We are the stories we tell and the stories we consume. That’s how Thomas King feels, judging by his book The Truth About Stories. Since the days of oral storytelling, stories have played a major part in human history. There’s obviously a distinction of craft between cave paintings from tens of thousands of years ago and the way writers such as King or George Elliott Clarke craft their metaphors. But on a fundamental level, the function of a story is to convey a message, and that message is meant to reflect an aspect of human nature.
King might go a step further by suggesting we take these stories in as part of our identities instead of leaving them as “myth[s] we embrace” and the “lie[s] we dangle in front of our appetites.” Stories have power, and should we choose to tell the wrong ones, or make the wrong ones part of our identity, then they transform into something more dangerous than perhaps they were intended.
One of King’s clearest points is about the concept of narrative. “‘You’ll Never Believe What Happened’ is Always a Great Way to Start” focuses on Western society’s Christian creation story of God making the Earth, the animals, the trees, humans, and the whole lot. Specifically, King looks at how narrative determines who we are and how we choose to see the world. Just the fact he acknowledges the world revolves around Judeo-Christian values – and stories, of course – makes us consider the question: who gets to determine narrative?
The saddest, most truthful statement King makes is his acknowledgement that, essentially, “amidst the thunder of Christian monologues … [native stories] have neither purchase nor place.” In Canada we’ve come to a sickening point in our national discourse where some people are content with upholding colonial values, and, worse, they do so with such blatant disregard for the pain this causes indigenous people. Think about Canada 150 pushing a narrative that Canada was only a country after white settlers arrived. Canada 150 was partly a cash grab, but it was a largely cultural event. This celebration alone and the confidence with which it was promoted by the government, as well as embraced happily by countless white Canadians, is an erasure of indigenous culture. There’s brutal irony that Canada 150 was happening just as Justin Trudeau – Mr. I Want Reconciliation – was telling us he was serious about rebuilding a bridge between the Canadian government and indigenous tribes.
It’s no secret our country, as we know it today, was built on colonialism; we aren’t so different from America, though many of us like to pretend that’s the case. However, a government-funded celebration of 150 years of colonial history is akin to a thumb in the eye to the indigenous communities of Canada.
As King writes: “For once a story is told, it cannot be called back. Once told, it is loose in the world.” Following King’s logic, this suggests the more you tell a story, the more power you give it. And if so, the more Canadians repeat the fallacy that our country began in 1867, the more the lie gains authority. King rightly cautions “you have to be careful with the stories you tell.” He also stresses that “you [also] have to watch out for the stories that you are told.” We are responsible for the stories we carry forward with us, just as we’re responsible for the stories we leave behind. If we choose to forget a story, that’s on us: we’ve heard the story, but if we forget it and leave it behind then we are, in a sense, denying it authority.
Consider Canada 150 again and what we know about the country’s history. We know that Canada began before 1867. Indigenous tribes lived on this land centuries before any English monarchs were extending their reach, and just because Queen Victoria allowed us to be called a Dominion 150 years ago doesn’t mean this is when the country actually became a country; a narrative ultimately based in nobility and power. Therefore, if we – collectively as a country, and individually as citizens – choose to further this narrative, we are doing so in bad faith. Every year we let the indigenous narrative(s) take a backseat to a colonialist narrative is another year our country suffers from an identity crisis.
Finally, King’s thoughts on narrative remind me of a quote from Kurt Vonnegut’s Mother Night: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” This statement echoes those from King about how we must “be careful” with the stories we tell and be ever vigilant about the stories we’re told. Both Vonnegut and King understand how narrative determines identity to a large extent.
Returning to Canada 150, if we really want to moult the colonial snakeskin from off our country’s back then part of that is ensuring the correct narrative is told and given proper authority. If we choose to continue telling these lies borne of colonialism, then we will continue perpetuating colonial attitudes through determining the narrative and leaving it permanently in opposition with even the slightest thoughts of reconciliation.