First Nations identity, family racism, Indian Act, assimilation, Glace Bay, racialization, family dynamics
Tara: Going back to your own experience now. Uh, what was your experience like in school? You talked a little bit about being, um, labelled as slow when clearly that wasn’t uh, the case. Were there anything –and partly you were shy because you felt you yourself was different –you yourself were different. What were the teachers like, was there anybody who you connected with, what would have a good connection looked like for you?
Alec: Well I had a good connection with an English teacher, who picked up right away that I wasn’t stupid.
Alec: Um, so I got really good marks in his class. Every time I wrote something for him, he’d be like, “Wow, so good, so good”, and um, he even talked about it in class, “This essay is really good” and stuff like that, and um, and then I had a conversation years later with somebody who said, “Were you considered slow in school?”. “Yah, I was”. She said, “Yah, it might have something to do with your First Nations background, because First Nations children when they’re learning in school, they take a long time to answer, because their thinking about their answer. But if you go to a regular school, they want you to answer right away, right?” Like (unclear) learning, right? And I never –I never understood the reasoning behind that, like I –I like to think about my answers, this is why I was considered slow, because I thought carefully about what my answer would be, and they thought I was retarded. Anyway, so I thought, yah, that makes sense to me, though I didn’t know I was –well I knew I was mixed First Nations but we did not talk about it.
Tara: At home.
Alec: No, it was a huge taboo subject to talk about in my home.
Tara: Why was that?
Alec: Because of racism, because of the, um, uh, pressure to assimilate, right, into Canadian culture and to leave all that behind and forget about it basically. So yah, so that’s why.
Tara: So when you say you’re mixed, there’s First Nations connections on which side of your family?
Alec: My mum’s side.
Tara: Your mum’s side, okay.
Alec: Yah, my grandfather was, uh, Mi’kmaq, but he had blue eyes, so he probably had Irish in there (laughter). Um, probably what saved him. He ran away. When he was ten years old he ran away, so we don’t even know where he was born or why he ran away, but I’m learning in my Indigenous Studies in the Indian Act how it tore families apart, disenfranchised a lot of native women to begin with, so I’m thinking his mother was disenfranchised, had no money, probably told all the kids, “Well you’re not Indian anymore” or whatever, right? They had no money, no food, that’s why he ran away.
Tara: Right. It’s possible.
Alec: Yah. So he was mixed himself, and my grandmother, my mother’s mother –I’ve been thinking about her a lot, her background, and I believe she was descended from slaves who were brought to Cape Breton.
Alec: During the construction of the fortress. Fort Louis- Louisburg.
Tara: And they were slaves from where?
Alec: Um, not really sure, probably Guyana.
Alec: Yah, they’re still researching that- where all the black people in Nova Scotia came from.
Alec: They’re just acknowledging, they just acknowledged two years ago that they had slaves at Louisburg, a community of 250 slaves. And I believe my grandmother must be descended from them.
Alec: There’s a whole couple of streets in the town she grew up in, Glace Bay, where all the Black people live, and I remember when I was a kid in grade ten, I was in grade ten and a new kid started and I said, “Oh, where do you come from” ‘cause it was a rural highschool, right, so everybody knew who stands out. And he said, “Oh, I’m from Glace Bay, my parents just bought land outside the road, and yah, so I’m at this school now.” I said, “Oh, my grandmother grew up in Glace Bay”. He says, “Oh, what street?” and I can’t remember the name of the street now, but I said the name of the street and he looked at me with shock. “That’s where all the Black people live.” “Ooh.” And the penny dropped. ‘Cause I’ve been dealing with this for years since we moved back from Cape Breton when I was twelve. We were in the military, so I didn’t notice racism, then, until we moved back and then I was hanging out with my mother and grandmother all the time and people were like, “Who were those two women you were hanging out with?” I said, “That’s my mother and my grandmother”, and they were like, “But those two women are Black”. Like, really? And um, they’re like, “Were you adopted?”, and I’m like, “No, I’m black too, I could be Black too”.
Alec: It was very hard to talk about and um, I remember hearing fights. I had an uncle who was very racist and he’d get in his cups, and he’d say things about my mother and my grandfather –my mother and my grandfather and my grandmother, say things at family gathering and my father would be like, “Get out of this house now, get out now. Don’t talk about my wife, my mother-in-law, my grandfather- my father-in-law like that.”.