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'Us and Them,' Then and Now

From Jewish Montreal to the Mowachaht West Coast, we've changed, but how much have we really left behind?

By Sid Tafler, 21 Nov 2006, TheTyee.ca

Us and Them

Sid Tafler with his mother, way back when.

  • Us and Them: A Memoir of Tribes and Tribulations
  • Sid Tafler
  • Net B.C. Publishing (2006)

How do you make sense of a life? And why does it matter? Those are two of the trickiest questions I had to answer as I wrote Us and Them: A Memoir of Tribes and Tribulations.

Writing a memoir helped make sense of who I am and how I got here. And it matters only because my life experience fits into a larger context of how this country changed during the last half of the 20th century.

Canada was an ethnically divided place a few generations ago, where Chinese immigration was excluded, Japanese Canadians were interned in camps and open discrimination was practiced against Jews, blacks and other minorities.

My mother came up against the hard, cold shell of Canadian exclusion before her wedding, when she tried to rent an apartment in Montreal and encountered a sign that read, "No dogs, no cats, no Jews." She went home devastated and even thought of leaving this country. That was the fall 1939, when Hitler was beginning his campaign to overrun Europe and murder its Jews.

My father was barred from certain jobs and professions because of his religion. He trained as a swimmer at the Young Men's Hebrew Association, because Jews weren't welcome at the YMCA. He became one of the best water polo players in the country, but even in the pool he was sometimes exposed to racist taunts and attacks.

Our mosaic, cracks and all

Today, Canada is a far different country, recognized around the world for its tolerance and diversity. People of all backgrounds are encouraged to express their culture within the fabled Canadian mosaic. Discrimination is frowned upon by most of society and prohibited by federal and provincial laws.

Of course, some people think the glass is only 90 per cent full when they look at the society we've created. And there are cracks in the glass; just ask aboriginal people about finding a job or renting a place to live in some Canadian cities, including Vancouver and Victoria.

But despite our shortcomings, we've come a long way in a fairly short period of time. But now I ask, where do we go from here?

My own experiences and those of my parents and grandparents are only one very small part of this story. But they help to illustrate how this country changed by telling how it was and how it is, for one Canadian family.

Us and Them is about how we see each other, as members of our own group or other groups. It's about home, belonging, identity and the tribal nature of the human species, which evolved tens of thousands of years ago and is still a strong influence on how we live today.

With these excerpts from Us and Them, one from childhood in Montreal, the other from my adult years in B.C., I challenge people -- Tyee readers, and those who join me at the Stanley Park Pavilion Wednesday, Nov. 22, for a Jewish Book Festival event -- to ask themselves and each other: is Canada the open, diverse and tolerant country we say it is, or is racism still a strong undercurrent of society, rushing up to the surface with incidents like a brutal attack on a Sikh man in Vancouver or a firebombing of a Jewish school in Montreal? Where have we made progress in terms of toleration and acceptance and where are we still lagging behind?

FROM CHAPTER 3, "I ALSO REMEMBER"

"Watch out for the Frenchies," my older brother David warned me when I was a small boy.

"Who's the Frenchies?" I asked.

"The bad kids on the street."

My mother overheard us. "Don't say that. They're not Frenchies. They're just children who speak French."

We continued calling them Frenchies, out of earshot of Mom.

I wore a blue and white toque, a woolen cap my mother knitted, just like the French-Canadian kids. I could have passed for one of them -- but only to a stranger visiting from somewhere else.

The slogan on Quebec licence plates is Je me souviens. I remember. As a motto it pulls at the heart as it invokes the past over the present. Unfinished business. Je me souviens. Mais de quoi? Perhaps it's meant to draw Quebecers together in its ambiguity. "I remember my French heritage," or "I remember our defeat, but we will prevail."

I know of no other place in North America so consumed by language and identity. And not just among the French-speaking majority. When I was growing up, there were no "Canadians" in Quebec, meaning people who draw their identity from their country and citizenship. Even though, ironically, French-speakers used the term Canadiens to identify and distinguish themselves from everyone else.

And there were no Québécois -- that term came into vogue later on. There were the French and les autres, the others, Them, those who spoke English or other languages. The French, the English, the Greeks, the Italians, were not primarily identified by religion. But we were. Being Jewish is a religion, a culture, an identity. That's a lot of nuance to grasp, but not too much for a child growing up in 1950s Quebec. It was important to know, to identify, to label, to differentiate. You're Us. Or you're not Us. You're Them.

New Place, Old Tribes

On the streets of lower Outremont, most kids were either French or Jewish, and they were natural enemies. We were the heirs of generations of persecution, of suspicion between Catholic and Jew, stretching back to obscure villages on the other side of the Atlantic.

One particularly tough kid whose name I forgot would terrorize me whenever he saw me. He was a big, dark-haired boy, often accompanied by other kids who would egg him on or hold him back. I understood only a little French, but it seemed this fearful boy spoke more in guttural grunts than words or sentences. He was the classic medieval, wild-eyed terror, the Cossack or Crusader reborn.

One day he threatened me on the street, wielding a large piece of broken glass. I ran between two houses, but suddenly my way was blocked by a wire fence and a lilac bush. I turned to face him, fear rippling down my body. He raised the jagged weapon in his hand and growled at me. He stepped closer and closer, slashing at me with the broken glass. I could see my face torn open and started to cry. Then a man appeared in a back window and shouted -- "Hey!" -- and we ran off in opposite directions.

In later years, I learned about Northern Ireland, one of the most troubled places in the western world, where some Catholics and Protestants hated each other enough to take lives with bombs and bullets. To the outsider, all the Northern Irish looked alike. But they could tell the difference at 20 paces, and that difference was all that mattered. It sounds familiar, I remember thinking. It sounds like Quebec.

In many ways, Quebec was the ultimate place to be Us, a small Jewish minority living in a nation of French Canadians who struggled to preserve their language and identity in a much bigger entity of Them. Quebec is a history, a psychology, a garrison, a distinctive mentality and culture. French-speaking and Catholic in a vast sea of English-speaking, largely Protestant and British peoples. A place apart, mysterious and unknown to outsiders. A place of passions, piety and sin, hot sultry summers, cold brutal winters. Latin America North.

Inside Quebec lived a French-speaking majority of four million, surrounded by an English-speaking majority in the rest of North America of two hundred million. Further inside Quebec was an English-speaking minority of a million, living mostly in their own regions in and around Montreal. And even deeper within, we were a Jewish minority of a hundred thousand, in our own familiar neighbourhoods -- where we were usually the majority. Societies within societies, largely out of touch with each other, like Russian dolls.

Like the Irish, we could usually smell one another at a distance. But if we couldn't, we would ask. In other parts of the world kids ask each other their names, what games they play, but in Quebec they asked, what's your nationality? Are you English, French, Jewish, Italian or Greek? Tell us so we know how to treat you.

FROM CHAPTER 19, "THE MOUSE AND THE BEAR"

It had just rained and I was walking down the muddy village road stepping around the puddles. An elderly man leaned out his front window and called to me.

"Hey, where you going?"

"For a walk."

"C'mon inside." And he disappeared from the window to open his front door.

His name was August Dick, he was about 65, round and squat, with gleaming black hair. A near-empty pint bottle of Five Star whiskey sat on the kitchen table. It was mid-afternoon in the remote coastal village of Ahminiquis, and August was drinking whiskey from a coffee mug.

I had trouble understanding him; he spoke in words and phrases that didn't always connect. "Too much of it gone now...What we, what I see as an elder, people are forgetting...Friendly Cove meant a lot of things to our chief...had 20 tribes behind him."

In Canada you don't have to be an immigrant to miss the place you come from. You can be a native whose ancestors lived 30 miles away and roamed the lands and seas around you for hundreds of years.

As a journalist working in Victoria, I was chasing the story of native identity on the West Coast and the meeting points between aboriginal culture and the rest of society. It was the summer of 1995, I was approaching 50 and had been living in British Columbia for 15 years. In the back of my mind, I could see parallels between these people caught between two worlds and my own identity conflicts. I even thought I detected echoes of Hebrew words in the speech of some of the coastal natives, invoking the myth of the lost tribes of Israel.

Home is so close, so far away

August Dick's home village of Friendly Cove is a place of great historical significance to British Columbia. It was the ancestral home of the Mowachaht, the native people who greeted Captain James Cook when he arrived in B.C. in 1778. It was the beginning of European society on the West Coast and the beginning of the end of the traditional native way of life.

Forty years ago, the entire Mowachaht tribe moved 30 miles from Friendly Cove up a series of inlets to Ahminiquis at the mouth of the Gold River on the west side of Vancouver Island. This was common practice all over the coast. As small settlements faded away with population decline, the survivors joined together with other native groups. Friendly Cove became a distant place of memories where the Mowachaht go for special ceremonies and summer retreats. But the dream of a revival of the ancient village lived on, a kind of native Zionism. Even young kids of the tribe still talked about "going home" to Friendly Cove.

The new home of the Mowachaht was located in the shadow of a pulp mill that emitted pollutants that poisoned the air and the water. I was told the villagers didn't hang their laundry out to dry because the fumes would eat holes in the cloth. I was also told not to park my car near the mill -- particles in the air would corrode the paint job.

Soon after my visit to Ahminiquis, the Mowachaht would be moved again, up to the mountains, still further away from their ancestral home at Friendly Cove. The government would finance the move to a new townsite in the hills behind the town of Gold River, to escape the pollutants from the mill, which are harmful to human health as well as to laundry and the paint on a car.

I asked August about the move to the new village, the third home of his people in the 20th century. "I belong out here by the ocean, not in the mountains." He stared out the window, as if he could see his home village in the distance.

A token of difference

I glanced at a miniature Indian headdress lying on the table between us.

"Take a look," he said.

I picked it up; red, blue and green beads strung through wire to form a plastic feathered headdress that fit in the palm of my hand.

"You like it?"

"It's nice." It was a trinket, something you might hang on the mirror of your car.

"You want it?"—and before I could answer—"40 dollars."

My eyes flashed on the bottle and I caught myself wondering how many he would buy with 40 dollars.

"Oh, no, thanks, but—"

"I made it myself."

"Yes, it's nice, but really, I don't think so."

"Forty dollars."

"Sure, but I can't, really."

"Well take it."

"No, no, that's fine, thanks anyway."

"Take it. For nothing."

"I couldn't, really. It's nice, but—"

"You take it." He found a paper bag and slipped the headdress inside and handed it to me.

Suddenly I was trapped. I was out in the bush and didn't have 40 dollars to spare. But if I refused this little sales item that became a gift I would insult him. I had told him I liked it. He stripped away the only barrier to my having it, the money. How could I say no? I took it. I was embarrassed, ashamed.

This little headdress had nothing to do with his culture. The natives on the coast did not wear feathered war bonnets. It was just a little kitchen cottage industry, an old man threading beads onto wire to make souvenirs to sell to visitors.

Culture without emblems

I'm not sure what I expected to find at Ahminiquis. I'd read a few books about the culture of the Mowachaht, but when I asked about some of the traditions I drew blank stares. The kids wore hooded sweatshirts with Chicago Bears logos, their culture beamed in through TV satellites.

Do white folks live like they did 200 years ago? Did I expect the native people would? No, I didn't think they'd be dancing around the fire in cedar bark cloaks. But I came to find out about the people of first contact with Europeans on the coast and I was looking for links to the past. Then, when we went fishing near Friendly Cove, I noticed fisherman Arnold James aligning his boat with a particular mountain on the horizon to find an undersea channel where the salmon migrate, just like his ancestors did centuries ago, according to the books I've read.

After a few days, I came to realize the artifacts may be gone, but the values were still there. Everyone is related, or acts like they are. Children in the village seem interchangeable, all treated like everyone's own. Friends and neighbours wander in for a chat, for coffee, for a meal. No one asks, "Would you like to stay for dinner?" A plate of food just appears on the table in front of you. These people all belong to the tribe, a word that seems outdated but still appropriate.

As a child, I never encountered Indians. My only experience of native culture was what I saw in movies or books. Like most boys of my generation, I often played cowboys and Indians. A variation was the Lone Ranger, a game we adapted from the TV show, which I played with my cousin Easor. We both wanted to be the masked hero who shot silver bullets, not his Indian sidekick Tonto, who murmured "Yes, kemosabe," which we took to mean, "Yes, master." Real Indians were in Caughnawaga, the little Mohawk village just outside Montreal, which we knew about but never visited.

I only became aware of natives as real people when I moved to Western Canada in my 20s. They make up a larger percentage of the population in the West, where the land was settled by white people more recently.

What's the difference?

You can't walk through the downtown of any major western city without encountering native people. Many of them are struggling to survive and adapt to life in the city, which can be a tough place for a person raised on a reserve way out in the bush.

Gradually I picked up the attitude about natives prevalent among many people in Western Canada. They don't hate them, they feel sorry for them, for their poverty, alcoholism, dislocation. The attitude is, Indians are different, apart, outside the realm of the rest of society. Almost less than human, like wildlife.

The good clean Canadian ideal is that we are not racist. The truth is that some of us are, but we try to hide it. Just ask a native person about getting a job or a place to live in the city, or about relations with police or social workers. Some stores or even gas stations discourage native customers as a matter of practice.

Public services available to everyone else are often denied to natives because different branches of government delay and deny and send them away. I witnessed this myself when I did a study for an aboriginal group on services available to disabled people in British Columbia. Many a crippled native person who struggles to find his way to a government office is told, "Go to your band," which means "Get lost" in bureaucratic language.

Perhaps the easiest explanation for why native people are considered outside the realm is that they were never included in the new society created by the influx of white people. In the early years, the official policy was assimilation, based on wiping out native culture, turning them into us. But they were never really accepted into the greater society, neither on their own terms nor on ours.

Instead of demanding that native people be more like us, we might turn the mirror around and be more like them. These people learned to live on these lands over thousands of years and could teach us some of the skills and values that allowed them to survive and flourish. That might make us feel more at home, more at peace, rather than displaced Europeans trying to impose our beliefs on the New World.  [Tyee]

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