History Is Personal by Brittany Luby
Encounter is a piece of historical fiction that follows the meeting of a French-speaking sailor and an Iroquoian-speaking fisher. It is based on the notes of Jacques Cartier, a 16th century navigator.
I wish I could have read it as a child.
When I was growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, Indigenous history was a nascent field of study. My teachers hadn’t learned Indigenous history at university. The Ontario curriculum said little of First Nations.
Misinformation and negative stereotypes were difficult to manage as a mixed-blood kid.
In Grade 5, a classmate pushed a feather in my ear one recess. They circled me, making a Hollywood-style “war cry.”
It was common knowledge that my “Indian” father worked on reserve. I transferred schools shortly after the “feather experience.”
My classmate (and others) were missing stories that presented Indigenous peoples like Dad as complex individuals – culturally and territorially informed.
For this reason, Fisher is grounded in Encounter. His territorial knowledge allows Sailor to enjoy a swim. “Fisher pointed at the waves,” alerting Sailor it was safe to jump in.
My characters do not act without hesitation. Both Sailor and Fisher find each other strange. Sailor “thought Fisher’s hair looked like a horse’s tail.” Fisher thinks Sailor is dressed poorly for the weather. And yet, they chose to acknowledge and move past their differences. This enables them to play together.
If only I had such a book. Perhaps my classmate would have acknowledged our differences and had fun despite them – or, perhaps not. I realize, as Fisher did, that “friendly encounter[s]” are not guaranteed.
In high school, I faced new challenges in the classroom.
I learned, for example, that Jacques Cartier “discovered” what we now call what we now call Gaspé Bay. Dad assured me that the territory was already well-known to Stadaconans who fished there. Like Sailor, I had to reject colonial teachings and process the fact that “these lands are not so new.”
Teachers presented Jacques Cartier as a skilled navigator. Dad reminded me that this French explorer was vulnerable, a stranger to North America.
Although I excelled in the classroom, the gap between Canadian histories and Indigenous histories was disorienting. I needed a story that grounded Indigenous knowledge like Encounter does.
Mom and Dad convinced me that:
“Meaningful change needs to happen two ways: inside out and outside in.”
They suggested I could write new textbooks, produce new curriculum material, by working from inside the Ivory Tower. Despite my frustration with history, I pursued a post-secondary education in the field.
I am fortunate to have completed my PhD and found work as a professor in Canada.
Change does not always happen quickly or easily. Every now and again, I am required to teach a course titled “Pre-Confederation Canada.” Fall 2018 was one of those years.
I felt uncomfortable with the course title. A sense of progression is coded into it. The title suggests Canada is a natural end result; it is what history is working towards. My inner child was squirming.
When I arrived on campus, the lecture hall was filled with young adults. My students ranged from 17 to 21 years of age. Yes, I could prepare them to ask new questions. But, their educational experiences were not radically different from mine. Were they ready to hear that Jacques Cartier could be both the “founder of ‘Canada’” and a catalyst for the colonization of North America?
I realized that we need to scaffold learning, to prepare our children to ask new questions of old histories.
At the end of the term, I sat down with Cartier’s notes, asking myself “Which sections of text could I question with my nieces and nephews?””
I focused on a non-threatening passage – the days leading up to Cartier’s abduction of Stadaconans (which is detailed in the “Historical Note”).
I then highlighted passages whose alternate readings might be relatable to children.
Cartier wrote, “They go quite naked, except for a small skin, with which they cover their privy parts.” Children who wear rain jackets in spring and snowsuits in winter may understand the importance of dressing for the weather. Why did Cartier feel more clothing was necessary in July? This was a question I could ask my nieces and nephews.
Cartier referred to Stadaconans as “the sorriest folk there can be in the world.” He claimed “the whole lot of them had not anything above the value of five sous.” And yet, they had access to animals for meat and clothing and to wood for fuel and housing. They had access to medicines to cure scurvy (which plagued European sailors). In July 1534, Stadaconans were feasting on the riches of the Atlantic Ocean (mackerel). Many sailors lacked such goods. “Sea bread” was hard to swallow. Could I explain life abroad a ship wasn’t always rich? Could I explain that culture influences what is valued and by whom?
Before long, I had a collection of phrases I could talk about with children. I had a foundation for Encounter.
My work would have been incomplete without reminding Jorydn, Emma, Cloudy, and Rudy – my nieces and nephews – that difference is human. To help communicate this reality, I added animal teachers who see that Sailor and Fisher are alike in many ways. Sailor and Fisher may live in the world differently, but their experiences are fundamentally human.
Encounter is my way of complicating colonial narratives and prompting discussion about Indigenous knowledges.
I wish I could have read it as a child.
I will read it to the children in my life.
Brittany Luby (Anishinaabe-kwe) is the many great-granddaughter of Chief Kawitaskung, a leader who negotiated the North-West Angle Treaty of 1873. With a pen stroke, Kawitaskung agreed to share parts of what is now northwestern Ontario with settlers and their descendants. Because of her many great-grandfather, Brittany believes that words are a powerful tool. Brittany writes for social justice and is an assistant professor of history at Guelph University in Canada.