The Shoe on the Other Foot

August 23, 2010 § Leave a comment

Being Canadian, it sometimes feels like we’re the ones on the short end of the stick in global affairs.  We’re the ones the Americans invaded during the War of Independence and again in 1812.  During World War I, the British used our troops as cannon fodder in battles like the Somme.  We have been colonies of the French and the British.  Economically, we’re largely dependent upon the Americans.  Our peoples are descendent from the colonised of the world (ok, so is the rest of the Western world).  In short, I think Canadians like to see themselves as victims, or at least feel like victims far too often.  This is why winning double gold medals in hockey over the Americans at the Olympics is such a big deal.  For that moment, we’re the winners.

The once-great Vancouver band, Spirit of the West, wrote a song back in the early 90s called “Far Too Canadian.”  It’s a lament for our status as hewers of wood and drawers of water, amongst other things.  The lyrics:

I’m so content, to stand in line
Wait and see, pass the time
Talk a streak, fall alseep, wake up late, whine and weep
I kiss the hand that slaps me senseless
I’m so accepting, so defenseless
I am far too Canadian
Far  too  Canadian

I am the face of my country
Experssionless and small
Weak at the knees, shaking badly
Can’t straighten up at all
I watch the spine of my country bend and break
I’m a sorry state.

A sobering thought, that song. And all the cheesy, stupid, lame-brained Molson Canadian ads in the world (apparently has more square feet of “awesomeness per person” than any other nation on Earth) can’t change it.

That being said, we do have our moments, our victories, and our glories.  But we tend to play those down, too (except when they involve gold medals, hockey, and the Olympics).  We’re a modest people, I suppose.

So all of this being said, I’m always surprised to find Canadians on the other side, at least historically-speaking.  Not far from Charlemont, Massachusetts, is the town of Deerfield.  On 29 February 1704, during the War of Spanish Succession, a joint force of 47 French and Canadian soldiers and 200 Mohawk warriors (including the Pocumtuck, who had lived in what is now the Pioneer Valley before the English settlers arrived) raided Deerfield before dawn.  The raid was partly in revenge for the settlers’ violent and callous treatment of the Pocumtuck, which culminated in a massacre  in what is now nearby Montague Township in 1676.

The combined French-Canadian-aboriginal force caught the settlers unaware before dawn and massacred 56 people.  109 people survived the raid, they were captured and made to march 500km north to Québec, in harsh winter conditions.  21 of them either died or were killed during the trek.  Most of those who made it to Québec were eventually ransomed and made their way back to Deerfield.  A few, most notably the pastor’s daughter, Eunice Williams, chose to remain.  Williams spent the rest of her life at Kahanwake, a Mohawk settlement near Montréal, marring a Mohawk man and having a family with him.

The Deerfield Raid was no doubt a traumatic event for the people of the small settlement.  And it has lived on for the past 300 years, it is a foundational story in the Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts.  At times, listening to people describe it, reading newspaper stories about the raid, and seeing how it is represented in the pop culture of the Valley, I even get the sense that the trauma of the raid lives on.  Certainly, it is strange for a Canadian to realise the Americans were victims of the colonial era.  It is even more bizarre to realise that one’s ancestors were the ones who caused the trauma.  We are usucally the victims, not the aggressors of historical trauma.

The fact that the 1704 raid lives on in Deerfield, and is largely forgotten in Québec (as France lost that war), is significant.  No doubt it lives on in part because Deerfield’s raison d’être today is as a tourist site.  Historic Deerfield is a national historic site, and the town’s economy centres around the historical experience there, and the 1704 raid factors heavily into it.  It is no doubt the most significant event to have occurred in Deerfield in its 337 year history.  And, as a result of the historicisation of Deerfield, the 1704 raid gets played out, reinterpreted, and re-assessed almost daily by the town’s residents, the historical educators, and the tourists who come to visit.

But for me, a Canadian, the first time I visited Deerfield, on a warm, sunny day in late May 2006, I was stunned to find a place that was traumatised by Canadians, at least a place that was not an aboriginal settlement/reserve.  And as I took in the colonial American scene in front of me that day, I couldn’t help but feel a shudder of fear imagining that 247-man strong force crawling across the plain along the Deerfield River, coming out of the mist and the snow and laying siege to a small frontier settlement.  And every time since that I have driven past, or been into Historic Deerfield, I cannot shake that feeling of terror that the colonist there must’ve felt that cold February morning 306 1/2 years ago.

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