Jim Taylor's Columns - 'Soft Edges' and 'Sharp Edges'

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Published on Saturday, July 9, 2022

Guilty of trespassing

Sunday June 26, 2022


“Forgive us our trespasses,” says the most familiar prayer in Christianity, “as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

            If those words are so important, why, in 80-odd years of attending worship services all over the world, have I never once heard a sermon connecting them with colonial peoples’ treatment of Indigenous inhabitants?

            Indeed, I doubt if any preachers focussed on those words from the Lord’s Prayer even this week, which marked National Indigenous Peoples Day in Canada.

            Because there can be no doubt that we are trespassing on lands that did not originally belong to us. 

            When I refer to “we” and “us,” I mean all who trace their ancestry to some place other than North America. I mean anyone who, despite having several generations of ancestors living in Canada, still says with pride, “I’m Irish.” Or Dutch. Or Italian. Whatever.

             “We” came here from somewhere else. And “we” set up camp on the land of the people who were already here. 


Sorry history

            Except that, technically, they weren’t here at all. 

            When Jacques Cartier landed on the Gaspé Peninsula in 1534, he planted the French flag on the shore, claiming the land for the King of France. As if it were empty. Uninhabited. 

            Even though Cartier had specifically brought the local tribes and their leaders to that shore, so that they could witness a foreign king assuming ownership of their homeland.  

            The notion of terra nullius -- loosely translated from Latin as “No one’s land” -- goes all the way back to the Crusades. Pope Urban II used the term in 1095. Effectively, it and later documents nullified the humanity of anyone who was neither a Christian nor a farmer, thus giving crusaders the right to plunder and seize most of the Middle East. 

            Remember that there was no International Court in those days, no United Nations, no European Union. Europe was a patchwork quilt of competing kingdoms, fiefdoms, and principalities. A jigsaw puzzle composed of mini-Monacos and Lichtensteins.

            In that context, the only law that transcended petty rivalries belonged to the Roman Catholic Church. 

            And so the Popes obliged, setting up a series of rulings that scholars now refer to as the Doctrine of Discovery. 

            When Columbus sailed west to “discover” the Caribbean islands, he assumed he had the right to take possession of them. They were terra nullius. No one there.

            The next year, 1493, Pope Alexander VI made that assumption explicit. He issued another ruling, known as inter caetera. It authorized Spain to conquer and control any newly discovered lands. The inhabitants, if any, were to be “subjugated and brought to the faith.”

            No one asked the people if they wanted to be subjugated. They weren’t “us.” Therefore they didn’t exist.


No one there

            That mindset persisted for centuries.

            Indigenous peoples helped the Mayflower pilgrims survive their first bitter winter in Plymouth Rock. But they weren’t really there.

            Indigenous people showed the first settlers along the St. Lawrence River how to build and use birch-bark canoes. But they didn’t count. 

            Indigenous people taught European “explorers” how to travel along lakes and rivers in a land lacking Europe’s Roman roads. But they were nobody. 

            The Hudson’s Bay Company and its rival North West Company relied on those nobodies to bring furs to their network of trading posts all across western Canada. 

            The province of B.C. has only a few treaties with Indigenous peoples, because its first Lt.-Gov. after confederation applied a new twist to the notion of terra nullius. Joseph Trutch refused to negotiate with Indigenous nations. He argued that they could not legally own the land, because they had not bought it from anyone. 


The obvious truth

            Trutch’s devious legalism smothers the obvious truth: They…were…here…first!

            This was their land, whether or not they had title papers to prove it. And we have been trespassing on it for the last 488 years, ever since Cartier’s landing in Gaspé.

            Our attitudes to Canada’s original peoples remind me of a poem (which I thought was in public domain, but discover was written by an American professor named Hughes Mearns):

The other day, upon the stair,
I met a man who wasn't there!
He wasn't there again today,
Oh how I wish he'd go away!

            Ever since Pope Urban coined the principle of terra nullius, Canada’s Indigenous peoples have been “the man who wasn’t there.”

            And we have done our utmost – through reserves, residential schools, and neglect -- to make them “go away.”

            It is time for us to acknowledge that we have trespassed and need forgiveness.


Copyright © 2022 by Jim Taylor. Non-profit use in congregations and study groups encouraged; links from other blogs welcomed; all other rights reserved.

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Your turn


Last week’s column was about plasma donations, but more people identified with sun damage in youth. Ted Wilson asked, “Too much of a good thing and not enough cover-up?”


Cliff and Maureen Boldt wrote, “Last week I had 6 spots excised for biopsy. Tuesday I go in for stitches to be removed and maybe some more cutting.  Like you, my misspent youth in the sun, haying on the farm for example.

            “The first round [of surgery] about 3 months ago,  my face was so bad that the face recognition on my iPhone wouldn’t accept me.”


Tom Watson, too: “I share your history of growing up in a time when we didn't realize the harm the sun was doing to unprotected skin—all those days in the farm fields—and I have been paying up for it in recent years by a couple of surgeries plus regular trips to the dermatologist to get the basal cell spots removed with a liquid nitrogen zapper.”


Most of the rest of your letters were about donating plasma, or whole blood. 

            Ruth Shaver added important information: “I'm a regular platelet donor in America. For a few months recently, we had such a shortage here that every eligible donor was also asked to give a unit of plasma to stretch the supply of this life-giving elixir. Every unit of whole blood could save 3 lives for 30-45 minutes of your time (or less in an efficient drive or center) every 8 weeks. Have more time? Plasma can be used for multiple reasons, including long-term for cancer and urgently for trauma patients and can be donated every 28 days in the US. [JT: Every week in Canada!] Platelets can be the difference between life and death for cancer patients, infants with certain congenital conditions, and trauma and surgical patients; one can donate every 7 days up to 24 times per year (up to 3 units at a time, depending on individual factors). 

            “Certain platelet donors may be matched with specific patients for a slightly more involved process to extract granulocytes, which can assist organ transplant patients and cancer patients whose immune systems are not responding to infections. The National Institutes of Health has a regular program to collect granulocytes as part of its cancer treatment center, while other cancer centers have family/friends programs as well as donor bases from which to recruit granulocyte donors on an emergency basis. 

            “Please, if you are able, give what you can.”


David Gilchrist: “I share your frustration! I gave blood for so many years; First they refused me when I turned 65. Then they dropped that objection but refused me because of malaria in childhood! (more than 80 years ago now). 

            “Lethbridge is nearest place you mentioned last time you wrote about this. That’s 300 km away; but I went down to see Margaret in the Dementia ward there -- and couldn’t locate the place. Having had a heart attack two years ago, it sounds like they won’t take me anyway! However, next time I go to see Margaret, I'm going to try one more time.”


With only five plasma centres across the whole of Canada, Don Gunning asked a reasonable question: “So what would Lower Mainland wannabe plasma donors do?  Travel to Kelowna, presumably?”

            JT: Plasma centres separate blood cells from plasma on the spot. Other blood donor centres take whole blood and send it away for separation. You can still give, just not as often.


Finally, two letters only distantly related to my specific column.


Eduard Hiebert asked, “Of the various stories you paint week after week, do these stay with you or is there some present-day context which triggers this flood of detailed memories?”

            JT: The workings of one’s own mind are a mystery, but I think it’s a matter of some current incident reminding me, somehow, of some past incident. Then memories come flooding back, unbidden, with far more detail than I expected. Without that “trigger” to connect dormant synapses, though, the memory is not there at all.


And David Wolk wrote, “I am a solitary senior who follows closely the actions of U.S. politicians and senior government figures.  Acknowledging the wise and insightful people who have spoken out, I am greatly concerned about the future of democratic government in America, and the consequences its demise might have on Canada and the rest of the western world.

            “In reaching out to you my hope is that you might know someone who also follows these events and with whom I could share, via e-mail, thoughts and comments.  I do not have a blog nor am I on Twitter or Facebook; my objective is simply to exchange information and ideas with someone who is both concerned and responsive to events shaping the future. 

            “If you know of such a person (or two), I'd be grateful for you to pass my name and e-mail details to them in the hope that they might initiate contact.”

            David’s email is davidwolk49@gmail.com






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 I write a second column each Wednesday, called Soft Edges, which deals somewhat more gently with issues of life and faith. To sign up for Soft Edges, write to me directly at the address above, or send a blank e-mail to softedges-subscribe@lists.quixotic.ca

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To use the links in this section, you’ll have to insert the necessary symbols. (This is to circumvent filters that think some of these links are spam.)

            Wayne Irwin's “Churchweb Canada,” is an inexpensive service for any congregation wanting to develop a web presence, with free consultation. http://wwwDOTchurchwebcanadaDOTca. He set up my webpage, and he doesn’t charge enough.

            I recommend Isabel Gibson’s thoughtful and well-written blog, wwwDOTtraditionaliconoclastDOTcom. She also runs beautiful pictures. Her Thanksgiving presentation on the old hymn, For the Beauty of the Earth, Is, well, beautiful -- https://www.traditionaliconoclast.com/2019/10/13/for/

            Tom Watson writes a weekly blog called “The View from Grandpa Tom’s Balcony” -- ruminations on various subjects, and feedback from Tom’s readers. Write him at tomwatsoATgmailDOTcom (NB that’s “watso” not “watson”)



            The late Alva Wood’s collection of satiric and sometimes wildly funny columns about a mythical village’s misadventures now have an archive (don’t ask how this happened) on my website: http://quixotic.ca/Alva-Wood-Archive. Feel free to browse all 550 columns




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Author: Jim Taylor

Categories: Sharp Edges

Tags: Indigenous, Trespass, settler, colonial



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