Charbonneau: Oral histories important to nation

David Charbonneau / Kamloops Daily News
January 2, 2013 01:00 AM

Maybe 2013 will be the year that Canadians realize how much our national character has been shaped by our aboriginal legacy.

Until that realization dawns on us, we will continue to think Canada's success in multiculturalism is something we just stumbled into and that our internationally recognized skill in solving disputes through negotiation comes from something in the water we drink.

A good place to start is to realize that we are a MÉtis nation, says writer and thinker John Ralston Saul, that the story of Canada began long before 1867. We are a MÉtis nation because English, French and Native people shaped our traditions.

Before Canada was a country, it was a federation. Now 400 years old, ours is the oldest continuous federation in the world. But the legacy of that ancient federation remains vague in Canadian consciousness for two reasons.

The first is that our early history is oral, not written and that oral legacy has not been given much credence.

An example of that conceit is reflected in a parlour game where a dozen or so people sit in a circle. Someone starts the game by whispering in the ear of the person next to them, and that person whispers what they thought they heard into the ear of the next. By the time the message gets back to the person who started, it's barely recognizable; apparent evidence of the poor reliability of the spoken word.

Those kinds of biases obscure the veracity of oral traditions, which several years ago were recognized as genuine and legal by the Supreme Court of Canada in its 1997 Delgamuukw decision. The Supreme Court overturned a lower B.C. court that proclaimed "broad concepts embodied in oral tradition, did not conform to juridical definitions of truth."

What the B.C. court failed to realize is that oral history is valid because the preservation of it is vital to oral societies, no less so than to written cultures. The transmission of history is no trivial matter and those who are responsible are solemnly charged with the duty of getting it right regardless of the means.

In fact, many of the distortions of Canada's history are from written sources, not oral. Much of Canada's early history comes from written accounts of early explorers who were eager to please sponsors back home in Europe to keep the money flowing. Those early explorers who survived only by the kindness of their aboriginal hosts were not likely to tell the truth: that they were barely hanging on and that agricultural techniques that worked in the old world did not work here; that wonderful European technologies such as the wheel were useless here and that aboriginal technology such as the canoe was superior.

The second reason that our complete history remains vague is that for the last 150 years of our 400-years-old federation, native populations have been decimated. Now that their numbers are recovering, their contributions should be recognized; ideals such as egalitarianism, balance between individual and group and a talent for negotiation in resolving disputes.

Now that bias against oral history has been removed by the courts, maybe 2013 will be the year in which the aboriginal contributions to our collective unconsciousness will be recognized by all Canadians.

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