Thursday, March 28, 2013

My Log 348 March 28 2013 Fifty cents well spent: a little book by Janet Malcolm packs a wallop in its analysis of journalism, the trade I have always followed.

Penguin 14 003191 X
Penguin 14 003191 X (Photo credit: scatterkeir)

 During the many years I worked as a reporter on daily newspapers, I only once tried to use a tape recorder while doing an interview.

As a youth I had failed miserably to master Pitman’s shorthand, when I took a course at a secretarial school, but I had bought a copy of Gregg’s, a simpler method, and taught it to myself, in a fashion. What I usually depended on to take notes was my own half-arsed system of shorthand, combined with a private system of scribbling, allied to an excellent memory.

I always thought that by the time one had finished interviewing a subject, one should already know which parts of the interview one was going to need for one’s story, and which direct quotes would be essential.

My only essay with the tape recorder persuaded me it was a waste of time. Far from being able to return to the office, sit down and write one’s piece, (and have it finished within half an hour of beginning it) one was confronted with playing the tape back, listening to the whole interview again, and then having to decide which parts were relevant and which merely the accompanying dross.

The tape-recorder in these days is probably an essential item for a reporter in view of the litigious nature of modern society but in all of my life I can recall only once being accused of having misquoted someone: that came years after I had retired from active journalism, in a review of a book that didn’t much interest me, and that I had carelessly hurried through, with the result that in the review I committed a dreadful boner which the book’s authors were quick to pick up and point out to the editor for whom I wrote the review.

Apart from that one shame-inducing incident, I cannot remember ever having been accused of misquoting anyone, so my personal shorthand method seems to have worked okay.

I was reminded of all this in the last couple of days when, for fifty cents, I picked up a second-hand copy of a book by Janet Malcolm, the famed commentator-reporter for the New Yorker, which deals with the subject of interviewers and their subjects, and the assumptions, responsibilities and expectations that reside in both sides of this encounter.

The book is called The Journalist and the Murderer, was published in 1990, following its publication in the magazine, and must have, I imagine, created considerable interest among journalists when published.  In it, Ms Malcolm investigates a court case in which a convicted murderer, Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald, about whose trial for murdering his wife and two children the well-known journalist Joe McGinniss wrote a 600-page book, sued McGinniss “for fraud and breach of contract.”

The murders took place in 1970, but it was not until 1979 that Dr. MacDonald was charged and went to trial. McGinniss, on the lookout for another subject that might equal the block-busting success of his first book, The Selling of the President, approached the guy, liked him, and got himself attached to the defence team so that he could sit in even on conversations such as lawyer-client meetings that would normally have been denied to him as an investigating reporter.

What attracted Malcolm’s interest was that, for the first time, a reporter was being sued not for any mistakes of fact, but because of his attitude while interviewing and being in correspondence with MacDonald --- an attitude of ingratiation, friendliness and support ---- towards the subject, an attitude that was betrayed in the final publication. MacDonald’s case was that McGinniss had given him to believe he was sympathetic to him and his story, whereas, having been convinced during the trial that the doctor was guilty as charged, McGinniss  described him in his book as a psychopathic killer, a publicity-seeker, a womanizer, a latent homosexual, and as a character who, when the layers of his mask fell away, revealed “the horror that lurks beneath.” MacDonald had been helping McGinniss to write a book in which he believed the author would exonerate him of his crimes, and present him as a loving father, dedicated physician and overachiever. And this was now the fraud with which MacDonald charged McGinniss.

All this is of merely historical interest now, but much of what Malcolm writes about journalism and its practice is still extremely relevant.
In her opening paragraph she states:

“Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse…. Journalists justify their treachery in various ways according to their temperaments. The more pompous talk about freedom of speech, and “the public’s right to know”; the least talented talk about Art; the seemliest murmur about earning a living.”

I can’t say I disagree with any of this, and Malcolm in the 163 pages of her little book, peels off the layers of journalistic practice in a most revealing way.

What particularly caught my interest, however, came in an afterword she wrote, that was tacked on to the end of her New Yorker piece. Dealing with the question of verbatim quoting, she writes:

“…when a journalist undertakes to quote a subject he has interviewed on tape, he owes it to the subject, no less than to the reader, to translate his speech into prose. Only the most uncharitable (or inept) journalist will hold a subject to his literal utterances and fail to perform the sort of editing and rewriting that in life, our ear automatically and instantaneously performs….”

She then gives a literal taped translation of a reply to a question she asked a psychiatrist who testified in the case. It occupies 19 lines of her book, and is full of peripheral, interrupting statements in the middle of sentences, and so on, the sort of talking that we all do, in fact, but realize how jumbled are our statements only when confronted with them on tape. Her precis of what the man said occupies only 10 lines of her book, but conveys exactly the message he was trying to convey.

As someone who practised journalism for many years, that is entirely familiar to me, and an accurate comment on the way the profession (if I may call it that) ought to be and usually is practised. Ms. Malcolm says that before the invention of the tape-recorder, no quotation could be verbatim, that Boswell’s account of what Dr. Johnson said could not have been a verbatim account of his actual statements. All of which may be perfectly obvious to anyone who has practised journalism.

Another interesting addition to the debate is thrown in a few pages later, when Ms. Malcolm goes into the meaning of the use of the pronoun “I” by journalists.

“The dominant and most deep-dyed trait of the journalist is his timourousness. Where the novelist fearlessly plunges into the water of self-exposure, the journalist stands trembling on the shore in his beach robe. Not for him the strenuous athleticism --- which is the novelist’s daily task ---  of laying out his deepest griefs and shames before the world.  The journalist confines himself  to the clean, gentlemanly work of exposing the griefs and shames of others….

But there is a sort of exception in the work of the journalist:

“The character (called “I” in a work of journalism) is almost pure invention, Unlike then “I” of autobiography, who is meant to be seen as a representation of the writer, the “I” of journalism is connected to the writer only in a tenuous way….The journalistic “I” is an overreliable narrator, a functionary to whom crucial tasks of narration and argument and tone have been entrusted, an ad hoc creation, like the chorus of Greek tragedy. He is an emblematic figure, an embodiment of the idea of the dispassionate observer of life. Nevertheless, readers who readily accept the idea that the narrator in a work of fiction is not the same person as the  author of the book will stubbornly resist the idea of the invented “I’ of journalism, and even among journalism there are those who have trouble sorting themselves out from the Supermen of their texts.”

Thanks to the stubbornness of one of the six jurors who heard the case --- a woman who was convinced from the beginning that MacDonald was guilty --- the verdict was a hung jury --- the other five jurors having come to the conclusion, as Malcolm writes,  “that a man who was serving three consecutive life sentences for the murder of his wife and two small children, was deserving of more sympathy than the writer who had deceived him.”  Ms. Malcolm’s interest in the case was tweaked when she received a letter from the lawyer who had defended McGinniss, in which he said that for the first time, a disgruntled subject “has been permitted to sue a writer on grounds that render irrelevant the truth or falsity of what was published…Now, for the first time, a journalist’s demeanor and point of view throughout the entire creative process have become an issue to be resolved by jury trial.”  Without admitting any culpability, McGinniss eventually agreed to settle the case with MacDonald, paying him some $325,000.

I enjoyed reading the conclusions of someone who had thought so seriously about the nature and practice of journalism, a trade I have followed all my life. Of course, I have a tendency to interpret what she has written as meaning that, to do the job properly, one needs not to be what I might call a true believer --- that is, in the official myths that most or at least many journalists  pursue about their craft’s essential importance in the scheme of society. I have never been a true believer myself, and that is not to say I have never taken the job seriously: of course, I have always tried to do it as well as I could. But I have always avoided taking refuge in noble shibboleths about the central importance of what I was doing.

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Sunday, March 24, 2013

My Log 347 March 24 2013 : The schizophrenia of Barack Obama becomes more and more clear with every inspiring speech

English: On the road to Bethlehem, a very symb...
On the road to Bethlehem, a very symbolic tag on the wall made on the Palestinian side ("I am a Berliner") (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
President Barack Obama speaks at Cairo Univers...
President Barack Obama speaks at Cairo University in Cairo, Thursday, June 4, 2009. In his speech, President Obama called for a 'new beginning between the United States and Muslims', declaring that 'this cycle of suspicion and discord must end'. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
 With the best will in the world I find it hard not to believe that Barack Obama is schizophrenic.

On the one hand he makes these inspiring, eloquent, hopeful speeches. But as one person in the West Bank who was interviewed after his recent visit remarked, “These speeches are one thing, but when it comes to what he is going to do to implement them…..”

In other words, actions speak louder than words. And there is something really strange about this man, who is able to lift the hopes even of people who seem to be buried irrevocably in the world’s most intractable problems --- his great speech in Cairo, promising a new relationship between the United States and the Moslem world is the perfect. But then, when the time for action arrives, he simply acts as if he is dealing with an entirely different situation than the one that actually exists on the ground.

You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know that in its relation with the Palestinian people, Israel has become a deeply repressive state, and not only that, but that it has for many years been pursuing a policy designed to create conditions on the ground which will make its annexation of the West Bank more or less inevitable.

Recently I have seen a number of films which spell this out so clearly that even Barack Obama should be able to understand it. Illegally, according to international law, Israel has covered the territory it occupies in the West Bank with settlements which now house some 540,000 settlers. These settlements have replaced Palestinian farms, olive groves, and apparently hundreds of villages have disappeared. The bulldozing of houses has become a regular feature of West Bank existence, the occupants having been turned out, with their possessions, before their house comes crumbling around their ears.

This is the sort of cruelty it is hard to imagine, especially since it is administered by a people who have themselves suffered from similar pograms historically.

Not only this, but a network of splendid highways has been built connecting up these settlements, but these are roads on which only Jewish people are allowed to travel.

The film Five Broken Cameras, recorded by videotape by a settler of one insignificant Palestinian village, shows the pain of this from the point of view of the dispossessed. As far as they are concerned, they have been turned out of the lands their family has occupied from time immemorial, and handed over to people who have recently arrived from elsewhere and who now claim to have been the traditional owners of this land.

The film Road Map to Apartheid, made by a combined team of Jewish and Palestinian filmmakers, reveals that the hated South African system of apartheid has already been transferred to Greater Israel, as the settlers  like to call it, in many of its worst aspects.

In addition to the endless delays at Israeli checkposts that dominate the occupied territories, the displaced people now have to cope with the monstrous, recently-built wall that is designed to keep the two peoples apart. With this wall Israel has joined the former East Germany, the United States (which has a similar wall to try to keep Mexicans out), and North Korea, as a nation that hopes to withdraw behind a wall separating it from the outside world. None of these has really worked, and the Israeli wall is unlikely to work either.

However, when Barack Obama during his recent trip to Israel and Palestine tried to influence events, he acted as if none of this had actually happened.  He said, stubbornly, that he still believed in the two-state solution, and agreed with the Israel Prime Minister that only face-to-face negotiations between these two (presumably) equal partners, could solve the problems between them. He said the building of the settlements was not helpful to this peace process, but he urged the Palestinians to enter negotiations without insisting that the building of settlements should be ended before the negotiations can begin, although several years ago he said the settlement-building should stop.

This is simply a recipe for rewarding the Israelis for defying the rule of international law. Mind you, there’s nothing surprising about this, because the United States, with its following of tiny, insignificant nations like Micronesia, Palau (is there such a country?) and Canada have voted against every attempt in the United Nations to reel Israel in.

It is not surprising for another reason in that the so-called Road Map established by the Quartet, which laid down the cessation of the building of settlements as a signpost on the Road Map, has simply defied their own prescriptions, and have allowed Israel to go ahead and build what they wanted to build.

This isn’t the most glaring example of the double standard applied to Israel by the Western world: it has been a nuclear power, without a word of protest from the United States or any other power, states which are nevertheless threatening to destroy Iran for planning to generate electricity with nuclear power. “We will not allow Iran to acquire nuclear weapons,” says Obama, who has never been heard to mention even the fact that Israel has a formidable nuclear arsenal.

Truly our world is mad.

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Wednesday, March 13, 2013

My Log No 346 Mar 12 2013 Black snow --- a tough sell for a brainwashed population

Watch Falling Snow Sign
Watch Falling Snow Sign (Photo credits:
Cover of "Black Spring"
Cover of Black Spring

 As the winter turns slowly into spring, we have been confronted in Montreal with piles of black snow, and try as I might, I have been unable so far to convince the friend with whom I am now living that this is a natural physiological phenomenon at this time of year.

I have told her time after time that black snow usually falls during the night, but no matter how often I tell her this, the fact is she has been so brainwashed by the idea drummed into her from her childhood that the whiteness of snow represents some kind of symbol for purity, that she just cannot get her head around the idea that black snow actually falls in that form, and has been so seldom seen falling simply because it is normally a nighttime pheneomenon.

Personally of course, since I have travelled all over the northern parts of Canada, I have had the privilege of witnessing a black snowfall several times.

My friend does not come from a northern country, but has been living in the southern Mediterranean area for almost half a century.  In the town she has called home during these many years, they have, of course, once or twice had falls of snow, white snow, as usual during the day, which has given rise to immense excitement especially among the children. Also, as in other parts of the Mediterranean, she lives not far from high mountains, on the top of which every year, some snow appears in its customary crisp whiteness.

The fact that many books have been written which indicate the existence of black snow --- I am thinking of titles like Black Spring (from Henry Miller, always a reliable guide to the dark forces), Black Imprisoned in US, (although this one may not in fact deal with the blackness of snow so much as the blackness of humanity), and various others that are not far away on the edge of my mind.

My friend thinks of snow as something which, newly fallen, one can throw oneself into playfully and joyously; and I have had to restrain her from doing the same thing with the piles of inviting black snow that have been lying around in recent days, warning her that evil foreigners have undertaken a campaign to increase the
amount of black snow falling on capitalist countries by shooting into the air from drone aircraft their recently  developed chemicals, their long term aim being to undermine the health of our people, and the good functioning of our industrial machine. In fact, this has become such a threat to our way of life that the Canadian government has set up a special body given the task of combatting this extremely dangerous new development, which it is conservatively estimated could cost us a reduction of 0.5 per cent of our production every year. But one thing my friend  has been unable to deny is that she has awakened on several recent mornings to a world full of piles of black snow that seems to have arrived overnight.
This discovery that the problem has been worsened by foreign plotters accounts for the recent worsening in relations between the West and some of the more powerful countries that have so far spurned  the North American scientific superiority that  has placed us in such a strong position geopolitically.

We are all hoping that the younger generation can be persuaded --- as my 80 year old friend has not --- to collaborate in leaving the black snow, which is automatically biodegradable, to find its own equilibrium.

Meantime, anyone who has photos of black snow actually falling has been requested to send them to our Prime Minister.

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Friday, March 8, 2013

My Log 345 March 8 2013 Some of my journalism, momentarily rescued from around the fish and chips, is given a knowledgeable, sympathetic reading by a leading academic

The Rupert River. This is one of the largest r...
The Rupert River. This is one of the largest rivers in Quebec, Canada. This is one of the many rivers that Quebec Hydro operates along. Though the hydro company provides many jobs for the surrounding Cree communities, there is much dislike of their presence in their reserves. This photo was taken along the James Bay Road (Route de la Baie James), in October 2007. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Baie James (à proximité de Chisasibi) / James ...
 / James Bay (near Chisasibi) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 I began writing as a journalist in 1946 on a small newspaper in New Zealand. If I ever started out with delusions that being a newspaper reporter gave me, somehow, a large influence of some kind, the sheer facts of newspaper life quickly disabused me of them.

I realized off the top that freedom of the press is exercised for the most part only by the owners of newspapers  --- that is, the wealthy, whose interests are always with the conservative elements in society; that, although the press in general may have a lot of influence on people’s knowledge, opinions and outlooks, such influence seldom, if ever, rests with an individual worker in that particular minefield; and that newspapers use disadvantaged people for their own purposes, and are unconcerned with helping them overcome their disadvantages.

Given these attitudes to the press, which I have never had cause to change, perhaps it is not surprising that I should have been so surprised (and, I guess, flattered) that my work as a journalist (and documentary filmmaker, a title I feel nervous about claiming, since the actual film-making was always done by real filmmakers, with me hanging along on the periphery) is the subject of a few  extremely laudatory paragraphs in the foreword to the book Home Is the Hunter about which I wrote in my last post. The author of this foreword, Prof. Graeme Wynn of the University of British Columbia, which published the book, says that my journalism and later work in relation to the Cree people of James Bay in northern Quebec “was instrumental in  reshaping  public awareness of (and sympathy for) the plight of the James Bay Cree.”

This is no doubt an exaggeration: in any issue of public moment, anyone who is interested puts in his two cents worth, and what emerges after it has all been chewed over is the basis for some kind of action, usually not a particularly good or progressive action, but at least action of some kind.

Since the first things I ever wrote about the Cree were in 1969 --- let me see, that’s 44 years ago, right? --- the fact that someone has commented on my work in such serious tones sort of robs me of my long-time conviction that the primary use of journalism is to wrap tomorrow’s fish and chips in. Fortunately, not all that Prof Wynn writes is laudatory. Speaking more particularly about the three films I was involved in, dealing with the Cree, he writes:
“They are not beyond critical comment, however. Three shortcomings require consideration. First, Richardson’s earliest films construct Cree hunting as a traditional practice. This gives them a very strong retrospective dimension, despite their of-the-moment currency. Yet, by treating customary behaviour as age-old, they render tradition static, flatten the past by denying the possibilities of change and adaptation, and (ironically and surely inadvertently) rob the Cree of agency. Second, as Richardson has explained elsewhere, the filmmakers shaped the picture they portrayed in Cree Hunters (by transporting hunters to kill moose and returning meat to camp by plane, and by flying in nails that allowed construction of a larger-than-usual hunting lodge). Finally, the fragments of existence offered by these films fascinate and inform, but as Bill Nichols has observed in a general commentary on documentary filmmaking ‘the information never vanquishes the fascination.’ It is the very ‘otherness’ of indigenous lives that holds the camera and thwarts ‘the documentarist’s urge to move away from the concrete and local in order to provide perspective.’ ”

These are perfectly justifiable criticisms, so far as I can understand them, and they got me to thinking about the period in which I was involved in all this work. I had just turned 40, had plenty of energy, and, as I observed and later researched how the so-called Indians had been treated in Canadian history, I was shocked by the racism, arrogance and ignorance which they had had to sustain. That kept me going: I thought it worth reporting what I could see with my own eyes and hear with my own ears, and ask Canadian readers if this really was how they wanted these people to be treated.

I never had time, nor probably the critically trained mind, to ask myself if I was treating their past in such a way as to make it static. It was enough for me to know that they had been royally shafted in the past, and that this was continuing into the present day. More abstruse questions as to the viability of a hunting culture in modern life could be resolved by the people themselves, as they reacted to what was being done to them. Was there any reason why only a few of them should have been given formal schooling? Why did they have such poor health standards? Why so many living in condemned and inadequate housing? And beyond all these questions of material conditions, even more important ones, to me, concerned the Euro arrogance that had always assumed the indigenous people lived a way of life that was “barbarous”, and that their children could only be rescued from this barbarism by being forcibly removed and placed in schools designed to destroy their own languages, their own role models, their childhood conditioning.  Could anything have been more brutal that this?

I don’t think we ever suggested in the films we made that the lives we showed were not taking place in modern Canada. I remember taking my first film into Parliament to show to some MPs. One from southern Ontario, who was slightly drunk, reacted by saying, “Never saw so many zippers in my life,” as if the fact the Cree hunters had zippers on their pants negated any claim they might make to be following a subsistence hunting existence.

Of course, the presence of a film crew makes a difference to what happens in a Cree hunting camp. When Sam Blacksmith’s three families went into the bush in September they knew we would be arriving with our five crew members to film them later in the fall, and again in the winter, so they decided to build themselves a super-sized lodge. We took in nails to help them in this task, and they built the lodge during our three-week September visit, in addition to making the customary inventory of the animals that would be available to them to catch during the coming winter.  When we arrived in March, however, they had wisely decided that their three families were living together successfully in the large lodge, and the imposition of five urban Canadians would be unnecessarily disruptive. So they erected a large tent in which we stayed, coping in the Cree way with the 40 below weather.

When we arrived in March they told us they had had a hard time of it, because no big game had come through their territory, and they had had to subsist on fish, rabbits, beaver and other small game. (Mind you, a lot of meat was available to them, even from that source.) We still had the plane that had flown us in, and we asked if it would help them were we to take them up and look around for the moose that could surely not be that far away. So we did that, and when they returned, they agreed that if we took them up again, and dropped them close to the moose, they would try to accommodate our cameraman so that he was able to film their shooting of the moose.

In the event, the hunters, released downwind from the moose, shot off on their snowshoes, leaving the cameraman far behind. When he caught up with them he discovered they had shot and wounded a moose, and were waiting for him so that he could film the coup de grace.  They then went about expertly butchering the moose, removing its skin, and packing it on to sleds for transport back to the lodge. In the event, we were able to show in the film the sequence of a moose hunt in mid-winter with almost no change in what would have been their normal hunting methods --- except, perhaps, for their wounding the animal so as to wait for our cameraman to film the final shot.

That the Cree used sheets of plastic inside their lodge to defend themselves against the cold was no more than the way they normally acted when no camera crew was present, but quite a few people who saw the film back in urban Canada took objection to their use of a tool that any sensible person in similar circumstances would use.

I learned a number of important lessons from my work with the Cree. For instance, that knowledge and wisdom does not depend on a university education: the elderly Cree hunters I came to know, however superficially,  were men of immense skills, for one thing, but also thoughtful, far-sighted men who had grown up learning  that the human species is just one of the forms of life that comprise a healthy environment. Their religion, if I may call it that, taught them that spirit lies within every thing in our world --- every rock, every tree, every animal and bird and fish. They believed that the animals on which they depended for subsistence gave themselves to them, but would do so only if the hunter respected them by maintaining the rituals for killing, preparing, eating and then caring for the bones of the animals by placing them on stands beyond the reach of predators, and by wrapping the bones and placing them on trees, sometimes hanging their skulls from trees, as a sign of respect.  They carried these ideas to such a point that if they did not succeed in the hunt, it was always, in their minds, because of something they had done in the previous year that was disrespectful of the animals which had refused to make themselves available to the hunters.

I also learned to be careful of snap judgments between and about people. Whites who wandered along the streets of Chibougamau could look into the Wachonichi hotel as they passed, and see old Crees lying on the floor after drinking.  But these were not drunken bums: these were skilled hunters who, as is their custom, made the most of what was available to them while in the town. But that visit over, they went back into the bush, and exercised their incredible range of skills to keep themselves alive, skills that only a few white men could ever hope to attain.

So these people, many of whom had never been to school,  knew so much about the biology of the animals with which they lived in such close harmony, as to outstrip the knowledge gained by white scientists. Yet, when they produced for the governments the profound information they had, the governments at first refused to accept that it was of any worth.

Unlike Hans Carlson, the historian-author of Home Is the Hunter, who has covered almost the entire region on snowshoe and canoe, I never had any wish to be an outdoorsman. When, towards the end of this period, I was asked by Peter Gzowski whether I was still nervous in canoes, I was able to reply in a resounding affirmative, “and I always will be,” I added.

I will leave it to the academics to place what I have done, if it has any continuing impact, in some kind of perspective. I was lucky to have had the chance to put my two cents worth into such a major question as the future of race relations in Canada, and can only hope that the results after the subject has been chewed over by everyone, will be beneficial to all of us.

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Thursday, March 7, 2013

My Log 344 March 7 2013 Book Review Authoritative overview of the Cree of James Bay, and their ceaseless struggle to maintain their essential qualities in the modern world

Baie James (à proximité de Chisasibi) / James ...
James Bay (near Chisasibi) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Cree (Photo credit: Evan Prodromou)

 Book Review

 Home is the Hunter, the James Bay Cree and their Land, by Hans M Carlson, published in 2008 by UBC Press, Vancouver, 317 pps. $85 hardcover, $34.95 paper

I have to admit off the top that I am not the ideal man to review books written by academics, of whom Hans Carlson is one, having earned his PhD at the University of Maine, followed by  employment at a pretty fair round of northern US universities  as he has made the Cree of James Bay central to his research, study and lecturing.

My inadequacy in this respect stems from my having, as we used to say in the Scottish part of New Zealand, taken a scunner over the years against the overwordy and circumlocutional English that is so often the mark of the academic. Of course I have no business to adopt such a superior air, being myself a mere scribbler of journalism, which by the morrow will be wrapped around the fish and chips, but to tell the truth, I almost gave up on this book, when I counted 12 uses of the word “narrative” (which is apparently an academic favourite) on a single page (page 31).

I am really glad I didn’t give up on it, however, since the clarity with which Carlson makes his often complex arguments is elegantly expressed. He is one of those academics --- these are fairly plentiful too, I have found --- who has done the hard yards by canoe and snowshoe, rappelling up and down cliffs, portaging across the rapids of some of the world’s greatest rivers, trekking endlessly through  the boreal forest  --- I was almost expecting him to be mushing along after a dog-team, but I don’t think he has ever gone so far--- but all of this has given him an experience that would qualify him to write a travel book if he had a mind to do it.

In short, he is more than qualified to write about the history of the Cree people of James Bay, for much of his best thinking has been done on snowshoes as he has put himself, metaphorically, in their shoes.

Although the book is ostensibly about the Cree, oddly enough much of it is about the people who have come to them over the generations, beginning in 1669 with Radisson and Des Groseilliers, who led an English ship to James Bay before returning to London with their news of, presumably, plentiful fur available, which caused the Hudson’s Bay Company to be formed in 1670, with a charter from the king establishing them as lords and owners of much of what is today Canada. They sat on the Bay for almost a hundred years while the Cree hunters visited them with their furs, having in the 1670s repulsed the incursion of the French-inspired Compagnie du Nord to challenge them.  Montreal-based entrepreneurs, French and Scottish, later combined to form the NorthWest Company in 1779, and their aggressive competition persuaded the HBC at last to move permanently inland. HBC won the day when they merged with the NWC in 1821, after which they were in complete command.

Carlson’s belief, which animates his whole book, is that the Cree are a “deeply sophisticated people” who have from the beginning negotiated with the intruders, whether traders, missionaries, company or government agents, and have, through these negotiations, always managed to absorb what the intruders brought and incorporate it into their own way of life (or “narrative” as Carlson keeps on calling it.  This ubiquitous word so irritated me that it took me a while before I looked at it to try to understand its meaning, and came to the conclusion that many of its uses could have been dispensed with entirely without in any way damaging the author’s meaning. For example, I could rewrite page 31 using no more than one or two “narratives”, and I don’t think the meaning would be in any way changed.)

Anyway, enough of that.  On page 10 of his opening chapter Carlson gives a resounding  description of what the land means to a Cree hunter:

“…when the Cree speak of their land they mean more than just the ground on which they stand…..What they mean by land is the  entire multidimensional web of beings that occupies eastern James Bay: people, animals, plants, earth. So their story is one of place, but also one of  the complicated relationships --- physical and metaphysical, human and other-than-human --- that have shaped land and people together. The land is full of their names, their stories, their personal memories about these relationships, and all of these inhabit the remembered earth. These narratives, even if they remain something of a mystery,  a linguistic and symbolic world that we are as unprepared for as we are to make our living by hunting on the land of the bay, become a responsibility for anyone who wishes to speak about the Cree and their land. The responsibility is to remember that these stories are not curiosities, but, rather, have past and present meaning on the land.”

This is beautifully written eloquent English and it is more typical of Carlson’s book than the lacunae for which I have given him such stick in my opening remarks.  His next chapter is a description of the Cree homeland, and of the relatively few intruders who made their way there in the first two hundred years of contact, and the third chapter headed, Inland Engagement, again deals with the journals and experiences of the traders, who, although Carlson does not make much of this, paved the way for the missionaries, who are dealt with in chapter four.

Carlson’s thesis here is that this “deeply sophisticated” people did not have
Christianity imposed on them, but rather went to seek it out, a suggestion that I find hard to swallow. In the very early years of European settlement of Canada, events occurred that Carlson does not mention, but that perhaps could throw some light on how Christianity arrived among the native people of Canada. It was the Hurons who Champlain noticed were bringing all the furs down to Quebec city when he arrived in 1608, and he determined to reach them. The Algonquins, who bestrode the Ottawa river, stopped him from going upriver for several years, but eventually he made it, and with him went  the Jesuits and, as Bruce Trigger describes in his monumental history of the Hurons, they were so thoroughly undermined in their belief systems by the Catholics, that when the Iroquois attacked them in 1641, the Hurons, who had been running an immense trading empire covering most of the east of north America, collapsed like a pack of cards.

This, of course, did not happen to the Cree, but I would suggest that was more a matter of luck --- the luck of their remoteness, their solation from the rest of Canadian life, the luck of their opening being almost entirely only to the traders who came through James Bay from Scotland, the luck of the fact that the HBC traders  did not bring missionaries with them ---- the luck that all of these factors left  the Cree free of Christian pressures until the first missionaries arrived from the south two hundred years later.

Nevertheless, Carlson does persuasively make the case that the Cree absorbed Christianity and adapted it to their own belief system --- which, as anthropologist Adrian Tanner once remarked, turned out to be a set of ecological principles --- and that this was only one of the many impositions from outside that they managed to absorb without allowing them to destroy their way of life.

I was fairly close to the case fought by the Cree in defence of their lands in the 1970s, and I find Carlson has impressively and accurately absorbed and described the Canadian political realities under which the hydro project of the 1970s was being built around the ears of the Cree --- whose first reaction, when hearing of what the white man proposed to do in their hunting territories, was to laugh --- how could anybody do something so stupid?

On one or two minor points my recollection is slightly different from his conclusions. For example, he suggests there is some mystery about the very first decision taken by a gathering of Cree when they met in the summer of 1971 to react to the project. He doesn’t mention it, but this is the famous resolution they passed that “only the beavers have the right to build dams in James Bay”, a  decision that was left to the Indians of Quebec Association to pass on to the governments.  That this was never done was the primary motive, a year or 18 months later, for the Cree withdrawal from the IQA. This occurred after the court case was concluded at which the IQA was one of the motivating parties, but was more or less dismissed from the case by the judge because they did not have a personal interest in the case. From then on, the negotiations undertaken by both governments with the Cree were with the Grand Council of the Cree, which, after the signing of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, metamorphosed into the Cree Regional Authority, with a governmental brief over the lands granted to the Cree in the negotiation. From that moment the Cree were no longer under the aegis of the federal Indian Act, but were overseen by the so-called Cree-Naskapi commission.

One of the things that Hans Carlson knows, but does not mention in the book, is that Cree politicians have become exactly like local politicians in the surrounding Euro world. He does mention that when the Paix des Braves was under consideration by the Cree in a referendum, the Cree politicians made no bones about rushing it through with the minimum of examination, unlike in the first referendum they held to approve the JBNQA, when meticulous care was taken to ensure that every Cree had a chance to vote, and that their vote should be well-informed.

It is a bit sad to have to record this, but this regular-as-politicians-go behaviour lay behind their scurry to agree with the Quebec government to, in effect, sell the Rupert river to Hydro-Quebec. A deeply sophisticated people they may be as he says, but he must know that today they are surrounded by swirling accusations of  corruption, conflicts of interest, betrayal of principle, and everything else that politics gives rise to. In addition to what, Carlson dismisses their comparatively recent surrender to the hucksters of Pentacostalism in a few hurried words.

As I noted in the book I wrote following the signing of the James Bay Agreement, the terms of the Agreement opened the possibility that one of every three Cree persons could become a bureaucrat whose purpose in life was to administer the Agreement. Carlson maintains a diplomatic silence on these matters: but according to his thesis, he must still be hoping that in the new, strange circumstances of their lives, the Cree will find the way as they have always done in the past, to absorb the new pressures and influences that now bear in on them inexorably, and to emerge with their traditional systems of belief  --- and their honour --- intact.

Whatever happens, the Cree are unlikely ever to find anyone better able to plead their case to the outside world than the author of this interesting, indeed, fascinating, and ---let me be clear about this --- elegantly written book.  

But please, Hans, easy on the narratives next time!

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