Two weeks ago I ran the Regina Police Service (RPS) half marathon and I wondered at the end if what I had actually done was a Treaty Walk.
In the Fall of 2011, Sheena Koops, a fellow teacher, started walking to work. She lives in the Qu’Appelle valley in Southern Saskatchewan, a place steeped in the history of Treaty 4.
Fort Qu’Appelle is where Treaty 4 was signed in 1874, and where the agreement to share the land between the Cree and the Saulteaux First Nations and the Canadian government began. Sheena is a White Settler educator like myself and she has used these walks to ruminate on Canada’s treaty history, calling them Treaty Walks.
Sheena has defined a Treaty Walk as “a hike, a stroll, a field trip with treaty on the mind” (2012, par. 1).
Could a half marathon be a Treaty Walk?
I have been running the RPS half marathon on and off since 2010.
This year I was not planning for the race to be anything special. As always, I was hoping to be faster, but that was about it. However, as myself and hundreds of other racers were gathered on the track at the Canada Games Centre to begin the race, an odd thing happened. The announcer made the usual pre-race announcements. He welcomed everyone. He went over pertinent race day reminders. He acknowledged all the volunteers.
And that was it. No land acknowledgment. No mention of Treaty 4.
This struck me as odd.
This is 2017 after all. We are post-Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Land acknowledgments seem to be the very smallest things we can do in the pursuit of reconciliation with Indigenous peoples. In the case of events like this one, acknowledging the long presence of First Nations on this land… as we prepare to run all over it… would seem to be a good start.
I was thinking about this as we began to sing O Canada. The announcer had told us to remove our headgear. As the anthem began, many runners kept their hats on.
I wondered if this was apathy or… resistance?
In the middle of the anthem, a woman just in front of me knelt to tie her shoe. I was reminded of Colin Kaepernick, the American football quarterback who began kneeling during the American anthem to protest the oppression of Black people.
Instead of singing “our home and native land”, will anyone kneel to protest the treatment of Indigenous peoples in Canada?
The race began with police sirens wailing. This is a fitting start to a race organized by the police service. But it made me think about the complicated relationships between police and the First Peoples.
On one hand, the police (and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in particular) play a large role in our treaty history. For decades the RCMP were the largest government institution on the prairies. Indigenous peoples’ relationship with the RCMP was their relationship with Canada.
And every year on the anniversary of the signing of Treaty 4, the RCMP, in red serge, take part in the ceremonial renewal of this relationship.
On the other hand, this relationship day-to-day can be strained. In Saskatchewan, Indigenous people are 33 times more likely to be incarcerated than non-Indigenous people. These are “higher odds than an African American in the U.S., or a black South African at the height of apartheid” (Macdonald, 2016, par. 11).
In Saskatoon in the 2000s a number of Indigenous men were driven to the city limits in the dead of winter and abandoned there to freeze to death by the Saskatoon Police Service. More recently, the police mis-handling of Colten Boushie’s murder investigation has again strained an already difficult relationship.
In short, I recognize that how I feel, as a White Settler, about police sirens may be radically different from how my Indigenous neighbours feel about them. For many, this may not be a welcome sound.
Which made me wonder about my fellow runners. As we took off past these wailing sirens, how many Indigenous runners were there alongside me?
Marathons are notoriously White. In fact, on the blog, Stuff White People Like, the 27th item on the list is marathons. “To a white person, the absolute pinnacle of fitness is to run a marathon… Running for a certain length of time on a specific day is a very important thing to a white person and should not be demeaned” (2008, January 26).
I have to admit that many items on the list of Stuff White People Like hit close to home, including this one.
But are marathons really about White people?
As it happens, the lack of racial diversity in marathons is fairly well documented. In Running USA’s biannual Runner Survey from 2011, they noted that runners tend to be 90% Caucasian (cited in Jennings, 2011, par. 4). This certainly supports my casual observations.
Although Saskatchewan’s population is 22% non-white (of which 16% are Indigenous) (Macdonald, 2016, par. 5), I certainly did not see this sort of racial diversity at this race or in any other one I’ve been to.
Nonetheless, I have never thought of running as a segregated activity…until now.
In Jay Jennings’s Runner’s World article he mentions two possible reasons for the lack of African-American marathon runners: few role models and unsafe streets. The unsafe streets bit resonated with me.
Running is, for the most part, a solitary endeavor. If you feel unsafe in your community either because of crime, or the risk of harassment or over-policing, running around by yourself might not seem like a very good idea. Feeling safe enough to run long distances alone, might just be another aspect of White privilege that I hadn’t considered.
The din of sirens receded and I kept running. Taking note of my surroundings, I realized that all these thoughts had only gotten me through my first two kilometers…
Since we were early on in the race, there were still lots of on-lookers shouting encouragement. A runner beside me was being encouraged by a group of friends on the side-lines. “Own it!” they yelled.
It was at this point that I decided to think about the race as a Treaty Walk. Treaty was on my mind. I was just beginning to think about ownership as inspiration when I heard more shouting ahead. “You’ve got this!”
I actually chuckled at that one. When you have colonization on the mind, it is pretty funny how we use statements of possession as rallying cries. Funny, not funny.
I have been reading bits and pieces of Moreton-Robinson’s book (2015) The White Possessive about the “possessive logics” (p. xii) of colonialism. Moreton-Robinson writes about the on-going work that is required to maintain Canada and other former colonies as White possessions, to constantly fight against Indigenous sovereignty. White possessiveness, Moreton-Robinson argues, is hypervisible, embedded in the landscape and omnipresent in our buildings and streets.
As we run through this city named after Queen Victoria, along streets such as Prince of Wales drive, the hypervisibility of colonialism and White possession is ever present.
And as we run, we are encouraged to ‘own it’ and reminded that we’ve ‘got this’. But what is ‘it’ and ‘this’? The race? The race is ours, the land is ours? Why this overpowering urge to own everything? Why do we find ownership so inspiring?
Capitalism and colonialism are so hopelessly entwined.
As I was thinking about ownership, I rounded the corner and there stood the First Nations University, the large tipi-shaped structure sandwiched between the Trans-Canada highway and the Wascana trail system. And as I got closer I could see the skeletal frame of a sweat lodge and a pile of tipi poles. These structures pierce through the omnipresent wash of colonialism, they remind us of the on-going and historic resistance of Indigenous peoples to these possessive logics.
I headed over the Trans-Canada overpass and A Tribe Called Red hit my playlist with their track featuring Leonard Sumner. “It’s separation from the fam, segregation on the land, all part of the plan and the blood is on your hands.”
Full disclosure, the next track was from Chariots of Fire.
After a few more kilometres and water stops, I neared the end. Dave Matthews Band hit my playlist with “Don’t Drink The Water” as I passed the last water station. The iTunes gods have a funny sense of humour.
The song is disconcerting though, on another level.
You have been banished.
Your land is gone
And given me.
And here I will spread my wings,
Yes I will call this home.
Veldon Coburn says that this is his least favourite Dave Matthews Band song. I value what Coburn has to say because of his investigative work on Joseph Boyden. But it is precisely because of Boyden and Gord Downie that I like this song so much. We seem to be in an era of White men narrating the Indigenous experience as some sort of strange perversion of reconciliation. Daniel Heath Justice tweeted “It is telling that so many of the #CanLit/media whiteguard are convinced that Indigenous voice matters only through settler ventriloquism” (2017). What is with our obsession with settler ventriloquism?
What I like about “Don’t Drink the Water” is that it doesn’t do that. It is a White singer, singing about colonization from the colonizer’s perspective. It is ugly and unflinching.
We, as White settlers, definitely need to try to understand the Indigenous experience and Indigenous authors are doing a great job of narrating that already. But we also need to understand, without all the smoke and mirrors, the colonial experience that we are all living. I think “Don’t Drink the Water” is getting close to getting this right.
There’s no place here.
What were you expecting?
Not room for both.
Just room for me.
As I edge across the finish line with a handful of other White folks, these words echo in my mind.
I finish the race neither with a personal best nor a personal worst. I mentally try to blame my slow-ish time on all the picture taking and ‘heavy’ thinking but in reality my procrastination training plan is more likely to blame.
Nonetheless, Sheena Koops’s idea of thinking about treaties as we engage with our physical landscape, this idea of taking a Treaty Walk, is compelling. And distracting. It casts running a marathon in an altogether different light. I will likely never be able to run another race without Treaty on the mind. And perhaps that’s as it should be.
In the end, the RPS Half Marathon twitter account ‘liked’ my tweet about their missing land acknowledgment. So maybe next year it will be different.
Any takers for #RPSTreatyWalk 2018?
Dave Matthews Band. Don’t Drink the Water. On Before These Crowded Streets [MP3]. New York, NY: RCA.
Heroux, D. (2016, October 24). Colten Boushie family lawyer says vehicle evidence in shooting compromised. CBC News. Retrieved from: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/saskatoon/colten-boushie-family-lawyer-key-piece-evidence-compromise-1.3819161
Jennings, J. (2011, November 5). Why is Running So White? Runner’s World. Retrieved from: http://www.runnersworld.com/runners-stories/why-is-running-so-white
Justice, Daniel Heath (justicedanielh). “It is telling that so many of the #CanLit/media whiteguard are convinced that Indigenous voice matters only through settler ventriloquism.” 12 May 2017, 9:35 a.m. Tweet. Retrieved from: https://twitter.com/justicedanielh/status/863039921052766208
Koops, S. (2012, October 11). Treaty Walks for Kids [Blog Post]. Retrieved from: http://treatywalks.blogspot.ca/2012/10/treaty-walks-for-kids_11.html
Lander, C. (2008, January 26). #27 Marathons. [Blog Post] Retrieved from: https://stuffwhitepeoplelike.com/2008/01/26/27-marathons/
Macdonald, N. (2016, July 29). Saskatchewan: A special report on race and power. Macleans Magazine. Retrieved from: http://www.macleans.ca/news/canada/saskatchewan-a-special-report-on-race-and-power/
Radford, E. (2015, January 15). Starlight Tours – A Timeline. Saskatoon Star Phoenix. Retrieved from: http://www.thestarphoenix.com/news/saskatoon/starlight+tours+timeline/10311264/story.html
Sumner, L. (2016). How I Feel (Recorded with A Tribe Called Red). On We Are the Halluci Nation [MP3]. Toronto, Canada: Radicalized Records.