Colonial memoir powerfully honest
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 22/10/2022 (229 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Coming close on the heels of Canada’s second National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, Margaret Macpherson’s Tracking the Caribou Queen could not be better timed. As Macpherson notes, this memoir of her settler girlhood grew out of an effort to understand the “insidious ways systemic racism shaped [her] youth.”
In 1961, Macpherson’s father moved his family from British Columbia to Yellowknife (located on the traditional land of the Yellowknives Dene First Nation) so he could work as principal of the then-new Sir John Franklin High School, complete with a residence for Indigenous students. Per Ottawa, principal Macpherson was “to see that all were educated regardless of culture or traditional ways.”
The old “Indian school,” a dilapidated log building, was left to rot in the bush, and that made sense to young Margie: “[T]he government (whoever they were) had built a… better school, and now my dad was going to take charge and look after all the poor people who didn’t have a good, clean place to go…We had come, now we would set things right.”
However, as Macpherson grows, her experiences erode her innocence. For instance, when she meets the Caribou Queen, Macpherson understands her as a mother who longs to be reunited with her faraway little boy.
Yet when she tells her brothers about the encounter, they insist the “fat old squaw” is a prostitute “banned from the bunkhouses of the mine” for hacking off a client’s privates. Disparate as these impressions of the Caribou Queen are, each originates in colonization and its depredations.
Throughout Macpherson’s years in Yellowknife, the colonial narrative appears increasingly unreliable. When white neighbours adopt an Indigenous toddler, they consider themselves “good and kind,” but the girl struggles. On one occasion, she is found in the tub “trying to scrub the brown off like it was dirt.”
When an evangelical minister prays to remove the “Devil… within” an Indigenous student, the young woman is left spiritually broken and, later, pregnant. As someone remarks, “I think she got knocked up by one of those holy rollers…”
Steeped in settler culture, Macpherson is not only an observer but also a perpetrator. In middle school she schemes to “reform” her classmate Maryanne: “She was a fighter. She was a thief… If she was just a little more like the rest of us… a little less Indian, she could fit in.”
Macpherson’s recounting of her attempt to trick Maryanne into a makeover is painful to read, but her commitment to honesty, however unflattering, is a strength. Reflecting on this particular episode, she says, “I am rightfully ashamed of my part in this story. I cannot begin to imagine how Maryanne felt… I didn’t think of her feelings…”
If settlers had considered Indigenous peoples’ feelings, Canada would doubtless be quite different today. In reality, our society is plagued by the same colonial degradations Macpherson first encountered decades ago.
As she notes, “In naming our participation, in owning the actions of the past, we can begin to take responsibility for our part in it. Only then can we make way for a right and equitable future as true Treaty People.”
Powerful and poetic, Tracking the Caribou Queen is a vivid, driven memoir sure to inspire readers to face uncomfortable truths and undertake reparations.
Jess Woolford reads and writes on Treaty 1 territory and beyond.
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