Why the otter is better than the beaver and other Canada Day lessons with Indigenous elder Duke Redbird

Why the otter is better than the beaver and other Canada Day lessons with Indigenous elder Duke Redbird

If Duke Redbird could make a suggestion this Canada Day weekend, he’d like to pitch you on the otter.

Every country has a creature that represents its collective consciousness, the Chippewa-Potawatomi elder says as he sits on his houseboat-turned-art installation at the Ontario Place marina. England has the lion, the top of the food chain, the empire builder. India has its elephant, big like its population. And America has its bald eagle, a predator who soars high with arrows in its left talon.

When he gets to Canada’s beaver, he recites a poem he wrote 30 years ago about the animal working all night, transforming a bubbling stream into a putrid pond that the more majestic animals want nothing to do with.

“My child, do not become a beaver and build for yourself a den, this is what modern man does with his brick and stone and sand until his mind is like that stagnant lake filled with weird wicked wretches that get no peace,” Redbird says in quick staccato as he approaches his closer: “Then he cries to his Creator in desperation, please God, my God, deliver me from damnation.”

Redbird, who is a member of the Saugeen First Nation, would rather have the otter as a national symbol — the “happy-go-lucky” mammal dives “into the unknown” to find small rocks, and then “comes to the surface, puts the tool on its belly, and opens its mussel shells and clam shells,” he says, all the while, “looking in the heavens at the cosmos.”

“That’s my dream for Canada on Canada Day,” Redbird says, his jean shorts rolled at the cuff, a straw hat shielding him from the sun on the Wigwam Chi-Chemung, a Myseum of Toronto art installation that will live at the marina this summer, its flanks brilliant with imagery that Redbird and muralist Philip Cote painted over several days this June.

Redbird will be here throughout the summer to talk Indigenous history with anyone who is curious. On Canada Day, he will give a 1 p.m. talk at Ontario Place’s Trillium Park about the “Seven Grandfather Teachings” and the 1805 treaty that led to the Toronto Purchase: “250 830 acres of land for the sum of 10 shillings,” as the Mississaugas of the New Credit note on their website. (In 2010, the treaty was part of a $145-million settlement with the federal government.)

The idea for an Indigenous presence on the waterfront has been percolating for a while. In 2018, Redbird was invited to be an adviser for Google sister company Sidewalk Labs, to offer an Indigenous perspective on its Quayside development. When he was researching the waterfront online, he read that people had been inspired to find a better use for the Port Lands because it had been “neglected and underused.”

That stopped him.

A swam swims by on the water at Ontario Place.

When Indigenous people were in control — the Mississaugas, and the Wendat before them — the waterfront was a “glorious” and bustling place to live, he says. Redbird figures that’s a fact people have forgotten — or never known — because of the lack of Indigenous history on Toronto’s waterfront.

“We do have a treaty … but I would like to see them acknowledge the fact that when we had control of the waterfront it was a lively, robust wonderful place where ceremonies were taking place, where families lived,” he says.

So the 80-year-old got to work, dreaming up a floating art installation to tell that story. He approached Myseum of Toronto and bought the boat online and they found a home for it this summer at the Ontario Place marina.

Jeremy Diamond, the CEO of Myseum of Toronto, says that many people connect Canada Day with flags and fireworks, but there are others who see it differently. “This is one way for us to tell some stories that haven’t really been told to a larger population, but also to be able to take a different approach to Canada Day.”

Redbird says Indigenous people were not invited to participate in Confederation, so they don’t see Canada Day as a celebration. “Until they settle all the treaties, Canada does not have legitimate governance over these lands without our participation, and they’ve always ignored us,” he says.

Redbird will be here throughout the summer to talk Indigenous history with anyone who is curious. On Canada Day, he will give a 1 p.m. talk at Ontario Place’s Trillium Park about the “Seven Grandfather Teachings” and the 1805 treaty that led to the Toronto Purchase.

As a swan feeds next to his boat, he talks about how in school, “we all learned” about British army officer James Wolfe, “the dauntless hero” killed in the 1759 Battle of the Plains of Abraham, but “we didn’t learn about the fact that the if it hadn’t been for the Shawnee, Potawatomi and Ojibway, southern Ontario wouldn’t be part of Canada,” he says, referencing Indigenous defences during the War of 1812.

He says Indigenous history isn’t known because of the policies of the government and the education system. (In May, the Ontario government announced that Indigenous history would be optional in high schools, and not mandatory as recommended by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a move the Star’s Tanya Talaga called a “slap in the face” to residential school survivors and their families. This weekend, a spokesperson for the minister of education confirmed the courses are “optional as a compulsory credit,” but said ministry staff recently met with members of the Indigenous community expanding mandatory Indigenous content in the curriculum.)

“I bring these things up, more as a kind of flashlight in the darkness, in the fog of ignorance, that’s all,” Redbird says. “I’m not trying to instigate anything more than reconciliation that isn’t defined as assimilation,” he says.

He walks inside the boat and returns with a birchbark basket, and talks about its simplicity and elegance, and how the birchbark canoe transported goods and services on a river network for hundreds of years.

For hundreds of years, Canada lived on goods transported on canoes made of birchbark, like this box, Duke Redbird says.

He knows that people will say that railways were needed to transport the goods of the industrial age, and the highways after that. “If life is about accumulation of goods, and money … then I guess it makes sense,” he says, “But if you have the kind of ideas that the Indigenous cultures have, that you start out an almost invisible dot, a spark of light, and then you’re birthed into eternity,” he says, it “behooves us” to find a good journey while we’re here, to ask, “Is it wise,” before we make a decision — especially policy-makers.

“We can imagine a world without pollution and we could create it, because we used to have it here,” he says. “We used to have a world that was teeming with life and everything we wanted. That was our imagination. The imagination of the settlers was one of exploitation and accumulating and acquiring land.”

Redbird thinks there is a lot Indigenous and non-Indigenous people can learn from each other, but the idea of assimilation would be like trading the Wigwam Chi-Chemung for a yacht. He waves at a few shirtless guys in one such vessel, and they wave back.

But he doesn’t want that boat. “I wouldn’t have as much fun on that yacht, I can tell you.”

Katie Daubs is a reporter and feature writer based in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter: @kdaubs

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