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Cover: Meeting My Treaty Kin: A Journey toward Reconciliation

Meeting My Treaty Kin: A Journey toward Reconciliation

By Heather Menzies

Review By Andrew Martindale

July 2, 2024

Non-Indigenous Canada’s gradual and reluctant reckoning with its violent and criminal colonial history is a tortuous path. Despite considerable available evidence, many non-Indigenous people remain ignorant, perhaps willfully so, of this history and its ongoing processes and effects. Heather Menzies’, Meeting My Treaty Kin: a Journey Toward Reconciliation presents an intriguing example of one person’s attempt to arrive at an understanding of colonialism; one that explores the more difficult inner path that asks, how am I implicated in this history and its profound and structured inequalities and what might I do? It is a laudable effort, one that a back cover reviewer refers to as “brave” and which Menzies herself considers courageous. It is both these things but it is also at times a frustrating read.

The essence of the book is autobiographical. Menzies, burdened with colonial guilt, arrives unannounced at the door of the Aazhoodenaang Enjibaajig Nation of the Kettle and Stoney Point First Nation (KSPFN) seeking reconciliation for the 1995 death of Dudley George, killed by the Ontario Provincial Police during the Ipperwash standoff. This is a shocking act of self-indulgence, and I struggled to complete the book after the first chapter. To her credit she notes this is an outrageous act – one that, were she an institutional researcher, would violate every ethical review in the land. But the world of colonial privilege is convoluted and inertial and sometimes unusual actions produce valuable results. Her perseverance in “showing up” and seeking humility generates relationships with community members including some of Dudley George’s family and results in a book about their lives and the history of their defense of their territory against colonial encroachment, culminating in the standoff at Ipperwash: Our Long Struggle for Home: The Ipperwash Story, (UBC Press). In many ways, this is Menzies companion piece: the book about helping develop this book.

Treaty Kin has many strengths. It is at its best when Menzies conveys the words and knowledge of her Indigenous colleagues, when she is able to step outside the frame and allow readers to learn more about Indigenous lives in the context of and in spite of the erosive forces of colonialism, when the Aazhoodenaang are just Aazhoodenaang being Aazhoodenaang. Through this book we get to know a community of KSPFN people, mostly women, whose knowledge and strength is a core of the community’s wellbeing and resilience. We learn of their lives and the many battles they wage, small to substantial, to claim their land and future from those who seek to take it away. Their words weave the distant and recent past; their knowledge attends to challenges both immediate and existential – to her credit, Menzies realizes over time the scholarship she is encountering and part of the books’ strength is its narration of this community’s history through conversation.

There is another path in this book, that of Menzies awakening to the realities of colonialism and her own participation in these ongoing processes. There is value here as well, but there is also artifice that others might find engaging. The story ends with Menzies epiphany, so its trajectory with the slow accumulation of experiences toward the destination is its focus. The second half of the book is the most enlightening, when Menzies explores her role as an ally working toward trust that is conferred to her.

Menzies is a journalist trying her hand at ethnography and the result can be a times jarring. It succeeds when she describes the moments of interaction and insight with an immediacy and authenticity that is powerful. She is an excellent journalist and she relates her missteps and ensuing tensions and corrections with honesty that is courageous and to a significant point: non-Indigenous readers will feel her shame and uncertainty, hopefully arriving at similar realizations. The great strength of the book for a non-Indigenous audience is Menzies’ window into the lives of an Indigenous community as a peer, a journey that the embedded racism of Canada often works against.

Indigenous readers will likely find a familiarity with these moments. I suspect that the intended audience is not Indigenous, rather Menzies is speaking to her cultural kin. While she conveys the strengths of the ethnographic endeavor – that the architecture of culture is often most visible in the small acts of life – she is largely unaware of its principles, particularly its emphasis on self-reflection toward the unwritten constructs of culture. We get a lot of self-reflection in Treaty Kin, just not the anthropological kind. Menzies book is often a constructed internal dialogue about the intentions, effects, doubts, and epiphanies of her journey. This is where it hit discordant notes for me.

My lens is necessarily academic and while academics can be annoying, we tend to work hard at defining foundational principles in any cultural analysis from rich genealogies of practice, especially those mediated by our own presence. Menzies book seems to ignore some big ones. While Menzies references foundational Indigenous texts, there is a recurring deflection of Canada’s racism toward Indigenous people, framed by the passive voice, thus suggesting it is a phenomenon with no active agents. This is critical point – the most profound racism in Canada is inhabited by people like Menzies (and me), who perpetuate systematic inequality and accrue its benefits. That this dynamic continues despite good intentions, and even good actions, is not explored here.

Similarly, Menzies’ understanding of the economics of colonialism is modest and veers into the colonial trope that Indigenous people are disenfranchised by their own hands. That Canada is a country build on the theft of Indigenous land — a crime perpetuated by its structural racism — are depths not fully plumbed. We get her discomfort with this realization, but little analysis of its genesis and perpetuation. The answer, of course, is that the great wealth of non-Indigenous Canada derives largely from theft and violence; true reconciliation requires a self-reflection that would explore how the channels of wealth continue to disenfranchise its original owners.

Instead, the perspective here is steeped in cultural othering – considerable ink is spent describing the material worlds of her Indigenous colleagues, observations that do not advance the analysis but rather create an exoticism that points to the normalization of, for lack of a better term, Menzies’ White upper-middle class perspective. Similarly, there is the unfortunate premise that somehow the path to understanding colonialism for non-Indigenous Canadians leads to the doors of Indigenous people. Ongoing colonial processes are a phenomenon of non-Indigenous Canada; Indigenous people have no obligation to teach us about our racism – to consider otherwise shifts the responsibilities for addressing trauma onto its victims. Throughout this book I was asking the unanswered question: why is Menzies not writing about this issue by speaking to her more proximal kin: the non-Indigenous people on the other side of the Ipperwash barricades, the ones who metaphorically and physically pulled the triggers that have benefited them for hundreds of years? We might hope for a such a brave sequel.

The book’s conceit is visible in the title. Kinship is a concept that, among many Indigenous communities, has implications beyond relationality and into Indigenous law, scholarship, geopolitics, and spirituality. To be someone’s kin is to be invited into a relational space emerging from considerable prior work and with lifelong responsibilities. Menzies posits that the existence of treaties creates kinship – in a way it does, but this is the conflation of a complex Indigenous phenomenon into a simple, non-Indigenous frame, which seems to be another example of Indigenous knowledge being overridden by colonial ignorance. There is a simple way for non-indigenous people to be honorable “treaty-kin”: live up to the contractual obligations agreed to by our forebearers. The path to reconciliation begins with non-Indigenous people getting their own house in order before knocking on the doors of others.

Despite these concerns, I do admire this work – it is honest, and it aspires to bravery in ways that can only add to our chances of a reconciled future between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canada. Its limitations are both forgivable and pervasive, thus helpful to explore. Menzies is an excellent writer and while the journalist’s voice may squash some of the nuance of this story in favour of a compelling narrative, it provides an accessibility that is rare, especially in the interactions between Aazhoodenaang people. My concerns seem peevish against the value of Our Long Struggle for Home and the invitation for non-Indigenous Canadians to accompany Menzies on this important journey. There is value here, both as a cautionary tale and as an introduction to a complex but essential issue for our society.

This book cannot and should not be expected to address all the issues of colonialism, though it glosses past some of the major elements of what constitutes Canada, perpetuating an indemnity that remains a barrier in our journey to reconciliation. The true heroes of this book are the Aazhoodenaang people who after generations of colonials barging into their homes expecting to be given things still have the wisdom to see value in being gracious hosts and in sharing, yet again, their wealth.

Publication Information

Menzies, Heather. Meeting My Treaty Kin: A Journey toward Reconciliation. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, On Point Press. 2023. 272 pp. $29.95 paper.