- We Are All Treaty People: Prairie Essays
Fears of Canada's national fabric being unwoven by gaping cultural divides seem to be almost de rigeur in political, popular, and even academic conversations. The culprits are predictable: indigenous vs settler, rural vs urban, eastern Canada vs western Canada, Tim Hortons vs Starbucks. Certainly there are long and legitimate grievances that have emerged as a result of the nation-building project of Canada. Yet, too [End Page 295] often, the predictable claims to unbridgeable cultural divides between various constituencies in Canada obscures an equally significant truth: there is much that connects us in bonds of history, alliance, affinity, experience, and kinship.
It is toward an honest understanding of our complicated interdependencies and conflicting interconnections that Roger Epp offers his rough and tender truths of life in the Canadian prairies. We Are All Treaty People: Prairie Essays is a collection that is simultaneously deeply moving and discomfiting; though carefully researched and elegantly written, its most significant narrative strength comes from its author's perhaps constitutional unwillingness to indulge in the easy obscurantism of mainstream cultural commentary. This is a rare and very welcome quality, one that more contemporary scholarship could profitably emulate.
These essays are about what it is to belong to a place - in this case, the prairies - and how our understandings of that belonging are shaped by the dreams, betrayals, ideals, legacies, and frequently vexed relationships between various peoples and their interwoven histories. Farmers and students, professors and politicians, populists, cowboys, Indians, writers - all abide in a shared land with different meanings, inheritances, and futures. Together, Epp notes, the essays 'are exercises not in theory, at least not directly, but rather in attentiveness - to a necessary geography, to place, story and family, to the contemporary challenges of living well in that part of the rural West that was once called the prairie grainbelt.' Whether taking up some of the wounded histories of European settlement of the prairie, agrarian policy, class struggle, or the challenges of intercultural connection, these are not the observations of a presumptuous urbanite or an interloping Easterner ready to tell prairie people all about themselves; rather, Epp's essays offer the fiercely empathetic and deeply considered understandings of a man intimately tied to both the physical landscape and its representational (and sometimes spectral) influence on those who call it home.
Take, for instance, the title essay, 'We Are All Treaty People: History, Reconciliation, and the 'Settler Problem." It would perhaps be easy for Epp, 'a fourth-generation settler on the Canadian prairies,' to take what are still the conventional approaches to Indigenous-settler issues: ignore the history and continuing traumas of colonialism, blame Aboriginal peoples for the effects of those traumas, or put on the hair shirt of intergenerational guilt. Epp does none of these. Instead, he argues on behalf of unflinchingly honest relationship, which 'constitutes an equally powerful history, inherited, not chosen, whose birthright we can either disavow, because its burdens seem too great, or else make our own through respectful initiatives.' We are all treaty people, with all the attendant difficulties and possibilities of such a connection. [End Page 296] Treaties, after all, are relational; they are relationships of rights and obligations between peoples. He does not imagine that reconciliation is an easy thing, nor does he assume that the very real conflicts of the past and present will conveniently resolve themselves and let us feel good about how well we can get along. We have to work at these relationships, and it is challenging work, as anything enduring tends to be. But, he affirms, there are shared circumstances between rural settler communities and reserve communities, as well as 'cultural correspondences that can be bridges for coexistence.' Understanding is possible only through both acknowledging and recognizing those connections, 'the common ground for treaty peoples whose inheritance is filled with mixed blessings . . . and obligations of memory and relationship on all sides.'
In these prairie essays from rural Canada, Roger Epp reminds us that connection across and within difference is never easy, and it...