Arts & Culture

Dal reads: We Were Not the Savages

Setting the record straight on what is Canadian history

Dal reads: We Were Not the Savages photo by : Alexandra Sweny
written by Kaila Jefferd-Moore
October 9, 2017 3:31 pm

Daniel N. Paul is a Mi’kmaq Elder and born in Indian Brook, Nova Scotia. When he was a kid, he witnessed first-hand how the “Indian agents” treated his parents and community members.

Paul was raised in an educational system that taught him he was “good at making axe handles and things, and that was it.”

Frustrated by the lack of knowledge and dealing with an inferiority complex from growing up in a hostile learning environment – Paul has written a massively informative book that exposes the brutal and devastating treatment of the Mi’kmaq peoples by settlers.

“My goal was to set the record straight,” he says of his book.

“I was taught, when I went to school, that I was a savage. Part of a barbaric culture; and that I had to go the right way, which was the white way,” says Paul.

“This didn’t impress me too much when I was young, and when I got older I decided to do something about it.”

Dr. Daniel N. Paul grew up to become an ardent human rights activist, having once served on the Human Rights Commission, currently serves as a Justice of the Peace for the province of Nova Scotia and member of the Order of Canada; and he has received an honourary Doctorate of Law degree from Dalhousie University “in recognition of lifetime achievements in the promotion of human rights, in particular those of the Mi’kmaq.”

He begins We Were Not the Savages by stating the history Canadians know is not his peoples’ history. He uses documents written by the settlers to prove his point.

“When you use info available in archives of Canada, of Nova Scotia, and England – then I think they have a hard time arguing,” says Paul of his reasoning for scouring and using mostly records and documents pulled from the Crown or the Government of Canada.

In 1993, the first edition of We Were Not the Savages was published after he was asked about his Mi’kmaq culture while living in the United States, and his answer was that he didn’t know much – he was told to find out.

Education through telling the truth

“I wrote the book with the intent of educating the public of the real history experience in this neck of the woods,” says Paul, who think it’s great it’s been chosen for Dal Reads this year.

“I hope the takeaway from it is the knowledge; and an appreciation that the history as previously written by Caucasian authors was mostly white supremacy driven, I guess,” says Paul.

“[Canadian education] always depicted our people as savages and Europeans as civilized people; but as I like to point, out civilized people don’t burn people at the stake.”

2016/17 Vice-President of the Dalhousie Indigenous Student Centre, Aaron Prosper, approached the Dal Reads committee last fall and asked if they would consider choosing a book written by an Indigenous author.

Dal Reads Steering Committee Chair, Marlo MacKay, says it was a collective process; the committee reached out to the Indigenous Advisory Council and also sought feedback from students.

“We got to the point where people kept recommending We Were Not the Savages so we went with it,” says MacKay.

These days, Paul is living in Halifax, and his biography Daniel Paul: Mi’kmaw Elder, written by Jon Tattrie is to be published on Oct.18 followed-up by the release of Paul’s new novel, Chief Lightening Bolt on Oct. 19.

MacKay says that because We Were Not the Savages is so central to Paul and his biography, the committee decided to host a launch party for the biography as a Dal Reads event. The launch will be held in the University Hall of the MacDonald building at 12:30 p.m. on Oct. 19.

Paul will also be delivering a public lecture on Oct 23. For more info visit Dal Reads.