Seeking Reconciliation: Paige Lindsay
in Conversation with B. A. Markus

B. A. Markus

Malahat volunteer Paige Lindsay talks with B. A. Markus, winner of the 2018 Open Season Awards (creative nonfiction category) with her essay, “How Can a Dog Help a Goose.” Read an excerpt here.

 

B. A. Markus is a writer, teacher and performer who was born in Toronto, ran away to a remote island in BC and is now living in Montreal. She is an award-winning creative nonfiction writer, a Grammy- and Juno-nominated songwriter, and her reviews, essays and stories can be found in anthologies and publications such as Carte Blanche, Queen's Quarterly and The Montreal Review of Books. She tells stories live at the Confabulation and The Yarn storytelling events and is currently writing a collection of monologues entitled, "What Mommy Needs," about what mothers do to survive the realities of mothering. 

 

Read what contest judge Betsy Warland had to say about Markus' winning essay.

Have you written about the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians in the past?

In 2008 I wrote a song with musician and composer Michael Jerome Browne. The song, “Summer Shoes On” documented the practice in Saskatchewan of the RCMP driving drunken Indigenous men far away from town at night, leaving them to freeze to death in the deep prairie winter. It’s unacceptable that ten years later we are still talking about these issues but we still haven’t seen any real action to address the systemic racism at work at all levels of Canadian society, most recently back in Saskatchewan with Colten Boushie, but obvious and apparent in every constituency in every corner of the territories we call Canada.

Summer Shoes On Video Link

Summer Shoes On Audio Link

Was there a particular event that prompted you to write this piece?

One event that prompted me to write this story was the semester I spent with an Inuk student. That experience continues to inspire me creatively and politically. Perhaps I was so strongly affected by that experience because as the child of a genocide survivor I am acutely aware of the necessity of looking at the terrible truths and finding some sense of reconciliation. For the most part the rest of my family has chosen to shut the door on our history of loss and terror. We pretend that it hasn’t affected us. But I can clearly track the devastation wrecked by genocide as it makes its way through my mother’s life and through the lives of her children. While I’m not comparing my family’s experience with the experience of the Indigenous people, because of my family’s history, “How Can a Dog Help a Goose” allowed me to consider the effects of genocide from both the perspective of the abuser and the abused.

For the past six years I’ve been teaching full-time in the public school system. The story of “How Can a Dog Help a Goose” is about a teacher struggling to educate an Indigenous man within a racist system. It's about how, working within that system with the best intentions, the teacher is forced to confront her own racism. It’s about the kinds of questions we need to ask ourselves, our institutions, and our society. On a personal level it's also about the sometimes painful and messy efforts I am making as a non-Indigenous first generation Canadian woman to work for real truth and reconciliation both in terms of my relationships with Indigenous people and within myself. Now I have to look at my own racist attitudes and the privileges and opportunities I take for granted as a citizen. I have to look at how I have both been damaged and how I am doing damage. I understand that the truth and reconciliation has to start with me. But I think that in writing this piece I was also hoping to connect with the other Canadians out there who are committed to justice for Indigenous people but who don't know what to do. I think it’s okay for us to acknowledge that we don't know what to do. As long as asking that question is the first step towards actually doing something.

How did you select which animals would portray their human counterparts? Is it significant that Goose is male and Dog is female?

“How Can a Dog Help a Goose” is written as a kind of folk or fairy tale. Traditionally, stories written in that form have a strong link to the geographic and cultural territory they are grounded in.  Because the story is also creative nonfiction it seemed especially important that I keep details about the setting, plot, and characters true to the actual story as much as possible. This story happened in Montreal. All the animals that attend dog’s class are animals that exist in the wild and who have been seen, unfortunately often dead, on the island of Montreal. Dog is the only animal who has no wild side. She is a creature of the civilized urban world and that has been my reality since I moved from a rural place to the middle of the city. Like Dog, I am a teacher in an adult education centre and I am female. Like Dog, I have a strong desire to help my students survive and prosper. My Inuk student was male and, like Goose, he came down south from Nunavut. Inuit culture honours and respects the goose so I felt it was appropriate to give my student that name. I was very fortunate to take a Cree storytelling workshop at the Quebec Writers’ Federation. Elder and writer Elma Moses shared her knowledge of Cree traditions and helped me understand the universal elements of storytelling so that I could tell my own tale.

What are some of your answers to the question asked by the title of your work? In what ways can non-Indigenous Canadians be allies to Indigenous peoples?

As a non-Indigenous Canadian I don’t feel qualified to offer suggestions of how to be an ally of the Indigenous people. As you can see from my story I’m struggling with this myself. That said, I think it’s an important question that we should be asking Indigenous people. How can we be your allies? What I do know is that when I go to a protest or a demonstration or a vigil the Indigenous people present always thank the non-Indigenous for being there. When I inform myself and speak out about what is going on it seems to be appreciated. I don't know if I’m being an ally but I feel that at least I am making room for a discussion of something that we simply can’t ignore any longer. I believe that looking at the racism, documenting the crimes against humanity and acknowledging the on-going abuse is the only way to move towards justice. That’s something I really want for myself, for my community and for my country. I think we have an opportunity to make positive change in the world when it comes to justice for the Indigenous people. I believe that it’s time we committed ourselves to the reconciliation process in every way possible.

The city in “How Can a Dog Help a Goose” could be a stand-in for any Canadian city, or the idea of the Canadian city, but the setting becomes concrete when Dog sees Goose in front of Atwater subway station. Why Montreal? Why Atwater?

“How Can a Dog Help a Goose” is a piece of creative nonfiction. Since the semester I spent with my Inuk student happened in Montreal, I set the story in Montreal. Because I sometimes saw my student outside the metro at Atwater where the Inuit often gather, I mentioned the name: Atwater.

You have lived in Toronto, a “remote island in BC,” and now live in Montreal. How have your experiences in these different places shaped your understanding of Canada? Does your location significantly influence your writing practice?

Because I’ve lived in different regions in Canada and traveled through many of its territories, I have a profound respect and love for the beauty and diversity of this country. As the daughter of a war orphan and refugee I feel so deeply fortunate that my mother was given citizenship after WWII. I am constantly amazed by the power of the natural environment in Canada and I believe we have a responsibility to protect it. Because I’ve seen a lot of the country and because I have friends in many territories I also have some understanding of the terrible reality for Indigenous people as it plays out from coast to coast to coast. I don't think it’s a coincidence that we seem to be doing our best to destroy the natural environment and the Indigenous population at the same time. The Indigenous people have traditionally been guardians of the natural world. I think if we commit ourselves fully to supporting Indigenous people on the journey towards truth and reconciliation, we will also be working to heal the earth.

When I think about it, I’ve concentrated on different forms and genres of writing while living in different locations. But my art practice also always seems to include at least two things going on at the same time. When I lived in Toronto I was an arts journalist for a weekly magazine. I did artist profiles, book reviews, club reviews and eventually became the dance critic. But at the same time I was writing screenplays and pitching short scripts to Canadian Sesame Street. When I moved out west I wrote theatre plays, and songs that I also performed. In Montreal I did a lot of song writing, but I also wrote short stories and performed a lot too. In the last ten years or so I’ve gotten more and more focused on writing creative nonfiction and doing live storytelling. For the last six years I’ve been teaching full-time as the primary breadwinner in my family. While that means less concentrated writing time, the teaching has certainly given me a lot to think about and I do my best to bring creativity into the classroom both for my students and for myself. Ultimately I think all the literary forms are connected to each other when it comes to my writing practice. I think I'm someone who likes to do a variety of things in a variety of places. Some people might think that’s a mistake in terms of my success as a writer but I’m happy because I think I’ve become pretty fearless when it comes to embarking on new creative projects. Right now I’m working on a collection of creative nonfiction monologues entitled “What Mommy Needs.” It’s an exploration of what mothers do to survive the realities of mothering. I’ve been interviewing women from across Canada and I'm using those anonymous interviews to create composite monologues. I’ll be heading to The Hambidge Center in Rabun Gap, Georgia for three weeks to get some focused writing time in. That’s something I just haven’t been able to do until now because of my responsibilities at home. I’m so grateful to be given an opportunity to go.

What do you think the role of art is, from both Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians, in addressing our shared history, present, and future?

I think it’s important for all Canadians to address our shared history. We put the pressure on artists to be the ones that will lead the charge. But I think that’s limiting. If real change is going to happen, all Canadians have to work for justice and reconciliation. Artists can express their opinions and their emotions. Artists can suggest a process for understanding but ultimately the work must be done by the individual. It is up to the person seeking reconciliation and truth to find their own way. I don’t assume that my art will have meaning to anyone else but I think it offers a way to approach the process and I hope it will inspire others to look at the issues around the systemic racism Indigenous people experience every day in Canada.

In addition to being a writer, performer, and songwriter, you are also a teacher (wow!). What do you teach? How do you avoid Dog’s pitfalls in the classroom?

I didn’t avoid Dog’s pitfalls. I fell into every one. “How can a Dog Help a Goose” is the true story of what happened in my grade 9 English classroom. I’m not ashamed of that. I’m a big believer in making mistakes. I regularly remind my students that the problem isn’t that we make mistakes and stumble into pitfalls. The problem exists when we refuse to learn from our past errors. We’ve made 500 years of terrible mistakes when it comes to the Indigenous people in North America. It’s time we started learning how to make profound changes so real reconciliation can happen.

 

 

Paige Lindsay

Paige Lindsay

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