READ IT by Bruce Mason
• The wise Cherokee proverb, “Never criticize a person until you’ve walked a mile in their moccasins,” encapsulates the idea that it’s impossible to internalize another person’s point of view without climbing into their skin and walking around in their world. Too often, non-Aboriginals lack even the basic knowledge of the lives of indigenous people.
For example, how many of us could comprehend why a four-year-old child would attempt to scrub colour from their skin, scouring and bleeding profusely? Carol Daniels’ just-published first novel, Bearskin Diary (Nightwood), offers much insight and I winced at the unprecedented glimpses into the raw, painful reality of Canada’s First Nations.
Daniels was the first aboriginal anchor in national news – CBC Newsworld (1989). In her 30-year, far-flung, cross-country journalism career, she studied law at the University of New Brunswick, became the first female Aboriginal Lay Bencher in Manitoba and ran provincially in Saskatchewan (NDP, 2011), unsuccessfully. Now, an award-winning multidisciplinary artist, actress and member of the Cree Nation, she was a victim of the little known “60’s Scoop,” when 20,000 plus Canadian babies were torn from their mother’s arms, up into the 1980s.
Fostered and adopted, the only native in a white community, Daniels, like many “Scoop Kids” tried to erase her colour. I called her Regina home the day after the new federal government announced an inquiry into missing and murdered Aboriginal women.
“I’m so happy, for myself and the families that may find some peace. I could have been among the victims. Now we might finally learn what happened and why it is happening. As well, as an unwed aboriginal woman, I would have been destroyed to leave a hospital without my three children.
“This is an exciting time in Canada, as First Nations, Metis and Inuit gain traction on what I call the ‘Red Road.’ The Truth and Reconciliation report is finished, with some recommendations being implemented. And we have an historic number of Aboriginal MP’s, including Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould.
“Many Canadians don’t know about the Scoop, nobody spoke about it. Kids who went through it constantly felt alienated, isolated, ostracized, asking, “Where do I go?’ Nobody listened or understood. We were just numbers, thousands of little brown babies, like stray dogs. They wanted to get us early, to assimilate us faster, rather than wait a few years as with residential school victims. Took us away, sometimes as slave labour, or didn’t have anything to do with us – didn’t know where to put us. I hope to add to new dialogue and to tell victims they aren’t alone; there is hope and help.
“Some things in Bearskin Diary, people won’t like: sexuality and really ugly behaviour, dark, in-your-face scenes. It’s a frank look at racism, at what First Nations have to go through. I wanted to put it out there and don’t care if it’s not polite.”
In her experience, most media aren’t up to reporting Aboriginal issues.
“They don’t know a damn thing about us. Where’s the perspective if you have no idea what’s going on, or what has gone on? I’ve heard it all in story meetings and press bars. ‘Who gives a shit what an Indian thinks.’ ‘No one wants to see one on TV’ and ‘You work here, but will never be one of us.’ There’s a handful of reporters from our fastest rising demographic. Being representative of the population is good business for God-sake and the CBC has been a godsend, a necessity, not a utility, a last bastion.”
Bearskin Diary tells the story of Sandy – named for soil – scooped, then adopted by a Ukrainian family. She struggles with relentless bullying and racism from schoolmates, strangers, co-workers and her own lack of understanding of her heritage. Daniels had enough journalism and opted for fiction. But she writes what she knows, reflecting her own experience, stories and characters, culled from assignments, in crisp, conversational news style. There are heart-breaking moments, including childhood mimicking of National Geographic magazine, the only window to a non-white world. Heart pounding, dangerous investigative reporting of the secret Saskatoon police “Starlight Tours” is eerily similar to police officers in Val D’or, Quebec, and elsewhere, questioned for driving Indigenous women to city outskirts, sexually assaulting them then leaving them to walk to safety.
Bearskin Diary is reaching an audience beyond what anyone imagined.
Daniels notes, “It started as a play while I was working in Yellowknife, after a close friend’s death in 2009 before he got to his wish list. It grew in the long, cold nights over eight years. I got so many rejection letters; I couldn’t even talk when I was told it would be published. It’s been translated into 10 languages, released worldwide.
“In my lifetime, the Pass System – modelled after South Africa’s Apartheid – has ended. We can leave a reservation without permission. And we are voting, in large numbers, something we never did – or were allowed to do – before. I ran for office as encouragement. Vote out those who hate us then we won’t have to protest as much, after the fact. Just get them out. Support people committed to moving forward with real change.
“Our culture is important to everyone. We all want the same thing for our kids, strong communities and opportunities, healthy food, basic education. Indigenous people are beautiful, strong and knowledgeable, just the way they are, friends and neighbours. Give us the tools to break stereotypes. Maybe, a simplistic start, but a good one, nevertheless.
“We need talk more – get to know each other, share food and conversation. In certain situations, I walk in and immediately identify racism. It’s like an energy you can feel. Then I start doing my thing and we come together in song and joy. It all boils down to love and understanding.”
Daniels (nee Morin) gives new voice to silenced First Nations women, truth to power and an essential, integral perspective that will resonate with all walks. Her birth mother is deceased, but she reunited with her biological family. All ties were cut with her adoptive family in 2012, when she married Lyle Daniels in a traditional ceremony. After attending her first pow-wow and picking up a drum and the Cree language, she asked, “Why haven’t I been doing this all of my life?”