving in the spring, and leaving with their furs before the freeze up in the early autumn. Some of these company factors lived for years in Canada and never went south into populated Canada. Thus, before coming under the pressure of the industrializing technology of Canada, the Crees were able to adapt their remarkable skills in the bush to add trapping the beaver for fur to their repertoire of activities. Whereas further south many indigenous peoples were already well on the way to losing their languages, because of the pressures brought on them by an industrializing Canada, I found the Cree communities were totally functioning in Cree, and in 1968 only a handful of young men were comfortable in English. Eventually I discovered that their elders, who had never been to school and knew neither English nor French and had never, most of them, been anywhere but up and down their great rivers, were really remarkable people, calm and dispassionate as hunters and trappers, careful in the management of the animal resources on which they depended for life, profound in their deep understanding of the human relationship to the Earth, and far-sighted in their concern for coming generations. It was difficult to avoid the conclusion that modern Canada was in need of these very qualities. But the melancholy fact was that modern Canada had treated these people with contempt, and was in the process of destroying them just as we needed their insights the most.
But back to Bruce Chatwin. He is one of those English writers, extravagantly admired by many people, to whom I have never been able to warm. The fault for that could lie within me, a rude colonial boy who grew up with resolutely anti-colonial attitudes, that have prevented me from accepting the British way of life, although I lived in Britain for eleven years.
I was not surprised when I read the account of Chatwin’s life to learn that many doubts had been raised as to the veracity of much of his reporting, The book I have recently been reading did leave me with doubts about this: his observations and descriptions of encounters he has had with many remote people are so loaded with the most minute detail (for example, one I remember is his detailed description of the history and meaning of some items attached to the back of a woman’s dress that I seriously doubted he could have known about in the suggested time-frame.
I did, however, come across some interesting comments on nomads, that sent me off on this piece. (I have since found to my surprise that nomadism, the question of what it is that urges people not to stay still, was the major preoccupation of Chatwin as a writer and sort of anthropologist.) Although the Crees when I first met them could no longer be described as nomads, nevertheless there was something of the nomad in their historical habit of wandering across the land, always moving to catch the fluctuating populations of the animals they needed.
Here are some extracts from Chatwin’s observations:
“The suicidal march of the Scandinavian lemmings to the sea is thought by some to shed light on the tragic refugee problems of our day, and a global situation of wandering refugees is predicted.” (He wrote this in 1972, and we are surely seeing what he prophesies in our day.)
“Nomads never roam aimlessly from place to place, as one dictionary would have it. A nomadic migration is a guided tour of animals around a predictable sequence of pastures. It has the same inflexible character as the migrations of wild game, since the same ecological factors determine it.” (In reference to that, one is reminded of the problem certain indigenous groups in Canada have had in proving to the satisfaction of various judges that they have always been in possession of the lands they claim as their own, virtually an impossible thing for a semi-migratory species to prove.)
I remember attending a meeting in 1975 about Human Ecology, so-called, when I heard a Tanzanian official describing the great plans for settlement of the peasants in his country. I told him his presentation reminded me of what was said so often about indigenous people in Canada, who had already been herded into settlements as he was proposing to do, with deleterious results. I asked him what provisions his government intended to make for the nomads who wandered back and forth over the national borders. His respond was blunt: they would have to accept the plans, just like other people.
It happened that when I was thinking of writing something about this I came across an item in a newspaper describing the alarm among the Masaai nomadic people who are once again being hassled by the Tanzanian government because of their irreverence toward the national borders.
So while it may be true that Canada has treated its semi-nomadic populations of hunters with notable lack of sensitivity or understanding, it is equally true that we are not alone in having done this. People whose beliefs and outlook do not fit the national template, as most certainly those of the Cree and Naskapi do not, are being simply bundled aside out of the way almost everywhere.
And as the fate of the Naskapi, now called Innu, shows, the national authority prefers to have them drinking and sniffing glue in villages than to have them occupying lands that increasingly the dominant society has other uses for.