Monday, July 28, 2014
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I’m white, my husband’s First Nations. How do I explain my misbehaving ancestors to my kids?

Jean Paetkau

Contributed to The Globe and Mail

I am white. My husband is First Nations. I am not sure how ashamed I should be – of me, of my badly behaving ancestors. Frankly, when it comes to how white folks treated people of other races and cultures there is an overflowing cornucopia of embarrassment.

White European culture is still dominant, so in my mixed-race household we try to emphasize First Nations culture. We have taught our children some Hul’qumi’num words. We point out the carvings and totem poles that decorate Victoria. We proudly wear the Coast Salish knitting of our kids’ grandmother.

But the legacy of colonialism is as sturdy as the bronze statue of the 19th-century queen who graces the lawn of the B.C. Legislature. People still take English high tea on Saturday afternoons at a hotel called the Empress. The local newspaper is called the Times Colonist.

When it comes to recounting the outrages committed against First Nations people, you don’t have to resort to leafing through the dusty pages of history. This year, on the West Coast, a developer gained a permit to build on a Penelakut burial site holding ancestors of my children. How do I explain that one over Cheerios?

My ancestors are a mix of Mennonites from Ukraine and Puritans who travelled on the Mayflower, so I am whiter than typewriter Wite-Out. I’m proud that, on one side, my grandparents made a dangerous escape from the Russian revolution to carve out a hard life in Saskatchewan. I also respect the sacrifices of my English forebears, who put themselves in peril for the freedom to practise their religion. These are the choices of idealists. I frequently indulge in idealism as a sort of hobby. I occasionally even buy free-range chicken.

In my childhood home, European culture was celebrated: Visits to the Louvre, John Donne’s poems, and piano lessons were as much a part of my upbringing as hot bowls of Cream of Wheat. But I have reservations about signing up my children, members of the Penelakut nation, to learn how to bang out bagatelles by Bela Bartok. Do I take them to art museums where the paintings celebrate kings and queens who took the land and devastated the culture of aboriginal peoples around the world? Hardly seems like a suitable Saturday-afternoon outing.

My five-year-old has started asking difficult questions. She has demanded to know exactly which members of our family are First Nations. Her brother has paler skin than she does, so she was concerned he was out of the club.

As my children get older, I am regaining the freedom for activities I enjoyed before pregnancy, breastfeeding and co-sleeping through sleepless nights. So when I saw an ad for The Marriage of Figaro at the Victoria Opera, I was tempted by a musical event that didn’t involve puppets or songs about seals named Sappy. I wondered if I could reclaim my love for opera.

When I was 28 I lived in Prague, where opera tickets were a bargain even for the wages of an ESL teacher. I’d sit a few feet from the stage, where the passion, tears and occasionally spit of the singers were tangible. But as the mother of two First Nations children, I wasn’t sure about celebrating an art form traditionally reserved for European monarchs and aristocrats.

Eventually, my desire to put on a dress that wasn’t stained with carrots and orange juice won out. Days after getting tickets for my sister and me, I caught myself humming the initial duet featuring the hero measuring out his wedding bed while his fiancée warns about the bad intentions of the lecherous count.

The day of the performance was the usual frenzy of cooking, tracking down sunscreen and reading a story called I Love You, Stinky Face. I didn’t have time to contemplate my decision until the curtain rose and the music poured out.

It was like recovering a treasure I hadn’t realized was lost. I’d seen Figaro before, but I didn’t remember laughing so much. Laughing as if I was at a backyard barbecue and someone was doing an impression of Vladimir Putin falling in love with his own reflection.

At any opera I am prepared for the mid-performance blues – the slow point in the show when they are plowing through the boring songs before getting to the big aria everyone is waiting for. But like a pot of water kept at a high boil, the hours of the performance evaporated as the drama unfolded. Tight corsets, loose morals and superb singing created an utterly captivating spectacle. The physical humour of the singers rivalled Mr. Bean.

When the final notes of the gorgeous harmony filled the theatre, and the audience rose to its feet, I clapped till my hands hurt. I thought: “This is something I can be proud to share with my children.”

Opera may have been the indulgence of wealthy Europeans who saw their society as superior to ones where it was impossible to “own” land.

But I suppose that opera and I don’t have to be prisoners of our past. My husband is a survivor of residential school; yet, he married a white woman. I should follow his example and let my children give my culture a chance – after all, some days they eat their grandma’s salmon for breakfast, and other days my Cream of Wheat.

Jean Paetkau lives in Victoria.

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