An Indigenous smudging ceremony.

Little by little, New Zealanders are learning more of our country’s past and are coming to terms with the ugly chapters in our story. And, hopefully, we’re seeing more clearly the paths that may lead to us building a more wholesome society.

Around the world, there are other grim histories: long past, recent, and unfolding right now. In Canada, for instance, which Tainui Stephens has visited — and which offers insights into our own.


Although I’d been to Canada a couple of times and enjoyed the easy biculturalism of Montreal (French food at American prices), the first time I met her properly was at a smudging ceremony several years ago. 

I was part of a group of filmmakers at the imagineNATIVE film festival. We gathered in the Centre for Indigenous Studies at Toronto University. One of the local Anishinaabe elders held an eagle feather aloft and offered prayers and welcome. He then led us through what we learned was a smudging ceremony. 

Fragrant herbs like sage and sweetgrass were placed in a seashell and lit with a match. The flames were blown out, and smoke wafted. The shell was passed around our circle and we gently waved the smoke towards our faces to inhale it. Through this ritual, air was given shape with the assistance of earth, sea and fire. To ingest this rich mix of elements clears negative energy. Any ill will or bad thoughts are absorbed by the ashes, which in turn, are buried in mother earth.  

From the time of that ceremony, I started to learn from the First Nations, Métis and Inuit people themselves, the stories of their colonisation. I now appreciate the beauty and power of smudging, and the particular virulence of Canada’s negative energy that requires it. 

This huge country atop America has nearly 40 million people. New Zealand would fit into it 38 times. It’s very rich, thanks to abundant natural resources and wide trade networks. But, for its many Indigenous tribes, the arrival of English and French settlers in the 16th century was catastrophic. 

Dr Joseph Gosnell of the Nisga’a people knows about that impact. And he had this to say about the attitude of the colonisers towards his ancestors:

How many of you know there was a price on the heads of our people? $25 for the scalp of a man, $15 for the scalp of a woman, $5 for teenagers and babies!! That’s what Canadian history says to me.

That grim fact says much about what Canada has had to overcome. Its colonisation involved the usual violent attempts to erase an indigenous world. Tribal land was stolen for settlers and exploited for wealth. Tribal governance was destroyed and replaced with white council structures. Native children were scooped up by authorities and raised by strangers. 

Colonising nations confirmed their acts of dominion by convincing everyone that European civilisation was superior to any indigenous society. The duty of Europe was to civilise the “savages” with the truth that white was right. First to go was native land, language and lore. Then they turned to the people themselves. War, dislocation, and strategies of starvation decimated whole generations. 

A further tool at Canada’s disposal was a barbarous education system called Residential Schools. They were operated by churches from 1880 to 1990 and affected 150,000 Indigenous children.

The youth were stolen from their families, forced into boarding schools, and cut off from their native way of life. The cover story was the gift of European education with Christian values. The no less explicit intent was to assimilate the children into mainstream Canadian society: “To kill the Indian in the child.” 

In this, the Residential Schools succeeded with brutal efficiency. Families were torn apart. Children were punished for speaking their language or clinging to any aspect of their native identity. Their education was designed for careers as manual labourers and domestic help. 

In these horrific institutions, there was routine abuse and even murder. This perverted schooling created endemic poverty and disconnection. It is acknowledged as having wrought cultural genocide. 

Another act that is considered genocidal has been the loss of thousands of missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls, and gender diverse people. 

A 725-kilometre stretch of road through British Colombia is notorious as the location for many deaths and disappearances. The “Highway of Tears” runs through dense forest, logging towns, and impoverished Indian reserves. There is little night lighting, or public transport. Poor people without cars have to hitchhike. Crime happens easily in remote darkness. Natural predators take care of human remains. No witnesses.

After 50 years, the unsolved murders were not just a local scandal but also reflected nationwide where Indigenous women suffered homicide rates six times that of white women. In 2015, the new progressive prime minister, Justin Trudeau, launched an inquiry that his conservative predecessors had always refused. 

The report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls stated the obvious: 

For far too long, Indigenous women and girls have been publicly devalued or ignored. People’s general perceptions have been shaped by harmful colonial stereotypes. People forget that every Indigenous woman or girl — no matter how she died or what she had been through — had an inherent strength and sacred worth.

A recurring complaint (over centuries) is that law enforcement agencies don’t take crime against Indigenous people seriously. 

In August 2016, in Saskatchewan, a respected 22-year-old Cree man called Colten Boushie and four friends spent a summer afternoon swimming and drinking. On the way home, Colten slept in the back seat while his friends drove to a nearby farm belonging to a farmer, Gerald Stanley. He was known as a mechanic, and one of the car’s wheels was stripped of rubber.

At the farm, one of the friends jumps on a quad bike in the yard. Stanley gives chase, but the boy jumps back in the car to drive away. They crash into a parked vehicle and the driver runs off. Colten is suddenly awake and jumps into the driver’s seat. By then, Stanley reaches the car with his loaded gun. He comes up behind Colten and shoots him by the left ear at point blank range. The young man dies immediately. 

Colten’s home is invaded and searched by police. His family are treated as lawbreakers rather than victims. Social media explodes with posts that congratulate Stanley for the death of another “drunk native”. One tweet advises: “Shoot. Shovel. Shhhhh!”

The state lays a charge of second-degree murder against Gerald Stanley. Colten’s family are not involved in the case at all. The farmer is acquitted by an all-white jury. Protecting property is found to justify the theft of a human life. The case becomes a high-profile cause and the family take it to the United Nations. 

We probably think of Canadians as a “nice” people. They’re fairly celebrated for their multiculturalism and tolerance. In their homeland, however, black imprisonment, Indigenous youth suicides, and hate crimes against minorities are skyrocketing. Canadians are inclined to point to racism as something that exists in the USA. “We are not the USA!”

Early this year, there was nationwide protest action to support the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs in British Columbia who oppose a gas pipeline running through their lands. A subsequent train and transport blockade disrupted tens of thousands of people, and cost millions of dollars. Canadians got grumpy. 

In the wake of the protest, my colleague Jesse Wente, an Ojibwe filmmaker, spoke for many when he said that Canada’s attempts at reconciliation cannot be enforced at gunpoint. 

Our ancestors welcomed yours, even though that generosity has never been returned. Canada is a state built on removal of Indigenous peoples to make way for resource extraction companies. Many Canadians seem to know that great change is required. Show that your solidarity has teeth and a backbone. I ask you now to bring it about. We were here before Canada, and we will be here long after. Show me the myth of Canada can be replaced by its truth. We have shown you enough. Now it’s your turn.

Reconciliation will remain a dream for as long as Canada believes the lies that it tells itself to stop being weighed down by the guilt of its actions. It is that crippling white guilt that needs to be smudged, neutralised, and put to rest in the earth, along with the blood of the bison and the native.

I’m still learning about Canada, but thanks to her people, I feel the land under my feet, here at home, anew. I hear added depth in the words of my tūpuna: 

Tukua mai ki a au, he kapunga oneone hei tangi māku.

Allow me a handful of earth that I might weep over it.


Tainui Stephens of Te Rarawa, is a producer of The Dead Lands. He’s been fully engaged in the film and television industry since 1984, working with a range of genre and content. He is particularly attracted to compelling indigenous stories that critique and celebrate the human condition. Tainui lives in Ōtaki with his wife and fellow filmmaker Libby Hakaraia. Together they and a small whānau team run the Māoriland Film Festival.

© E-Tangata, 2020

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