Wednesday, July 21, 2010

On personal identity

Across North America, First Nations shared the idea that people were linked primarily by relationships, not blood. Many of the nations had ritual adoption to replace those who were killed. This often involved captives taken in battle being traded as slaves to another nation, where, through difficult trials, they became someone else. This might seem a violent form of transformation to most people today. But first, among Europeans at that time, practices of torture and execution were more common than among Aboriginals and at least as violent in their details. Second, unlike the Aboriginal practices, they rarely involved any concept of redemption or rebirth. Third, European torture ended in death. The indigenous approach often included a belief that people could pass through a metamorphosis into a different form of belonging — they were not locked into a single role determined by race. They wanted the transformed person alive and active in their new role.
John Ralston Saul, A Fair Country, p. 61

Saul's main thesis in this book is that Canadian civilization, Canadian culture and Canadian consciousness in the present is derived from, firstly, the contact of former Europeans and Aboriginals starting about 1000 years ago ("Between 993 and 1000, somewhere along the east coast of Labrador, or perhaps along the Gulf of St. Lawrence, a major event in world history occurred. After thousands of years of evolution and wandering, the eastern and western branches of humanity encountered one another, and the circle of global migration closed from east to west. Leif Eriksson spotted smoke rising in the woods by a river. He and some of his crew landed to investigate, and there, on a nameless shore, representatives of European and American branches of the human family finally met face to face."1—H. V. Nelles, A Little History of Canada, pp. 9-10), and, ultimately, before that, the thousands of years of civilization, culture and consciousness that had been evolving in North America for 12 000 years before that, which, far from replacing, the Europeans integrated into. The fact that most of Canada's population is currently non-Aboriginal obscures the fact that, for hundreds of years, mostly between the 1500s and the 1800s, people descended from Europeans and Aboriginal people co-existed and mixed in all aspects of life—in marriages, in politics, in war—without one side dominating the other. This is in direct contradiction to the myth of one culture seamlessly usurping another; these are the actual roots of contemporary Canadian life.

1: This passage from Nelles has been completely rearranged, clause by clause, to jibe better with the flow of my paragraph; the content is unchanged.

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