I picked this book up from the library because I read a review of it somewhere and thought it sounded really interesting. Here in Canada we like to have this holier-than-thou attitude where we congratulate ourselves on how well we treat minorities, and on how great we were historically to our First Nations populations as well as to black Canadians (we were the terminus of the underground railroad you know!) The truth, however, is not so rosy. While we were accepting American slaves and guarding their freedom, Canadian slaves were escaping south of the border to freedom, for example. And the most recent example of Canada being the only member country in the UN to reject an Indigenous Rights document should tell you something about our treatment, historically and in the present, of First Nations people.
I thought Finding a Way to the Heart: Feminist Writings on Aboriginal and Women’s History in Canada edited by Robin Jarvis Brownlie and Valerie J. Korinek would be essays on the history of women and First Nations people in Canada, for obvious reasons. While it was, but it also wasn’t what I expected either. The essays came out of a conference in honour of Sylvia Van Kirk, and revolve as much around her legacy and work as they do about specifically Canadian First Nations and women’s history (plus some New Zealand, Australia, and US history as well). The first three essays especially talked about her legacy and her life, and the remaining referenced her work in various ways while also advancing it in discussions more relevant to what I thought the book would be about.
Sylvia Van Kirk is known primarily for her thesis, published in monograph form in 1980, titled Many Tender Ties: Women in Fur Trade Society, 1670-1870. It was one of the first examples of foregrounding women, especially women of colour, and the domestic sphere, in works of history – showing examples on how to locate these people within traditional archives. The work is well known and still referenced regularly, along with her later work on First Nations women in Canadian history.
Whether one studies the fur trade era or the modern western experience, sexual relationships and societal perception of those experiences are significant to understanding those societies. (page 61, ‘Daring to Write a History of Western Women’s Experiences: Assessing Sylvia Van Kirk’s Feminist Scholarship’ by Valerie J Kolinek)
There were some really interesting points made in the essays in the collection, but there were also some problematic aspects. On the positive side, I found especially great the essays regarding miscegenation laws and power in various colonies, on the ramifications of gender on maintaining status and the women protesting against the sexism in the system, and on the use of media in colonial time to perpetuate the national narratives. Overall, the essays were all well written and researched, and provide important and interesting pieces of our history.
On the other side of the coin, I found problematic the language throughout. First Nations people were sometimes referred to as Natives, as Indians, as Aboriginal (as in the title), and (very rarely) by actual tribe names. When quoting source documents, keeping the same language and naming as the source document makes sense. Within the essays outside of direct quotes, however, there didn’t seem to be much consistency, or much care to what might be the preference of those being discussed. Related to this, it seems that most of the essays are written by non-First Nations scholars. While that was raised once – on the importance of not only scholarship on First Nations history, but on the importance of First Nations scholars – the rest of the collection seemed to ignore this point, or not find it important.
Although not what I expected, and dealing more with the legacy of a scholar than with history in general, most of the essays in the collection still give it enough depth and history on the topic titles to make it worth a read – if you’re interested in things like alternate readings of history, First Nations women in Canadian history, and the importance of sexual and domestic histories.
Recommended online reading: CBC Opinion article What’s in a name: Indian, native, aboriginal or indigenous?