Unreconciled- By Jesse Wente – Through A Glass Darkly and 90% Empty

Reading Indigenous CBC celebrity Jesse Wente’s biography, Unreconciled- Family, Truth and Indigenous Resistance, (Penguin Canada, 2021), reminded me of a Beyond the Fringe sketch, The Sadder and Wiser Beaver. Peter Cook’s character has gone to work for Establishment press baron Lord Beaverbrook, and he meets an old friend from university played by Alan Bennett. He tries to convince his old friend that he hasn’t sold out, but of course everything he says hilariously shows that he has. He says: “You mustn’t think that just because my name is at the top of the column, I’m in any way connected with it!” He confides to his friend: “I’m writing the novel you know. It will knock the lid right off the whole filthy business. It’s going to be accurate, really accurate!” But of course, as he says: “In the meantime you’ve got to join the people you’re writing about.”  The funniest part is his method of waging his brave revolution from within: “Whenever the old man has a party a group of about 10 young progressive people gather at the bar and we drink as much as we can! We drink and drink and drink and drink! We’re going to break him from within!”

Such is Jesse Wente’s so-called Indigenous “Resistance.”

After enduring his book, I decided that before I wrote this review I’d better go online and see him and listen to him. Up popped adoring, softballs-only CBC interviews of him. Both from the book and from what I saw and heard it’s clear that he’s a highly intelligent, articulate, decent gentleman, with a beautiful voice and, with me being a mild stutterer, a smooth delivery I would have died for when I was engaged in the active practice of law.

Thus, the mystery: How could such a decent man- such an apparently “good”, middle class, family man who spent his whole life in Toronto- a man who is only one-quarter Ojibwe- a man who, partly because of that one-quarter “drop” of Indigenous blood, (It’s all fantasy, you know. There are no blood differences amongst humans- “Blood quantum” is racist poppycock.), has received all the preferences and advantages that modern Canada affords to such a person, (which he had the talent and outward ego to make the best of), write such a shallow, dark, ungrateful, anti- “white”, blood libelous, benignly racist screed, as is Unreconciled?

Mr. Wente, born and raised in Toronto, a biological product of his mother’s marriage to a “white” man. He’s a social product of expensive, private elementary and high schools. He’s a University of Toronto graduate whose degree was, because of that aforesaid, mythical one-quarter drop, paid for by the Canadian taxpayer. Since then he has never held a job or position the salary of which was not, one way or another, paid for by the Canadian taxpayer.

He ascribes his authentic “Indigeneity” to and through his Grandmother Norma, who was originally from the Serpent River Reserve, located between Sudbury and Sault Ste. Marie, and his “acceptance” into that community by his distant kin there.  Other than that, speaking as I do as someone who grew up in Espanola, just down the road from Serpent River, he seems like just another Toronto guy whose imagination and enthusiasm dims around anything north of Steeles Avenue.

Throughout the book Mr. Wente depicts numerous positive events in his and his family’s history, but then invariably twists them and portrays them as part of an intentional, dark and conspiratorial “settler-colonialist”, genocidal policy of “state-sponsored physical and cultural eradication.” He does this at the beginning with his grandmother Norma, establishing the depressing, glass-always 90%-empty tone and substance that characterize the whole book.

Mr. Wente became a film reviewer for CBC. He writes that he watched as many as 1500 movies a year and felt that he had become so good at his job that he could tell when a movie “was so obviously and immediately bad…that I didn’t have to watch it all the way through.” After reading the first 20 pages of Unreconciled I felt the same way. I had the same urge to stop wasting my time, “get outta there” and get back into the cleansing sunshine. (Film critics go to a lot of matinees.)

So, just as Mr. Wente must have reviewed bad movies with only the first half hour or so of them in mind, my review of Unreconciled will focus on about the first 20 pages of it, confident, as I later confirmed to myself after having duty-read the book to the bitter end, that they fairly represented the book as a whole.

In the late 1940’s Mr. Wente’s grandmother Norma went to the St. Joseph’s residential school at Spanish, Ontario, 20 kilometers away from Serpent River. He writes that her parents, (his great-grandparents), who were of the view that “reserves were dead-end places”, believed that “a certain degree of assimilation- including having their kids master English- would be a pathway to a brighter future.”

He reluctantly concedes that Norma’s parents “very well may have chosen to send their kids to residential school in Spanish.” In fact, they deliberately sent six of their eight children there.

When he was a child Norma described to him how the nuns discouraged her from speaking Ojibwe and how they used corporal punishment as a means to their disciplinary ends. But, as he writes: “Even in recounting this, she really didn’t speak badly of the school, instead saying that being taught English had served her well.”

As bright, educated kids have always similarly done, Norma, after high school, her mental horizons widened by her experience at St. Joseph’s, bravely moved to Toronto and got work as a domestic and a cleaner, in, as Mr. Wente sourly says: “…white households and businesses, the only careers to which the architects of that racist school system felt First Nations, Metis and Inuit girls should aspire.”

Norma Meawasige’s reasons for moving away from her home community, which even her own father, who appears to have been an important man on the reserve, considered a “dead-end place”, were the same reasons that have always caused normal, well-developed, adventuresome young people to want to stretch their wings and strike out on their own. But no, according to Mr. Wente, she only went to Toronto because “…the desire to speak Ojibwe had been beaten out of her and Serpent River no longer felt like home.”

In Toronto Norma met her life-partner Jack, “a white veteran just back from the war.” They bought a house in the Beaches and had three children, one of whom, Connie, was Mr. Wente’s mother. Norma got a job as a hostess at the Albany Club, a WASP Bay Street bastion, where she worked for almost 30 years until her retirement. Clearly Norma’s residential school experience taught her more than just English. It brought out to the fore her innate intelligence, competence, and capabilities to the extent that she was able to thrive in such a demanding, sophisticated, textured, social and workplace milieu as the Albany Club.

Reading about Norma confirmed to me my belief that it’s possible- in fact it’s a certainty! – that Indigenous Canadians can integrate into the dominant Canadian culture and still retain and celebrate their Indigenous culture, as Norma did, and as Mr. Wente has clearly done. As Norma’s, to me, celebratory story, shows, they don’t need the “dead-end” reserves to retain their culture and the essence of who they are.

But not according to Mr. Wente, who, in my opinion, deprived his grandmother of her own human agency by, in Unreconciled, re-interpreting her story to serve his own bleak, propagandist, present purposes. He writes in the book that he “feels an obligation to do right by her.” Despite him meaning well, I don’t think he did.

Instead of Norma being sent by her parents to St. Joseph’s residential school, which school Norma said she had nothing bad to say about, Mr. Wente concludes, completely contrary to what Norma told him, that she was “violently severed from her family and community” by that “horrible place” – that she had been “forcibly removed from her family by the state”, thus “damaging” her “ability to build and maintain family relationships”– and that she had been “brutalized into a life in the city.”

Instead of celebrating his grandmother’s good, useful, self-supportive, productive, and racially integrated life- a life that, to me, appears to have been an inspirational paragon of supreme, humanist, inter-racial, inter-cultural harmony- his final, totally counter-factual take on his grandmother life, who I think would “box his ears”, (a saying from Norma’s time), if she could come back and read it, was this:

Separated from her family, her language, our stories and our land, living with a white man, (Mr. Wente’s own grandfather insultingly diminished this way!) and spending her days waiting on colonial elites, my grandmother was in many ways a victory for residential schools. She was the exact type of Indian they had hoped to produce.

Yes, she was. She was educated, self-supporting, independent, fully integrated but still proudly Indigenous- a complete success in life.

Yet this is a harrowing pain for Mr. Wente. As he bizarrely and incoherently writes:

“It’s painful to grapple with the knowledge that St. Joseph’s and the racist system that conceived it are foundational to who I am as a person- where I was born, how I was raised, the man I’ve become. If it wasn’t for that horrible place, everything it took from my grandmother and everything it inflicted on her, who knows how her life would have turned out? It’s hard to imagine her ending up in Toronto without being so violently severed from her family and community. If she hadn’t moved to the city and raised her kids there, my mom and dad would never have met.” (An loud Duh! to the last “thought” there.)

Expanding on his theme of his intergenerational trauma caused by his parents’ and grandparents’ successful, multi-cultural, racially integrated living, the total fault of that “racist” residential school, he brings it all down to himself:

We were alone, distant from the land and tradition, having more in common with our neighbors than our ancestors. (For shame!) Like my grandmother, then, my sister and I, Sean, my mother, (his mother Connie also married a “white man”), my aunt and uncle, we were all the exact type of Indians residential schools were designed to produce.”

No doubt adding more to Mr. Wente’s pain, the residential schools at Spanish produced many other “exact type of Indians”– successful, contributing citizens- that “they” of the residential school system, had hoped to produce.

The late Basil Johnston attended St. Peter Claver School for Boys there, which was across the road from Norma’s school, about the same time as Norma was there, and wrote a book, Indian School Days, an affectionate, humorous and mainly positive memoir about his years there. He went on to become an ethnologist, specializing in Indigenous languages and culture, with the Royal Ontario Museum. He quotes many of his schoolmates as saying that their attendance there was the best thing that could have happened to them. It certainly made Basil Johnston into a very successful adult.

Another student, Cecil King, became a University Professor in Saskatchewan. He said that he could never have achieved anything near what he achieved had he not gone to that school. He said he learned to speak better Ojibway there.

Graduate Peter Johnson, former Chief of Mr. Wente’s Serpent River band, said that St. Peter Claver was the best thing that ever happened to him because he met his wife of 45 years there. He said that the schooling he received there taught him independence and allowed him to serve as a Roman Catholic Deacon.

Retired Supreme Court of Canada Justice Jack Major, a graduate of Espanola High School, was a friend of Basil Johnston. They played football and hockey against each other.  Justice Major says that the notion that pupils at Spanish were torn from happy homes is a myth. He remembers that a lot of the students there were rescued from starving on trap lines, and many had tuberculosis, for which they received special care. He says it’s true that English was paramount, “but how else to equip students to function off the reserve?”

Finally, as to residential schools generally, the renowned Cree playwright, novelist and pianist Tomson Highway, recipient of the Order of Canada and residential school attendee, said that people only hear negative stories about residential schools, never all the positive stories.  He said that “there are many successful people today that went to those schools and have brilliant careers and are very functional people, very happy people like myself, and my career wouldn’t have happened without that residential school.”

Despite this, it’s an inexplicable career-ender and a cause of social banishment or worse for anyone to suggest that any good came from residential schools. Obviously, with Norma and the other above Spanish residential schools’ graduates comprising just a few examples, a lot of good came from them. And Mr. Wente, despite the stale, robotic, fact and nuance-free, cartoon-bubble, propagandist level of discourse he employs in Unreconciled about them, (and about everything else), and despite himself, proves that to be true as well.

 I will briefly touch on only a few more outrages against truth and reason perpetrated by Mr. Wente in his book. (There are simply too many to cover in a mere book review like this. One would have to write a whole book, like There Is No Difference, thereisnodifference.ca, to counter all the rubbish in Unreconciled.)

For Mr. Wente, for a Canadian to be born “white” is to be born with the ineradicable and unredeemable stain of Original Sin. This “creates a personal stake for each individual white person in maintaining racist systems and structures.” By way of “mental gymnastics” all white people so delude themselves about “the extent of their privilege” that they can’t “recognize the gravity of the crime.”

Laughingly, this comes from a person who is three quarters “white”, a fact that he even-more laughingly describes as a mere proximity to whiteness” on his part. No Mr. Wente, you have seen the enemy, and he is three quarters you.

More seriously, Mr. Wente’s assertions in this regard constitute almost Criminal Code-level hate speech, and they encapsulate the essence of race theory and of racism itself- the theory being that persons born of a certain “race” are possessed at birth of certain superior, exclusive-to-them “innate personality traits”, (presumably in their “blood”), that will define and direct them for the rest of their lives, regardless of merit and their life experiences. The Aryan race theory of the 1930’s is an example of this. The present, similar “blood and soil” theory of Indigenous racial exceptionalism being peddled by Indigenous elites and spokespersons, including Mr. Wente, and shamefully acquiesced in by our non-Indigenous elites, is another example of this. It’s all despicable.

Mr. Wente goes into an extended rant about “cultural appropriation”, an offshoot of race theory,which he defines as “exploiting a culture you don’t belong to, and doing so without crediting, compensating or properly consulting with that culture.” (How one would compensate or consult with a “culture” is never explained.)

For Mr. Wente,  who, to me, with his “white”, Toronto-centric life and his mere one-quarter “drop” of Indigenous “blood”, is the living embodiment of “cultural appropriation”, there are not two sides to the issue. Cultural appropriation, according to him, was “literally written into the law in Canada, targeting and decimating Indigenous communities in an official capacity for the better part of a century. To argue that it isn’t a thing, that it’s a false construct to limit free speech, is either to be willfully ignorant or purposely deceitful about the history of this country. Neither of those approaches is worth engaging in my opinion.”

The orthodoxy-bound people who populate the middle and upper ranks of the CBC, whose first instinct is keep a weather eye out for and flog whatever will keep Ottawa’s lavish, Canadian Indigenous apartheid-supporting, “reconciliation”-oriented funding flowing, have taught him well.

This most shallow and harmful idea of “cultural appropriation” does more than limit free speech. It strikes a blow against artistic freedom and the basic reality of artistic humanism i.e., that we all have the power to imagine our way into others’ lives and to imaginatively and convincingly inhabit the mind and mindset of persons of different races and cultures. Joseph Boyden did this in The Orenda.  William Styron did this in The Confessions of Nat Turner.  Annie Proulx, “white”and female, did this in relation to her depiction of male and female Mi’kmaws in Barkskins. George Eliot did this in all her books, successfully passing herself off as a man. The gay Cole Porter, (“two-spirited”), did this in composing his classical love songs about heterosexual love. The Jewish Irving Berlin, (born Israel Beilin, Yiddish), did this in composing the ultimate Christian Christmas song, White Christmas.

Mr. Wente’s views on this are a prescription for artistic narrowness, dullness and mediocrity. They mirror the totalitarian notion that art, to be valid and “acceptable”, must serve the collective purposes of the state, or, in Mr. Wente’s case, must serve the collective purposes of whatever his idea of his “nation” is. In any event and in all respects, his views represent an attack on art itself.

How impoverished human life would be if Mr. Wente’s views were to prevail.

So, we come back to the original mystery. How could such an intelligent, decent man have embraced such crazy ideas as those that run rampant through Unreconciled? How could he, like the Beyond the Fringe “progressives” attacking “the Beav” from the “inside” by drinking him into financial ruin, ever think that advancing the movement for “Indigenous rights” and his so-called “Resistance” could ever occur through, as he says, “some form of dismantling the system from the inside.”?   -the very comfortable, lucrative, waist-expanding, status quo-perpetuating “inside”. How can he not see that this can only be seen by outsiders as just fantastically, hilariously, Beyond the Fringe-like hypocritical?

The only answer that makes sense to me is from an idea in this regard suggested by writer Barbara Kay (who gets a condescending mention in Unreconciled), in her recent column: The Carrie Bourassa Case: How Woke Ideology Fosters Racial Fakery. (https://www.theepochtimes.com/is-the-pervasiveness-of-woke-ideology-fostering-racial-fakery_4102381.html)

She writes there:

“Throughout history, to avoid material harm, or to gain social acceptance from an oppressor group, many people have suppressed a stigmatizing identity and “passed.” Jews have passed for gentile, mixed-race for white, Indigenous for non-Indigenous.”

Indeed, in Unreconciled Mr. Wente suggests, (although I’m not sure that I believe him, his book being so full of patent untruths), that in Toronto Norma “stopped identifying herself as Indigenous…When she had to, she claimed to be Italian. It made life a little bit easier, sparing her from ridicule and the very real possibility of state interference.” (You see, that unexplained (absurd, actually) bit about “state interference” does not exactly have the ring of truth clanging about it, and so it taints the main assertion.)

Now, as Ms. Kay notes, the opposite is occurring. Non-Indigenous people, like Carrie Bourassa, are falsely claiming to be Indigenous. There’s money and career advancement to be gained from it. But Mr. Wente doesn’t seem to be mainly driven by those things. Borrowing from Ms. Kay, I think he seems to have the psychological need to internalize as truth the many myths and nasty falsehoods he’s conjured up- a psychological need that makes him a “vulnerable vessel” into which certain prevalent, fashionable but essentially ridiculous and illiberal ideological strains in our culture, many of which are littered throughout Unreconciled, are easily poured.

There are no such things as “race” and unique, “racial blood.” There’s no basis in science for them. They’re just social myths that produce imaginative social constructs. Even socially the “races” and ethnicities of the world have a vast preponderance of similarities- of “universals of culture”- amongst them, and only a very few differences. One is hard-pressed to name just one cultural characteristic of Indigenous Canadians that is not shared by non-Indigenous Canadians. The conclusion is logically inescapable: genetically, “racially”, socially and in every way that counts, there is no difference!

It’s only “power, greed and corruptible seed” (Bob Dylan) that prevent us from living this truth. But we must try to!

Mr. Wente’s grandmother Norma seemed to have succeeded in living this truth as much as humanly possible. Canadians who are looking for guidance on the best path forward for the country in this profound area of Indigenous-non-Indigenous relations, should heed and follow her quiet, modest example, and eschew the harmful and untrue words of her grandson in Unreconciled.

Peter Best

December 5, 2021

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