June 2014 Archives

Things I can't change

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I wrote the following post at the end of May, 2014. It took me some time to get the guts to actually make it public. As someone who tries to work towards social good, I often grapple with my own history and the different roles different people play in social justice movements, based on their backgrounds. This post can be read in that context, as an effort to understand the things I can't change about myself, but which change the way I'm able to interact with the world and with the causes and efforts I care about.

There are some things about myself that I can't possibly ignore. Here's the thing: my ancestors are mostly from the United Kingdom, with a little smattering of other chunks of Europe. That includes, relatively recently, a little bit of Sweden in the form of my great grandfather, and far less recently, the people from what is presumably now Germany, who gave me my last name, handed down from father to son and changed along the way. So, there's another one: I can't ignore the place of patriarchal structures in my formation of identity. The reason my mother's last name has come to an end is that her father had no sons. None of his daughters gave their name to their own children, at least as a surname, because that has not historically been how patrimony works in Anglophone countries, in countries descended from and built upon British colonialism. Though my mother may use her own last name, and though it may be one of my middle names, as few as 27 years ago, it would not be reasonable or normal in English-speaking Canada to give a child born into a married home its mother's surname. I suspect that, when my parents got married somewhere in the range of 35 years ago, it was not at all usual for a woman to keep her own last name. But my mother damn well did. And I appreciate her for it. So points on that one, I suppose. But let's get back to the issue of heritage, and an area where I can claim no points at all.

My father's family came to Canada during or slightly after the American war of independence. They were United Empire Loyalists, loyal to the British Empire, loyal to the monarchy, not interested in supporting the American bid for independence from that empire. Early Canada was built on cheap and plentiful land. It's entirely possible, if my father's family did indeed move to Canada (though it was not yet called Canada at the time) at the appropriate time, that they were given free land, as a present for their loyalty to the crown. I can't erase that. I can't erase the decision those ancestors of mine made to stay loyal to the Crown and thus, to cross the border into territory that remained under British control. The Coons family moved to Upper Canada from New York, and then, when the West was being opened, on to Saskatchewan, where they remained until my father decided to take a job with the federal government, during his university days. I can't erase any of that. I can't erase the fact that, in Saskatchewan still (and much of the rest of Western Canada and, let's face it, the whole country), the relationship between those of European descent, like my family, and those they displaced has been, to put it exceptionally delicately, imperfect and profoundly unequal. It still is.

Likewise, I can't change the history of my mother's family, far better documented than the story of my father's antecedents. Based on the evidence of family histories, the best we can assume is that Alexander Burnett was the son of a man who did not want to spend his life as a farmer. There is no documented evidence that Alexander's father was a victim of the land enclosures, which were taking place in his native Scotland at roughly the same time as he took his decision to move to the city, rather than cultivate the land. That apparently voluntary un-agrarian streak lasted less than a generation. In the 1830s, Alexander and his family made the trek across the Atlantic ocean to what was still, at that point, not yet Canada. They settled in what is now Ontario, what was then Upper Canada, and essentially did not budge for 150 years, taking up the farming that Alexander's father had attempted to leave behind. My mother and her sisters were the first generation to urbanize, and, as such, the end of the Burnetts farming in their particular portion of Southern Ontario. I cannot change any of this.

So, we have a litany of things I am incapable of changing. I cannot change my heritage. I cannot change the fact that the vast majority of my ancestors are of British Isles or other European extraction. I cannot change the fact that European settlers in Canada often did horrific things. I do not know whether or not my ancestors were active in such activities but, by dint of their decisions to make their lives in this country, I do know that they were complicit. I know that many of my male ancestors were pillars of their communities, for all that means. And, given that it means things like active participation in the church, holding elected office, and working in definitively Canadian industries like mineral extraction, I certainly cannot hold my antecedents blameless for the wrongs committed on behalf of colonizing nations.

But the world marches on. Values change. Ideas that were once held sacred are thrown aside as inappropriate for where we've now arrived. Were I to step into a time machine and pay a visit to my great grandparents, I strongly suspect that they would find me abhorrent. My values are not in line with the values of their time, the values that led them to do the things they did. There is, as I have amply catalogued above, a whole litany of things I cannot change and cannot excuse. And they are the actions of the people who made me. They are the actions of the country that made me. They are the actions of the empire that made the culture I live in. They are my history, but they are not all that I have, or am, or aspire to be. Crucially, the differences that would make me unpalatable, at the very least, to my own ancestors, are what gives me hope for the world I live in today. My ability to walk down the street with comparatively little harassment, despite my, short, coloured hair; ambiguous appearance; loudmouth, leftist; vegan; whatever, is an indication that our world has changed. And that is a hopeful thing. I have often recalled the story of my great aunt, who lived her life as a spinster, simply because she wanted to marry a Catholic man. Her father sent her away, rather than let her marry someone of a religion he considered wrong. The magnitude of that, compared against the circumstances which in my life are entirely normal, is so vastly different. Though change may seem incremental, fraught, difficult when we view it in the scope of our own lives, that incremental change eventually builds into huge differences. Fighting for change seems frustrating when we forget that there is a long game. Things we fight for in our lifetimes, things we get harassed about or abused for will eventually become normal, so normal that we barely remember that once, they weren't.