Imagined Truths

by Richard Lemm

O Say Can(ada) You See

As an American-born Canadian, I have always been interested in the way multiple cultural strands weave together to create identity, an issue that seems increasingly important in the current climate.

As Canadians grapple with the appalling treatment of Indigenous peoples, I am reminded of a long-ago visit to Gitlaxt’aamiks (formerly New Aiyansh), the ‘capital’ of the Nisga’a nation. In 1971, my partner Carol was a secondary school girls’ counsellor and phys-ed teacher in Surrey, B.C., who had been invited by two students, daughters of the Nisga’a chief, to visit Gitlaxt’aamiks and stay with their family.

When we arrived at the end of June, the only people visible on the main street were four teenagers, two boys and two girls, sitting on nearby porch steps. We smiled, waved, said hello, and were greeted by deadpan silence. Carol said we should respectfully keep walking until we found a welcoming adult.  But I noticed that the oldest boy, with hair to his waist and animosity in his stare, was wearing a t-shirt with an image of Jimi Hendrix. I walked over.

“You like Hendrix?” I asked.

“Yeah.” A long pause. “He’s cool.”

“My mother and uncle and football coach went to the same high school as Hendrix.”

His face opened up a bit, his eyes fixed on mine, not hostile now, but waiting.

“I lived in the same neighbourhood as Jimi,” I said, stretching the truth by a good mile.

“Did you know him?” he asked, caution giving way to curiosity.

“No. He was four years older. And I chose to go to a rival high school.”

Thoughtful silence, then, in a testing voice, “What’s your favourite song?”

“Voodoo Chile,” I said, and he nodded approvingly. “What’s yours?”

“‘Foxy Lady,’” he said with a brief, teen-age boy grin. “And ‘Machine Gun,’ he added, with a flash of angst, with which I connected. His stemming from whatever he’d experienced as an Indigenous youth, mine from the Vietnam era and the civil rights struggles.

More silence.

“We’re looking for Chief Calder’s home,” Carol ventured. “I’m one of his daughters’ teachers, and they invited us to visit.”

He pondered that, then stood up. “Follow me.”

The next day, the chief took us to the Anglican church to meet the priest. The church was constructed with logs in the form of a traditional Nisga’a lodge. On the large double doors was a cross, and in the quadrants were crests of the Nisga’a four clans (pdeek). When I attended mass with our hosts, I noticed the cross with four crests on the back of the priest’s chasuble, four sacred animal spirits.

Outside the church, I asked the priest about this blend of Indigenous and Christian beliefs and imagery. He said that one did not have to exclude the other, that sacred animal spirits existed before the Christian religion and that the two belief systems flowed together, embracing and infusing one another. “Does your bishop approve?” I asked. “Yes,” he said, gesturing toward the doors, “obviously.” Chief Calder described the Nisga’a Nation Tribal Council’s legal battle with the Canadian government and told us the Anglican Church had helped fund the challenge. It seemed a hopeful way to spend Canada Day.

Years later, in 2012, I commemorated American Independence Day ten miles southeast of Newcastle, England, in the town of Washington, the ancestral home of George Washington. A couple of hundred local residents were gathered in their ceremonial best around a flagpole on the front lawn, celebrating America’s revolutionary hero and founding president. Born and raised in Washington state, I leapt back to a childhood mood of reverence for “the father of my country” and the democratic revolution he helped lead. A seriously limited or inaccessible democracy for most Americans, I would later realize, yet a praiseworthy ideal.

A visiting American family had been found, and their young son and daughter raised the American flag, while the locals, relying on a program, sang the American national anthem. Moved by this benign friendship ritual, I sang that anthem for the first time since I’d left the United States in 1967. I took frivolous pride in knowing the words by heart, but I could not bring myself to put my hand over my heart as the American family dutifully did. That was taking nostalgia too far.

There was a sixth-grade class from a local school, and one boy stepped forward and recited familiar segments of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech in the local dialect. I was transported back to that intensely inspiring day in Washington, D.C. in 1963, so hopeful in the midst of violent reaction to the civil rights movement. During that ceremony with those Brits, I felt a resurgence of the reverential idealism of my youth.

I can still see that local boy’s earnest face framed by Washington’s ancestral home and hear his accented voice intoning, “So even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

Progress towards that ideal, on both sides of the border, never ceases, but it does wax and wane. While the signs of waning south of the border are ominous, it is essential to remember the reasons for hope. The cacophony of faux-populism and the overturning of Roe v. Wade did not preclude justice for George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery.

North of the border, progress is slow and uneven but perceptible. In 1973, two years after our visit to Gitlaxt’aamiks, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that Nisga’a title to traditional lands had never been extinguished. The Calder case, as it became known, provided the legal foundation for the first modern land-claim settlement in British Columbia, a process that continues today, however haltingly. The acknowledgement of the atrocity of residential schools and the Pope’s recent visit also signal important steps in the long overdue process of reconciliation.

In “Voodoo Chile,” Hendrix sings about chopping down a mountain with his hand, and then taking the fragments and making an island. It might be a stretch, but I like to think he was referring to Turtle Island.