Land of the silver birch/ Home of the beaver/ Where mighty political correctness/ Wanders at will/ Blue lake and rocky shore/ I will return to the human rights tribunal.
The last bit doesn’t scan very well. But it’s a song for our times in which, as Jacques Mallet du Pan warned about its French predecessor, the PC revolution is now like Saturn devouring its children.
In case you missed it, a Toronto music teacher is suing her principal, vice-principal and school board for defamation over an email calling a song she included in a 2016 school play at High Park Alternative Public School “inappropriate” and “racist”. The matter has yet to be heard by a court, but certainly an accusation of racism is very damaging nowadays. And this one also seems daffy.
The song in question is “Land of the Silver Birch”, which might fairly be classified among the cultural nationalist efforts Roy Conlogue once disparaged: “Torrents of terrible verse by any number of writers described the rocks, the rivers, the twisted pines, the vaulting mountains.” But racist?
Perhaps because I never went to camp, I never heard this song. But evidently it helps keep paddlers in time and was probably inspired, though certainly not written, by aboriginal poet Pauline Johnson. Its only aboriginal reference is “High on a rocky ledge/ I’ll build my wigwam” or alternatively “There where the blue lake lies, I’ll set my wigwam”.
Surely it’s not racist to say wigwam is an Algonquin word for a domed shelter or it would be nice to put one near a lake. So what can be wrong with this song? Aren’t we all told about first nations’ special relationship with nature?
Well, the National Post explained, the email by the principal and vice-principal said “While its lyrics are not overly racist … the historical context of the song is racist” because Johnson, who I repeat did not write it, performed mostly for non-natives and “depicted Native people and culture in romantic ways, while lamenting the dying out of Native civilization to be replaced by a superior western civilization.”
Since Johnson was half-English you’d think she could perform for half-white audiences. Or maybe not; political correctness is tricky. But what could be wrong with depicting aboriginal culture positively and lamenting its disappearance? If she really said Western civilization was superior she could be in a heap of trouble today even though its institutions and practices like hospitals, universities and parliaments, and even its bad habits like junk food, have spread around the world for some incomprehensible reason.
As for “romanticizing” aboriginal culture, surely we do it relentlessly now, ignoring any possible negatives and putting saccharine stress on the positives, to the point that aboriginals even get “elders” while everyone else just has old people. And if you’re planning to pursue native studies do not mention chronic warfare, cannibalism, torture or slavery or your career is pemmican. Arguably the objection to lamenting its disappearance is part of a romantic conception that while European destruction of native tradition must be condemned, it can’t possibly be acknowledged lest we appear to disparage aboriginal cultural resilience. But even if Johnson committed every PC sin in the book, which now comprises many volumes, how does it affect Land of the Silver Birch which she… did… not… write?
Well, consider that after 40 years the Canadian Historical Association plans to rename the “Sir John A. Macdonald prize” the “CHA prize for Best Scholarly Book in Canadian History”, a name only a commissar could love, because Macdonald was a genocidal bigot. The National Post quoted Trent’s Christopher Dummitt, a CHA member, calling it part of a “purity spiral” in which “We’re finding more and more people who were not perfect according to our contemporary standards… Now that it has reached Canada’s first and probably most important prime minister, it suggests that it’s not going to end.”
Indeed. Instead it’s devouring Land of the Silver Birch and half of Pauline Johnson, and presumably won’t end until we celebrate our history by flinging everyone down the memory hole along with all our songs and well-meaning teachers who are surely not stereotypical bigots.
The Post gave the last word on the Macdonald Prize to U of T’s Robert Bothwell, who noted acidly that “Defacing monuments and condemning the past go back to ancient Egypt, so why should we be surprised that the custom lingers?” An excellent question, to which I reply because we used to scorn cultures that sought to erase embarrassing details of their past or any signs of the other like, awkwardly, many aboriginal groups victorious in battle.
So I’m giving the last word on Land of the Silver Shtum to Mallet du Pan, who knew that once the revolution starts devouring its children, its appetite grows inexorably.
Photo Credit: Donna Bonin