Opinion

Robin Ince on tour: Edmonton's 'deep history resonates in the present'

There are too many cities still to visit so stocking up on heavy books is out of the question, but a trip to the Indigenous art park offers a lesson in history and culture

Iskotew by Amy Malbeuf at the Indigenous art park, Edmonton

Iskotew by Amy Malbeuf at the Indigenous art park, Edmonton. image: Viola-Ness CC BY_SA 4.0 Wikimeda

After two flights and 17 hours, I land in my final Canadian destination. I know I am tired because I do not know where I am, though I do know it is where I should be. 

I manage four hours sleep. I walk into the breakfast room and feel the lukewarm embrace of copyright-free music. Hotel breakfasts in North America are a place of “almost music”. Due to licensing laws, commercially available music is too expensive to accompany your eggs over easy, so you hear almost-tunes that nearly sound like something you know but not so much they cost money. 

The prize for best performance of the tour so far goes to the waitress who was believably interested in the man explaining to her how the expense account system has changed in his company. The size of my tip is not improved by the brief illusion that anyone has an interest in my life in between coffee cups; I stick to 20 per cent unless they spit in my porridge or deliver the toast while wearing a Ku Klux Klan hood. 

I use my usual tactic of choosing a bookshop a few miles from where I’m staying, to get lost and hopefully stumble on things. I now know I am in Edmonton. It does not initially seem pedestrian-friendly and I pass no one for the first mile and a half. Reaching a park, some sort of weasel crosses my path (sorry, some sort of weasel is the best I can do. My Canadian natural history knowledge is even worse than my British natural history knowledge). It seems to have hints of pine marten too. I see a sign to the Indigenous art park and take that path.  

“Before the land was a city, it was a place for Cree, Dene, Blackfoot, Saulteaux, Stoney and Metis people to gather. Its deep history resonates in the present…”  

Understanding the history of the land and the stories that lie within it and grow from it is something I have come to realise is increasingly important. Without it, we can disconnect and rewrite to suit our own ideologies and superiorities. The art and ideas are soundtracked by two people in the distance arguing breathlessly on their bicycles. 

Once out of the woods, I am in a pleasant two-storey suburbia, much of it draped in Ukrainian flags and Pride banners. I find my bookshop, Gritty Grotto but, being aware I have five weeks away from home and many journeys to come, I manage to reject the books I am drawn to.  

In the coffee bar, I drink tea that is bad, eat banana cake that is good and start reading Echo Tree, a collection of stories by Henry Dumas. He was hugely admired by Toni Morrison but died unjustly at 33 when he was shot by a police officer after seeing Sun Ra, the cosmically philosophical jazz pioneer.  

My fridge is making a weird noise so I decide to use the television to hush it. The TV gameshow The Price is Right is too ecstatic for me and I surf until I find myself watching a ceremony about the First Nation compensation deal. This is compensation for the Indigenous children who were forcibly removed from their families and to recognise “the families and people who have suffered tremendously through discriminatory and systemically racist child-welfare practices”.  

Marc Miller, minister of crown Indigenous relations, initially speaks in Siksika Blackfoot. He is humble and calmly passionate. It is comforting to see that sometimes politics and dignity can still occur in public. Ouray Crowfoot, Chief of the Siksika nation, then speaks without notes about the societal racism that led to the idea of “killing the Indian in the child”.  

He speaks hopefully and says that reconciliation is not the needed word. “It is not about reconciliation, it is about moving forward.”  

Robin Ince is an author and broadcaster

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