Georges Sioui (re)wrote the book on First Nations. Now he waits for Canada to notice their contribution.
Georges Sioui remembers being just six years old when his father placed a hefty charge on his small shoulders: rewriting Canadian history when he grew up, from the First Nations’ perspective.
Sioui, then a young pupil at a Catholic school on what was known at the time as Huron Village — now the Wendake reservation — Quebec, had ’til then been exposed only to the approved, Euro-centric version of his country’s history.
“Our ancestors were supposed to have been cruel against the priests, and they refused to accept the Catholic faith. So they made us kneel down and beg excuse to the Catholic church,” Sioui recalled, his words flavoured with a strong French-Canadian accent, over the phone from his home in Ottawa.
“Fortunately my parents were able to tell us that this was not our real history, that we needed to get our marks and maybe tell it a little bit of the way that they told it to get good marks in school.”
For over six decades Sioui has been walking that fine line between two imperatives: European academic ideals, and First Nations ways of knowing. Determined to weave the two together, Sioui pioneered the historical study of First Nations civilizations in Canada — an experience by turns frustrating and rewarding, and sometimes both at once.
During childhood summers on the ‘old reserve’ where his grandparents still lived — they had refused to move when the Quebec government forcibly relocated the reserve community in 1904 — Sioui found rich material for his habitual daydreaming. Later during school hours, Sioui frequently escaped in his imagination to the old reserve, playing with animals in the woods. Despite his father’s academic ambitions for his son, Sioui nurtured a dream of living in the bush.
But the nuns, seeking submission, didn’t take kindly to the youngster’s daydreaming. One day when the priest made his monthly visit to the class to deliver marks, a daydreaming Sioui failed to show respect by jumping to his feet. “The nun [teaching the class] was red like a tomato, and she wanted to strike me in the face,” Sioui recalled. “The priest stopped her. He said: ‘This little guy is a thinker, leave him alone. It’s okay if he doesn’t stand up.’ Of course I did stand up, but just to illustrate to you that I really was not in their world.”
But while daydreaming provided escape from that world for the young Sioui, his father was trying to escape it through drink. Eleanore Sioui eventually divorced her husband because of his addictions, and tried to steer Georges and his siblings toward a brighter future.
The same year she left Sioui’s father, Eleanore had her two eldest children’s IQ tested to compel Indian Affairs to pay for what was known as a “classical” education, founded on Western ideas of reason and logic, rather than the trade education that the federal “Indian Affairs” ministry insisted was best for indigenous students. Eleanore’s persistence and her sons high scores won the bureaucrats over. At age 15 Georges, her eldest son, started at Sainte-Anne’s College, a non-indigenous Catholic boarding school in Nova Scotia (not part of the era’s infamous ‘residential school’ network), his way paid by the ministry.
“I guess her goal was to get us out of the reserve, and to see how the world functioned and to see different people,” Sioui recalled. “And not just be stuck with one example of how to live, which was the reserve.”
Sioui did learn much about the outside world from his boarding school. But his biggest inspirations proved to be his father’s dream of a First Nations history book, and his mother’s own educational pursuits.
A dream achieved
Eleanore Sioui had only made it to Grade 7 as a teenager. But she valued education, and encouraged her children to go far. Divorced, she went back to school, taking part-time jobs to keep the family afloat. At 68, she became the first indigenous Canadian woman to receive her PhD. Sioui credits her determination and success with inspiring him and his siblings to pursue post-secondary education themselves.
But Sioui didn’t finish his own degree on first attempt. At 21 he enrolled in Laval University’s history program, still inspired to rewrite Canadian history. But Laval, a historically conservative faculty then dominated by Catholic priests, bristled at Sioui’s plans. In that chilly academic climate, he immediately wanted to drop out. But at his mother’s encouragement, Sioui managed to last two years, taking as many language courses as he could. Now a polyglot, Sioui is fluent in French, English, German, and Spanish, and has a rusty knowledge of Russian, Cree, Innu-aimun (the language of Labrador’s Innu) and Inuktitut. He’s currently learning Portuguese.
But then, unsatisfied with the thought of spending his career as a translator, the only outlet he could foresee for his language talents, young Georges did quit Laval. Still passionate about his original goal of rewriting Canadian history, he told the school’s director: “I will come back in about 10 years. I think it’s not the right time.”
For the next nine years, Sioui pursued a variety of paths. He worked as a horse ranch manager in Alaska for a while, lying about his experience with horses to get the job. Later he edited Kanatha, a First Nations culture magazine his mother had started, published in French, English, and some First Nations’ languages. That led to an invitation to apply for a position as a culture and communications officer at Indian Affairs, responsible for public relations and editing Tawow, the ministry’s first indigenous arts magazine.
Although disgusted with the ministry’s treatment of indigenous people, Sioui’s family and friends encouraged him to seek the job. Swayed by arguments that the publishing and life experience would be worth it, he accepted the position.
“I think it was one of the best decisions of my life, because I met artists from all over Canada. I was able to produce magazines, and I was able to say what I wanted in that magazine, too. They didn’t control me,” he said.
“I met the elders, and I was able to go back to my traditions and my spiritual culture, which is what I think I was looking for without even knowing it.”
At 30, Sioui left that job — and inadvertently ended the publication of Tawow when the ministry did not find a replacement editor — to become the assistant general manager of the Cree Health Board in James Bay. Tired of the bureaucracy of a government job, he relocated to the small Cree community of Chisasibi, to follow his other dream of living close to the land.
“I had a boat. I had a skidoo. I had a truck. I had everything. I thought I’d spend the rest of my life amongst the Crees, I was really, really happy there,” he said.
But what would go on to become a common theme in Sioui’s life, politics, got in the way. The Cree nation was at odds with the Quebec government, who wanted to install a trusteeship on the health board. Sioui, being one of the few fluent French speakers in the area, became involved in the political battle on the side of the Cree.
“Eventually there was a confrontation in court between Quebec and the Crees,” Sioui told the Tyee Solutions Society. “I was pretty instrumental in reaching a settlement, but I said to myself, ‘That’s too many battles in life to fight, and I think the real battle is going to be to rewrite history’.”
It was time for Sioui to go back to university.
Returning to Laval University after nine years, Sioui found that all but a couple of the older Catholic priests had retired. This time, he found academics interested in his work, particularly anthropologist Pierre Maranda.
Laval’s historians still weren’t keen on a First Nations revision of history. But here was at least one academic who recognized First Nations as having established civilizations. “[Maranda] was speaking about the Huron civilization, and many First Nations’ civilizations, that [to him] they were worth studying,” Sioui recalled. It was enough to convince him to pursue both a masters and a PhD at Laval.
Maranda’s mentorship brought Sioui powerful further encouragement from an unexpected source. Maranda passed Sioui’s dissertation on to a close colleague and friend, the famous anthropologist Claude Levi Strauss, to read. Strauss not only read it, but endorsed Sioui’s work: “He said to me, ‘I have waited a long time for the Indian people to take the study of their own history and their own anthropology, and I’m so happy to see that Sioui has begun to do that and he does this in a very brilliant way.'”
In pursuit of his PhD, Sioui twice had the opportunity to study at Chicago’s Newberry Library, which has one of the largest collections of documents on First Nations and Native American people in North America. It was there that he finally found historians truly interested in his work.
“I found a lot of people were advanced on the road to rewriting history, writing different histories in the States,” he said.
Soon Sioui was both re-writing and remaking history. In 1989, he published his first book, fulfilling his father’s wish: Pour une histoire amérindienne de l’Amérique (For a Native American History).
At the same time, along with three of his brothers, Sioui was taking on the province in court. The Quebec government had fined them for cutting wood and having a campfire outside designated areas in Jacques-Cartier Park in 1982.
The Siouis appealed based on their rights as Huron people to practice their cultural and religious traditions, which include living off the land. They based their claim on the 1760 treaty of peace and friendship signed between British General James Murray and the Huron nation, which the brothers argued ensured those rights for First Nations in Canada.
Their appeal made it all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada, which ruled in the Sioui brothers’ favour on May 24, 1990: “The treaty was still in effect when the offences with which the respondents were charged were committed,” read the court’s decision. It confirmed that the two-century-old agreement not only covers activity on park land, but overrides any provincial statutes enacted after its signing.
It was a landmark case for First Nations in Canada. Nonetheless, Sioui felt his own nation didn’t adequately appreciate his family’s efforts. So when he applied for a teaching position at Saskatchewan Indian Federated College (First Nations University today), he was taken aback at the hero’s welcome he received.
“It was graduation day, and the [First Nations] leadership in Saskatchewan said, in a big crowd of people, ‘We have amongst us one of the Sioui family, the family that was just victorious in the Supreme Court of Canada. They won a very important case,'” he recalls.
A few weeks later, the family relocated to Regina, where Sioui began working as a professor of Indian Studies at the college.
It was 1992 by now, and on campus a political crisis was brewing. The Saskatchewan Federation of Indian Nations was funding the college. But its academic dean, Blair Stonechild, was being overwhelmed by demands from figures within the Federation: to install its members in professorships, to bump up children’s grades, and other favours. The organization was also calling for the resignation of college president Eber Hampton.
Although Hampton, who handled all the financial decisions for the college, didn’t resign, Stonechild did step down as dean, returning to his duties as an Indian (now indigenous) studies professor. Elders and colleagues encouraged Sioui to pursue the vacant dean’s position. Reluctantly, he did.
“We had a retreat, and maybe 175 employees. [And I said] ‘I have no experience, no skill, no gift for that job. But if you all pull together with me, we’ll make a success of it.'”
Sioui faced many of the same pressures Stonechild had. Officials within the Saskatchewan Federation of Indian Nations were still calling his house, asking him to hire wives or improve their kids’ marks. After five years he’d had enough.
He took a leave of absence to start a publishing house back on the Wendake reserve. The project was still struggling when the year was up, but he decided nonetheless not to return to the Saskatchewan college. The stress was too hard on his family, he explained. And it was hard to hide his disappointment with what he saw as a failure in indigenous-led post-secondary education.
Still, he doesn’t blame the people involved in the Federation for trying to influence the college. “I blame the Canadian government and the Saskatchewan government,” he said. “And I keep doing that because there’s not enough resources [for indigenous education].”
A third act
After giving up on his publishing house, Sioui held several jobs and positions: teaching at a secondary school in another rural Quebec reserve, becoming president of the Institution of Indigenous Governance in Vancouver, later the head researcher of the Indian Claims Commission.
While these weren’t academic positions in the strictest definition, each served Sioui’s drive to raise the broader Canadian society’s awareness of the value of indigenous knowledge.
But by 2004 he was ready to try academics again, this time at a more mainstream institution. He joined the University of Ottawa as a professor in the history, and classics and religious studies departments, as well as coordinator of the new Aboriginal Studies Program. With four indigenous history books now under his belt, it was his first chance, at age 55, to teach history at the post-secondary level. He was very excited to finally be recognized for his skills at a European university.
But he soon realized that the University’s administration saw him only as the token First Nations’ professor.
“They don’t even have an Aboriginal studies program [at the time], and they call themselves Canada’s University,” he protested. “And they hire someone, and that person is going to become Mr. Aboriginal or Mrs. Aboriginal for 40,000 people.”
Sioui has become more pragmatic about his situation. He still believes in the possibility of a highly respected post-secondary institution run by indigenous people, as well as European-style institutions that adequately represent and serve indigenous students in Canada. He just doesn’t expect it to happen in his lifetime.
“I don’t put the blame on universities or anybody, I just realize the rhythm that our society works at. We as First Nations people would like things to happen faster, of course, as we realize that our studies can be a lifesaver for society,” he said.
“It can help mend the relations between all of our peoples, it can help mend the relations with the earth, and we would like to see something more rapid because we have a sense of urgency about how the world is going, and how we could contribute important things to make societies feel and see in other ways.” He accepts however, that “the society moves at the rhythm of a snail.”
And although he won’t call himself an elder — the honorific must be bestowed — Sioui is slowing down his own work in his golden years. His trail is littered with accomplishments — academic, cultural, spiritual, legal, but his torch must now be carried forward by others.