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Grappling with Respect: Copway and Traill in a Conversation that Never Took Place
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As to Ghosts or Spirits they appear totally banished from Canada,” wrote Catharine Parr Traill in what has become one of Canadian literature’s most infamous statements.

Here there are no historical associations, no legendary tales of those that come before us. Fancy would starve for lack of marvellous food to keep her alive in the backwoods. … No Druid claims our oaks; and instead of poring with mysterious awe among our curious limestone rocks, that are often singularly grouped together, we refer them to the geologist to exercise his skill in accounting for their appearance; instead of investing them with the solemn characters of ancient temples or heathen altars, we look upon them with the curious eye of natural philosophy alone.


This statement from Traill’s The Backwoods of Canada, an epistolary account of traveling to and clearing a farm in the 1830s near what is now Lakefield, Ontario, is an archetypal passage in one of the most reprinted books in the canon of early Canadian literature. This passage is a classic statement by a new arrival of how difficult it will be for an immigrant populace to forge a literature in a new land. The colony’s first English writers must start from zero, from scratch, since they do not have access to a pre-existing local tradition. In the absence of already existing myth and history, they must build a foundation based upon unsuperstitious reason and scientific observation.

The great irony in Traill’s words is also archetypal because, of course, there are historical associations and legendary tales that are well known to the Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg inhabitants of the Pamashkodeyong-Nogojiwanong region where Traill and her husband have come to homestead. Indeed there exists a remarkable opportunity for her to learn about them when she passes through Pamashkodeyong (Rice Lake) in 1832. “[B]eyond the Indian village,” writes Traill,

The missionaries have a school for the education and instruction of the Indian children. Many of them can both read and write fluently, and are greatly improved in their moral and religious conduct. They are well and comfortably clothed, and have houses to live in. But they are too much attached to their wandering habits to become good and industrious settlers. During certain seasons they leave the village, and encamp themselves in the woods along the borders of those lakes and rivers that present the most advantageous hunting and fishing-grounds. … Certain it is that the introduction of the Christian religion is the first greatest step towards civilization and improvement; its very tendency being to break down the strong-holds of prejudice and ignorance, and unite mankind in one bond of social brotherhood.


It is too bad that, pressed as they are to complete their long journey from England to their homestead, the Traills do not have time to stop in and actually visit the children in the Rice Lake School. Had she met the students there, perhaps direct contact with them may have modified her certainty that the benefits of civilization and religion would constitute a one-way transfer from the settlers to the Nishnaabeg. She could then have encountered one of the students named Kahgegagahbowh, who, under the English name George Copway, went on to publish several books detailing the history, tales, and spiritual traditions whose absence Traill laments. Among the first indigenous people in North America to produce books in English, Copway was Nishnaabe from the very Michi Saagiig region that Traill details in her writings, and it is tempting to speculate about whether she might have met the young Kahgegagahbowh, if not in 1832 when she did not stop at the Rice Lake School, then in 1834 when she describes two visits to the winter and summer camps of the Nishnaabe hunter Peter Nogan and his family. Perhaps Kahgegagahbowh, sixteen years old that year, was one of the young men practising tomahawk throws on the warm Sunday afternoon in June when she and her husband visited Peter’s family—or better yet, perhaps he was one of the people she notices lying on blankets in the shade and reading (Backwoods 231). Neither of them ever writes about having met the other...

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